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.

January

There is a hawthorn in the boundary hedge of my garden. It is a scrubby affair, not much more than a bush really, but every mid-January the sun lingers just over the top of it before dipping down over the horizon across the fields. This is an important day because that light shines straight down the main garden path and catches the panes of my greenhouses reflecting the blaze of sunset. The garden is literally lit up for the first time since October. The January days gradually lengthen and hope creeps back into my world.

Throughout November and December I spend more time looking at the garden than working in it. This is no bad thing. Really looking hard as the leaves fall away and die back forms a kind of permanent image in your brain that can be clothed with plants throughout the rest of the year. But at some point looking is not enough. So in January I start gardening again in earnest.

The weather has quite a lot to do with how much actually gets done. Although December is the gloomiest month, January can be very cold, snowy or very wet. Snow and rain severely limit what can be done so I cross my fingers and hope for a period of cold, dry weather when the ground will be hard enough to push a wheelbarrow without sinking to the axle in mud and – the greatest luxury of all and the failsafe measure of good winter weather – I can walk outside without having to put on wellington boots.

Snowdrops, aconites, hellebores, catkins and most gloriously of all, the early irises are all coming into flower. The garden is coming alive again – and so am I.

What to do in the garden this month:

WINTER PRUNING OF FRUIT TREES

This is always my big January job and if nothing else this is something I like to have finished by the end of the month.

Try to understand how something grows before pruning. Does it flower on new or old wood? Does it grow new shoots in a great post-flowering burst or do they steadily emerge over the season? Does a fruit tree need to achieve a certain maturity to create spurs that bear fruit or will they be produced in the first year of growth? Does the plant heal well or is it, like cherries and plums, a bleeder – and if so when does it produce least sap? If in doubt about any of this – don’t cut. Wait. You will never do harm by not pruning and patience in a garden is a great virtue.

If you prune an apple tree hard each winter it will make a mass of new growth but no flowers – and therefore no fruit. This cycle is often perpetuated by even harder pruning the following year – to get rid of all that new, fruitless growth, which, having lots of lovely succulent sap, will attract aphids and fungal disease. So through over-zealous and mistimed pruning people often ruin their fruit trees.

If you wish to curtail growth you leave the pruning to summer – July is ideal – when the foliage is fully grown and before the roots start to store food for winter. Do not prune plums, apricots, peaches or cherries (these should be pruned in late Spring and only if absolutely necessary).

APPLES AND PEARS

The idea is to produce a tree that has plenty of light and air reaching the centre. I do this by imagining a pigeon flying straight at the tree and pruning it so it can fly right through it from any angle. In principle you are trying to make a goblet-shape or a cupped hand with the fingers making the branches around the empty palm.

Start by removing any crossing or rubbing branches. Cut back any overlong or straggly branches to a bud to promote vigorous multi-stemmed regrowth. Keep standing back and reviewing the shape so that it both looks handsome and retains a strong, open structure. Always use very sharp secateurs, loppers and saws and never strain – always use an implement that is working well within its capacity. That way you retain control and risk least damage to the tree – and yourself. Traditional advice was to paint any large wounds made by pruning but current thinking is that this does more harm than good as it seals in moisture and disease. By far the best course is to leave a clean cut and let it heal over itself.

TRAINED FRUIT (CORDONS,ESPALIERS,FANS)

You must be counter intuitive with these. Remember that the harder you cut, the stronger the regrowth – so cut back any weak growth in winter to encourage vigorous new shoots in Spring. You must then prune again in July to restrict growth.

PRUNING SOFT FRUIT

Cut back autumn fruiting raspberries to the ground, removing all of last year’s canes. Cut away all crossing and inward growing growth from Redcurrants and Gooseberries to create an open goblet shape. Reduce remaining growth by a third to create a strong framework of branches.

I always take a few cuttings from the pruned material of Gooseberries and Redcurrants because they strike very easily and it means I can constantly add new, vigorous plants to replace the older ones. Simply select a nice straight shoot and divide it into lengths between 4 & 9 inches (10 & 20cm) long. Cut the top of each section at an angle and the bottom straight so that you remember which way up they should be.

Place the cuttings around the edge of a pot filled with a gritty compost mix, burying them deeply so that only an inch or so is above the surface. Water them and put them in a sheltered place. They will not need any extra heat or protection and will take a few months to show signs of growth – which will be the indication that roots have formed. They will be ready to pot into individual pots by mid-summer and to plant out next winter.

ONION SETS AND SEEDS

The advantage of growing onions by seed is that there are so many varieties to choose from. However it is much easier – and more common – to grow them from sets, which are small bulbs. If the ground is dry enough these can be planted now about 9 inches apart in rows with the tips sticking out of the soil. However if it is too wet, I suggest planting a batch in plugs in ordinary peat-free compost and protecting them in a greenhouse or cool windowsill where they will establish shoots and roots. Harden them off for at least a week outside before planting out when the soil is dry enough for them.

SOWING CHILLIES

Chillies are always the first seeds that I sow in the new year. They can be slow to germinate and certainly need some heat, either on a heated bench or on a windowsill above a radiator. Because of this I tend to sow them in seed trays rather than plugs and then transplant them to plugs as soon as the seedlings develop true leaves, potting them on again in March and then to their final terracotta pots in May.

The secret of successful chilli growing – other than plenty of light and heat – is to allow each plant as much time and opportunity to become big and bushy, feeding it weekly with a high nitrogen fertiliser (I use home-made liquid nettle feed) until the first flower buds start to appear in June and then switching to a high potash feed (liquid seaweed or homemade comfrey feed are both ideal) to stimulate as many flowers and subsequent fruits as possible on what by now should be a large plant.

Chillies need plenty of water but hate being waterlogged, so use a free-draining compost and never water them after 5pm to avoid the risk of them sitting overnight in soggy compost.

CHOOSE & ORDER SEEDS

Growing from seed is the cheapest way to fill your garden with colour and delicious vegetables and deeply satisfying and New Year is the time to start ordering seeds.
Do not rush this. Check websites and catalogues, draw up wish lists and plan where you are going to plant the seedlings before you make your order. There is no hurry. As long as the seeds are ordered this month it will leave you plenty of time to sow and raise them.

There have never been so many opportunities for buying seeds as there are now with a huge range via the internet and mail order catalogues. It is worth spending a little time comparing options and selecting new varieties and you can find organically raised seeds, seeds mass produced, local seeds and seeds from across the world. One word of caution – check how many seeds are supplied per packet – often the best value comes with slightly larger quantities per packet.

EMERGENCY JOB

It is not too late to plant tulips – but you really do need to get on with it. Tulips planted now might flower a little later than those planted in November but they will make a perfectly good display. If intending to leave them in the ground plant as deeply as you can – at least 4 inches. But if you just want a good show this year they can be popped an inch or two in the topsoil and will be fine for this Spring. When planting in a container make sure that they have good drainage because although they are completely hardy to cold, the biggest enemy is rotting in damp soil. But this is a job to do by the middle of the month at the latest.

POTTING COMPOST

Many gardeners will have noticed that a self-sown seedling will grow much healthier than one carefully raised under glass and then transplanted to exactly the same part of the border. This is because the seedling starts that complex relationship with the soil from the outset rather than having to establish it after it has been transplanted.
What does this mean for us gardeners?

The first is to take the old-fashioned option where possible and sow seeds into a seed bed, transplanting the seeds with a clump of moist soil around the roots. Another way of achieving the same effect is to sow directly where the plants are to mature. This is not always possible, especially with plants that are tender or slow to grow. The seedlings must be sown and raised in potting compost and then transplanted at a later, suitable date. This is where I think it is worth taking care with the choice of compost.

The first thing is to avoid peat. As a growing medium peat has many virtues. It retains moisture well yet drains freely. It is cheap. But none of this justifies the loss of peat bogs caused by extraction for horticultural use. We are using peat at around 200 times the speed that it can reform and over 95% of British peat bogs, which are essential for a whole range of birds and plants, have been lost this century. It cannot ever be justified. Composted bark works very well in most cases. Composted bracken makes an excellent ericaceous alternative, as does composted pine needles. All three are widely available.

No potting compost can match the complexity and range of micro-organisms in the soil that are essential to long-term plant health. But you can try and make your potting compost as good as possible by mixing in extra goodness and improving the drainage and ease of root development. I start with a measure of my own garden soil. This should always come from your own garden as it will have its own specific ecosystem. Also keep a supply of well-sieved garden compost in a bag and add a shovel or two to each mix. Finally invest in some bags of horticultural grit and add this liberally to ensure good drainage and a free root-run for the growing plants.

There will be a few weeds that appear but they are very easy to remove. Most importantly your plants will be healthy and specifically adapted for your soil from the first day. It is important to always use fresh potting compost for every new planting as even though used compost might look perfectly good, most if not all of the nutrients will have been used up. Recycle the used compost by spreading it on a border or your compost heap.