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.

October

October is a yellow month, with the Field maples, hawthorns and above all elm hedgerows blazing brilliant yellow before falling.  It is an earthy time with the smells of fruit, wormcasts, fallen leaves and woodsmoke sifting through the afternoon air.

There comes a moment in October when you realise that the garden is running out of steam. I like the way that the season can shift almost overnight in October with soft days glowing with light and midday sun warm enough for shirtsleeves and then blasts of weather that send you huddling for warmth and shelter.

However good the weather, you cannot avoid the evidence that the garden is drifting steadily into winter. Every sunny day is borrowed. The light – although often the softest and most golden of the whole year – is slipping away.

Every second of light is precious because finally, on the last weekend of the month, the clocks change and a door closes tight until next spring.

Despite the way that light, colour and human and plant energy are all on the wane, it is time to take stock and to plan ahead. It is not so much a time to put the garden to bed but to gently prepare it for action. The more that you can get done between now and Christmas to prepare the garden for Spring, the better it will be for you and the garden.

AUTUMNAL BIRDLIFE AT LONGMEADOW

The whole relationship between the garden and birds changes as soon as the leaves start to drop. For a start they are more visible. They crowd the branches as a series of shapes rather than sound then the outline of a small tree will suddenly fragment as a flurry of birds leave scared away from grabbing berries whilst they can.

It makes you aware of how present the soft midsummer sound of unseen birdsong is, how important an element in any garden. Winter bird sound is much harsher, a series of warnings rather than melodious love songs. Occasionally a Robin will astonish the afternoon with a clear burst of song, but a November afternoon in this garden tends to shuffle with staccato bird sound, like overhearing an argument in another room.

You know when winter is round the corner when the Fieldfares and Redwings arrive from their summer quarters in Siberia. They are heralds of the season just as surely as summer is certified by the first swallow. But the swallows arrive with a kind of soaring familiarity, reforming intimacy with the garden and the precise details of the house like a child returning home after weeks away. Fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) on the other hand are a curious mixture of awkward truculence and shyness. They look like large thrushes with handsome grey head, chestnut back, black tail and spotted underparts but are always seen in flocks, whereas the resident song thrushes are much shyer, more solitary birds – and have a much sweeter song.

Fieldfares rise in a clucking, chattering cloud if you so much as appear within their sight and yet are always pushing aggressively forward as soon as they think your back is turned. Everything about them is harsh and jerky. Yet I like them. They are of the season. They like the apples left in the orchard best of all and will fiercely defend a tree with windfalls from other birds. They also do a lot of good for the gardener, eating snails, leatherjackets and caterpillars.

The other winter thrush, the Redwing, is smaller, daintier and less intrusive. Whereas the fieldfare has an instantly recognisable mauvey grey head, the Redwing is only really distinguishable from a song thrush in flight when the red flash under the wing is very visible – although its tendency to flock, like the fieldfare, is also a giveaway. In the dead of the country night, in an otherwise silent pitch blackness I sometimes hear their thin rather ghostly flight calls as they fly overhead.

What to do in the garden this month:

SCARIFY LAWNS

A bit of work on your lawns now will be repaid many times next spring. Start by raking it hard with a spring-tine wire rake. This will remove a surprising amount of thatch and moss which can be put on the compost heap. Do not worry about bare patches – if large a little seed can be sprinkled on them but otherwise they will fill naturally.

Then aerate it to remove compaction. On a small patch, a fork thrust in as deep as possible every 9-12 inches will do the trick but you can hire aerating machines for a larger lawn that remove small plugs of soil.

When you have finished, brush any plugs or loose soil across the surface and if it is very compacted, also brush sharp sand into the holes you have made. Don’t worry if it looks rough –  it will quickly recover in time to face whatever winter can offer and start next spring in the best possible condition.

•   If you do not already posses them, invest in horticultural fleece and some cloches. The point is that these are only useful if you have and employ them before you need them and there is no guarantee that there will not be a hard frost in October. Cloches are very good for rows of vegetables, keeping them dry as well as warm (although I always leave the ends open – happy to trade some heat for some ventilation) and fleece is the best temporary protection against frost, either laid out over small plants or draped over shrubs and bushes.

•   Keep deadheading throughout October, particularly the equatorial plants like dahlias. This will extend their flowering season and squeeze the last bloom from them.

•   Save yourself a fortune by collecting seeds from perennial plants, using paper (not polythene) bags. Always label seed packets immediately. Store in a cool, dry place until ready for sowing.

•   It is not too late to take cuttings and there is no more satisfying process in the garden if it is successful. Choose healthy non-flowering growth, use a sharp knife and very free draining compost (I use 50:50 sharp sand and sieved leaf mould) and keep the humidity high. Most things will strike now and overwinter successfully without needing potting on.

•   It is worth taking trouble to store the fruit so that it lasts as long as possible. Only store perfect apples, which discounts nearly all windfalls. A cellar is ideal or a cool garage, but polythene bags, folded not tied and punctured with pencil holes work very well. Put the bags somewhere cool, dark and dry.

•   You can plant or move deciduous trees, shrubs and hedges even if they are still in leaf as they have finished growing and the soil is still warm so the roots will begin to grow immediately. I once moved a 4 year-old, 20 metre long hornbeam hedge in October. It never batted an eyelid and grew away the following spring stronger than ever. It is essential, of course, to give them a really good soak when you do so and to repeat this weekly until the ground is really wet or the leaves have fallen. But if you are planting or moving a number of trees or shrubs  It is best to start with any evergreens before deciduous plants as they need to maximise root growth before winter kicks in.

•   Plant or move biennials such as forget-me-nots, wallflowers, foxgloves, onorpordums and mulleins. Dig up healthy Verbena bonariensis, cut back and pot up to use to take cuttings next spring and take cuttings of penstemons and salvias.

•  Continue planting spring bulbs but wait another month for tulips.

SOW SWEET PEAS

By sowing sweet peas in October you will have bigger plants with a stronger root system that should give flowers next spring earlier and last longer. But the disadvantage is that these young plants will need storing and some protection over winter if the weather is bad. So I sow some now and another batch in February and spread the risk.

I sow three seeds in a three-inch pot although root-trainers also do the job very well. Use a good potting rather than seed compost. Put them to germinate on a windowsill or greenhouse and once the first leaves have grown, place outside in a cold frame or protected spot. They only need protection from hard frosts, mice and becoming sodden, so do not provide any extra heat. They will be ready to plant out in April.

•   Cut back and compost all rotting foliage in the borders but leave as much winter structure as possible.

•   Start digging any ground that you want to replant this winter or use next spring. Doing it at this time of year means that it is accessible, dry and there is more daylight to do it in! But if this seems daunting do 30 minutes a week in two 15-minute sessions. Leave the soil in large slabs for the weather to break down over winter.

•   If you have raised beds – and if not October is an ideal month for making them – mulch them with an inch or so of garden compost as they become clear, leaving the worms to work it in ready for sowing or planting next spring.

•   Unless the weather is bad, most leaves do not start falling until November but gather them all and store every last one – nothing makes for a better soil conditioner or potting medium. If you do not have somewhere to store them sort this out early in the month. A simple bay made from four posts and chicken wire is ideal.

•   Sow ‘Aquadulce’ broad beans outside for an early harvest next May or June and sow sweet peas in pots and over-winter in a cold frame.

•   Keep cutting the grass for as long as it keeps growing, however it is better to have the grass too long than too short over the winter months. Rake out thatch and moss and add to the compost heap.

•   Cut off any hellebore leaves that are obviously diseased and mulch around spring-flowering perennials with a 50:50 mix of last year’s leaf mould and garden compost.

PRUNE CLIMBING ROSES

Climbing roses flower on shoots grown the same spring so they can be pruned hard now. (Rambling roses on the other hand produce their flowers on shoots grown the previous summer so should only be pruned immediately after flowering.) Start by removing any damaged or crossing growth or any very old wood which can be pruned right back to the ground. The main stems should be fanned out at an equidistance as horizontally as possible, tying them to wires or a trellis. Then all the side shoots growing from these main stems – which produced this year’s flowers – can be reduced to a short stub of a couple of leaves. The effect should be a tracery of largely horizontal growth with pruned side-shoots running along their length. Finally make sure it is all tied firmly in to avoid winter damage

•   We give our deciduous hedges – hornbeam, hawthorn and field maple – a light trim in October which keeps them crisp right through the winter and looks really good when everything else has sunk into decline.

Finally, and most importantly, get outside and relish every second of October sun. It will be a long time gone.