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Chesapeake Native Plant Gardens: March

Bursting with promise and a little rough around the edges.

native plant garden early spring scene
oakleaf hydrangea foliage emerging

Regardless of the weather, by the time spring officially starts, hints of spring are here. In an ornamental garden, it is flowering Lenten roses (Hellebores orientalis), daffodils (Narcissus) and periwinkle (Vinca minor) and shrubs such as paperbush (Edgeworthia crysantha) and camellias (Camellia japonica) that you will first notice.

In the native plant garden, it is chartreuse buds of spicebush (Lindera benzoin), unfurling almost purple leaves and flowers of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), the bright yellows of wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum), white and purple flowers of native violets (Violet sororia) and greening foliage and flowers of creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera). If you grow mayapple (Podophyllum paltatum) and toad trilliums (Trillium cuneatum), their unfurling leaves may have emerged.

garden bed in very early spring
March garden

Signs of spring? Most definitely. The lushness of April? Not yet. It's still a bit scrappy out there! If you have managed to avoid the somewhat clarion call to rake the over-wintering leaves, it may even look a bit more scrappy. That's ok. It's good in fact. Once spring fully arrives, you will be much farther along in your efforts to create a balanced ecosystem with no need to spend time fertilizing, mulching or looking for pests. For me, the first sign that this was possibly occurring in our garden was the noticeable increase of fireflies in June. In the meantime, if the gardening bug has gotten to you, you might want to add some fresh plants to your containers. I always look for perennials that can later be planted out in the garden. Native creeping phlox, Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) are available now in nurseries. The initial expense is greater but the plants last for years. Adding annuals for spring and later for summer and fall can easily be more costly in the long run.

Check For Plants That Are Not Thriving

It's a good time to check how plants are doing. Spring is also an excellent time to move plants as the cooler temperatures and typical spring moisture will give them a good start. The seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea) above are evergreen where I live. On the left, the sedges are in full shade. The sedges on the right beneath a river birch get a good dose of afternoon sun from the west. The heavier sun seems to be stressing the plants a bit based on their size and light green color. I'll move them to a shadier spot to see whether they fare better. Seersucker sedge is a great groundcover or living mulch for shade and the evergreen or semi-evergreen foliage is a big plus. It also spreads when planted in a location where it thrives.

Cutting Back or Not

wild hydrangea 'Annabelle' beneath eastern red cedar in early spring
wild hydrangea 'Annabelle' beneath eastern red cedar

March is a great time to prune shrubs and trees with a focus on removing dead, diseased or damaged wood. Wild hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens), both the straight species and the popular cultivar 'Annabelle,' bloom on new wood so it is a good idea to cut those back by at two-thirds to ensure maximum bloom if that's your goal.

For perennials, most experts advise leaving the stems of over-wintering perennials as long as you can for much the same reason as we are advised to leave the leaves. Insects may be overwintering in those stems. Leaving stems doesn't harm or hinder the emerging foliage. If you do cut back perennials, leaving cut stems on the ground may make it possible for hibernating insects to emerge when it is their time.

Note What is Working Really Well!

There are a ton of variables that determine whether a plant will grow well in a certain location in your garden: moisture level, light, soil ph and soil structure. Don't fight mother nature. If something is growing well, plant more! Besides, repetition is always key to good garden design.

This year for the first time, I noticed this combination of native wood poppy and emerging foliage of a hybrid of heuchera 'Caramel' (Heuchera 'Caramel'). I never would have put these two together but the wood poppy self seeded near the heuchera and it is an interesting color combination. Native violets seem to pretty much come whether you invite them or not. I am allowing these to fill up a garden bed planted with later blooming perennials and shrubs. They provide hints of spring, serve as a living mulch and are also very valuable for pollinators as an early source of pollen. Heuchera 'Autumn Bride' (Heuchera villosa 'Autumn Bride') just thrives in our garden so I divide it and use it as an evergreen groundcover. The foliage above has been here all winter. What is really working in your garden?

Enjoy Spring Ephemerals

This is a glorious time. Even in a small garden like ours, there is something new to see every day. Whether it is the Virginia bluebells above or sitting in the warm sun, I hope you have a chance to appreciate this very special time -- Chesapeake gardens in spring!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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