February is as cunning as a weasel and as sly as a fox. Everywhere one looks, there are tantalising signs of life. Swelling buds, shy flowers and self-sown seedlings hint at excitement and abundance to come. By the end of the month, we benefit from two extra hours of daylight. But don’t let your guard down - February plays cruel tricks on over-optimistic gardeners, building hopes with a few warm, sunny days, only to dash them with an icy blast. Snow and frost aren’t so much a threat as a certainty. Proceed with caution, and don’t be in too great a hurry to start sowing and growing. Unless you’re one of the lucky souls with a heated greenhouse or sunny conservatory, sit on your seedbox and wait patiently until March or April.
Prune autumn-fruiting raspberries just above ground level, taking care not to damage the new shoots.
Meanwhile, ease yourself gently into the new gardening year with a manageable list of tasks like the one below:
- If you look hard enough, you’ll notice flowers appearing like stars at twilight. You may need to squint and strain at first, but they’ll soon emerge. Winter flowers are often small and downward facing, so be prepared to appreciate them on your hands and knees. Many are richly scented, an invisible magnet attracting pollinators to their nectar. If you can spare a few branches of Christmas box (Sarcococca), wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) or winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), cut them and bring them indoors where their perfume will be even more intoxicating. Chief among February flowers are the hellebores and snowdrops. You can stock up on these winter warriors at specialist snowdrop fairs and hellebore days held by gardens and nurseries around the country. The National Gardens Scheme organises a three-month-long snowdrop festival featuring over 110 gardens open to the public.
- If your garden is temporarily flooded or waterlogged, avoid treading on borders and lawns until they've drained. Soil is easily compacted when wet, squeezing out oxygen and compromising its structure. Compacted soils can be difficult and time-consuming to aerate, so it’s a problem best avoided in the first place. If you must walk on wet ground, lay down planks of wood to get you from A to B.
- Finish winter pruning this month. Grapevines, autumn-fruiting raspberries, blackcurrants, apples, pears, figs, wisteria, roses and clematis will benefit from a reduction in their upper quarters before growth resumes in spring. To find out more, read my Simple Winter Pruning guide. After pruning, apply a slow-release fertiliser and mulch generously around the base of every plant.
- Trim evergreen climbers such as ivy (Hedera) and star jasmine (Tracheospermum jasminoides) before birds start looking for nesting sites. I use secateurs to carefully prune away unwanted growth, rather than shears that leave unsightly cuts through the foliage. Wear gloves, especially when handling star jasmine, to protect your hands from irritant sap.
- Begin to cut down ornamental grasses as soon as they look tired and weatherbeaten. Trimming will open up the clumps, allowing new growth to emerge unhindered. The same applies to any flowering perennials you’ve left for decorative effect. You can clear epimediums and evergreen ferns of last year’s foliage before new growth begins. A pair of shears will make the job quicker and easier if you have large areas of planting to contend with.
- Start preparing seed beds for sowing and planting. Frosty weather should have broken down the largest clods of earth, leaving a surface that’s ready for cultivation. Weed thoroughly, rake and cover with compost or a permeable membrane until you are ready to get going.
- Potatoes are a brilliant vegetable crop if you have plenty of space. As food prices have risen, so has the cost of humble spuds, making them well worth the investment - plus, they’re no trouble to grow and great for breaking up heavy soil. The range of varieties is immense, and, chosen carefully, four or five different ones can keep you in tasty tubers for eight months or more. Start early potatoes into growth now (gardeners call this ‘chitting’) by standing them in old egg cartons and letting them sprout in a bright, unheated room. They can be planted outside in tubs or trenches from late March.
- If you have a heated greenhouse or propagator, start sowing seeds of crops that require a long growing season. These include sweet peppers, chillies, cucumbers and tomatoes. The seeds will germinate quickly and grow fast, so be sure you can keep them warm and brightly lit until it's safe to plant them outside. If, like me, you don’t have a heated space, wait until April and save yourself the heartache of having to start again when your seedlings get too tall and flop over. If you have a cold frame or unheated greenhouse, you can sow sweet peas, but beware of hungry mice that love scoffing any pea or bean seed.
- If the weather is fine, and the ground isn’t frozen or waterlogged, it’s possible to move shrubs and divide perennials now. February is also perfect for planting bare-rooted shrubs and trees, including roses and fruit bushes. Find out why I think bare-rooted plants are the way forward here.
- Mount new bird boxes at least 1.5m – 2m above ground on a tree, wall, post or fence beyond the reach of cats and other predators. The ideal aspect for a bird box is East, North, North-East or South-East. Siting correctly helps to shelter the box from rain and strong sunlight. You can clean existing bird boxes by removing debris with a stiff brush and disinfecting the interior. If you feel generous, pop some natural wool inside to help the next residents create a cosy nest for their brood.
Winter jasmine is one of the highlights of the February garden.