February in the Garden

Early last month I was in the border cutting down a Molinia, this grass species is less stiffly-sturdy than it’s cousin the Miscanthus, and among the masses of cut stems, at ground level, I found eleven (yes, 11 ) bright red lily beetles. It was during a period of warmth, following an extended period of cold and wet, so these devastatingly attractive little beasts were already active when I disturbed them.

This observation got me thinking. Lily beetles have become so entrenched in UK gardens that growing lilies, in mixed plantings, has become almost impossible, without constant vigilance, since pesticide use is generally eschewed these days. I have, previously, got quite used to finding the overwintering adults amongst the general debris, and the old lily stems, but finding such a concentrated number, so early in the year, in a completely different plant species was a surprise.

The moral of this story is that I’m now beginning to wonder whether I need to rethink my gardening practices which I’ve evolved over a lifetime of gardening. I have written before about how I tend to leave most of my major border tidying and cutting down until just before plants are breaking dormancy. My thinking behind this has been that I don’t like to spend the whole winter looking at borders completely flat and denuded of plant interest (save for evergreens and the bare stems of deciduous trees and shrubs).

Many herbaceous perennials and grasses have beautiful structures, in muted shades of brown and straw, which provide interest, a food source for birds and small animals and, on occasion, look startling when bejewelled by a decent hoar frost. I had convinced myself that this was a good enough excuse to leave them standing for as long as possible. My recent revelation, that they may be harbouring scores, possibly hundreds, of voracious pests, such as the infamous lily beetle, has somewhat changed the way I see things now.

In the past, the generally accepted wisdom was that herbaceous plants were cut to the ground as soon as they began to die down. The reason for this ‘scorched earth’ approach was to leave pests and diseases nowhere to hide, during the dormant season, and to ‘let the frosts’ get to the soil where it is able to perform some sort of purging effect on pests and diseases.

I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to return to completely bare beds, fom late autumn until the following spring, but I think I’ll be a little quicker to remove the collapsing grasses and twiggier herbaceous specimens in future. With that in mind, February is a good time to clear the borders, whenever soil conditions are not too wet or frosty, so that emerging spring bulbs and early flowering perennials are given the best stage on which to perform.

As far as performing is concerned, snowdrops have been providing early cheerfulness since before Christmas, if you have a few of the early flowering varieties, but they will soon be petering out (make a note to lift and divide them soon, ‘in the green’, if you want to expand your drifts). I’ve always had a soft-spot for the ‘Spring Snowflake’ (Leucojum vernum) which flowers later than Galanthus nivalis and is generally beefier, leafier and sturdier. It’s one of those useful bulbs which can stand a little more shade than most and seems to go from strength to strength, once established, if just left alone, in a quiet corner, to get on with life.

If the weather has allowed you to clear your borders then adding an organic mulch, gently forking out your footprints as you go, is a very pleasing way to leave them looking properly smart and ready for the growing season ahead.

My method here remains the same as it ever has; I remove emerging weeds (they will germinate during any warm spell); generally fork over the bare soil and lift it to reduce compaction; sprinkle on a few handfuls of ‘fish, blood and bone’ (old-fashioned, I know); cover this with a couple of inches of humus-rich, organic, mulch. I favour commercially produced, usually bagged, mulch because it should be sterile and weed free so that I know that it will be suppressing weed growth and not introducing new, unwanted, seeds which will only add to my future workload.

Other tasks will become apparent as you go along and, for me, rose pruning is one of them; I tend to grow roses in mixed borders rather than in splendid isolation. Every time I write about rose pruning I try to make it as brief and non-scary as possible, without success! I think the truth is that you get a feel for it the more you do it. It’s practically impossible to kill a healthy rose by pruning it, so I’d recommend simply tackling it without fear of the consequences.

The general aim is to cut out any dead bits, any flowered bits, any weak bits and any congested bits. As long as you leave some buds, preferably ‘outward facing’, and make clean cuts just above a visible bud (the little bumps which are not thorns), then you can’t go far wrong. Being bold is always preferable to being timid—an established rose always responds to hard pruning by fighting back with vigorous new shoots. Forking in a proprietary rose fertiliser, just as dormancy is breaking, is a good idea especially with freshly establishing plants.

An example of horticultural ‘fine tuning’, which tends to become apparent as soon as you clear your borders, is removing the old leaves from those early flowering plants which would otherwise have their fresh new blooms diminished by emerging through tatty old leaves.

Oriental hellebores will already be in flower and they really benefit from having their old leaves removed for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. Epimediums also have persistent leaves which can completely overshadow the dainty flowers if not removed now. Pulmonarias should have shed their foliage but some varieties, with tough, large, leaves are improved by being completely cleaned up to show off their emerging blooms.

In the greenhouse keep sowing seeds, which have arrived from your seed ordering, if you can provide the supplementary heat which they may require. Repot cuttings of tender perennials which have been overwintering, but only if they need it, using marginally bigger pots or else they’ll rot off. Keep everything just ‘ticking over’ as there’s still at least a couple of months of potential frostiness ahead. Remember that plants tend to dislike any sort of root disturbance if the conditions are  not right for active growth. If in doubt leave them until there’s a warm spell with good light conditions.

Before I sign off, there is one task which is pretty universally suggested for completion during February : shortening the flowering stems of wisterias to ‘a few buds’. You’ll need a nice, dry day to do this as you’ll not want to be up a ladder, against a wall, in wet and windy weather! The shoots which you need to shorten are the ones which you should have cut back, by about two thirds, last summer. Reducing each one to three or four flowering buds (they should be fattening up by now) maximises the potential size of the great dangly blooms, the whole point of a wisteria, and keeps this unruly plant nicely under control and pinned to its supporting wires / framework / pergola.

If you don’t have a wisteria then you can ignore the last paragraph and save yourself a few hours of jeopardy up a ladder—lucky you…