As I write, after 6 straight days of heavy rain, snow is now swirling around a bleak and sodden February garden, whipped by a bitter easterly wind.
And yet, although February can certainly be the bitterest of the winter months, it carries with it the first hints of hope for the coming gardening year.
Here in Scotland, for example, the days are perceptibly longer, buds of hydrangeas are swelling and the bulbs are beginning to show – we are seeing Snowdrops (Galanthus), Grape Hyacinths (Muscari) and the first daffodils leaves edging their way through the soil.
So now is the time to start planning how you want your garden to perform this year. It is also the time to finish off your winter gardening jobs, so that you are free to meet the demands of spring.
Here are some of the things you can do in and around the garden in February:
- Cut back the last of the perennials and grasses. It’s good to leave some structure in your garden over winter, but now is the time to start cutting back the dead stems so as to make way for the new shoots to come. The cuttings make good brown material to sweeten your compost and while you are working around the bases of the plant, you can clear weeds and add a good layer of mulch.
- Clean up up pots, trays and plant labels ready for use in the Spring. The conventional advice here is to make sure that all of these are clean before the new growing season to prevent the spread of any diseases or pests harboured in the left-over soil or compost. I certainly endorse this advice but, to be honest, it’s not something I always do. Maybe one day, when I have more time on my hands, I’ll be the perfect gardener, who keeps everything clean, tidy and ready and for use. For now, I seem to get away with re-using dirty pots from time to time, so I’m not going to beat myself up about my slackness in this area – and neither should you.
- Plant up left over bulbs. Lack of time, or maybe indolence, meant that I had quite a few allium and tulip bulbs hanging a round in the greenhouse that I hadn’t got round to planting in November or December. The ground has been so wet lately that there hasn’t been an opportunity to plant these out in any case, even if I’d had the time or inclination. So, last weekend I planted these up into plastic pots, with the idea that once they are pretty well advanced – and the winter wet has subsided – I can plant them out. Now, obviously this isn’t standard procedure, but there is no reason why these bulbs shouldn’t flower, albeit a little late, and it has saved them from going to waste. If the bulbs are shooting at the top, that isn’t an issue. In fact, it is good evidence that the bulbs are still viable.
- Sort your seeds. I know it’s very tempting to hang on to the seed packets that you’ve had kicking a round for a couple of years. But there is a reason that the the Global Seed Vault lies “deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.” To remain viable, seeds have to be stored carefully. So, bite the bullet and throw out your old packets of seed now. This way you avoid the frustration of sowing seeds that fail to germinate and you don’t lose precious time in having to re-sow later with fresh seeds.
- Sow seeds now. If you are like me, you’ll be champing at the bit to get sowing, but in lots of cases, sowing seeds too early doesn’t help. They can can grow weakly because of the cold and get leggy because of the still short days. However, if you have somewhere warm and sunny – a heated greenhouse or warm windowsill indoors – it’s good to start some seeds off now. Chillis, aubergine and peppers (capsicums) are good options, because they need a bot of warmths to start and a long growing season. You can also start tomatoes now, indoors or in a heated greenhouse, but in my experience tomatoes sown too early don’t really thrive. However, that may be due to my particular conditions, so you might still want to try it. Other things you can sow under cover now include sweet peas, peas, brussels sprouts, leeks, onions, and spinach. You can even sow broad beans outside.
- Prepare your vegetable beds. Weather and wetness permitting, now is the time to start preparing your beds for sowing. Clear any weeds, dig in some manure, or well composted organic matter and rake out any stones or lumps.
- Clean up bird boxes and top up wildlife feeders. We own a cat who prowls our garden like the Lion King and, I’m sorry to say, he does hunt for birds and mice. So, without getting into all the arguments about whether cats should be kept indoors (or even kept at all), I should make it clear that we don’t have any bird boxes or animal feeders because we don’t want to give the cat any free hits. However, if you don’t have a predator upsetting your garden eco system, now is a good time to top up your feeders, make your bird boxes ready for new occupants and, if temperatures are low, break the ice on ponds or water containers so the birds can get a drink.
- Plant bare root trees, fruit canes or shrubs. Bare root plants are cheaper than container grown plants and establish better in most cases. They are dug from the fields during their winter dormancy and supplied to you, usually with the roots wrapped in clingfilm or bubble wrap, ready for planting out. If, as happened to me with raspberry canes recently, it is too wet to plant in their final planting position, find a suitable sheltered spot and ‘heel’ them in on a temporary basis. This means digging a slit trench and dropping the plants in side by side. Refill gently and water in so there are no air pockets. When you’re ready you can dig them up and replant where you want them.
Interestingly, in the day or two between starting and finishing this piece we’ve had a heavy fall of snow and it doesn’t look like clearing any time soon. So, it will probably be a while before I get down to most of these jobs myself, which only goes to prove what all gardeners know – our best laid plans are always at the mercy of nature.
Martin Cole has been an avid gardener for more than 20 years and loves to talk and write about gardening. In 2006 he was a finalist in the BBC Gardener of the Year competition.
He previously lived in London and Sydney, Australia, where he took a diploma course in Horticultural studies and is now based in North Berwick in Scotland. He founded GardeningStepbyStep.com in 2012. The website is aimed at everybody who has been bitten by the gardening bug and wants to know more.
Gardening Step by Step has been cited by Thompson and Morgan, the UK’s largest mail order plant retailer, as a website that publishes expert gardening content.
Check out my comprehensive step by step guide, with plain language explanations and ultra-useful images and illustrations. This is for you if you love dahlias and want to the best out of the dahlias you grow.