March: Month-by-month guide to planting, gardening and produce – with recipes

01/01/2014 12:00 AM

02/11/2014 4:12 PM

Stalwarts in the sun-loving, water-efficient garden must include plants such as rosemary and lavender. But there are hundreds more plants that perform admirably in our climate, many of which offer year-around interest.

Generally, best bets are plants with silver or gray foliage since they are uniquely adapted to dealing with heat and sunshine. Many silver-leaved plants have a downy or hairy appearance, which lets them reflect light and conserve water so they can easily survive hot, dry conditions. Plants with small, needle-like leaves – English lavender, for example – are also suitable for low-water gardens. Unless it is a plant intended as a focal point, avoid planting just one of many different plants because it makes the garden look choppy.

Instead, plant in groups of odd numbers, because this looks more natural. Choose at least three of one plant. This gives the garden continuity and cohesion.

Here are a few of my favorites. I’ve chosen plants for each month of the year sometimes because of beautiful foliage, sometimes for their flowers, sometimes for autumn color or striking berries. Most provide year-round interest, although a few are herbaceous and die back when the weather turns cold. Include plenty of these plants in your garden, and you’ll have flowers to pick, foliage to enjoy and beauty in the garden all seasons of the year.

Evergreen currant ( Ribes viburnifolium): A huge challenge for Sacramento Valley and foothill gardeners is finding plants compatible with the needs of stately native oaks. We’ve all been warned not to plant thirsty shrubs beneath the oaks. The evergreen currant ( Ribes viburnifolium) is tailor-made for loosely covering the ground beneath these oaks without endangering them. This plant has it all: pretty flowers, colorful bark and rich evergreen foliage.

Also called Catalina perfume, it revels in the high, dry shade of oaks. It is a trailing plant with glossy light green leaves that complement its wine-colored stems. The leathery leaves, when crushed or rubbed, smell of viburnum. It is a clean, woodsy scent. Each spring it’s covered with clusters of tiny, maroon-red flowers.

It forms a clump of arching branches about 3 feet high and up to 5 feet wide. It layers itself naturally; that is, a branch will root where it touches the soil. Rest assured that R. viburnifolium is a polite traveler, however, and while it will colonize an area it is not a rampant thug out to take over the garden. Unwanted plants can easily be pulled away. A twice-yearly trim keeps the plants in bounds. A monthly soaking keeps the plant looking fresh.

In the wild, evergreen currant grows in parts of Mexico and in the wet canyons on Santa Catalina Island. But it adapts easily to the shade of oak trees – or fences and hedges – in the hot Northern California climate with little water once established. Shade is the key. Evergreen currant will scorch in the sun.

The genus Ribes includes about 150 species of evergreen and deciduous shrubs. About 30 species are native to California. Those armed with spines and bristles are known as gooseberries, while the varieties not protected by thorns are called currants. Find R. viburnifolium at nurseries specializing in California natives. I cut stems of evergreen currant for greenery in flower bouquets.

Oregon Grape ( Mahonia bealei & M. lomarifolia): I introduced the creeping Oregon grape ( Mahonia repens) into my garden before I learned it would eventually claim the entire flowerbed. Luckily, I stopped it in its tracks and instead planted the leather leaf mahonia ( M. bealei) and the stately M. lomarifolia. They make tall clumps – up to 10 or 12 feet high – covered with prickly, holly-like, leaves that are divided into leaflets. Leaves can be up to 2 feet long. Erect yellow flower clusters, often 6 or more inches long, spring from the top of the plant mid-winter, and are followed by blue berries. The birds love the berries.

Plant this elegant barberry relative at the back of the border. Every few years cut the oldest stems completely to the ground. Luckily it rarely needs any trimming because the stiff, sharp-edged leaves are difficult to work around. While it takes little water, it does appreciate shade in our climate, and is a good choice for north-facing garden beds. Oregon grape also looks good planted along a fence, and make a nice privacy hedge. Oregon grape grows naturally from Oregon to Southern California.

What's in season in March: Potatoes

Digging potatoes is like a treasure hunt, and the most fun you can have in the vegetable garden. And potatoes are considered one of the most important food crops in the world.

Potatoes had a rocky start with European gardeners, though. Potatoes are part of the nightshade family (as are tomatoes and eggplant), so until the 1500s, people thought they were poisonous. The Incas knew better, and are believed to have grown and eaten this tasty tuber for hundreds of years.

There are thousands of varieties available today, including many heirloom types. They come in many skin and flesh colors. There are red-skinned potatoes with white or red flesh, ones with golden flesh, even purple skins and flesh. Some have flesh that tastes smooth and creamy, while others taste grainy and dry. Look for varieties that you think you might like. There are baking potatoes (like the Russet), which are dry and mealy. Boiling potatoes have a waxy flesh (Yukon gold, for example).

New potatoes are simply young potatoes of any variety. They're easy to grow as long as you can give them loose, friable soil and regular watering. They're grown from "eyes." It's best to order seed potatoes so you know they are disease-free rather than cutting up varieties from the grocery store. Most nurseries stock many kinds of potatoes in the spring, and there are many mail-order sources for unusual varieties.

Cut up the pieces of potato, making sure each piece is 2 to 3 inches across and has at least one eye. Let the pieces sit for a day or two, until the flesh looks a little withered and dry, then plant about 3 or 4 inches deep and about 2 feet apart. Mulch the soil to conserve moisture and keep the soil loose. Keep watering until the plants bloom and the leaves begin to yellow and die.

To harvest, dig carefully around the plant, about a foot away from the base and work your way deeper and closer to the main stem. You'll discover long snaky roots then suddenly a plump potato, then another length of root and another potato. Most of the crop will be within a foot or two of the plant. Any pieces left in the garden will sprout next year.

The Peruvian Purple is the most persistent type of potato, so beware if you plant this one because you'll likely have it forever.

- Pat Rubin

Fresh: Use before they sprout or trim off sprouts before preparing. Green potatoes may contain solanine, which causes bitterness and, when eaten in large quantities, can be toxic. It is safe to cut off the green portion and use the rest. Wash thoroughly with a brush under running water before using. If raw potatoes turn pink or gray after cutting they are safe to eat and will probably turn white again when cooked. To prevent color change, keep cut potatoes in water up to two hours before cooking.

Preserving: Freeze prepared mashed potatoes in dollops on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Once solid, transfer the frozen potatoes to freezer bags for longer storage. Potatoes are low acid, and therefore must be pressure-canned. To dehydrate potatoes, cut them into strips or slices and dehydrate 6 to 10 hours until brittle.

- Gwen Schoen

Easy roasted potatoes

Serves 4

This is an easy way to cook potatoes when you don't have time for last-minute mashing or when you need a change from basic baked potatoes. This recipe works for all types including new potatoes, white, red or gold.

INGREDIENTS

1 pound potatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon garlic salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon paprika

INSTRUCTIONS

Cut potatoes into large bite-size pieces or use new potatoes whole.

Place the potatoes in a greased, 9-inch baking dish. Combine oil and seasonings. Drizzle the oil mixture over the potatoes and toss to coat. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.

Stir the potatoes and bake another 10 to 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and slightly browned.

Success in the March garden

Take time to sit outside in the garden and enjoy the day.

Callas are beginning to send up flower stalks. Look for an amazing variety of colors at local nurseries.

You can move clumps of daffodils, even if they are still blooming. It’s a good way to see how they will look when they bloom next year. Be sure to dig up plenty of soil around the bulbs, and give them a drink of water to reduce the shock of being moved.

Resist the temptation to buy those beautiful tomato plants at the nursery. It’s too early to plant them outdoors without protection. Let the nurseries protect them and take care of them until the weather is kinder.

Spring is a great time to plant trees, perennials, vines and shrubs. Get newly purchased plants in to the ground as soon as possible, but remember: Never work the soil when it is very wet. Mornings and evenings are the best times to plant. Water the plant and the ground around it. Keep an eye out for slugs and snails. They love new plants, too.

Weeds are the No. 1 enemy this time of year. Stay on top of them. A 4- to 5-inch layer of mulch suppresses weeds.

Those foamy masses on stems of plants are spittlebugs. Gently wash away the foam, and you’ll see the small brown spittlebug inside. Too many can damage a plant, but they’re easily controlled. Washing them away discourages them in just a few days.

If you have aphids, chances are you have ants. Get rid of the ants and you’ll have fewer aphids. Try sticky traps around the trees to keep ants from climbing up.

Hang yellow jacket traps to catch newly emerged queens.

Remove spent flowers from daffodils to prevent them from setting seed, but keep watering the foliage until it dies back completely. The foliage will feed the bulb for next year’s blooms.

Prune away suckers growing from fruit trees.

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