February Hints & Tips
February is the last month of winter, and frequently the coldest. It’s the end of the dormant period for many plants, so the last opportunity to plant out perennials and fruit trees. Timing this is tricky, as the ground is sometimes too frozen to dig with a spade or garden fork. Even on days when it is too cold to work the soil, there is still time to finish pruning plants ready for them to start regrowing in spring.
What vegetables to plant in February
Some vegetables can be sown outside now, despite the cold weather of February:
Other vegetable seeds need a bit of warmth, so should be started under glass. A windowsill or heated greenhouse is perfect:
What vegetables to harvest in February
There should still be plenty of vegetables to crop from the garden:
- Brussels sprouts
Parsnips will be full of flavour after a couple of months of cold weather. Freezing conditions bring out the sweetness in them - just make sure to harvest on a day without frost when you can get a garden fork into the ground!
Vegetable plant maintenance in February
Check netting on brassicas to make sure that it is still secure. Birds – pigeons in particular – can shred unprotected greens very quickly. Stop them getting access by weighing or pinning down the edges of netting so that there are no entry points.
Jobs to prepare for the spring:
Potatoes - ‘chit’ these ready for planting in the spring. This means placing them in a light and warm place, such as a hallway or windowsill. This helps them to sprout before they are planted outside, giving them a head start when they are planted out next month. Use certified virus-free seed potatoes which are intended for growing.
Asparagus - add compost above each plant before it starts to produce spears.
Leeks - leave a last plant in the ground so that it flowers. Pollinators love leek flowers, and they are a large, beautiful ball shape. Once the seed head has dried out, the seeds can be saved for sowing.
Things to do this month
- Remove heavy snow from shrubs and trees so that the weight does not snap any branches.
- Clean and fill bird baths and feeders.
- Create a wildlife pile. Add woody cuttings such as autumn raspberry canes, and other material from around the garden. Place the pile out of the way and leave room to add to it. It will provide welcome shelter for a range of garden visitors.
- Create wormery. This is a great way to produce your own liquid fertiliser. A compact and attractive purpose-built wormery is a quick way of turning kitchen waste into something useful.
- Clean and sharpening tools and other equipment.
- Make a final check of seed stocks and ordering any that are missing.
- Tidy and cleaning the greenhouse.
- Repair garden structures, such as fences, sheds and pergolas.
From the potting shed...
Written by our plant department colleague, Chris Milborne who is based at our Great Amwell centre
A new month, in a new year, in the garden…
February weather can be tricky for gardeners. Winter is not yet over and spring seems to remain in the distance so it can be frustrating waiting to get out into the garden to prepare for the season ahead. As always the weather is the deciding factor but changes are happening! Snowdrops, Crocus, Hellebores, winter aconites, catkins and dainty flowered Primula (Primrose) all make an appearance.
This past autumn and winter has been extremely wet leaching goodness from the soil so late Feb will be a good time to replenish the soil with a good mulch of organic matter such as garden compost, well-rotted manure or bagged soil improver. Not only will this improve the soil but also help to suppress weed growth and help conserve moisture during the dry summer months.
Toward the end of Feb I notice weed seedlings starting to germinate and this is an indicator of warming soil conditions. I use this as a guide to start feeding trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials with fish, blood and bone which is a good balanced fertilizer for healthy roots, leaves, fruits and flowers. Roses benefit from a specific rose feed full of nutrients for good growth and flower colour. It is an exciting time in the Garden Centre because there are so many new product ranges arriving with new themes, colours and ideas. Seed stands are packed to bursting and ranges of summer bulbs, seed potatoes, onion sets, shallots and garlic are all available. It’s a perfect time to plan and prepare ahead for sowing and planting when spring finally arrives.
Providing soil conditions are ok, and not too waterlogged or frozen, now is a good time to plant a tree and there is a tree for any size of garden! These give height and depth to your outdoor space, some with interesting bark, provide shelter or home for birds and insects, improve air quality, give shade in summer and many will flower and produce fruit.
Beneath trees you can plant spring bulbs, shade loving herbaceous perennials and ferns plus grow annuals from seed that enjoy the dappled shade and shelter that trees provide. If space is limited you could grow patio fruit trees in tubs and containers. Apples, pears, cherries, plums and peach are all available. For small gardens consider ornamental flowering cherries grown on a semi-dwarf root stock. These produce a smaller more compact tree. Flowers range in colour from pure white to dark pink with single, semi-double or double flowers depending on the variety. They also provide stunning autumn leaf colour and are easy to grow.
For Foliage interest, leaf colour and shape, plus interesting bark, Japanese Acers cannot be beaten, especially for a sheltered, semi-shaded, position avoiding hot summer sun. Together with these plants creating a Japanese style garden could include Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Camellias, providing soil conditions are suitable.
Another group of trees for garden interest are Crab apples (Malus) with their wonderful spring flowers followed by brightly coloured fruit. High in pectin, these fruits are good for making into jams and jelly or can be left on the tree for winter feeding birds to enjoy.
Providing the ground isn’t too wet or frozen, now is a good time to create new flower beds and borders and prepare the ground for the new trees, shrubs, roses and herbaceous perennials, plus grasses and bulbs. Start by improving the soil by digging in some organic compost and if the soil is heavy clay add course grit to improve drainage. There is also a product called ‘Clay Breaker’ which can be useful.
Nothing tastes better than fresh vegetables and now is the time to plan and prepare where these are to be grown. Choose a good open sunny position. Even if space is limited fruit and vegetables can be grown amongst other shrubs or flowering plants. Last year I grew groups of dwarf purple beans and colourful ruby chard amongst yellow flowered Rudbeckias and orange flowered patio dahlias. This combination made an attractive summer display.
For areas already dug over cover with some cardboard or horticultural fleece to warm the soil for early veg sowing. Where runner beans, courgettes or squashes are to be grown dig a pit and fill with garden compost and veg peelings from the kitchen. Cover each layer with soil. By the time these plants are put in the bed, approximately the second week of May, the waste has rotted down providing a good moisture retentive soil for plants to relish in!
Onions, shallots and garlic should be planted out as early as possible but this year with the cold and wet weather, starting them off in modular trays could give them a better start. Pushing the sets into the compost and growing them on in a green house or cold frame will help them develop into strong healthy plants. When conditions improve harden them off and plant out. This strong start in life will help if birds try to dislodge bulbs from the soil later on. Broad beans and peas, also sown in modular trays or root trainers, grow into healthy specimens ready for planting out when the soil has warmed up from April onwards.
There are many different types of seed potatoes available: 1St early, 2nd early and main crop. Some are best for boiling, baking, mashing or chipping. Many seed potatoes have been developed for blight resistance. This particularly helps the allotment gardener where blight may be more prevalent, especially on main croppers. Although seed potatoes are not planted out until late March or early April they are started off at this time of the year in a process known as ‘chitting’. This just means encouraging them to produce sprouts before planting which results in an earlier crop (by approximately 4 weeks!) compared to seed potatoes that have been planted when dormant. Put the seed potatoes in a clean seed tray lined with paper or in egg boxes. Look for any dormant buds and place these facing upward and stand the box in a warm dry and bright position such as a window sill, frost free greenhouse or conservatory. In 5 to 6 weeks they will develop strong shoots approximately 2.5cams long (1 inch) ready for planting. If white spindly shoots start forming the position is too shady so place them in a brighter position.
It is a good time to prune shrub, hybrid teas, floribunda and climbing roses but not rambling roses as these are best pruned after flowering. Start by removing any dead, damaged or crossing stems. Weak growth and old woody stems may be reduced by a third. Always cut above a bud or leaf joint, ideally angled away from the bud or leaf joint, so rainfall doesn’t drip on to the new growth. Use clean & sharp secateurs. This will leave a nice open framework for new flowering shoots to grow. For climbing roses try to maintain a neat framework of horizontal growth. This will encourage shoots to develop along the stem from which the flowering growth will emerge. Once completed mulch with a good layer of compost and feed. Roses are hungry plants and the stronger they grow the less prone they will be to rust, black spot and mildew.
Some varieties of clematis will also benefit from a prune now. All old top growth may be removed from late flowering species, such as viticellas, taking them down to 30 cm (12 inches) above the soil. As a guide, at this time of year it is best to leave any clematis that flower before July rather than lose the flowers in the coming season.
Soon new shoots of herbaceous perennials will appear through the soil – a heartening sight at the end of winter! Now is the time to clean back all of the old dead growth from last year. Over the winter it has helped to protect the dormant growth from cold, but removing it now will make it easier to know where plants are growing, preventing accidental damage from hoeing or forking over the ground when planting bulbs – a spring clean rather than an autumn tidy.
It's also a good time to cut back and tidy grasses, although don’t cut back evergreen grasses – limit this to just removing any dead material. Don’t move or divide grasses now as this is best carried out later in the season when plants are actively growing.
Tubs and Containers
If your tubs and planted containers lack colour or you’d like to plant up a new container there are plenty of colourful plants available. Primroses, Polyanthus and Violas are available in many colours and for height consider Helleborus x hybridus as well as the colourful leaves of evergreens such as Nandinia (the sacred bamboo), Leucothoe and some ornamental grasses or evergreen ferns. Several winter flowering shrubs with highly scented flowers are good for containers. Good examples are Skimmia japonica, Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca hookeriana purple gem, Daphnes and Viburnums. Pots of bulbs ‘in the green’ can be dropped into the planters to fill any gaps. Snowdrops, crocus and dwarf daffodils providing a welcome colourful sight if planted in containers by your front door. With frosty weather some of the recently planted bedding might have been lifted up from the compost. If this is the case gently firm them back – they will soon regrow with warmer weather. Perhaps top dress with some fresh compost for an added boost. Other ideas for colourful seasonal planters include using winter flowing heathers, small conifers and hardy cyclamen.
Looking forward to the summer, plug plants are now available in a wide range of different types and colour combinations to grow on at home in a warm greenhouse or conservatory etc. Lily bulbs can also be planted. Three or five bulbs placed half way down a 30cm (12 inch) pot should be kept just damp. Don’t be tempted to overwater as this may risk rotting the bulbs. Keep these pots in a frost-free greenhouse and when you see strong growth emerging start to increase the watering. Stunning, scented flowers will fill your patio.
Dahlias provide interest from July to the frosts and the bright flowers, in variety of shapes and sizes, are available in all colours except blue. The Dahlia originates from Mexico and the original species had single lilac flowers. Once introduced into Europe in the 18th Century the single flowered species were cross-bred leading to the development of the many modern varieties. The tubers can either be planted directly in to the soil in March/April or potted up and individually grown in a frost-free greenhouse. If then planted out in mid-May as an established plant they will be less prone to slug and snail damage. I have found that this approach is best when growing patio Dahlias as the flowering season starts as soon as possible if the conditions allow. With a heated greenhouse several tubers may be fit into a seed tray and if they are just covered with compost will produce soft young shoots. This Dahlia growth can then be used for softwood cuttings. If these are rooted in a propagator, taking approximately 3 to 4 weeks, they may then be planted out in May once hardened off.
If the weather is miserable outside mid-Feb onwards is a good time to repot houseplants. This gives them an extra boost, especially if they have not been receiving regular feed. It is also a good time to move plants around. Finding new spots, perhaps with better light levels, often seems to refresh plants also creating new interest. Check over leaves, looking for any hidden pest and disease. Look out for brown edging to leaves which could indicate over/under watering or dry air. Perhaps trim some of the leaves allowing new growth.
You could create a mini-indoor garden in a glass container or terrarium. This form of growing perhaps started by accident when, in 1829, Dr Nathaniel Ward was studying the pupate of moths in a glass jar. He noticed that a fern growing in the compost thrived within weeks in this mini ecosystem. From these early beginnings developed the Wardian cases used to bring back plant specimens to botanic gardens from around the world, increasing their survival rates. Terrariums have now become popular again. Plants for the glass garden include Fittonias, Peperomia pilea, Fiscus pumila, small Calatheas, small ferns, Syngonium and Selaginella. Use stones and pieces of bark to complete the display. With open glass containers cacti and succulents are very easy to grow. To help look natural try adding stones and grit.
Don’t forget to keep feeding the birds and providing fresh water, especially during frosts and while natural food sources are depleted.