In blustery March, light finally wins out over darkness. The vernal equinox falls on the 20th, when day and night are of equal length, and the clocks go forward on the 25th, giving a sudden extra hour of light every evening. Spring feels irresistible now: summer-visiting birds begin to return, bumblebees are tentatively buzzing, the ground can be cultivated. Yellow is the colour of March: bright daffodils, winter aconites, primroses, lemon-toned brimstone butterflies and bright spring sunshine, at least in between the showers and the gales. March was once a pivotal moment in the year. In the Roman calendar March, or Martius, was the first month, and in Britain 25th March – Lady Day – remained the beginning of the legal year until 1752; some old land tenancies still run from Lady Day to Lady Day.
The month was named after Mars, the god of war and – less famously – the guardian of agriculture. March was considered the month when both farming and warfare could begin, because no one wants to be out crusading in the snow. The Saxons called it Lentmonat, or lengthening month, because of the equinox and the noticeable lengthening of days, and this is the origin of the word Lent, which itself runs throughout March. Other Anglo-Saxon names for March included Hlydmonath, meaning stormy month, and Hraedmonath, meaning rugged month, both of which give a good flavour to the experience of being outdoors at the moment.
Constellation of the month – Ursa Major
Ursa Major, the Great Bear, climbs to its spring position high in the sky this month, tail down, nose up. It is best known for the Plough or the Big Dipper, the asterism which forms its centre (and the tail and body of the bear). You can use pointer stars within the Big Dipper to locate the North Star, or Polaris. It was used by escaping slaves in southern USA to point the way to the free states in the north, hence the folk song ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd’, this being another name for the Big Dipper. The side of the ‘bowl’ part of the Big Dipper furthest from the ‘handle’ part comprises two stars, Merak at the base and Dubhe at the rim. Draw a line between these two and extend it about five times and you will reach Polaris. Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky, but it is the most important, as the axis of the earth is pointed almost directly at it, so it does not rise or set or move through the sky. The other stars rotate around it and you can use it to locate due north at any time of year.
The saying that March ‘comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb’ almost never proves true, but it is indicative of the turbulence of the weather at this moment in the year, and its potential to turn mild and spring-like, then chilly and blustery in quick succession. The beginning of March marks the start of meteorological spring, and March also contains the spring equinox, when day and night are the same length. But despite encouraging and spring-like increases of light, March can be a very cold month, and it is just as likely to snow this month as it was in February. Significant plant growth only takes place above 6°c, and the temperature will waver above and below that, so that by the end of this month spring will definitely have sprung green and keen in some parts of the country, while others will still look and feel wintry.
Average temperatures (°c):
Average sunshine hours per day:
Average days rainfall:
Average rainfall total (mm):
During the course of March, day length increases by:
1 hour and 29 minutes, to 12 hours and 25 minutes (London)
2 hours and 20 minutes, to 13 hours and 2 minutes (Glasgow)
On the vernal equinox on the 20th, night and day are of the same length. It is one of only two days a year (the other being the autumnal equinox in September) when the sun rises precisely due east and sets due west.
Average sea temperature
If you are close to coastal cliffs, this is the month to watch seabird colonies reassemble, to enjoy the racket, and to dodge the deposits. Seabirds such as puffins, northern gannets, Manx shearwaters, shags, kittiwakes and storm petrels come in to shore to nest and raise their young.
Planting by the moon
Full moon to 3rd quarter: Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.
3rd quarter to new moon: Prune. Harvest for storage. Fertilise and mulch the soil.
New moon to 1st quarter: Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.
1st quarter to full moon: Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.
Jobs in the garden
• Start sowing hardier vegetable seeds outdoors: peas, broad beans, spinach and parsnips can all be direct-sown. Make a nursery bed and thickly sow leeks to be spaced out later. Plant out potatoes at the end of the month.
• In the greenhouse sow cucumbers, aubergines, Florence fennel, Brussels sprouts, sprouting broccoli, cabbages and, towards the end of the month, start to sow tomatoes.
• Big clumps of snowdrops can be lifted, split and replanted now that the flowers are passed, to spread them about. Buy new snowdrops now while they are ‘in the green’, as they establish best at this stage.
Glut of the month – leeks
In the ‘hungry gap’ between last year’s stored produce running out and this year’s starting up, leeks are one of the few stalwarts still standing on the vegetable plot.
• Slice leeks in half, wash thoroughly, then cut up and slow-cook in plenty of butter and a pinch of salt, covered, until the leeks are meltingly soft. Cook for a few more minutes uncovered. Top with a piece of poached fish or a fried egg.
• Poach young leeks (or large leeks sliced in half lengthways) in salted water for 8–10 minutes until tender, drain and toss with extra virgin olive oil, a little cider vinegar, chopped capers and salt and pepper.
• Make Glamorgan sausages for St David’s Day. Mix two slow-cooked leeks with crumbled Caerphilly cheese, a handful of breadcrumbs, chopped thyme and parsley, and two beaten eggs. Chill for half an hour in the fridge then form into short sausages, roll in breadcrumbs and fry.
Garden task – plant dahlias
The glamorous darlings of the late-summer garden, dahlias need to be started into growth now, and they are far easier than their exotic looks suggest. This is a good moment to buy tubers – the big, fleshy roots – and to pot them up in a greenhouse or on a cool indoor windowsill. It is possible to plant them straight outside if you wait until the weather is warmer, but slugs love them. Better to give dahlias a head start in an environment where you can fend off the molluscs, then plant them out when they are big and healthy.
Dahlias are as varied in form as they are in colour. Pompom types are neat and perfect balls of incurved petals; decorative types are big, bold and fully double; the petals of cactus types are pointed; waterlily types are flat flowers with gently curving petals.
Choose a rough colour scheme and take one of each type for particularly satisfying bouquet mixing. ‘Café au Lait’ is a beautiful peachy and creamy decorative bloom, and looks particularly fine alongside pinky-purple ‘American Dawn’ and dark and brooding ‘Summer Night’.
Take generous pots, half fill them with fresh compost, carefully lower in the delicate tuber and fill in around with compost, pressing down with fingers to fill in the air gaps. Water well and keep free of frost. You can plant them out in May and start picking in mid to late summer.
• Swiss chard, spring onions and winter lettuces all have new growth and are ready for harvesting now. The last of the Brussels sprouts can be picked. Purple sprouting broccoli and rhubarb are plentiful. This is the last month for winter cabbages and the first for spring cabbages.
• This is the last month for stored cooking apples. Stored eating apples and pears are generally over.
• Oysters and mussels are still in season but will soon be gone. Halibut, cod, coley, dab, lemon sole and other winter fish are still in season, too.
• Sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses are good now, made from the new fresh milk.
Ingredient of the month – mussels
The months with an ‘R’ in their name are when there is the most ‘meat’ on a mussel, before it spawns and turns lean in late spring when the sea warms. Have a good sniff when you buy them; they should smell fresh like the sea. Don’t buy them too clean as they keep best with the ‘beard’ still attached. Store them in the fridge in newspaper and use within two days, cleaning the beards off with a paring knife and scrubbing the mussels under running water just before using. Combine finely chopped shallots and plenty of garlic with a couple of glasses of white wine in a big stock pot, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn up the heat, drop in the mussels and cover for 5 minutes until all are open. Stir in a big handful of herbs and lots of butter, remove from the heat, and eat with good bread to soak up the juices.
The colourful and chaotic festival of Holi is a Hindu celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring, and it coincides with the full moon that falls before the vernal equinox, this year on 2nd March. It originates in India but is celebrated by the Hindu population in Nepal and by the diaspora across the globe, including in Fiji, the Caribbean, Mauritius and, increasingly, Britain.
There are a number of legends associated with Holi. One concerns Prahlada, who was a devotee of Lord Vishnu against his father’s wishes, and who, for this crime, was tricked into sitting on a pyre by his aunt Holika. When he miraculously survived the fire and his aunt burned, his father flew into a rage and smashed a pillar, at which Lord Vishnu appeared and killed the father. Another is the story of Lord Shiva and Kamadeva, the goddess of love, who tried to jolt Shiva out of his penance and meditation after the death of his wife Sati.
A fire is lit on the first day of Holi, symbolic of the fire that burned Holika and of the victory of good over evil and light over darkness, in echoes of Christian and pagan spring fire-based festivals Candlemas and Beltane. The urge to celebrate the returning of life and light seems universal. The fire’s ashes are dabbed onto foreheads; the next day is Rangwali Holi, a carnival of colours, with bright-coloured powders and coloured water thrown freely at every passer-by. This is in celebration of Lord Krishna, who would apply pigments playfully to Radha and the other gopis (cowherds), this play becoming popular and part of tradition. The changing of the seasons being a time when many fall prey to colds and viruses, powdered medicinal plants were originally the source of the colours: turmeric, spring herbs, hibiscus flowers, beetroot and grapes. After the fun, there is visiting and sweet delicacies. Bhang or marijuana is often added to drinks during Holi, particularly celebrating Lord Shiva’s triumph over evil.
Shakkarpare – A recipe by Ishita DasGupta
During Holi, crisp fried foods and sweet things abound. Shakkarpare, originating from Maharashtra in central India, are flaky little pastries coated in sugar syrup that are eaten as a snack and go so well alongside thandai. If you don’t have chapati flour, fine wholemeal flour may be substituted.
240 g atta (chapati flour)
2 tbsp ghee (at room temperature)
75–100 ml water
Ghee/oil for frying
For the syrup
150 g caster sugar or 100 g grated jaggery
125 ml water
Place the atta into a mixing bowl, add the ghee and rub it through. Slowly add the water until it all comes together in a soft ball. It should not feel too wet or sticky. Cover the bowl and leave to rest for 20 minutes at room temperature. Roll the dough out to the thickness of a pound coin and cut into diamond shapes 4–5 cm in length and 2 cm wide. Put the caster sugar and water into a saucepan and place over a medium heat. Do not stir but allow the sugar to dissolve. Once clear, the syrup is ready. In a karahi or wok, pour enough oil or ghee until it is 1 cm deep and place over a moderately high heat. Add one of the pastry diamonds to test the oil – when it is hot enough it will foam and take 15–20 seconds for each side to turn golden. Remove and blot on a plate lined with kitchen roll. Once all the pastry diamonds have been fried, place into the warm syrup and stir through. Transfer to a bowl to cool. These are best eaten on the same day but will keep in an airtight container for a day or two.
Thandai – A recipe by Ishita DasGupta
Thandai, meaning ‘cooling’, is a drink synonymous with Holi. Thickened with almond paste, scented with rose water and bursting with fennel and cardamom, it is sweet and comforting. Some people add bhang or marijuana to it for Holi.
75 g blanched almonds
1 tsp melon seeds
10 green cardamom – seeds only
1½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp black peppercorns
½ tsp coriander seeds
50–75 g caster sugar
750 ml whole milk
2 tbsp rose water
Place the almonds and melon seeds in a bowl, with enough warm water to cover them and leave for two hours. In a shallow frying pan or tawa, toast the spices and set aside. Blend the nuts, seeds, toasted spices and sugar to a paste in a blender or pestle and mortar. Scoop the paste into a saucepan and add the milk and rose water. Bring up to the boil; remove immediately from the heat and leave to cool. Once cool, strain into a jug using a sieve or muslin and refrigerate until chilled.
Look out for:
• The return of summer-visiting birds: wheatears and chiffchaffs are the first arrivals.
• Blackthorn in flower – note the spot for sloes in autumn.
• Mad March hares: this is the name given to female hares energetically resisting the advances of male hares, and while arable fields are still short this is a good time to spot them.
• Wood anemone, sweet violet, stinking hellebore and dog’s mercury on the woodland floor.
• Skylarks and lapwings begin singing above arable fields, skylarks melodious and hovering high above, lapwings calling ‘peewit’ while tumbling almost to the ground and rising back up again.
• Fluffy goat-willow catkins, on plants growing in damp soil alongside rivers or lakes.
• The first butterfly of the year to emerge: the pale yellow or green brimstone.
Wild and naturalised daffodils
Our native daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus is pretty, pale and delicate, known as the Lent lily, and once widely and affectionately called the ‘daffydowndilly’. Due to habitat loss it is not nearly as common as it once was, but clumps and drifts can still be found, tossing their heads in the March breezes, in fields and on verges down the western half of the country. The best place to see them is Gloucestershire’s ‘Golden Triangle’, where a ten-mile footpath known as the Daffodil Way runs through woods, orchards and meadows. The Tenby daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. obvallaris, is small and sturdy and a bolder yellow. It may have originated as a cultivated flower but it now grows wild across west Wales. Look out too for clumps of unusual daffodils flowering in Cornish verges. These may be remnants of heritage cultivars, once the stalwarts of the Cornish flower industry, but dumped along road edges during the Second World War when farmers had to turn their fields over to food production.