Gardening in February: what to plant, prune and tidy in your garden this month
Being in the garden in February is like being let into a secret. Everyone else is cocooned away behind double glazing, convinced by central heating and electric lights that winter will never end and that the best thing is to continue to hide away.
But we feel the weak sun on our faces, see shoots pushing through the earth, catkins unfurling, and peach buds pinking up and preparing to burst. This is perhaps the time when the seasons and the wheeling of the year feels strongest because, despite the gloom and cold, plants just can’t help themselves. They know the earth is turning, that their moment is coming, and so up they come.
Gardeners see spring coming first. In terms of gardening tasks we are still in the winter lull, but it is the calm before the storm. We tinker, prune, clean and stack pots and improve soil. We get everything ready.
So, to celebrate the fact that spring will soon be upon us, here I share my top tips for gardening in February, from plotting and tidying to sowing.
Jobs to do in the garden in February
What to tidy and sort
Houseplants hate winter, but spring offers more light and fresh air. They respond to these small mercies with tentative new growth. Tidy them up them a little, pull off dead stuff, and start giving them a little more water.
Winter pansies and violas often shut up shop over the darkest and coldest spells of winter, but should start flowering in earnest again now that light levels are increasing. Check them over and get rid of dead flowers to prevent rots from setting in and to promote the formation of new flowers.
Ideally, I pot on permanent pot-dwellers into slightly larger containers at this time each year, but after a while plant and container can become impractically big and hard to manoeuvre. If yours fit this bill, scrape off the top layer of compost now and replace it with fresh, plus a sprinkling of fertiliser.
Sort your seeds into the months in which they need to be sown. A box with dividers is helpful: just slip the part-sown packet into the following month’s section and you will come across it just when you need to sow again.
Winter has taken its toll on my greenhouse and I have cracked glass and moss in the nooks and crannies. This does not make for an ideal seed-raising environment, so before the big sow it is time for new panes and a scrub down.
One of the more instant and satisfying gardening jobs is power-washing paths, scouring off all the slippery mould and dark patches that have formed over the winter. Beg, borrow or even buy one for a quick garden facelift.
All of last autumn’s prunings and cuttings back will be starting to rot down on the compost heap. Give them a turn now and the compost may be ready for spring spreading.
What to prepare and plant
Chit your potatoes now. Place them in a single layer somewhere cool, light and frost-free where they can start to sprout, and so hopefully start growing more quickly once they are planted.
Peaches start to flower when there are few pollinators around to finish the job. Step in to the breach with a soft paintbrush and “paint” the insides of each flower, spreading the pollen. Make a note to plant crocuses and other early flowerers as further lures.
Consider planting a stretch of meadow. Pictorial Meadows (pictorialmeadows.co.uk) mixes seed of natives with other colourful plants. I like its “Pastel” annual mix – Ammi majus, cornflower, cosmos and Shirley poppies.
There is still time to plant pears, and if you are looking for ideas on the best variety then you must consult Joan Morgan’s 'The Book of Pears’, and in particular its Pear Varieties index with its amazing tasting notes: 'Abbé Fétel’ has buttery, juicy, firm flesh with hints of vanilla or amaretto; 'Enfant Nantais’ has an intense, rich, lemon flavour, and so on. You may end up with an orchard.
There is still time to plant other fruit trees. My favourite fruit is dwarf quince, perfect for a small garden, which blossoms voluptuously in spring and fruits throughout autumn. Mine is 'Lezcovacz’, from Blackmoor Nurseries (blackmoor.co.uk).
What to sow
When turnips are picked young they are nutty and sweet. Easy to grow, they are suited to our conditions. Sow early varieties such as 'Tokyo Cross’ and 'Purple Top Milan’ into the ground now and cover with a cloche.
Sow lettuces under cover now and you will have fresh leaves in May and June. It is still a good idea to choose hardy winter types such as 'Valdor’, 'Winter Gem’ and 'Reine de Glace’. Plant them out under cloches once they are a few inches tall.
I am making a sowing of my favourite and most dependable hardy annual cut flowers – Cornflower 'Blue Boy’, Calendula 'Indian Prince’ and Ammi majus – in the greenhouse this week, so that they are decent sized plants by the time the weather and soil warms enough to plant them out.
I do better with spinach sown in spring and autumn than I do with summer sowings, which bolt as they germinate. Sow a fast-growing variety such as 'Amazon’ now, under cloches, and at intervals through March and April for an early summer crop.
What to prune and trim
It is time to prune those clematis that flower in May and June (known as group 2) and those that flower in late summer (group 3). Group 2 flower on short new growths arising from older wood, so shorten last year’s growth back to a pair of healthy buds. This will stimulate side shoots. Group 3 flower on new growth, so they can be cut back almost to the ground. I find that mine are very susceptible to slug attacks if I do this, so I choose a pair of buds a couple of feet from the ground and prune to them.
Epimedium cut back
Epimedium foliage has served us well all winter, but if you take the shears to it now you will make space for the flowers to emerge unhindered, followed quick on their heels by the lovely new copper spring foliage.
Cut back ornamental vines such as Virginia creeper and Boston ivy now, particularly those climbing house walls and heading for windows and gutters. They are vigorous, so you can hack back hard.
As winter jasmine finishes flowering, prune back some of the flowered stems, right back to the main branches from which they arise. This is also a good time to layer longer, trailing branches to make new plants. Dig up a little scoop of earth, lay a branch along it, then bury it again. Pin it down with a tent peg or stone and water it. This time next year you will be able to sever the little rooted section and pot it up to make a new plant.
The time has come to remove hydrangea heads. Cut back to just above the first pair of healthy-looking buds. It is not a bad idea to remove a third of the oldest stems completely, right to their base.
This is a good time to prune shrubs. However, that council-style short back and sides is the worst method ever devised. Better to take out a third of the oldest stems completely, then repeat next winter and the winter after that.
If your deciduous hedges are untidy this is your last chance to give them a trim before nesting time. If you have any suspicions that birds might be building in there, stay your hand and leave them straggly.
Keep winter brassicas in shape for as long as possible by pulling off dead leaves, and netting them from pigeons. As natural foods run out pigeons turn on other crops, so don’t presume your cabbages are out of the woods.
Ornamental grass heads may still be glinting in morning frosts but it is time to cut them back. Deciduous grasses can be cut back hard. Evergreen grasses should have flower heads removed and a tidy-up of the more straggly leaves.
What to eat
Soon Jerusalem artichokes will start sprouting and growing, so this is your last chance to dig up some to eat. Roasted and slightly caramelised, they are gorgeous, but at a price – flatulence. Eating with plenty of summer savory is supposed to alleviate the effects, but sadly I have never found this to be the case.
What to look out for
Look out for aphids on sweetpea seedlings and other new growth. They increase as it gets warmer and lighter. Squish them with a finger and thumb, if you have the stomach for it, or spray with a mild soap solution.
In dry weather, bring out your wooden garden furniture, sand them down and treat with Danish oil. They will look beautiful and have you longing for summer. The treatment also makes the wood water repellent and the furniture likely to last longer.
Bullfinches will attack the emerging buds of gooseberries if given a chance. Net the bushes now, stretching the net over a sturdy frame, and keep new growth protected.
Not your Everage gladioli
Not all gladioli are bulky, gaudy beasts. Dwarf gladioli form delicate spires of flowers that need no support are particularly lovely in pots. Plant a small pot full every couple of weeks through spring for a succession of flowers, but order now, from avonbulbs.co.uk. Their deep crimson 'Ruby’ and soft purple and yellow 'Papilio’ particularly take my fancy.
Consider the lily (beetle)
Lily beetles have nearly forced me to give up on lilies altogether. Elegance of form and show-stopping fragrance fade from my mind as I squish the gruesome and ever-present larvae by hand. But attacks are not too bad in the greenhouse. I am planting big pots of 'Trumpet White’ (vanmeuwen.com), a white longiflorum lily, for glorious summer evening scent, to whip out onto my veranda as soon as they start flowering.
Don’t wait until summer to track down a National Gardens Scheme Yellow Book and start the year’s garden visiting. There are lots of gardens already opening to show off their snowdrops, and there will be more throughout early spring. Get your copy at ngs.org.uk or just use the website’s search facility to find gardens that are starting into life near you.
I love Dawn Isaac’s blog (littlegreenfingers.typepad.com) for her inspiring attempts to get her children gardening. I can also recommend her marvellous book 101 Things for Kids to do Outside, which is much thumbed in my house.
Flower power for Valentine's Day
Love your roses
Instead of buying a bunch of overpriced roses for February 14, give your rose bushes some love. Cut back all growth by two thirds, always to an outward pointing bud, and cut away any stems growing across the centre of the plant.
Buy British bunches
Support the burgeoning British flower industry by sending your Valentine a bunch of British flowers. To source British-grown cut flowers and the florists who specialise in working with them, visit these websites: flowersfromthefarm.co.uk and the britishflowercollective.com.
Bristol-based gardener, writer and cook Lia Leendertz has a 'slightly larger-than-average’ town garden and an allotment. Follow her on Twitter @LiaLeendertz
This guide is kept updated with the latest information.