Excitement is mounting at The Watch House. At the end of this month, The Frustrated Gardener will be getting a complete makeover, including a new, bespoke theme. The new look will align with Dan Cooper Garden, my new online destination for garden lovers that will launch in early April. They’ll be separate entities but linked in subtle ways. Fear not, The Frustrated Gardener will remain a personal blog, free from commercialism and full of updates, information and opinions. However, I am going to take the liberty of posting some of the articles I will be featuring on Dan Cooper Garden here first, to see what you think of them. Call it a dress rehearsal if you like.
Since my whole philosophy is about enjoying your garden rather than making it a tiresome chore, I will always focus on the ways in which your garden can bring you joy. And what better month to set out on my mission than in February, when you might think there’s precious little to celebrate ……..
You could say that the best thing about February is that it’s not January. True, February can be wicked and wild, but a corner has been turned and spring is now in sight. February is the Cruella de Vil of the calendar; harsh, bitter and goading, reeling us in with the odd balmy day and then hurling us into a frozen abyss for being so foolish as to take the bait. February is not a month to be trusted: stay on your guard and keep your wits about you. But, when the weather offers up a glimpse of spring, it is churlish not to take advantage. Make time to step outside and breathe the clean, sharp air. Turn your face to the sun whenever it appears. Better still, take a cuppa with you and peruse your pots and borders, seeking out spring-flowering bulbs appearing above ground. If you don’t have your own garden, your local park is a great alternative. If you grow snowdrops, they’ll be flowering, even fading by February – I like to plant dwarf irises (Iris reticulata) to pick up the baton once they’re gone. The first flowers to bloom are often scented – witch hazels (Hamamelis), winter sweet (Chimonanthus praecox), sweet box (Sarcococca species), daphnes (Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is a good choice) and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera x purpusii ‘Winter Beauty’) are good recommendations. On cold days, scents can be faint, so get your nose in there and breathe deeply. If you’ve grown bulbs such as paperwhite narcissi and hyacinths indoors, these should be filling the house with perfume by February.
At the start of the month, it’s already evident that the days are growing longer. By the end, it might still be light at 6pm. This makes a huge difference in how we feel. Somehow the weariness of winter starts to drop away and we regain our customary vigour. Away from the clutches of Ms de Vil there is hope and a feeling of renewal. What’s good about February is that you can still take your time. On cold, rainy days it’s better to stay indoors and plan than trample around on sodden ground. Tidy the shed if you must: most jobs will wait. Don’t be in too much haste to sow seeds unless you have a heated greenhouse. Seeds sown later will grow on just as well.
February At a Glance
Plan – work out what you’re going to grow where for the rest of the year – all from the comfort of your armchair.
Sow – indoors: tomatoes, chillies, parsley, rocket and sweet peas. Outdoors: broad beans and hardy annuals such as calendula and love-in-the-mist.
Plant – bare-rooted trees, hedges, shrubs, perennials, roses and snowdrops ‘in the green’.
Prune – hybrid tea, floribunda and hybrid perpetual roses, late-flowering clematis, fruit trees and raspberry canes.
Harvest – tiny bunches of snowdrops, violets, hellebores and Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis). From the vegetable garden comes kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, swede, leeks and parsnips.
Buy – seeds, seed potatoes, garlic bulbs, onion sets, bare-rooted roses, dahlia tubers, gladiolus corms, peat-free seed compost, pots, seed trays and plant labels.
Enjoy – sunny days, lighter mornings, feeding the birds, watching bulbs emerging from the ground, perfumed flowers, frosted foliage, reading good gardening books, planning for the rest of the year.
Visit – many gardens, including some of those that are part of the National Garden Scheme, open for special Snowdrop Days. In the Cornwall, woodland gardens famed for their collections of magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons will be coming into their own.
Back in the garden, birds will be noisily marking their territories. At The Watch House, the gentle collared doves are already here, vying with ungainly wood pigeons for a nesting pitch in the bay tree. It’s become a bird hotel and I enjoy watching them jostling for position from my desk at the top of the house. We welcome all kinds of birds with open arms, even the squalky parakeets doing their acrobatics on the television aerial. On fine days, bees venture out to warm themselves and find the first flowers. Young queen bumblebees are often the first to emerge, ready to start a new generation.
On the days when you have the time, energy and enthusiasm to connect with your garden, here’s what you can do:
- House plants will be in winter mode until the days get a little longer. Keep them well lit and away from sources of heat and cold drafts. Turn them once a week so that all sides of the plant get even exposure to the light. This will help them form a better shape. Dust the foliage of large-leaved house plants such as Monstera, Philodendron and Spathiphyllum to help them photosynthesise as effectively as possible.
- Water plants only when the surface of the compost feels dry and then only sparingly. Plants that aren’t putting on much new growth need surprisingly little water: overwatering is one of the most common causes of house plant death. In a warm room, stand your plants on a tray or saucer of damp pebbles to create humidity around the foliage. Feeding can generally start in March unless you spot that the plant has started to produce new leaves and shoots already. In this case, begin with a very dilute feed.
- Amaryllis that bloomed at Christmas will have started to fade by now. Remove the spent flower stalk just above the bulb and allow the strappy foliage to develop. Continue watering and feeding to restore the bulb’s energy reserves, ensuring it will produce flowers again at the end of the year.
Potting Shed & Greenhouse
- Start potatoes into growth by standing the tubers in an egg box, eyes (buds) uppermost. Position them in a light, frost-free shed or garage to encourage new shoots to form. You could also use a windowsill in an unheated room. This process is called ‘chitting’ and it helps the potatoes to grow more quickly once they’re planted in the ground. If you don’t have the space or time to do it, you’ll still get a perfectly good crop. Always buy your ‘seed’ potatoes from a reputable source and plant them in a different place every year, if you can. This stops diseases from building up in the soil.
- If you have an unheated greenhouse there is little to do other than to open the doors and windows on warmer days. Good ventilation stops pests and diseases from taking hold. A breeze blowing through can help toughen up soft stems.
- Sweet peas sown in autumn may benefit if you pinch out their growing tips to help them bush out. Sweet peas sown now will soon catch up with those planted the previous year.
- If your greenhouse is heated (lucky you!), there are seeds that can be sown if you wish to get ahead. Chillies and tomatoes are prime candidates as they take a reasonably long time to produce fruits. However, they’ll still produce a harvest if sown in March. If you sow seeds now, it’s worth bearing in mind that you’ll need the space to keep them protected under glass until late May, by which time they’ll be substantial plants. Chillies need at least 20ºC to germinate, so use a propagator or indoor windowsill if possible.
- Overwintered dahlias tubers can be started into growth in a heated greenhouse in order to produce new shoots for taking cuttings. Dahlias are very easy to grow from cuttings and they produce much healthier and more floriferous plants, on the whole, than tubers do.
- A great job for a rainy day is to plant lily bulbs in pots. It’s impossible to have too many lilies in my opinion, although some gardeners find that managing the inevitable attack by scarlet lily beetles offputting. We used to suffer badly here, but after three or fours years of routinely dispensing with them, we don’t get any at all now. As with so many things in the garden, persistence and patience over a period of time is the only way to triumph.
Terrace & Balcony
- It’s a good idea to invest in your patio, terrace or balcony so that it’s bright and cheerful in winter. If you didn’t plant up containers before Christmas, provided the weather is mild it’s possible to do so now using plants and potted bulbs from your local garden centre. Consider how they’ll grow and develop when spring comes, combining colours that will work nicely. That said, spring is the season when clashing colours work the best – anything so long as it’s not winter grey.
- Potted plants have three main enemies over winter – wind, waterlogging and freezing temperatures. You could also add weevils to that list if you want to keep the alliteration going. Wind will topple pots that are top-heavy, often breaking them in the process. Reduce any excess top growth or alternatively move your pots to a sheltered spot in the garden. If winters are wet in your part of the world, keep pots and containers off the ground by standing them on pot ‘feet’ or astride a couple of house bricks, taking care not to block the drainage hole. Alternatively, bring them up against the wall of your house where there’s a rainshadow. Subzero temperatures can freeze roots and shatter clay pots, so move them into shelter or, if you can’t do that, wrap them in a thick layer of hessian secured with string. If you have plants permanently planted in pots, tip them out and check for tiny white grubs that look like maggots. These are vine weevil larvae and they will destroy the plants’ roots. Remove all the compost and dispose of it (not on your compost heap!), using fresh, clean compost for replanting.
- If the weather is dry, or worse, dry and windy, the compost in pots and containers may dry out. This can make them more liable to be blown or knocked over. Evergreens and bulbs starting into growth need a degree of moisture to see them through the winter. Water sparingly, rather than soaking and check them every couple of weeks. Rain cannot be relied upon to water pots for you, unless it’s a torrential downpour.
- Deadhead pansies, violas and ‘Sugar Rush’ wallflowers that began flowering in autumn. Removing spent blooms prevents annual plants from setting seed and encourages more flowers instead.
February is the month for pruning roses, clematis and buddleias. There is skill and artistry involved in pruning and training roses and clematis, however, as with many things, the process can be simplified and need not be terrifying.
- Buddleias are incredibly easy to deal with. You can either cut the whole plant down to about 20cm above the ground using secateurs, loppers or a pruning saw, depending on how thick the branches are. Or, if your buddleia is at the back of a border and needs a little more height, crop it at 60cm and let it grow back from there. If you have an old and messy bush, a brutal chop will soon rejuvenate it.
- Pruning roses is a slightly more involved task and it helps to know what type of rose you are pruning. Floribundas, hybrid teas and hybrid perpetuals should be cut back hard now (i.e. to around 25-30cm above the ground). The aim is to remove any dead, spindly and crossing stems to create a set of short, outward-facing branches. Always cut just above an outward-facing bud. Shrub roses, unless totally out of control, should be tidied and cleared of straggly, dead or crossing stems. (Climbers ought to have been pruned and trained in autumn or early winter, removing a third of the plant to encourage new growth in spring. Rambling roses should have been pruned after flowering, in later summer.) Be sure to wear tough, gauntlet-style gloves and protect your limbs and eyes from flailing branches.
- Pruning clematis is a far less daredevil pursuit and rather satisfying. As a general rule, if your clematis flowers before June or July, which includes Clematis montana, Clematis armandii and many of the large-flowered hybrids, then leave them until immediately after they have bloomed. If your clematis flowers later in the year, for example Clematis viticella and Clematic jackmanii, then you can cut them down to 2ft above the ground now. If it’s been mild, you may find that bright green buds and shoots are already forming among the crisp brown foliage. If some of these are removed by pruning, don’t worry. The plant will be stronger for the sacrifice.
- Wisteria tend to produce long, whippy growths throughout the late summer and autumn. These can be trimmed now, cutting 2-3 buds away from the main stem. Tie in any growth that you wish to retain as part of the wisteria’s main framework. This job is very much easier when there’s no foliage to contend with.
- Once clumps of snowdrops have finished flowering, it’s possible and to lift, divide and immediately replant them. This is generally considered to be the best way to increase numbers of these harbingers of spring. If you have none to start with, there will be nurseries selling snowdrops ‘in the green’ for planting now. Choose a spot in the garden that’s never too dry.
- Clumps of deciduous grasses that have been left for protection or ornamental effect should be cut down now to make way for new growth. However, they should not be moved or lifted and divided until they are actively growing again.
- Roses and perennials supplied as bare-rooted plants – i.e. not potted – should be planted as soon as they arrive. If they can’t be, due to inclement weather or other committments, store them in a bucket or wheelbarrow filled with moist compost until you’re ready.
Trees, Shrubs & Lawns
- Bare rooted trees and hedging plants should be planted by the end of the month if possible. A little time for them to get settled and produce new roots before coming into leaf will pay dividends. Newly planted trees and hedges should be watered weekly for the first year to help them get established. A sprinkling of mycorrhizal fungi in the planting hole can help with establishment, particularly if the soil has recently experienced a lot of disturbance or is in poor condition. This is often the case if you’ve moved into a newly built home.
- If you’re planning to move a tree or shrub, this is also the time to do it. Take as much of the rootball as you can with you, asking a partner or friend for help if needs be. Moving anything large or awkward is more easily done as a two-person job.
- You can hard prune the stems of ornamental dogwoods (Cornus) and willow (Salix) to encourage strong, colourful stems next winter. If you’re still enjoying this year’s display, it’s fine to postpone the job for another month or so.
- If it’s dry and mild and the grass is long, you may wish to give your lawn a trim with the mower blades set high. Take care to avoid any areas planted with spring bulbs. Otherwise, leave well alone, especially if it’s cold and frosty. Walking on frozen grass can cause long-lasting damage to your lawn.
- February is a great month for planning what you’ll grow where. As a rule, it’s best not to grow the same crop in the same place two years in a row, so try to rotate your crops. Consider which veggies you’ll need to dig and when so that you don’t disturb their neighbours in the process.
- Should you fancy constructing raised beds or changing the layout of your veggie plot, now’s the time to do it. The ground will be as clear as it’s ever going to be and ripe for development. Just don’t trample over it when it’s wet.
- If you are vegetables in pots or growing bags, be aware that they are greedy feeders and replace the compost every year. Old compost can be spread on the garden.
- On days when the ground is relatively dry, fork over vegetable beds, removing weeds and adding manure or peat-free compost as you go. If you take things steady, it’s a great way to stay warm and limber up after the winter break. If it’s wet and cold, leave well alone as you could damage the soil structure and your back in the process.
- Some gardeners like to warm the soil for spring planting by covering beds with a black weed-suppressing membrane until they are ready to plant. We try to use as little plastic as possible and don’t like the look of it, so we wait for the sun to work its magic. Glass cloches, if you have them, are a more aesthetically-pleasing option.
- Autumn-fruiting raspberry canes should be cut back to ground level now. This is a satisfying job and one for wearing a stout pair of gauntlet gloves. Where summer-fruiting raspberries have grown above the top of their supports, the tips can be removed just above a bud. Give the raspberries a mulch if you have any garden compost or manure to spare.
- Pruning of apple and pear trees should happen when the trees are dormant, between late November and early March. As with roses, pruning can be a complex subject. In simple terms, you want to create a healthy tree with a pleasing shape that produces as much fruit as possible. To keep your tree healthy, start by removing crossing, rubbing, weak, dead, diseased or damaged branches using sharp secateurs, loppers or a pruning saw. Avoid leaving snags and absolutely do not paint over the cuts: allow them to heal naturally. Then, shorten the previous year’s growth on each main branch by about one third, cutting above a bud facing in the required direction (generally outwards and upwards). This will encourage the development of new branches and fruiting spurs. Leave young side-shoots unpruned so they can develop fruit buds. Only remove these if they are crossing or if the growth is too crowded. Do not interfere with plums, damsons, cherries, peaches or apricots as pruning now makes them susceptible to Silver Leaf disease and could remove flowering branches. Save this particular job for the summer months.
- After pruning, dress around the base of fruit trees with blood, fish and bone and mulch with well-rotted manure or garden compost. Avoid mounding it up close to the trunk. Asparagus, artichokes, cabbages, purple sprouting and kale will appreciate a similar treatment.
- Remove yellowing leaves from brassicas as a precaution against the spread of moulds and mildews. Keeping the plants clear of old foliage helps the air to circulate around them. If the stems have become very tall, stake plants securely now as they can be flattened by gales or heavy snowfall. Protect against marauding pigeons as they’ll become every more voracious as spring approaches.
- Now is the time to divide rhubarb and plant new sets before growth begins. Leave a generous amount of space between each crown to allow for development and walking in between. I’d recommend a good metre.
- In the wilder parts of the garden, as in the countryside, there will be uplifting signs of spring if you look hard enough. Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis), snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and sweet violets (Viola odorata) spangle the ground with colour in areas of damp woodland or hazel coppice. The green flowers of stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) and green hellebore (Helleborus viridis) are a welcome source of nectar for early bees. Catkins begin to appear on the branches of hazel (Coryllus avellana) and alder (Alnus glutinosa), heralding the onset of spring.
- Even during mild spells of weather, garden birds will be grateful for a well-provisioned bird table, especially females building up their strength for the breeding season. Keep water in birdbaths free of ice and detritus so that your feathered friends can drink clean, clear water.
- Now is the time to put up new nest boxes and spring clean older ones in readiness for new residents. Ensure they’re mounted at least 10ft from the ground, out of reach of cats and other predators. Walls are generally safer than trees.
- Frogs and toads will begin to emerge from hibernation if it’s not too cold. You may find them causing a commotion in your garden pond as they find their mates. By the end of the month, clumps of frogspawn and strings of toadspawn will begin to appear at the margins of the water. Resist the urge to move frogspawn or tadoples between ponds as this can spread diseases.