The Garden in February
My month by month gardening book from the RHS tells me that in February the sap is beginning to rise not only in the plants but also in gardeners too! In my case as I write this at the snowy end of a wet and cold January I am not so sure about the latter but I have certainly begun to detect some very welcome signs of life in our own garden which show that the gardening year is about to take off. However, even though days are lengthening and there will no doubt be some very pleasant February days to tempt us all outside don’t forget that February can actually be a colder month than January and that winter is not over yet. Having said that there are still some plants to admire in February and as always jobs that we can be getting on with on the milder,drier days of the month.
Many of the buds on shrubs that I have been looking at in anticipation in January have now begun to show some of their real beauty. One of my favourites has to be the wonderful Witch Hazel, Hamamelis. These are deciduous shrubs originally from woodland margins and along river banks in East Asia and North America. They are grown for their frost-resistant, fragrant, spider-shaped flowers as well as good autumn colour and prefer neutral to acid soils in sun or partial shade. There are two main species, Hamamelis japonica (Japanese Witch Hazel) and H. mollis (Chinese Witch Hazel) and a third, H x intermedia which is a cross between the two. Within these there are quite a large number of cultivars with some of the best known being H. japonica ‘Sulphurea’ with pale yellow flowers, H. mollis ‘Pallida’ (sometimes labelled as H. x intermedia ‘Pallida’) also with pale yellow flowers, H. x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ with its larger, yellow flowers, H. x intermedia ‘Diane’ with dark red flowers and H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’ with large, coppery-orange flowers and particularly good orange and red autumn foliage. Also in the front garden we grow the Cornelian Cherry, Cornus mas, for its tiny umbels of yellow flowers which look like miniature fireworks. Winter flowering shrubs work really well in front gardens where you see them every time you leave or return to the house at a time of year when you might visit the rear garden less often as well as giving any passers-by a lot of pleasure.
Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ Cornus mas
This is also true of our Sarcococca (Christmas or Sweet Box) which is next to the front gate. These are evergreen shrubs from China and S. E. Asia grown for their foliage, very fragrant flowers and dark, berry-like fruits. Each plant carries both male and female flowers in white or whitish-green. The most popular are Sarcococca confusa, S. hookeriana and S. humilis. Ours is S. hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ which apart from its colourful stems has young shoots flushed dark purple-pink and pink-tinged flowers. One shrub which I didn’t mention last month is the Japanese Quince, Chaenomeles, which all of a sudden has started to show a little flower colour and which will carry on flowering through the rest of the winter and into spring. These are deciduous shrubs originally from mountain woodlands in China and Japan which are cultivated for their early flowers which are 5-petalled, cup-shaped, single or double, usually borne before the leaves and which come in a range of colours from white, through the range of pinks to red. They also produce apple-like, aromatic, yellow to green fruits. My books tell me that these are edible when cooked but in my experience they appear so hard and solid that I think they would need a great deal of cooking! We leave ours on the plant in the hope that the birds will eventually eat them but even now in February when they are in a state of considerable decay the birds don’t seem interested! They are not the same, even though they look similar, as the true Quince, Cydonia, which is a tree from which the fruits are certainly edible when cooked well. Chaenomeles are best grown as free-standing shrubs or they can be trained along wires as we have done along the garage wall at the back of a gravel area with bonsai trees and a granite Japanese lantern. There are many cultivars to choose from, most either from Chaenomeles japonica or C. x superba. Ours is C. x superba Knap Hill Scarlet’ which has bright red flowers with yellow anthers but perhaps the best known is C. x superba ‘Crimson and Gold’ with its dark red flowers and golden-yellow anthers. If you prefer something a little more soothing then C. speciosa ‘Moerloosei’ (sometimes labelled as ‘Apple Blossom’) has large white flowers flushed with pink. You will have noticed that the term ‘japonica’ has come up several times in the above. This is because lots of very different plants that we grow in our gardens today originated in Japan and is the reason why when visitors to garden centres ask for a ‘Japonica’ the answer is always ‘which one’!
Sarcococca hookeriana ‘Purple Stem’ Chaenomeles x superba ‘Knap Hill Scarlet’
For the rest of the February flowering plants you will probably have to look a little closer to the ground for the early bulbs, Hellebores, the first of the Primroses and in our garden also some early Pulmonaria (Lungwort) flowers. The first of our bulbs to show is always the Snowdrop (Galanthus) and I began to see a little colour in their flower buds towards the end of January. By February there are many small groups dotted around the garden to delight the eye. In the right conditions, slightly damp and shady, Snowdrops are both long-lasting and will spread slowly from seed year after year. They then begin to form the large drifts which we love to see ‘in the wild’. I read that no one seems to know whether or not they are actually native to Britain and it is quite probable that nearly all ‘wild’ Snowdrops are in fact garden escapees with apparently no references to Snowdrops in the wild before 1770! Whether they are native or not does not diminish their beauty and the benefit they bring to the winter garden with their single, pendant blooms on an arching flower stalk above strap-like leaves. Each flower is white with three small inner petals (more correctly called tepals) which are invariably marked with green and three larger, spreading outer tepals. There are now literally hundreds of different varieties as Snowdrops hybridize readily in gardens ie cross-fertilize to give slightly different new plants and for true galanthophiles the finding and growing of these is a real joy. For me the common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is quite enough. The good news is that they not only seed around freely but that they are also very happy to be lifted, divided and replanted to produce even more clumps for next year. Once they have finished flowering but while still in leaf or ‘in the green’ any older or congested clumps can be lifted, separated into single bulbs and each bulb planted at the same depth as it was, or possibly a little deeper, a couple of inches apart in soil enriched with a little compost or leaf mould. A good general guide to the planting depth for all bulbs is that they should be covered by twice their height in soil. The other ‘bulb’ in flower in both January and February for us is Cyclamen coum which technically is a tuber rather than a bulb. A bulb is essentially a short shoot enclosed within thick, fleshy, food-storing scales whereas a tuber is a swollen, underground stem. Just to confuse you further, for years I thought that Cyclamen grew from corms as do Gladioli and Crocosmia which are the swollen, underground bases of solid stems. Whatever the botanists call them, however, all three of them are specialised food storage organs that allow plants to survive periods of adverse environmental conditions such as cold winters or dry summers and they produce many beautiful flowers as well as the humble but vital potato! This brings me back to Cyclamen coum with its attractively marked, rounded, almost heart-shaped leaves which are followed by flowers in white, various shades of pink to carmine-red all with darker stains at their bases. They flower after Christmas unlike the better known Cyclamen hederifolium (Ivy-leaved Cyclamen) which flower from August onwards before their patterned leaves arrive. Both are great plants for difficult areas beneath trees and large shrubs and once established will spread by self-seeding. The flower stalks actually coil like a spring before releasing the seed over a wide area.
Galanthus nivalis Cyclamen coum
As for the real bulbs, we have some of the small Iris, Iris reticulata, in pots which we were delighted to re-discover last week and there are flower buds on some of the early flowering Narcissi (Daffodil) and I expect to see flowers at some time in February. We grow quite a few of the smaller varieties such as Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and N. ‘Minnow’, many of them in pots and we have just brought these out from their out of the way resting places to take their place on the patio, always a good sign that spring is around the corner. If you have space for more bulbs and are regretting not planting more in the autumn all is not lost! I notice that the Old Railway Line has an offer on potted bulbs either for collection or delivery to your door. Have a look at their website to see what’s on offer and watch Matthew’s video as he tries to compete with very heavy rain making a deafening noise on the canopy- a true professional! He actually makes a lot of short videos to show newly arrived plants and to demonstrate such things as planting tubs and baskets- so as we young people say ‘why not check them out’!
I wrote about the wonderful Hellebore last month and ours have now had all their old leaves removed to reveal a little colour on the first of the flower buds and these will really come into their own in February. They are featured in the February edition of ‘The Garden’ the RHS’s magazine where three plants were highly recommended- Helleborus x hybridus ‘Harvington Shades of the Night’ (deep-purple, outward facing flowers), H. argutifolius (with leathery, greyish-green foliage and large clusters of pale green flowers) and H. ‘Anna’s Red’ (rich red-purple single flowers, over leaves with cream marbling flushed pink in spring). Also look out for the ‘Credale Hybrids’, both singles and doubles which come from a great little nursery near Leominster. Because Hellebores produce a lot of seed and germinate readily from it, one tip from the magazine is to dead head the plants as the first flowers finish to encourage more flowering, just leaving a few seed pods to ripen towards the end of the season. The other flowers which are just beginning to show as the month starts are the first Primroses (Primula vulgaris) which are always a very welcome sight along with the Lungworts (Pulmonaria). These are very good ground cover plants for shady spots on the edge of woodland, among shrubs or at the front of a shady border. They are often one of the earliest of the perennial blooms with their funnel-shaped flowers which may be pink, red, violet, purple, blue or white and are very attractive to bees at a time when nectar is in short supply. Many of the blue, purple and violet flowers are often pink when in bud and therefore seem to change colour as they age. The elongated and hairy leaves are often attractively spotted with white or cream. Once the first flowering period is over the leaves can be prone to powdery mildew in dry spells and if this happens we simply remove all the leaves as you would do with hardy Geraniums and after a good water the plants regrow fresh leaves and will sometimes give some more flower. The mention of nectar above reminds me that I had recently written about a Blue Tit that was very interested in our Mahonia flowers, which by the way have now finished. On ‘Winter Watch’ this week they showed an overwintering Blackcap taking nectar from a Mahonia flower which was obviously what our clever Blue Tit was doing- what do they say ‘you are never too old to learn’?
Signs of good times to come on two of our Hellebores!
Primula vulgaris One of our Pulmonarias
Now for the jobs to keep you warm during February and to get you out into the garden and the fresh air! The full list is given as always in the blog archives for 2019. Here we will finish off pruning the mixed hedge on our eastern boundary well before the birds start nesting again but will hold off on most of the other pruning until next month. In sheltered, warmer districts some gardeners prune Roses and even cut back Buddlejas in February but here in the hills above the Teifi valley we will wait until March. However, we will prune the later flowering Clematis as they seem to come into growth earlier than the Roses. Clematis fall into one of three groups for pruning and if you still have the labels they will tell you the group number. If you haven’t you can still work it out from their flowering times. Group1 Clematis flower early in the year, some even in winter, and the rest in early spring. As these flower on the growth made in the previous year they should only be pruned if necessary after they have flowered, if you prune the spring flowering ones now you will lose all of this year’s flowers! This group contains all the winter flowering Clematis and the spring flowering Clematis montana, C. alpina and C. macropetala. They only really need to be pruned when they have filled they allocated space on the trellis, wall, fence or pergola. The most vigorous is C. montana which will try to cover everything if you let it! Group 2 Clematis are the large flowered cultivars which flower in the summer and Group 3 are the smaller and later flowering cultivars which flower in the late summer and autumn. It is these two groups which need to be pruned in February as they flower on the growth which they will make this year and if left unpruned will have very little flower lower down and a tangle of growth and flowers higher up where they might not be seen. As the Group 3’s are going to flower later and have longer to grow the new wood they can be pruned hard to around 18” to 2ft (45-60 cms) from the ground while the Group 2’s are usually pruned to about 3ft (90-100 cms) above the ground. If you are not sure which you have just prune them all to this higher level. Prune just above a strong pair of buds and give them a feed with say chicken pellets or Blood, Fish and Bone. We prefer to use these organic fertilisers to chemical ones as they release their nutrients over a longer period and are less likely to be leached away by heavy rainfall.
February is also a good time to finish off cutting back the dead tops of herbaceous perennials which were left on for winter interest. At the same time the beds and borders can be weeded and cleared of any unwanted material. With growth at a minimum and areas of bare soil this is also the time to add your home made compost and leaf mould if you have it. It can simply be laid on the soil in as thick a layer as you have material for or lightly forked in and over the next month or so the worms will work their magic and incorporate it into the soil for you. This will not only improve the water holding capacity of the soil but will also add plant nutrients, feed the soil organisms and improve the soil structure. In the vegetable beds we will do the same after first cutting down and forking in the green manures which we sowed in the autumn. If you don’t have any or enough of your own compost then you can always use spent compost from last year’s pots and grow bags or soil conditioner from the garden centre or recycling centre. Well-rotted manure is also good if you can get it as is old mushroom compost although this is quite alkaline and is not suitable for acid loving plants or ground where you are to grow potatoes. One plea here for the environment- please do not use peat as a soil conditioner as I’m sorry to say many of us have in the past. This is much more valuable for nature if it is left in our peat bogs where it belongs and where it sustains really important ecosystems, reduces flooding downstream and absorbs and holds large amounts of carbon. It is for these reasons that a great deal of time, effort and money has been spent in recent years by the scientific community and the compost manufacturers to produce peat-free or at least peat-reduced composts for commercial growers and gardeners to use. If you haven’t already done so can I urge you to have a look at what’s on offer for the new season so that you like me can begin to wean ourselves off our reliance on peat products. ‘Here endeth the lesson’!
February is not a great time for planting as the soil is still too cold and wet. However, it is the last chance of the season to plant bare-rooted trees and shrubs, in fact I read that recent research has shown that February can be the ideal time. Generally it has been considered that bare-rooted plants can be planted any time from November to March when they are dormant but the roots do sit in cold, wet soils all winter without making much growth until the soil begins to warm in February and March. The new thought is that February planting allows the plants to make new roots straightaway and thus get off to a really good start.
We shall also continue to feed the birds throughout the month, in fact we have added a few new feeders over the last couple of weeks, partly because we get a lot of starlings in this area over the winter. They have been delighting us in the late afternoons as they fly past in very large numbers on their way to a roost in the nearby forest. Our existing bird boxes have already been cleaned out and we have two new ones to find sites for. We have also bought some metal plates with holes in various sizes as the holes in our existing boxes have been enlarged both, I think, by the nesting birds but also by woodpeckers trying to get inside!
As for seed sowing I am always reluctant to start as early as February but there are a few hardy plants that I will be starting off before the end of the month. In the frost-free greenhouse in individual pots I will sow a few Sweet Peas for some early flowers and also some Broad Beans. I like to use ‘The Sutton’ which is an early and dwarf bean which works well in our small raised beds. I also like to sow a few tomatoes in February to give some early fruit. I don’t have a heated propagator so I sow a few seeds on a sheet of moist kitchen roll in an old margarine pot and put it in the airing cupboard. I check the seeds every day and as soon as I see the first signs of a root emerging I pot them up individually and keep them in the airing cupboard until a shoot starts to show. They then go onto a warm windowsill, are turned at least once a day and brought away from the window at night. They do get a little leggy as they are drawn towards the light but on their first potting up I plant them a little deeper which I find makes a sturdier plant which can go into the heated greenhouse towards the end of March. I have mentioned before that we grow quick growing, ‘cut and come again’ salad leaves in troughs in our back porch and greenhouse. This year we have managed to keep some of these going through the winter especially the Wild Rocket which is a bit hardier than most. During February I will sow the first of this year’s troughs and then continue to sow one every two or three weeks until September. There are lots of different leaves to choose from such as Mizuna, Leaf Salads in French, Italian, Spicy and Oriental mixes, Kale shoots, Rocket and lots of different Lettuce leaves. Look out for the seed packets that are labelled ‘Speedy Veg’ which can be ready to crop in as little three weeks once the weather has begun to warm.
I am sorry to say that as things stand in late January it doesn’t look at all likely that we will be able to start the usual monthly talks anytime soon so I will continue to write the blogs over the coming months. Looking back I started the ‘Garden this month’ series in June last year so I will continue with those up to May this year. I will also write a mid-month blog on whatever topics come to mind but if you have any requests or suggestions please feel free to let me know via the comments section at the end of each blog. Later this month the second part of ‘Creating Garden Ponds’ will look at how to make a hole in the ground which is full of water into an actual pond with all of its wonderful wildlife!
Until then keep safe and well and get out into that February garden as and when you can- you know it makes sense!