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.
A mild, dry winter such as we are having can have consequences for nature. Many plants need a period of cold, known as vernalisation to produce buds and flowers, this is designed to ensure flowering occurs in spring once the weather warms. Warm winters can confuse plants into flowering earlier. The stem growth of bulbs, formed in the heat of the summer and hidden below the soil is promoted by winter cold and may be reduced by unseasonal warmth. Cold weather also triggers enzymes in plants to convert starch stored in their roots back into sugars for spring growth. Lack of winter rain can cause native spring flowering plants such as blackthorn, bluebells, cowslips and violets to delay or abort flowering. This can affect pollinator populations that would feed on the plant’s nectar, and therefore the availability of food for birds and other creatures.
In the garden
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.
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.
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 through 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 the soil 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 the soil with 5-7.5 cms of organic matter, stable manure or garden compost.
Fruit tree forms
There is still time to plant a fruit tree. It is possible to plant one in even the smallest space. The root stock the tree is grown on will determine the eventual size of a tree but they can also be pruned into various shapes to train against a wall, step over as low, edging or grow in a pot on a balcony or in a back yard.
These have a clear trunk of around 1.8m and a broad crown. They can grow to a substantial size so best for a large garden or in a traditional orchard, under grazed by sheep or hens. They can reach over 4 meters at maturity.
A half standard is a smaller tree, with a trunk of around 1.2-1.5m. These can be grown as specimen trees in a small garden. These will reach 3-4 meters at maturity.
These are small, bushy, easy to manage and harvest with branches circling the trunk at around 60-80cm. The central leader is pruned to produce a whirl of branches and an open centre. Usually reaching no more than 2-3 m in height.
Cordons are a single stem that is trained at a 45 degree angle with support. Suitable for spur bearing apples or pears. They are a restricted form and good if you want to select a number of fruit trees with a variety of fruiting times to allow ripening fruit across a long season rather than a single glut.
Espaliers have a single upright stem with a number of tired branches on either side of the central stem. They can be trained against a wall or on supports forming a long, narrow shape. Good for spur bearing apples and pears.
Essentially a step over is an espalier grown parallel to the ground as a sort of edging for a lawn, bed or path.
A fan has a short main stem with a number of angled branches spreading out to form a fan shape. Fan trained trees are suitable for stone fruit such as cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines. Warmth from a supporting wall can help with fruiting and also makes it easier to net fruit to protect them from birds.
Fruit trees on a dwarfing rootstock can be grown in pots. Pears, apples, peaches and figs can all be grown successfully in this way, even in a tiny space.
There are also some extraordinary and complex forms such as a Belgian lattice or candelabra that require a lot of careful pruning work. Branches can be worked to form a multitude of shapes if the fancy takes you.
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!
Creating 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 if you want to make one, or they can be bought readymade 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
- Continue and finish planting trees, shrubs and hedges
- Feed and mulch shrubs in preparation for spring growth
- Generally clear the garden of spent perennial stems left as habitat, grasses and leaves to prepare for spring growth
- 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
- Top dress planting areas with a balanced fertilizer such as blood, fish and bone
- Cut off all old epimedium leaves to allow the flowers and beautifully patterned new leaves to emerge
- 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
- Finish winter pruning of apple and pear trees
- Cut back the tips of summer fruiting raspberries
- Cut back autumn fruiting raspberries almost to ground level
- Finish winter pruning currant and gooseberry bushes
- Force rhubarb by covering emerging shoots to exclude light with a bin, old chimney or specialist cover
- Feed fruit trees and bushes by spreading blood, fish and bone or seaweed fertilizer around the base of the plants
- Check ties and supports before new growth starts
- Make log and rock piles as habitat for amphibians and other creatures
- Put up nesting boxes for birds (north and north east aspect is best) and bee boxes which should face south
- 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
- Pull out any emerging weeds to lessen the problem later in the spring when growth is much faster
Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden
As summers become warmer and drier this classic book beautifully describes planting a drought tolerant garden on poor, free draining soil.
Salad Leaves For All Seasons
Anyone can grow salad leaves on a window sill, garden or allotment. This book explains how to plan and grow for a succession of fresh leaves throughout the year.
Things to see, places to go
Incredible Edible Lambeth Seed Swap
Swap seeds with other growers and gardeners or pick up some for free.
9 February 2019, 12pm - 3pm
The Garden Museum, 5 Lambeth Palace Rd, London SE1 7LB
Find out about the plants that grow in the South London Botanical Garden. The gardener is updating that labels and will expand on the botany of the species in the collection.
14 February 2019, 11am - 3pm
The South London Botanical Institute, 323 Norwood Road, London SE24 9AQ
Orchids: Celebrate the Colour of Colombia
Kew celebrates the rich biodiversity of Colombia with a colourful display of orchids.
9 February 2019 - 10 March 2019
The Princess of Wales Conservatory, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, London TW9 3AB