There is a great deal to admire in February so I worry that we might wish the month away without appreciating what is looking – or giving – its best right now, or the quiet simplicity of our gardens stripped bare of all of the spring and summer fireworks yet to come. But there is a noticeable difference in the length of day as we head towards March and a feeling of anticipation grows. Spring really is just around the corner.
Early flowering bulbs are beginning to colour the garden – snowdrops now, narcissus and Iris reticulata, Cyclamen coum too. Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles) and many Viburnums are in bloom and everywhere the buds on trees and shrubs are swelling with the promise of a grand show. I love the profusion of silky grey buds on the Magnolias in particular, almost as much I enjoy the flowers. Fragrance is the thing, too, in February, but we will get to that.
Yet more than any other month, when there is so much that can be done, how much and exactly what we can do will be dependent upon the weather – it can be a very cold month, there may be a lot of rain. It is best to keep off a frosty lawn and sodden soil as you can do more damage than good (if you do work on the soil, use a plank to distribute the weight evenly across the soil and limit compaction).
Last year I seem to recall that Spring did indeed start properly (early) in March and continue right through to a beautiful Indian Summer. The previous year, March dawned frozen and remained so the whole month. I’m hoping this year will be kind and Spring will flourish early once again.
There is a lot to do this month if the weather allows and February can be particularly busy period in the Gardening Year.
If you are forced indoors, use this time to do some planning and assessment of your garden, terrace (or indeed container display) – the bones of it are bare just now – what do you most like – and want more of? What worked well last year and what didn’t? What might you move and what should be given the old heave-ho!? Lists can be written for new acquisitions as more and more plants become available for your delight and delectation.
If you can get outside and not freeze, it is a good time to prune shrubs that flower, on new wood, later in the summer – new stems that grow out in the Spring – like Buddleja davidii – as well as shrubs are grown for their foliage like Anthriscus sylvestris, that can be similarly cut back to a low, solid framework later this month.
Time too for pruning the hardier evergreen shrubs and both winter and summer-flowering Jasmines and the late-flowering Clematis – I’m thinking particularly of the Viticellas that can be cut back to 30-40cm from the ground. They will make all the new growth they need in the coming year, ready to flower in late summer and Autumn. Leave the earlier flowering clematis alone for the time being!
If you haven’t already cut back your wisteria – to a few buds off each main stem – there is still time to do this to get a good show in May, but hurry.
You can continue to Winter Prune apples and pears (though not the trained forms such as espaliers, fans, cordons and step-overs which should be pruned in the summer). Winter pruning promotes vigorous growth in bush and standard forms once the sap begins to rise so be circumspect in how much you prune out. Dead, Dying, Diseased and Crossing/Rubbing branches are best to tackle first but whether you are tending well-pruned specimens or tackling older, more congested examples, if in doubt, Less is More!
Roses can be pruned this month too, here in the warmer southern counties at least – shrub roses, the English Roses from David Austin, Climbers and Ramblers can all be pruned though you may leave hybrid teas and floribundas until March. I’m heading to Assisi (Italy) later this month for a weekend rose pruning so will be flooding the internet with pictures and knowledge gained!
You might also think of pruning the old stems off herbaceous perennials this month – the slowly decaying stems and seed heads may have provided welcome winter interest and structure in your beds and borders and a home to slumbering beneficial insects too but I’ve known I’ve been twitchy already with secateurs in hand – the scene in your garden may be equally downtrodden and in need of action.. A clean up now will be very welcome, in readiness for the new growth to push through as we head into warmer, longer days in March.
In the garden, particularly after pruning, many plants will appreciate an application of slow-release organic fertiliser and a mulch of well-rotted manure or home-grown compost. Not only will this slowly feed the plants as they wake up after their winter slumber, the mulch will suppress fresh weeds and insulate the soil below from the worst of the low temperatures and frosts.
I’ve posted numerous photos of Daphne, Viburnum, Sarcococca and Hamamelis in very recent galleries, so please do have a look back over the past few days for my tours around RHS Wisley and Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Indoors – or in the glasshouse at least – check for stocks of pots, compost and labels for propagation of early vegetables – lettuce, radish, beetroot, salad onions, peas and broad beans can be sown this month, to plant out under the protection of cloches outside next month. You can start to warm up the soil outside in readiness using cloches or polythene sheeting so that your early vegetables have the best possible start. Annuals (sweet peas, cosmos, larkspur, nigella, nasturtiums for example) and some perennials (e.g. Verbena bonariensis, Antirrhinum, Salvia patens) can be sown indoors this month too – for planting out in March (with protection) and later months.
Hygiene is critical for sowing and propagating seeds, so check that all of your pots and equipment are clean in readiness so as to prevent fungal infection and damping off in seedlings.
Dahlia tubers should be checked this month and boxed up in preparation for growth – lilies and other summer flowering bulbs can be potted up ready for planting out later in the year.
Back in the garden, while we are thinking of the joys ahead, there is still much to treasure just now. Hellebores are giving us some of the earliest blooms of the year with a huge variety of flower form and colour – the Hellebore Gold Series have prominent flowers that mutate gently from cream to green, or green to pink and through soft plum shades, followed closely by the Oriental Hybrids with their nodding heads (singles, doubles, speckled and offering us creams and yellows to dramatic slate-grey, purples pinks and reds).
Camellias will bring fat buds and showy rosettes of colour against their deep-green glossy leave while Daphne, Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) and Winter Box (Sarcococca) continue to fragrance the air generously with their sweet, spicy scents.
Spring bedding is beginning to appear to add impact to tired winter displays – tough little violas and primroses are perfect for the job, while Narcissus and especially tulips wait in the wings to continue the display in the coming months, in a myriad different colours.
Mature plants that live permanently in containers would benefit from re-potting this month – or top-dressing with some fresh compost – which will keep them looking good and healthy for the season ahead. Stock up on the right kind of liquid feed for when growth actively starts as many container grown plants are particularly hungry, especially those we love for their flowers. Best to check for the perfidious vine weevil too.
Lastly, please continue to feed the wild birds in your garden – the nights are chill and this is perhaps the month that they really need it the most – the rich pickings of autumn are depleted and spring feasts are a way off yet.
Enjoy your garden, pots and plants this month, get out and be active if you can, plan if you cannot and welcome Spring when you see it!
Martin Ogden - gardener and photographer, rose-whisperer and garden wanderer. Loving all things horticultural and learning every day. On the cusp of new adventures in Dorset...
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