February

I know that many people find February a difficult month. Winter had gone on too long and Spring seems too far. But I like February. I like the way that it opens out and releases the valves for Spring. I like the way that the days reach out, stretching, limbering up.

February is the month of small but powerful things. Catkins, snowdrops, aconites, crocus, hellebores, violets, primroses, all resist snow, ice and scything east winds to blaze with jewel-like intensity. There is something entirely hopeful and brave about these harbingers of Spring that fills me full of cheer and whets my horticultural edge. If they can feel Spring around the corner, then so can I.

There is an urgency to finish the planting of any deciduous trees and shrubs and the pruning of those already established. I also start to sow in earnest, beginning with the seeds of hardier vegetables like beetroot, spinach and winter lettuce varieties in plugs and seed trays so they can germinate and grow into strong seedlings in the protection of the greenhouse, before being hardened off and planted outside when the soil warms up in March or April.

If it is not too wet or too frozen I will try and complete the mulching of the borders as well. Whereas up to Christmas I have a strong sense of laying the garden to rest for winter, all February work is about setting things ready for what is to come and feels like the household preparations for a party.

What to do in the garden this month:

BARE ROOT PLANTS

Most people buy all their plants in a container from a garden centre. But woody plants such as trees and shrubs of all kinds can be bought ‘bare-root’. This means that they are raised in the ground and only lifted just before delivery. They will arrive with the roots wrapped in a bag of some kind but with no soil around them. I always try and buy bare-root trees and shrubs if I can.

The advantages of these bare root plants for the gardener, is that they are invariably cheaper, usually better quality and there is always a much wider range of types and varieties of bare root plants to choose from as opposed to containerised ones. They also are more likely to get established and grow quicker in your garden than container grown ones.

The only disadvantage is that, unlike a tree in a pot, you cannot put it to one side and plant it whenever you have the time or inclination. As soon as it arrives it should be placed in a bucket of water for an hour to give it a drink. Then either plant it immediately, taking it straight from the water to the planting hole so the roots do not dry out even for an instant, or heel it in until you are ready.

‘Heeling in’ means digging a trench or hole in a spare piece of soil (usually the veg patch) and, without any of the finesse of actual planting, burying the roots to protect them. It is best to put trees in at 45 degrees so they are not rocked by wind and if you have a number of hedging plants or young trees they will come in a bundle. This should be un-tied and the plants placed individually but closely spaced so the roots do not get entangled as they grow if they are left for a while (and I have left such plants heeled in for more than a year with no apparent ill-effects).

CHIT POTATOES

Leave potatoes at this time of year in the dark and they start to sprout long translucent, brittle shoots. But put them in a frost-free, brightly lit place and they slowly develop knobbly green or purple shoots which are ready to grow quickly when placed in the soil. This process is called chitting. Whilst chitting is not necessary for maincrop varieties, First or Second earlies benefit from being chitted by being ready to harvest at least a week, if not two, earlier than those planted unchitted – and an early harvest is always desirable for new potatoes and has the advantage of increasing the opportunities to lift the tubers before the risk of blight.

Put the seed potatoes in a seed tray or egg box, placing each one upright to encourage a tuber to grow from the end. Place them in a sunny, frost-free place such as a cool windowsill for 4-8 weeks so that when you are ready to plant them – usually around Easter – they will grow away fast.

SOW TOMATOES

It is a good idea to stagger the sowing of tomatoes because a lot will depend upon the unknowable weather we will get in Spring and Summer – so having two or even three batches of plants covers most bases. Scattering the seed thinly on the surface of peat-free compost in a seed tray and then very lightly covering them either with a layer of more compost or of vermiculite. Water them well and put them in a warm spot to germinate. A window sill is fine.

When the seedlings emerge make sure that they have as much light as possible and when they develop their first pair of ‘true’ leaves – that is to say leaves, however small, that are recognisably a tomato rather than the ones that grow initially – you know that they have roots and should be pricked out into better compost and individual pots or plugs to grow on into young plants ready to plant out into a greenhouse in May. I make a second sowing in a month’s time which will be better for outdoor plants.

SOW SALAD SEEDS

The increasing light levels in February mean that salad crops planted in a greenhouse in Autumn offer a generous supply of fresh leaves every day. Rocket, Mizuna, lettuces like Winter Density and Rouge D’hiver all survive the winter with a little protection (I always grow them in an unheated greenhouse) and then start to grow very strongly. I sow another batch of seed in early February which will be ready to replace this batch of plants in mid-March.

At the same time I sow broad beans under cover in pots or root trainers so they can be planted out into a raised bed as healthy plants in early April. Raised beds do (or should) not need digging in winter but a top-dressing of an inch or two of garden compost spread over them will incorporate into the soil over the coming month or so whilst the soil warms up sufficiently to sow direct.

PRUNING

By mid-February all the late winter/early spring pruning of climbers and shrubs can begin and continue until the middle of March. I practice this, focussing mainly around roses, clematis and shrubs such as buddleia.

Roses

There is no mystery to pruning roses and there is practically nothing you can do that the plant will not recover from. So relax and enjoy it! The only rules are to use sharp secateurs or loppers so the cuts are never forced and to try and cut just above a bud or leaf and don’t worry if it is outward facing or not. Any bud will do.

First remove all damaged or crossing stems. Then cut back hard any stems that look too weak to support their own weight. Finally remove any old, woody stems that are crowding the shrub by cutting right down to their base. Most shrub roses do not need any other pruning but can be reduced by a third to encourage early budding and a more compact shape. Hybrid teas, Floribundas and China roses follow the same sort of remedial treatment and then have all remaining healthy shoots cut back by two thirds to leave a basic framework from which the new flowering shoots will grow.

Climbing roses should be pruned to maintain a framework of long stems trained as laterally as possible with side branches breaking vertically all the way along them. These side branches will carry the flowers on new growth produced in Spring so can all be pruned back to a healthy bud – leaving no more than a couple of inches of growth.

Ramblers differ from climbers, which tend to have large flowers, often appearing more than once in the summer and on, some continuously for months – Ramblers have clusters of smaller flowers that invariably flower just once in mid-summer. These include ‘Bobbie James’, ‘Rambling Rector,’ and ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’. These need little pruning at all and never in winter or spring as the flowers are carried mostly on stems grown in late summer. Any pruning to train or restrict them should be done after flowering.

Clematis

The simplest rule is ‘if it flowers before June, do not prune’. So for early flowerers like C. montana, C.alpina or C.armandii, do not prune at all save to tidy their sprawl after they have finished flowering. Clematis with large flowers like ‘Marie Boisselot’ or ‘Nelly Moser’ should be cut back by about a third.

The late flowering clematis (i.e. flowering after Midsummer’s day, June 24th) such as C. viticella or C. jackmanii, produce all their flower buds on new shoots which are beginning to become visible now. If you leave them unpruned you end up with a mass of old, brown growth at the base of the plant and all the flowers at the top. So now is the time to cut them back hard. You cut right down to the bottom decent-sized bud although I like to leave a foot or two as an insurance against further really bad weather. In any event you can be very drastic, reducing a large clematis like C. rhederiana from 20 plus feet of thick growth to a few twigs. However this will ensure healthy flowering later in the summer from low down on the plant right to the top.

When you have cleared away the prunings, mulch the clematis very thickly with whatever organic material you have, this will feed the growing plant but more critically, help conserve moisture as clematis hate dry conditions. And if you are not sure what your clematis is (or whether your rose is a climber or a rambler) then leave it, let it flower and make a note for next year.

SHRUBS

Spring flowering shrubs such as Philadelphus, Deutzia, Weigela and Rubus all produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should not be pruned until after they have finished flowering.

However shrubs such as Buddleia, Cornus, Salix, Spiraea, deciduous Ceonothus, Fuchsia fulgens and Magallinica, all flower on new wood, so can all be cut hard back very hard just like late-flowering clematis. The harder they are cut, the more they will flower.

FORCING RHUBARB

One of my breakfast treats at this time of year is stewed rhubarb and yoghurt. No combination has a cleaner, sharper and yet hauntingly sweet taste that is guaranteed to brighten the sleepiest head and set you up for the rigours of the day ahead.

I grow a number of different varieties that provide a staggered harvest from the first fragile shoots that we pick to eat at Christmas to the last harvest at the beginning of July. Early and extra sweet rhubarb can be forced by excluding all light from the plant which in turn suppresses leaf growth down to a yellow flame at the end of a long pale pink stem whose sugars are greatly increased as a result. I tend to use ‘Timperly Early’ for this early harvest and it is, as the name suggests, an excellent early forcing variety. But if you do force rhubarb by blocking all light with an old chimney pot, or, if you are fortunate to find one, a proper terracotta rhubarb forcer with a lid, the later growth will be weakened so I suggest rotating the plants yearly for forcing duty to allow them to replenish their energy.

CHECK SUPPORTS

This is not a glamorous job but an important one. Go around your garden checking all supports, wires, ties and structures that will be carrying climbing plants this year. Any that are damaged or a bit ropey should be repaired or replaced now before they need to be used and before new growth begins that might be damaged by such repair work or even your heavy footwork in a border.

February

February at Longmeadow is a busy month. The weather can still be very wintry but we take every opportunity to finish the winter jobs and to prepare for spring. All over the garden there are signs of new life appearing every day – modest at first with snowdrops, aconites and crocus all at their best, but as the month progresses the Spring garden fills with hellebores, pulmonaria, daffodils and vigorous growth from the later flowering bulbs such as tulips, cammassias, alliums and fritillaries.

The soil is still cold however so all our sowing is done indoors, growing seedlings on so they are ready to plant out as soon as the ground warms up.

SOW TOMATOES

I like to sow tomatoes in two batches, the first now and another in a month’s time, both to stagger the harvest and as an insurance against bad weather, scattering the seed thinly on the surface of peat-free compost in a seed tray and then very lightly covering them either with a layer of more compost or of vermiculite. Water them well and put them in a warm spot to germinate.

When the seedlings emerge make sure that they have as much light as possible and when they develop their first pair of ‘true’ leaves – that is to say leaves, however small, that are recognisably a tomato rather than the ones that grow initially – you know that they have roots, and should be pricked out into better compost and individual pots or plugs to grow on into young plants ready to plant out in May.

PRUNE LATE FLOWERING CLEMATIS

The late flowering clematis (categorised as Group 3) such as C. viticella or C. jackmanii produce their flower buds on new shoots. This means that none of the remaining stems left from last year will carry any flowers at all. Now is the time to remove the whole lot of it. You cut right down to the bottom decent sized bud (and if you are in the north of the country you may have delay this for a few weeks until such buds are visible), although I like to leave a foot or two as an insurance against further really bad weather. In any event you can be very drastic, reducing a large clematis like C. rehderiana from 20 plus feet of thick growth to a few twigs. However this will ensure healthy flowering later in the summer from low down on the plant right to the top. When you have cleared away the prunings, mulch the clematis very thickly. Garden compost is ideal, but anything is better than nothing because the worst thing for a clematis is to become too dry.

PRUNE BUDDLEIAS

If you live in the south or a sheltered area now is the best time to prune the Butterfly bush, Buddleia davidii, and it can be done any time in the coming month in colder areas. It produces its flowers on new growth so if it is cut back hard new, just before it begins growing, you will both stimulate extra new shoots and make sure that the shrub has as high a proportion of flower to wood as possible.

If your buddleia is growing in the open it can be cut back very hard indeed, leaving just two or three sets of new shoots from the base. If it is growing in a border it is better to cut back to two or three feet from the ground so that the new growth does not have to compete with surrounding herbaceous plants for light and air.

If you cut the pruned stems into short lengths they can be placed as a bundle in a corner to make excellent cover for insects and small mammals and thus add to the wildlife in your garden.

CHECK TIES & SUPPORTS

This is not a glamorous job but an important one. Go round your garden checking all supports, wires, ties and structures that will be carrying climbing plants this year. Any that are damaged or a bit ropey should be repaired or replaced now before they need to be used and before new growth begins that might be damaged by such repair work or even your heavy footwork in a border…

PLANT DECIDUOUS HEDGES

This is a job few of us do every year but most of us will do at least once in our gardens and now is the time to get it done. The ground has been very wet but ideally these should all be planted by the end of this month. Prepare the ground well by digging a trench at least 1 metre wide but only a single spade’s depth. Remove every trace of perennial weeds. Loosen the bottom of the trench by digging it with a fork. Do not add any compost or manure at this stage. Plant the hedging plants carefully, firming the excavated soil around the roots, either as a single or staggered row but resist spacing them too close together, as you will get a thicker hedge from strong plants. Water very well and then mulch all bare soil thickly with compost, well-rotted manure or chips and keep it mulched for the next three years to suppress all weeds and retain moisture. By then the hedge should be growing strongly and can have its first trim.

SOW ROCKET

Rocket is deliciously peppery and succulent and makes a delicious early spring salad leaf. Now is the best time to sow it as it germinates very fast and will grow in relatively cool weather whereas most lettuce needs warmer conditions to grow well.

Either sow directly where the crops are to grow or into plugs that can be germinated under cover and planted out when the seedlings are growing strongly. In both cases leave plenty of room – 6-9 inches – between individual plants. This will help them develop a strong root system which will produce stronger growth and a much greater number of leaves to harvest. The leaves are best cut as needed and will rapidly regrow as a result.

Another advantage of sowing rocket at this time of year is that it avoids flea beetle – which will leave a rocket leaf pinpricked with scores of tiny holes, each one of which callouses and makes the leaves tough to eat.

ROSE PRUNING

I once asked a veteran rose grower when he thought the perfect time to prune roses. “When the crocuses are in flower,” he answered. So mid-February to mid-March is ideal.

In principle rose pruning is easy and unfussy and can be done perfectly well with garden shears to create a neat, even shape. However it is worth bearing in mind the following:

Most shrub roses flower on new growth – so there will be very few flowers on the shrub as you see it now.

Remove any crossing or crowded stems and if in doubt where to cut you will do no harm to remove these right back down to the lowest visible bud.

Cut the weakest growth hardest. Most roses flower on new growth so the harder you cut, the stronger the new growth – and the more flowers you will have.

Don’t worry too much about cutting above an outward-facing bud – it really does not make much difference.

It is important to let light and air into a rose bush so try and leave it as an open, well-spaced set of branches with plenty of air in its centre.

PLANT ROSES

Why not plant a red, red rose on Valentine’s day? In fact: why not plant a rose of any colour you fancy this Valentine’s Day?

Dig a hole that is wide rather than deep and remove every scrap of weed. There is no need to add compost to the planting hole, but I do advise using mycorrhizal fungi to aid fast root development. Sprinkle the powder on the surface of the planting hole and do not cover as it is important that it makes direct contact with the roots.

Planting height is quite important for roses and like clematis, it is better to plant them deeper than most shrubs. I aim to have the point on the stem where the rootstock and top are grafted fully buried so that when the soil is back-filled just the branches are sticking out of the ground. This will secure it firmly and also reduce suckering.

Water it in really well and then prune all weak shoots back hard to encourage fresh, strong new growth. Finally, give your Valentine rose a generous mulch with garden compost or well-rotted manure.

DIVIDING AND SPREADING SNOWDROPS

Now, just as they finish flowering, is the perfect time to plan next year’s snowdrops. Snowdrops spread much better ‘in the green’ – i.e. when they are still growing and flowering – and you can expect a 100% survival rate using this method whereas they are notoriously tricky to grow from bulbs. Take your largest clumps and carefully dig them up, replacing or leaving half. Split the remainder into cup-sized clumps and replant in a new position, ideally in light shade, having first forked in some garden compost. Water them in well.

CHITTING POTATOES

Potatoes grow from sprouts that emerge in spring from the tubers and we are all familiar with transparent sprouts emerging from potatoes stored in the dark at this time of year. But if seed potatoes are exposed to light now the new sprouts will be knobbly and dark green.

When these ‘chitted’ potatoes are planted they are primed to grow away extra quickly. This is s especially beneficial for first earlies or maincrop varieties grown where blight is likely.

Place the seed potatoes in a seed tray or egg box and put somewhere bright, cool but frost free. The knobbly shoots will start to appear after a few weeks and can then be left until the soil is warm enough for planting.

SOW BROAD BEANS

If the ground is at all workable then I always try and sow some broad beans in February for an early crop. As soon as the soil warms up a little and the days get longer they will have had enough of a start to provide a picking a week or so earlier than the later ones – and that is a treat worth preparing for. Broad beans are legumes and although they add nitrogen to the soil they do best in ground that has had plenty of organic material added to it.

Sow the bean seed about 8 inches apart in double rows with about a foot or so between the lines and plenty of space – ideally about 3 ft  -between these double rows. You can draw a drill and place the beans in it and then cover them back over or, as I do, simply push each bean directly into the prepared soil. The best variety to use for these early beans is ‘Aquadulce’ although ‘Witkiem’ does well too.