What to do in February

Spring is on its way
February is an exciting time in the garden because there are real signs that spring is on its way. By the end of February most bulbs are really out and drifts of daffodils and pockets of crocuses are giving wonderful displays – on sunny days it is easy to see that spring is just around the corner. Some bulbs are even ready for dividing and planting in the green – snowdrops in particular do well when planted in this way and many gardeners, having been disappointed by the first few years of snowdrops after planting as bulbs can really see a difference when they have had the opportunity to plant and divide in this way. Winter flowering shrubs are ready for pruning in February and if the blossom is showing on apricots, nectarines and peaches it is a good idea to protect it with some fleece for a week or so – it is still more than possible that there will be some snow, even at the end of the month and frosts are still very likely and may be hard.

February is the month when you should start any stored tubers or bulbs back into growth. Dahlias can be taken out of storage and placed in a light, warmer place to encourage shoots. Although it was important to make sure they were not damp when stored – to prevent rot – as soon as they are brought out into the light, it is important to keep them misted lightly with water to prevent dehydration. Gladioli corms can also be encouraged to sprout in February. Put them in seed trays in a light place at around 10°C to start them off and then you will get much earlier flowers when you do plant them out. Be careful when planting sprouted corms or tubers that you don’t knock the new growth; damage now will mean that there will either be no flowers or very late and poor ones.

Plants in rock gardens and later flowering bulbs may need some protection if it looks like snow. Snow does a lot of damage not just because it is cold but because of the weight on the plants. Low growth can be protected by a sheet of Perspex on some bricks or rocks (making sure it can’t fall on the plants) but larger plants may need the snow brushing off gently, especially if the fall is heavy. If the snow has followed rain and is freezing hard, be careful when doing this as it can damage fragile buds and small branches. Watching the weather forecast like a hawk is essential in February and the weather can turn very suddenly. If snow or freezing rain is predicted, then you should try to protect what you can with fleece. Even old newspapers will do if you have nothing else to hand.

Tidy up
Weather permitting, February is all about keeping things tidy for when the spring really does appear with a bang. Keep beds clear of weeds and debris such as fallen twigs and leaves and if possible, mulch lightly to warm up the ground a little. If the weather is particularly wet and cold, try not to tread too much on prepared ground as it will compact the tilth. If you have to walk somewhere, make sure you fork the ground over again before planting anything there, to reintroduce oxygen into the soil.

If the weather isn’t too wet, you can sow some vegetables outside as long as they have some cover from a cold frame or sturdy cloche. You can plant lettuce, onions, early leeks, cabbage and even peas if you can provide them with enough shelter. If you are planning to grow potatoes this year, you can chit the tubers now as well. If you don’t have enough room to grow potatoes in the ground, you might consider growing them in a potato bag or box. Many seed companies sell the kits complete, or you can build a box yourself. The plan is very simply to add a layer of earth (held in place by a new layer of planks) whenever the shoots show above the ground. This gives a long length of underground stem for the tubers to grow on and you can dig them all at once as a maincrop or as you need them as new potatoes. No matter what sort you choose, there is nothing quite as gorgeous on a plate as a potato dug moment before it hits the boiling water.

It may seem unbelievable, but many lawns may need to be mown in February. If the weather has been very wet or there has been a lot of snow, you need to make sure that the ground isn’t waterlogged, or the mower will just tear the grass out and also walking on it will cause damage. The mower blades will need to be on their very highest setting and will also need to be newly sharpened, so the grass isn’t damaged. Also, in the potentially still wet weather to come, there should not be any grass clippings left lying on the lawn as they will cause die back and possibly problems with fungus and mould. Even so, if the weather does permit, there is something about the smell of a newly mown lawn that will cheer everyone up and make you realise that spring is almost here. Mowing in dry weather in February also gives you a chance to check for bald patches and any dips or hollows which need to be repaired. You can do that now with turf, or you can prepare the soil for sowing later.

If you have a pond, it will be quite dormant now, but if you have a resident frog population you may find that they will start mating and spawning in February. This is sometimes too early and late icing can kill the spawn by cutting off oxygen but sadly, there is nothing the gardener can do and nature will take its course. You will find that some spawn always survives and in fact the tadpoles and froglets will do better in a less crowded market. If you don’t have a pond but would like one, this is a good month to dig one, weather permitting. Make sure that you give it a reasonable depth in the middle to prevent total freezing in hard winters and also shelve one edge if you want to encourage wildlife. Preparing a pond now will mean that the water will be naturally ready for planting and fish without resort to chemicals and when the warmer weather comes you can plan from scratch. Be careful to buy your plants from a supplier which guarantees to be common duckweed-free otherwise your life as a pond owner will be ruled by the battle with this pernicious pond pest. In small amounts it can look deceptively attractive, but one singe leaf and root will soon cover the whole surface, choking off oxygen and killing fish, wildlife and plants. It is far better to make sure you never have any in your pond than to try and eradicate it later.

Houseplants should never be left on windowsills behind the curtains, even in February. The cold overnight can be very damaging and if you find that your plants are not looking healthy, this could be why. Also, you should be careful not to overwater – if cyclamen in particular look yellow and wilting, you may have been giving them too much, so cut back so the compost is only just damp. If you have climbing plants in the conservatory or garden room, February is the best month to give them a trim. First of all, go all over the plant and make sure that you have removed all dead or shrivelled leaves. New growth will be showing in many cases so don’t cut into that, but you can take last year’s growth back to the last couple of buds. The main thing when cutting back any plant is to give it a good shape and this is why February is such a good month to do it, because there are no leaves or flowers to disguise the basic shape. Another bonus of doing it now is that you can use the softwood trimmings as cuttings. They won’t all strike, but the ones that do will be some nice bonus plants of the kind all gardeners like – free!

Spring cleaning
Hopefully, February will have some nice dry and sunny days. Make the very most of these to air and ventilate greenhouses and sheds by opening windows and doors. This is a good time for a spot of spring cleaning as well, clearing out any old sacking, seed trays which are past their best and any seeds kept from previous years. Although some may be all right if kept in good conditions, any that have been allowed to get damp should be discarded as unlikely to germinate. Also, when ventilating the shed, if time permits, go through old chemicals (if used) and fertilizers. Opened boxes and bags are best discarded and replaced. Wash out pots and also clean any tools which were put away dirty last year.

And finally...
February is the month when the garden – and gardeners! – begin to wake up and smell spring in the air. Sometimes the winter seems never ending but with bulbs beginning to bloom, blossom beginning to show and the first tender buds appearing on trees and shrubs, this is the time to reach down the tools and go out and get ready for spring.