Preparing for Spring

This winter there have been few frosty days, in general the weather has been mild and wet. Warm winters can confuse plants into flowering earlier. In some places daffodils and primroses can be seen opening beside the more seasonal snowdrops. This type of weather can adversely affect bees. In cold winters they remain under cover, huddling together to generate warmth, in mild weather they will be temped outside to forage and run the risk of being drowned in the rain. Confused birds are heard singing throughout the day, setting out their territories and preparing to nest, frogs too have been seen coming out of hibernation and attempting to mate. The weather has disrupted the normal seasonal rhythms.

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 at this time of year life can be difficult for many creatures, stores of food may be diminished, water sources frozen, flowering plants few and temperatures erratic.

In the garden

Winter aconite

Winter aconite, AnemoneProjectors, 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.

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.

Hamamellis x intermedia 'Pallida'

Hamamellis x intermedia ‘Pallida’, KENPEI, 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.

Clematis cirrhosa balearica

Clematis cirrhosa balearica, peganum, CC BY-SA

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

Heavy soil

Heavy soil, Keith Evans, CC BY-SA

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

Mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea Macrophylla)

Mophead hydrangea (Hydrangea Macrophylla), H. Zell, CC BY-SA

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 mophead 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.

Slug control

Slug beer trap

Slug beer trap, Dacs, CC BY-SA

Mild wet winters are perfect for slugs and snails. On warm spring days they will emerge to feed on fresh green shoots as they appear from the soil. Many people use slug pellets to manage slug and snail damage but these are toxic and can also be detrimental to wildlife. There are many other methods that do less environmental harm.

Encouraging natural controls is the least invasive. Beetles, hedgehogs, birds, frogs and toads will all eat slugs. A small pond, some long grass for shelter and log or brick piles will provide habitat for these creatures. Turning over the soil surface while weeding will expose slug and snail eggs that may then be eaten by birds.

Traps: Slugs and snails hide under planks of wood or wet cardboard during the day, they will also hide in upturned grapefruits or oranges. They can be attracted to beer traps, a shallow pot or jar filled with cheap beer and buried into the soil leaving the top 2cm above soil level to prevent beetles drowning. They will need removing from traps regularly.

A garlic spray on or around vulnerable plants will help. Slugs are repelled by garlic. Boil 2 bulbs of garlic in 1 litre of water for 3-4 minutes, mix with 5 litres of water and spray onto leaves.

Barriers: Slugs and snails have soft, moist bodies. They dislike moving across very dry or sharp surfaces. Rings made from recycled plastic bottles with a zigzag cut top can be put around stems, copper tape repels slugs, surrounding plants with pine needles, sheep’s wool, coffee grains, strips of prickly brambles and crushed egg shells can all have some effect.

There are also commercial biological controls. Nematodes, that kill slugs, are available from horticultural suppliers. These work well but are relatively expensive in a large area.

Fruit tree forms

Fruit tree forms

Fruit tree forms, Quercusrobur, CC BY-SA

There is still time to plant a fruit tree. It is possible to plant one in even the smallest space. The rootstock 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.

Standard tree

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.

Half Standard

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.

Bush

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.

Cordon

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.

Espalier fruit tree at Standen, West Sussex

Espalier fruit tree at Standen, West Sussex, Graham Bould, Public Domain

Espalier

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.

Step over

Essentially a step over is an espalier grown parallel to the ground as a sort of edging for a lawn, bed or path.

Fan espalier fruit tree

Fan espalier fruit tree, KVDP, Public Domain

Fan

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.

Potted

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 organise. 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

 Nest box

Nest box, M J Richardson, CC BY-SA

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, with one open face, 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

Woody Plants

  • 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 and tie in roses to encourage flowering
  • Prune wisteria
  • 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

Ornamentals

  • 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 off old hellebore leaves to expose the new flowers
  • 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
  • Sow sweet peas and other hardy annuals under cover
  • Take hardwood cuttings

Fruit

  • 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
  • Cut back any frost damaged blackberry canes
  • 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
  • Mulch around fruit trees, bushes and canes
  • Sow melon seeds for indoor cultivation
  • Sow rhubarb seeds for planting out in May
  • Cover rhubarb crowns to force them. They will produce an early crop of slim, pale pink stems with yellow leaves.
  • Check ties and supports before new growth starts

Wildlife

  • 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

Sustainable Practices

  • 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

Relaxing reading

Rootbound: Rewilding A Life

Rootbound: Rewilding A Life

Alice Vincent

A mixture of personal memoire, gardening in a small space, the pressures of urban life and the pleasure found in plants.

Buy >

The Weeder's Digest: Identifying and Enjoying Edible Weeds

The Weeder's Digest: Identifying and Enjoying Edible Weeds

Gail Harland

What better way to enjoy weeding than to eat the weeds you’ve pulled up. Controlling weeds in the most eco-friendly way.

Buy >

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Things to see, places to go

Incredible Edible Lambeth Seed Swap

Swap seeds with other growers and gardeners or pick up some for free.

date

8 February 2020, 1pm - 3pm

location

Garden Museum, 5 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB

Learn more >

Compost Clinic

Learn how to make compost and help your plants to flourish.

date

14 February 2020, 10am - 1pm

location

Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Hospital Road, London SW3 4HS

Learn more >

Biggin Wood Woodpecker Walk

A guided London Wildlife Trust walk, in ancient woods that are the home to two species of woodpecker.

date

20 February 2020, 10am - 11.30am

location

Biggin Wood, Biggin Hill, London SE19 3HU, Meet at the tennis courts off Biggin Hill

Learn more >

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.