It's a giddy time of year for Tucson gardeners. March signals the start of the summer crop and flower season.

"It's like the springboard month for us," says Bridget Barber, president of the Tucson Organic Gardeners. "It's revving-up time for everybody. It's very exciting."

Garden beds should be full of compost and ready for planting by early March, says Barber. Cover them with plastic for a few days before planting to raise the temperature of the soil. This will create less shock to seedlings that up until now have lived happy lives in warm, protected environments.

Put tomato cages around seedlings and drape them with frost cloth even on merely cold nights to help the plants acclimate to their new homes.

Most plants going into the ground in March should be seedlings so they're well established before hot late-spring temperatures set in, Barber says. However, seeds for black-eyed peas, bush and lima beans, cucumbers and early native melons can be sown straight into the ground.

"When germinating your seeds, you need to keep the beds moist," she says. "It's better to water a little bit and let that soak in and go back and water again."

Gardeners who don't want to pull out their still-thriving winter plants can get started on summer crops, too.

"(March) is the overlapping season," says Barber. "The seedlings are small enough that you can plant them in an area where you know you'll clear them (winter crops) in the next six weeks."

An alternative is to put the seedlings in outdoor pots and then transplant them into the ground when winter crops are pulled.

If you go

Organic Garden Festival

• What: Tucson Organic Gardeners annual plant sale and demonstrations on such topics as composting and planting schedules. The festival also includes music, children's games and food.

• When: 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. next Sunday, March 7.

• Where: St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, 3809 E. Third St.

• Admission: Free.

• Information: www.tucsonorganic gardeners.org

Here are some other things Barber suggests doing in March:

• More planting. Citrus and avocado trees can start going into the ground. For ornamentals, now's the time for planting ground cover such as lantana, rosemary, vinca and Mexican primrose. March also is ideal for vines such as lady banks' rose, silver lace vine and honeysuckle.

• Pest control. Stay on the lookout for aphids and thrips. Organic gardeners get rid of most pests by spraying soapy water on plants.

• Container gardening. Space-challenged gardeners can put seedlings of cherry tomatoes and eggplant in large pots. An extra advantage is that wheeled pots can be moved into the shade during sun-intense afternoons.

• Herb trims. Cut back old growth in herbs to encourage growth of fresher, more flavorful leaves and stems.

• Organic gardening. The Tucson Organic Gardeners club's annual spring festival allows members to sell their organic plants and dispense timely advice on growing plants in a more natural way.

Contact local freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net

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