After a January that has lasted since 1972 and has rained so much half of East Anglia is now part of the North Sea, swiftly followed by a short sharp beast from the east you might be wondering what we can possibly do in a soggy, frozen, bedraggled garden?
Honestly, right at this moment so am I!
Here at Ulting Wick Im feeling as if we are increasingly falling further behind, unable to work on the borders at times, we have been unable to even walk on the grass as it squelched. The meadow has become a water meadow and the snowdrops in the woodland were floating! Then everything has spent a week frozen, not what you need when everything has been so wet!
Lockdown has meant poor Rachel has been unable to join us, further reducing how much work can be done. I’m guessing most of you are in a very similar position though and to soothe my soul I just went and had a look at my precious snowdrop collection. Its important to spend at least 5 minutes every day looking for the joy. Some days its harder than others but if the sun is shining grab that chance to ‘Sunflower’ in it, turn your face up, close your eyes, hold your arms wide, sway and bask in its light!
That’s your first job for February and into March, look for the joy!
It might be a flock of fluffy long tailed tits, a 2 minute gap in the clouds, a snowdrop, an early iris, a cyclamen. Take that moment and savour it, drink in the colour with your eyes and breathe in the scents around you. Empty your mind of everything but that small moment you’re in and commit it to memory.
Now I realise that if you really are struggling this could sound trite and I don’t mean to make it sound simple, its not. It does help me and I hope it helps you…. anyway I’ll shut up and get back to what I’m qualified to do…. Garden!
Clean and check your Glasshouse for Pest & Disease
On a mild February/March day this is your opportunity to get a jump on any nasties that may have hitched a ride into your nice cosy glasshouse over winter. I like to pick a day when its raining as it helps you clear off any bugs. Sweep, tidy, wash, pick off any dead leaves and check over plants before bringing everything back in before nightfall.
Now this next job really does depend on your facilities.
Now if you don’t have a glasshouse don’t even attempt this job. You need heat and light. However if you do you can get a head start on your brassicas, onions, your broad beans and other cold hardy crops. Hardy annuals such as calendula and eschscholzia will happily grow if you can give them a steady temperature just over 10 degrees. Obviously if you’re planning on starting off your tomatoes and chillies you need to keep the temperature a touch higher, say 20 degrees. Some seeds also need cold stratification to get them started, unless you’re planning on shoving them in your fridge now is your chance to give them that shock.
In the Vegetable Garden
Growing under cover
In the polytunnel or indeed in the Glasshouse if you have that option, winter salads can be cropped and sown continuously. Early peas, Broad Beans, Spinach, Mustards, Spring onions a fabulous range of fresh early veg can be sown now and planted out under cover to fill the hungry gap but ONLY if you have these facilities. If you don’t then please don’t try as there’s a good chance it will all go horribly wrong and I don’t want you to be disappointed.
So you don’t want to wait for lovely sweet juicy Rhubarb? But you cant afford one of those fancy terracotta forcers….
Get yourself a nice black bin!
Ok its not the prettiest way of forcing Rhubarb but it is however effective. Now im not going to go into all of the myriad varieties and their attributes however at Sissinghurst we used Timperley early because as the name suggests it is one of the earliest forcing varieties. The best way is to have minimum 3 crowns and force one year, rest for 2. Dont allow your Rhubarb to flower as it will sap its strength.
Plant bare root Fruit Trees
Looking at the mire below you would be forgiven for thinking that there would be no way those trees would survive. If youd like to check for yourself on the state of them take a walk to the far end of the carpark at Sissinghurst. The last time I checked a few years back they were all still going strong. Bare root trees are surprisingly resilient.
There are plenty of nurseries that are sending out bare root trees at this time of year and they are brilliant at advising you which varieties and rootstocks are best for you but if you fall in love with that bare root tree you see at the supermarket entrance that’s ok too. No shame, I planted 2 Victoria plums, a Stella cherry and I’ve often used their whips when teaching people to prune apples. They’re popular because they’re reliable.
That said I’ve also bought unusual varieties on absolutely giant rootstocks as I have a neighbour who always accepts them gratefully and they’ve really looked after me when I’ve been ill, like when I had Covid last year. Good neighbours are the best!
As the soil starts to warm at the end of February, assuming we aren’t stuck in snowdrifts of course, you want to finish popping 2 inches of mulch onto your beds and borders. You dont even have to dig it in, just leave it on top.
Dig in Green Manures
This is your last moment to start digging in your Green Manures, they have done their job of protecting your soils structure and now they need to add their goodness back into it. Some green Manures inhibit seed germination so best to get them dug in well before you need to start direct sowing.
Other jobs that need doing are Chitting potatoes and planting your onion sets, this can be done in seed trays just to give them a chance to develop roots.
In the Ornamental Garden
Cut back grasses
Cut back grasses, you’ve left them up as habitats all winter but now as the weather warms up they will start to reshoot from the base and now is your moment to cut everything right down so as to not damage the new emerging shoots.
Divide snowdrops, as soon as they finish flowering gently lift and pull apart gently congested clumps of snowdrops. Take note of where they are happy and replant in similar locations.
Prune clematis in groups 2 and 3, if this has been done on a regular basis and its not too much of a nightmare all you need to do is prune back to where you can see a new bud. However if its been allowed to get badly out of hand a more shocking option is open to you and that’s cutting it right down to the ground. If planted with a few buds below ground it will make a fabulous recovery.
What if you’re not sure what pruning group your clematis belongs to though? Have a look at the checklist below!
- Pruning Group 1: Prune (if needed – dead, diseased, dying) mid- to late spring, after flowering and once the risk of frost has passed. Group one flowers on second year wood so try not to go too hard with them.
- Pruning Group 2: Prune in February and after the first flush of flowers in early summer.
- Pruning Group 3: Prune in February. These are the late summer flowering clematis.
Now is the perfect time to catch up on dividing some of those congested perennials. Get a sharp spade and cut big clumps of Geranium, Veronicastrum and other herbaceous plants into quarters or more. Lift them up, split and replant in to the border in odd numbers. Any left overs can be potted up and given to friends!
Cut back buddlia
Regardless of how you spell it Buddleja davidii (spelling variant Buddleia davidii), also called summer lilac, butterfly-bush, or orange eye, it will need cutting back hard at the end of Feb. Certainly no later than mid March, before the sap really starts to rise. Its important to know the difference between this and other species of Buddleja that flower on second year wood so if you’re unsure its ok to leave it for one year to see what kind of flowers it produces.
Give Winter heathers a trim after flowering
Assuming you didnt buy a spray painted heather, you will have noticed the flowers are starting to fade and go a little ropey by the beginning of March (if you bought a spray painted one this still rings true, you just cant see it so well). Grab your shears and give it a lockdown haircut! You can go quite hard but don’t take it right back into old wood, it might not recover. This will rejuvenate the plant, cause it to be more floriferous next year and prevent it from getting leggy.
Just a reminder, Adventures in Horticulture’s guest speaker Naomi Slade’s talk is still on line if you hurry and our very own Essex lad Matthew Oliver of Hyde Hall Giant Pumpkin fame is Februarys guest speaker so come and join us!