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  • March garden tips & tasks

    If your fescue lawn looks a little skimpy, overseed early this month. Fescue grows best when the weather is still cool.

    Clip dead stems from perennial herbs – thyme, sage, lavender, rosemary. Pruning encourages vigorous new growth.

    Prune nandinas, flowering quince and other airy shrubs by reaching in and removing about a third of the branches at ground level.

    Remove mulch or leaves that may be covering perennials in garden beds.

    Prepare a new garden bed: Have the soil tested (check with your county’s Extension service). Remove grass and dig or till soil 8 to 10 inches deep and mix with soil amendments and organic matter to improve drainage.

    Add fertilizer lightly to perennials as soon as you see new growth. Too much fertilizer may result in lanky growth.

    Herb transplants that don’t mind cool weather -- parsley, cilantro, sage, oregano – can go in the ground now.

    When you cut daffodils to bring inside, cut the stems at an angle and place them in water right away. Change the water in the vase daily to keep them fresh longer.

    Save the date - Middle Tennessee garden events

    The Perennial Plant Society's annual Plant Sale will be April 8, opening at 9 a.m. at The Fairgrounds Nashville. The sale offers newly released and hard-to-find perennials from top local nurseries -- more than 450 varieties of perennials, vines, grasses, shrubs and annuals. The event supports local scholarships for Tennessee horticulture students and monthly gardening programs, open to the public, at Cheekwood Botanical Gardens. For information visit www.ppsmtn.org.

    The Herb Society of Nashville's annual Herb Sale will be April 29, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. at The Fairgrounds Nashville. The sale will offer heirloom vegetables, rare varieties of perennial and annual herbs, handmade pottery herb markers and more. To learn more, visit herbsocietynashville.org.

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Plant potatoes in early spring

This year I’d like to grow potatoes in our raised bed garden. Can the seed potatoes be planted this early in the spring?

Potatoes in bloom.

Potatoes in bloom.

Growing your own potatoes is a good way to try varieties that you won’t find in the grocery store, but make sure you get the timing right. Potatoes that are planted in soil that is too wet and cold won’t grow, but if the likelihood of a hard freeze is no longer a danger in your area, then now is a good time to plant them. In their book Guide to Tennessee Vegetable Gardening, garden experts Felder Rushing and Walter Reeves suggest planting seed pieces 3 – 4 weeks before the average date of last frost (that date is around April 15 in Middle Tennessee, where The Garden Bench calls home).

Make sure the bed is in full sun – at least 8 hours — and the soil drains well. You can improve the drainage by tilling in organic matter. Remove rocks and roots and break up big clods of dirt to provide a welcoming environment for the growing potatoes.

To plant seed potatoes, cut the potatoes so that each piece contains one or two “eyes.” Spread the pieces out to dry for a couple of days before you put them in the ground. If you plant in rows, place the seed pieces 12 to 15 inches apart, with 24 inches between rows. In a bed, space the pieces 18 to 24 inches apart. Plant them 2 to 3 inches deep with the eyes up, and cover them with soil.

Now here’s where a little care and attention pays off: When the sprouts reach about 6 inches, pile soil from between the rows up around the plants. Potatoes develop in the dark, and this covers the tubers growing underground. The hills of soil should end up being about 6 inches high. If your area doesn’t get regular rain, provide about an inch of water a week to the potato bed because dry weather hampers potato production.

Eventually, the plants will produce flowers, and small potatoes are usually ready when those first flowers appear. Dig carefully and you’ll find them 4 to 6 inches below the top of the soil. When the vines begin to turn yellow, dig the potatoes that are left in the ground.

There are other potato growing methods that are more unusual. I’ve heard of growing potatoes in straw, in a stack of old tires, and in specially-designed “grow bags. A side note: I tried the grow-bag method one year and got lots of nice foliage, but not a single potato. I had better luck growing them in the ground in raised beds.

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