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Saturday, June 15, 2024
GardeningFebruary in the Garden

February in the Garden

This whole Covid business feels a bit like an interminable winter and the uncertainty, as to when we shall ascend to the sunlit uplands again, is a whole new kind of stress. Fortunately, the ‘actual’ winter does have a bit of certainty about it and we know that it will come to an end as spring sweeps it away. We’re not quite there yet but, as the snowdrops are already heralding, the end is in sight—hurrah!
Hellebores are another harbinger of spring. As a horticultural student I was fortunate enough to be a frequent visitor to ‘Washfield Nursery’, home to the then hellebore queen; Elizabeth Strangman. She was responsible for some of the legal collection and then propagating of wild species hellebores, both from her own expeditions and from expeditions undertaken by other horticultural luminaries of the time.
Anyway, the point is that Ms. Strangman used certain species hellebores, Helleborus torquatus springs to mind, to hybridise with Helleborus orientalis to create hybrid oriental hellebores with new flower forms, especially doubleness, and colour strains – the slaty blues and rich plum shades were my favourites. Her nursery has been closed for many years but last year, just before ‘The Virus’ struck, I managed to visit ‘Ashwood Nurseries’, in the West Midlands, whose Helleborus x hybridus ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrids’ are probably the best range of garden hellebores currently available. They operate an online, mail order, website so their plants are still available regardless of travel restrictions.
Although often described as ‘winter flowering’ hellebores often don’t fully get into their stride until February / March. Mine currently have emerged flower stems but I’ve not got around to trimming off their old leaves yet—so I’ll be doing it, carefully, right now. Removing the old leaves not only allows the flowers to shine out but also helps to reduce the prevalence of fungal diseases. These can cause black patches on the foliage and can lead to the death of the whole plant in extreme cases. Fork in a dose of fertiliser, trusty old ‘fish, blood and bone’, around each plant once you’ve trimmed off the leaves.
Some other early spring flowering plants which benefit from a clean up of old foliage, to expose their shiny new flowers, include epimedium, pulmonarias and even the leathery old bergenias. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; I rather like bergenias. They’ve been horribly unfashionable for as long as I’ve been gardening but, if chosen carefully, do a ‘Google’ image search for inspiration, and tidied up before flowering then they are an welcome addition to the garden. As a member of the saxifrage tribe, they can be susceptible to vine weevil infestation but, unlike the more feeble members of their clan, especially heucheras, they are generally tough enough to survive the dreaded grubs.
Although, officially, it’s possible to plant bare-root plants right up until the end of March it’s definitely preferable, both in terms of availability of stock and good establishment of the plants, to get on with bare-root planting before buds begin to break. Although I’m certainly no ‘rosarian’, I have been investing in some new roses this winter. I think this may be a reaction to the current Covid situation and finding comfort in nostalgia. I don’t have a cottage garden as such, hence a certain paucity of roses, but those ‘Gardens of a Golden Afternoon’ were all the rage in my formative gardening years so now I’m reliving my horticultural childhood. I think I’ll extend my herbaceous planting too, maybe design a whole new border (rabbit proofing permitting), because I’ve still got loads of plants in plastic pots, gathered over the last few years, and they really do need to get their feet into the ground.
To this end I’ve recently invested in a propane greenhouse heater so that my seed raising, something else you can get on with this month, is less susceptible to the vagaries of hard overnight frosts. When it comes to greenhouse heating I reckon that a ‘belt and braces’ approach is to be recommended. I have an electric, ‘frost-guard’, heater but it only takes one inopportune power cut, or an RCD trip, to scupper its protection duties. The back-up of a mechanical, but thermostatically controlled, propane heater provides a certain piece of mind that disaster can be averted.
Seed raising is important when making new herbaceous borders because the initial planting. with perennial plants, needs to be fairly sparse in order to allow the new plants room to grow and increase in size over the first few years. The gaps between drifts of perennials need to be filled with something, in the intervening years, and seed raised annuals / biennials are the obvious choice. I’ve come to rely on some of the easiest ones, cosmos and cleome are recent favourites, to fill gaps in borders and provide a long blooming period. I think I’ll grow more zinnias this year too, although I find these a little more hit and miss. I’ve not used nigella in the garden for a while, that’s always a joy, and can be direct sown a little later in the year when the soil is beginning to warm up.
Getting back to now; it’s time to prune wisteria. Keen gardeners will have sheared off the shaggy extension growths in mid-summer, after flowering. Now, with denuded stems, the more drastic pruning can take place. Start by identifying the stems which you need for the framework. These main stems should be tied to a permanent system of wires, fixed to your wall via vine eyes. The main stems bear flowering side shoots and it is these which are now shortened to little ‘spurs’. Leave them a few inches long, cutting just above a bud.
Reducing the number of flowering buds concentrates the flowering potential into fewer flower sprays so that the remaining blooms are bigger and better—this is generally why you prune flowering plants. Removing unnecessary growth prevents the climber from turning into a great, congested, mass which rips off your guttering and invades the roof space. If the plant is producing a lot of suckering growth, those long stems which originate from below ground but are not destined to be part of the framework, then these should be manfully torn off, rather than cut, in order deter further suckering.
I hope that gives you something to be getting on with in these trying times—spring is just around the corner 🙂

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