It is hard to think about what needs doing in the garden in February when the garden feels like it is off limits because of the late winter weather. 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, it is worth getting outside for some February gardening if you can, because now is the time to start the preparation and planning for 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 early spring.
So if you are thinking about what needs doing in the garden in February. Here are some of the things you can do. These ideas are based around UK temperatures. The UK is broadly equivalent to US hardiness zones 8 and 9. So if you live in a different zone, you can adapt your planning by doing things a a few weeks earlier or later, depending on where you are.
The vegetable garden
Sow seeds now
If you are like me, you’ll be champing at the bit to get sowing, but in lots of cases, seed starting too early is not the right thing to do. Without the right conditions, seedlings can can grow weakly because of the cold and get leggy because of the short days.
However, if you have somewhere warm and sunny – a heated greenhouse or warm windowsill – you can start some vegetable seeds indoors now.
Chilis, aubergine (egg plants) and peppers (capsicums ) are good options, because they need some warmth to get them started 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, peas, brussell sprouts, leeks, onions, and spinach.
You can even sow broad beans outside if the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged.
Start chitting potatoes
Chitting potatoes means encouraging your seed potatoes to start growing shoots from the eyes that appear on the surface of the potatoes. The potatoes will do this naturally, but you can help them create strong shoots by giving them the right conditions.
To do this, set the seed potatoes out in a container or, even better, some egg boxes, ideally with space between the potatoes. Check which end of the potato has more eyes and place that end uppermost. Place them in a light position, somewhere cool but protected from frost. Leave them to chit for 6 weeks or so before planting out.
Prepare your vegetable beds
Weather and wetness permitting, now is the time to start preparing your beds for sowing for the growing season.
Clear any weeds, dig in some well rotted manure, some home made compost or other well composted organic matter and rake out any stones or lumps.
If you have been growing a green manure over winter, now is the time time to dig it into your soil. Make sure you chop up the roots and shoots of the plant as you do so and allow a few weeks for the plant material to break down before raking and sowing seeds.
Warm the soil with cloches
Once you have cleared the weeds, use cloches with clear plastic, glass or polythene covers to begin to warm the soil for sowing early salad and root vegetable seeds. Allow 3 or 4 weeks for the soil to warm up and then replace the cloches once you have sown the seeds. This can create a warm microclimate to give the seedling a head start.
February vegetable planting
Now is also a good time time to start off onion sets or shallot sets. These are mini bulbs that will mature over spring, ready for harvest in mid to late summer.
Plant them with the tips showing, 15cm (6 inches) apart, with 30 cm (1 foot) between rows.
It is a good idea to cover them with horticultural fleece until the roots grow down and anchor the sets in the soil. This prevents them being pulled up by birds or other creatures.
Most advice is to plant garlic cloves in autumn, but if you have heavy, wet soil, it can better to wait until February. Planting at this time, means they should still have time to grow well by summertime.
Rake some grit into heavy soil and then break up the heads of garlic into individual cloves. Plant these individually 15cm (6 inches) apart about 5 to 7 cm (1 inch to 1.25 inches) below the surface. Plant them pointy end upwards. Water them in and keep them watered during dry periods.
Fruit trees and fruit bushes
Plant bare root trees, fruit canes or fruit bushes
Now is the final chance you have before spring to plant bare root deciduous fruit trees/bushes. One of the joys of February gardening for me is planting fruit trees and bushes, knowing that it won’t be long before they break bud and begin to grow towards being a productive plant.
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.
The ornamental garden
Perennial plants and grasses
It is time now, as we near early spring, to cut back the last of the perennials and grasses. It is 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.
Deciduous trees and shrubs
As with fruit trees, February is also the last chance you will have to bring in and plant bare root trees and shrubs. Container grown plants can be planted later, but the cheaper bare roots plants will soon stop being available.
Now is also a good time to prune deciduous shrubs, like Hydrangea, Cotinus and Roses.
Take out any damaged or diseased wood and, in older plants, prune out around one third of stems from the centre of the plant to let in more light. You can then shorten the remaining stems by about a third to a half. Make sure you cut back to just above a bud.
However, only follow this technique for shrubs that flower on new season’s growth. Early flowering shrubs, like Forsythia or Chaenomeles (ornamental flowering quince) flower on last season’s growth, so should not be pruned until after flowering.
You can start to sow seeds of hardy annuals now, like sweet peas. They can be sown direct in the garden bed if the soil is not frozen or you can start them off indoors with some warmth. If, where you live, there is still a fair bit of winter cold to come, then the latter option might be better.
If you have a greenhouse, sunroom or conservatory, there is nothing to stop you sowing plenty of annual and perennial seeds now.
Plant up left over bulbs
Lack of time, or maybe indolence, meant that this year 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 them 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. They may flower a little late and they may be a bit smaller than they might have been, but this 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.
Maintenance and other jobs around the garden
Sort your seeds out now.
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 is, according to Wikepedia, situated “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.
Clean up bird boxes and top up wildlife feeders now as well.
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.
Pots and seed trays
It is also a good idea to finally do the jobs you’ve been meaning to do since October, like cleaning 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.
Interestingly, in the day or two between starting and finishing this piece we’ve had continuous heavy rain 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 is a member of the National dahlia Society.
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.