February, winter's end

As the month of February progresses, daylight hours become noticeably longer, it may still be bitterly cold but temperatures can increase, and tentative signs of spring begin to emerge. The longer days and watery sunlight encourage sap to rise, colouring the upper twigs on trees, from winter greys to purples, chestnut browns and olives. Buds begin to swell as the leaves and flowers inside develop and expand. Signs of wildlife activity may be apparent, on warm days brimstones and comma butterflies can be seen, though this time of year is difficult for many creatures, stores of food will be diminished, water sources may be frozen, flowering plants few and temperatures erratic.

In the garden

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, Andreas Eichler, CC BY-SA

Shoots of new growth from bulbs and perennials are the most visible signs of the coming spring, while the wreckage of winter lies scattered on the ground, uncleared fallen leaves, broken stems left as invertebrate habit and tussled ornamental grasses. Through all this weeds are beginning to appear. It’s time for a good clear up.

Hamamellis x intermedia Pallida

Hamamellis x intermedia Pallida, KENPEI, CC BY-SA

Winter and early spring bulbs are the jewels of February. As well as the snowdrops Galanthus nivalis and winter aconites Eranthis hyemalis, crocus Crocus tommasinianus, sweet violets Viola odorata, Siberian squill Scilla siberica, winter windflower Anemone blanda and spring cyclamen Cyclamen coum may all be flowering.

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles

Clematis cirrhosa Freckles, Vegetal45, CC BY-SA

Winter and early spring flowering shrubs continue to scent the garden, providing forage for pollinators. Hammamelis or Chinese witch hazel is a slow growing, small, deciduous tree, preferring semi shade, with leaves, similar to our native hazel, that emerge after flowering. The flowers appear like tiny fireworks with spidery petals ranging from pale yellow to deep burnt orange around a tiny, deep purple red centre. Hamamellis x intermedia is a Chinese, Japanese, fragrant, native Hamamellis cross . The showy blooms of Hamamellis x intermedia Pallida have a fresh lemony scent while Hamamellis x intermedia Harry gives off a hint of spice.

It is possible to find different clematis to flower almost all year. In February the scented winter clematis are in bloom. Scrambling Clematis cirrhosa has small, deeply cut leaves with dropping pale flowers, many of the varieties such as Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica and Clematis cirrhosa Freckles have attractive speckles. Rampant Clematis armandii, with large, dark green, leathery leaves, is beginning to flower, it has delicate, starry, white flowers and a powerful scent.

Clear the garden to prepare for spring growth

It’s time to make way for new growth. By February, deciduous ornamental grasses, left to overwinter, will be straw brown and often battered and flattened by winter weather. New growth will be pushing up, so it’s time to remove the old leaves, before the tips of new growth appear. Use secateurs to cut back old stems and leaves, taking care not to cut though any new growth. Pull or rake out the clumps for any dead material that remains. Leave a low tuft of old growth to protect the new as it emerges. Over sized clumps can be lifted and divided into two sections by cutting through the centre of the rooting mass with a sharp edged spade, before being replanted. Overwintered perennial stems will also be looking ragged. Cut these back, and any dead leaves that remain, to make room for the new shoots. As part of a general tidy, remove any weeds that are popping up. This will save you time and effort later in the spring.

Consider the soil

It is easier to take a look at your soil when the garden is fairly bare. Adding organic matter to soils can usually help, whatever their type. It will open up heavy, badly drained soils and improve the water retaining capacity and fertility of light soils. Heavy clay soils have a tendency to puddle in wet weather and crack in dry weather. If you have a heavy soil dig in some organic matter such as garden compost or well rotted stable manure mixed with some coarse grit, this will improve drainage, allow the soil to warm up more quickly, make it more crumbly and less likely to become compact and puddle. If you have a light, sandy, free draining soil, cover it with a mulch of organic matter 5-7.5cm thick. Soil organism will slowly incorporate it into the soil. It will retain moisture from the winter rains, improve the soil texture and help suppress spring weeds.

Prune, feed and mulch shrubs

Most shrubs have been resting over winter, some will benefit from pruning in early spring and all shrubs will enjoy a feed and a mulch to provide energy for the new seasons growth. Summer flowering deciduous shrubs can be pruned in February. These include buddleja, ceratostigma, fuchsia, lavatera, perovskia and mop head or lacecap hydrangeas. These shrubs produce flowers from mid summer on the new growth that matures during the year. Cut back the last year’s flowering stems to one or two buds from the older wood and take out any dead, damaged or diseased wood. Shrubs such as buddleja and fuchsia can be cut back almost to the ground to stimulate the growth of new flowering stems. Generally the pruning will restrict the size of the shrub, provide more flowers and help maintain plant health.

Once pruning and general clearance has taken place feed shrubs with a general purpose fertilizer such as blood, fish and bone at the rate of 50-100 gm per square metre. Four weeks later mulch with 5-7.5 cms of organic matter, stable manure or garden compost.

Arrange a seed swap

Gardeners are generally generous with seeds and cuttings, enjoying sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm with others. February is the time when gardeners start assessing their seed store and sowing in trays. Many seed packets contain hundreds of seeds, too many for a small garden, some gardeners also collect seed in the autumn from plants they want to propagate the following year. It’s a good time to share out the seeds you have too many of, and swap them for others you would like to try. Why don’t you organize a seed swap? Allotment associations, horticultural societies, community gardens, tenants and residents associations, friends and neighbours are all groups that may have an interest in a seed swap. They are easy to organize. Labels, small boxes, small envelopes (the sort used for dinner money), pens and pencils and a table to set it up on plus a bit of publicity, is all you need!

Create wildlife habitats

Spring marks the breeding season and the search for safe nesting and breeding spaces. Putting up a bird nesting box will give birds an additional choice. Individual birds will need boxes with different sized and shaped holes. Consider the birds that use your garden or outdoor space and select one suitable for these species. Bird boxes can be made very simply with cheap materials, there are plenty of templates to be found online, or bought from organisations such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts. They are best placed facing north or north east, at a height suitable for the flight path of those birds and well above the reach of a leaping cat. A wall is a good site as it is harder for predators to reach them there.

There are many different bee species. Some live in large colonies, others are solitary. Solitary bees, such as mason bees, also benefit from nesting boxes. These can be bought from wildlife gardening suppliers and garden centres or made simply from a tin can or five sided box filled with straws, pieces of bamboo cane or dried perennial stalks, instructions for making these can also be found online. They should be hung in a south facing position at chest height or above.

Gardening tasks in February

  • Prune shrubs that flower after mid summer such as buddleja, ceratostigma, fuchsia, lavatera, perovskia and mop head or lacecap hydrangeas later in February.
  • Thin out weak or damaged shoots and cut back newer stems to within one or two buds of the older woody framework
  • Prune any winter flowering shrubs that have finished flowering
  • Prune hardy evergreen hedges and renovate deciduous hedges before the bird nesting season starts
  • Lift and divide perennials that have outgrown their allotted space or have weakened and diminished flowering
  • Divide clumps of snowdrops and winter aconites as these benefit from being planted ‘in the green’ (with leaves still green but after flowering), rather than as dried bulbs.
  • Prune hardy evergreen hedges and renovate deciduous hedges before the bird nesting season starts
  • Continue and finish planting trees, shrubs and hedges
  • Improve drainage in heavy soils by adding organic matter and coarse grit
  • Improve water retention and nutrition in light soils by mulching with organic matter
  • Top dress planting areas with a balanced fertilizer such as blood, fish and bone
  • Feed and mulch shrubs in preparation for spring growth
  • Cut back perennial stems left as habitat
  • Cut back the flowering stems and rake out the clumps of ornamental grasses
  • Cut back group 3 type clematis (those that flower late in the summer), to a pair of plump buds around 30cm above the soil level
  • Cut off all old epimedium leaves to allow the flowers and beautifully patterned new leaves to emerge
  • Put up nesting boxes for birds (north and north east aspect is best) and bee boxes which should face south
  • Make log and rock piles as habitat for amphibians and other creatures
  • Pull out any emerging weeds to lessen the problem later in the spring when growth is much faster
Catriona Andrews

CATRIONA ANDREWS

Catriona is a landscape designer and environmental educator. Her work combines naturalistic planting and sustainable practices to create spaces that are sensitive to the environment and welcoming to wildlife. She designs private gardens, community gardens and public spaces and leads courses and workshops on garden and planting design and the environment.