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.

January

December Nigel in snow

LAST MINUTE TULIPS

It is not too late to plant tulips either if you still have some bulbs unplanted or if you have not got round to it yet. 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. This is a job to do by Jan 15th!

December snow bench

SOW CHILLIES

Chilies need a long growing season, so the sooner in the year they are sown the greater the chance of a strong plant developing and therefore the more fruits it can carry. Sprinkle the seed thinly in a general purpose compost either in seed trays or pots and put them in a warm place – ideally on a heated mat or in a propagator as they need at least 20 degrees to germinate. This will take a few weeks and the seedlings will grow slowly but as soon as they are big enough to handle transplant the seedlings to individual pots. They benefit from a weekly nitrogen feed (home-made nettle feed is ideal) to encourage strong, bushy plants. They will be ready to pot on or plant out in mid-May, at which point the feed should become high in Potassium (such as seaweed or home-made comfrey feed) to encourage the formation of flowers and subsequent fruit.

January orchard

PRUNING APPLES AND PEARS

Winter pruning of fruit trees is something that can be done even in bad weather and should be done by the end of February. Stand back and take a good look before you begin cutting and focus on three results.

  1. The first is to clear away any damaged, straggly or crossing branches. Do all these first and then take another good look before starting on the second task.
  2. Start to prune, bearing in mind that the aim is to stimulate more vigorous growth this coming spring. Pruning in winter will always result in increased, bushier, growth whereas pruning in summer will restrict growth – so bear this in mind when you cut.
  3. Finally, apples and pears do best with lots of light and air reaching the fruit, so think of this too, creating an open, airy framework which will also improve ventilation and reduce the risk of fungal problems.

Remember that lots of new growth will sprout in spring from where you make your cuts – none of which will carry any fruit for a couple of years or more. So factor that in.

December thick snow

CHOOSE & ORDER SEEDS

Growing from seed is the cheapest way to fill your garden with colour and delicious vegetables and deeply satisfying and it is time to start ordering seeds so sowing can begin next month.

There has 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.

December snowy cones fish eye

PLANTING DECIDUOUS HEDGES

Although the weather might make gardening a hostile experience, do take any opportunity to get deciduous hedges planted as soon as possible – certainly by the end of next month so that their roots are in the soil when they start to grow in March. Evergreen hedges can wait until April.

Prepare the ground by removing all weeds and large stones and dig it over thoroughly to the depth of a spade.

Do not add compost or manure to the soil beneath the plants. This will only encourage the growing roots to stay in the planting hole whereas the quicker they grow into the surrounding soil the healthier they will be.

Buy small plants which will establish much faster than larger ones, and resist the temptation to plant too close together.

Water them in well and then mulch generously with compost. Keep the young hedge weed free for a couple of feet either side and mulch annually with a thick layer or compost or bark until it has reached the height you wish and water in dry weather for the first year.

December snowy cones bw

CARING FOR POINSETTIAS

Many of us will have been given a poinsettia for Christmas and with a little care these can be made to last looking good for months and even be recycled to perform next Christmas.

Poinsettias do not like cool nights or big fluctuations in temperatures, so keep them where the average temperature is warmest, avoiding draughts, cold windows or even very bright spots that can get extra hot in the middle of the day even in January.

They like plenty of water but let the compost dry out before giving them a really good soak, watering the pot with a saucer beneath it and leaving it to stand for half an hour or so before removing the saucer and letting the excess water drain from the pot.

If you want to make it perform for next Christmas you need to prune it down to about 4 inches above the pot after the leaves fall off, sometime in February or March. Then put in a mild, shady spot and keep it dry until May when it should be repotted and kept as warm and humid as possible. At the end of September it must be provided with complete darkness for 14 hours a day for 8 weeks. Then it is bought into the light and watered and as a result it will produce its bright red bracts.

Or you could just buy another one…

December

December hedges

CUT BACK HELLEBORE LEAVES

The Lenten Rose, helleborus orientalis is putting up new shoots now. However the old foliage is still looking very healthy and robust. But it can be hard to appreciate the flowers if they are smothered or even partially obscured by these leaves left over from last year. So I always make a pass of my hellebores just before Christmas, cutting off all leaves that are marked with chocolate splodges, which is a sign of hellebore leaf spot to reduce its spread. I also cut off any leaves have fallen back past 45 degrees, removing them right at the base of the plant. This lets in light and air to the emerging flower shoots which will appear before the new foliage. Hellebore leaves are very leathery and slow to compost so I burn them – and especially so for any affected with leaf spot.

I repeat this process in about a month’s time, removing all remaining old foliage so that the flowers can be fully enjoyed in all their February glory.

December fern

CHRISTMAS TREES

Whatever type of Christmas tree you choose, place it in moist soil, sand or a bucket of water, even if it does not have roots as the cut stem will still take up moisture rather as a cut flower does in a vase. These trees have evolved to be cold in winter so to delay the shedding of needles place it somewhere as cool as possible and never next to a radiator.

If you do buy a Christmas tree with roots intending to  plant it outside in the new year, it is doubly important to keep it moist and cool. If the needles start to drop, take it outside and leave it there, otherwise it will never recover in the garden.

And when choosing a position for it bear in mind that what you have dressed inside your house is a tiny baby. Norway Spruces are over 200ft tall when fully grown and are Europe’s tallest native tree. Nordman Firs (which come from the Caucasus mountains by the Black Sea) will grow even bigger. Both trees prefer rather acidic, moist conditions so if you are gardening on chalk or limestone I would not bother to attempt to grow them outside. They will never be happy. Better to treat them like a bunch of flowers: enjoy it, keep it watered and then recycle, whether by shredding yourself or taking it to the council to recycle.

December frosted leaves

BIRDS IN YOUR GARDEN

Try and be as regular as possible with the supply, especially in very cold weather, as the birds use up precious energy in coming to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare.

Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are  best of all. Left-over pastry, bread and rice always get eaten fast and fruit is good, especially for blackbirds and thrushes. Grated cheese is popular as well as cooked (but not raw) potatoes. Avoid anything salty such as crisps, salted peanuts or bacon. I buy dried mealworms too which robins, tits and wrens gobble up greedily.

It is especially important to put out water in a shallow saucer or dish  and to refresh it daily and defrost it at least twice a day in cold weather.

It is good to provide a means of smaller birds like tits getting at food before it is all eaten by starlings or pigeons and to put your bird table well out of reach of cats. A hanging cage filled with nuts or seeds works well; I like to spread the food around in a number of different sites including on ledges too small for larger birds and to have a weathered log which I pour seeds into the fissures and cracks that the small birds can reach.

Place your feeding table or station outside a window where you can enjoy the display with a bird book handy to identify the inevitable visitors that you will not recognise and celebrate the fact that they are part of the rich diversity of your garden.

December icy pots

HARDWOOD CUTTINGS

Hardwood cuttings are slow to make roots but need no protection at all and a very good way of making new shrubs for free – especially from fruit bushes and roses. Cut a 12-24 inch length of  straight stem the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth, and divide it into lengths between 6  & 12 inches long, cutting straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top so you remember which way up to plant it. Strip any remaining leaves from it so you have bare, straight stems and either place the cuttings so only one third is above soil level in a deep pot filled with very gritty compost (4 or 5 can fit into each pot) or outside in a narrow trench backfilled with sand to ensure good drainage. Leave them until next autumn when a good percentage will have made sturdy young plants  ready for potting up or planting straight out.

December icy pond

WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS

At this time of year brick and stone paths can be very slippery and dangerous. This is due to algae that grows on the surface, especially if wet and shaded and at this time of year they may stay wet and slippery for months. The best way to reduce the slipperyness is to wash off the algae with a pressure hose (which can be hired by the day). When this is done brush in sharpsand. If the path is brick or stone the porous surface will absorb some of the sand. A quicker -but still quite laborious – alternative is simply to work sand in with a stiff brush without the washing. Either way you have a very effective way of making a path safe without resorting to chemicals.

December frosty walkway