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Forget lion or lamb, March is a siren that calls you to the soil


To a gardener, February is the depths of winter; March is the beginning of spring. February is despair; March is hope. February is procrastination; March is the alarm going off.

So it's your choice. You could wait until tomorrow for that wake-up call, or you could start on the garden today. Here are some things to do:

* Keep one eye on the clouds and the other on the ground. It's an awkward position but in time you get used to it. You're looking for that perfect combination of warm weather and dry soil. Working the soil when it's wet can compact it, and that prevents the roots from getting the air they need.

It might not look like there's much air down there, but about 25 percent of the topsoil by volume is air. Even walking around in the garden when there's too much moisture in the soil can damage its structure, changing it from soft and crumbly to hard and brick-like.

A few years ago that perfect dry day came the very first weekend in March. I, of course, was not ready to do anything but daydream. Then I watched two months of wet weekends go past before I could get any tilling done.

To test the soil for moisture, grab a handful and squeeze, then open your hand. If the soil falls apart like cake crumbs, it's dry enough to work. If it sticks together in a ball, stay out of the garden.

* One of the first chores you might want to do is check your tools. Clean and sharpen hoes and shovels.

* March is traditionally clean-up time in the garden. Remove invasive ines like bittersweet, wild grapes, honeysuckle and poison ivy. Even without leaves, poison ivy can give you a bad rash, so wear gloves and dispose of it carefully. Keep the dog or cat away from it too. If they just rub against the vines, they can pick up enough of the oils on their fur to cause an allergic reaction in anyone who gives them a friendly pat.

Prune any dead or broken branches from trees and shrubs. Also remove any watersprouts -- those branches that shoot straight up through the trees.

Fruit trees get pruned at this time of year to open up the tree so that more sunlight reaches the fruiting branches. Be careful not to cut off too many of the buds that will become this year's crop. The flower buds that will become fruit are noticeably fatter than leaf buds. Call your local office of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service and ask for booklets on pruning.

* March is also the time for planting dormant fruit trees. It's best to plant them before they leaf out and as soon as the ground pTC thaws. An excellent new guide is "The Harrow smith Book of Fruit Trees" (Camden House, paperback, $22.95) by Jennifer Bennett.

* Even if the weather turns unseasonably warm in the next couple of weeks, leave protective mulches on your ornamental plants. They'll wake up more slowly that way and won't be shocked by any late fluctuations in temperature.

* Plan the garden and buy or order seeds if you haven't done this already. Local garden centers have seed racks filled. Go early for the best selection. Lots of mail-order seed companies have 800 numbers and offer quick delivery, but don't wait much longer. You could be planting within the next four weeks.

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