February in the garden

Flowers of purple Wisteria against the wall of an house during spring

In February it really does feel like winter has been dragging on for too long but at least there are more cheerful signs of approaching spring than there were last month. Even in the coldest, wettest, winter there will be a choice of bulbs that are already in flower, adding to the snowdrops that emerged last month, and chief amongst these are the early crocus species, such as C. chrysanthus and C. tommasinianus, with their numerous named varieties and cultivars. Forms of Iris reticulata will also come into flower this month and I tend to be more successful with these when grown in pots rather than in the open ground. The benefit of any small bulb grown in pots is that they can be brought into the house while in full bloom to be enjoyed however foul it is outdoors.
Whenever the weather is not too foul, and the ground not too waterlogged or frozen, then getting out into the garden to continue soil aerating and mulching is a worthwhile task. February is also the month most usually recommended for shinning up a ladder to tackle unruly wisteria by cutting back its shoots to just a few buds. The standard practice is to shorten the long, whippy, stems before autumn, to reduce the chance of them peeling themselves off their support wires, but to leave flowering stems with half a dozen buds or so.
The more drastic pruning is completed now and the lack of leaves also means that it’s a good time to chop out any unnecessary growth, dead stems or disease. Long stems, required to extend the coverage area of the specimen, should have been tied onto supporting wires during the summer but it might be easier to reassess their position, tying them in again where necessary, now that you can see the framework more easily. The same sort of attention is equally applicable to climbing roses grown on walls and structures attached to a framework of wires.
On the subject of roses; February is as good a time as any to prune them if you haven’t already. I’m never too sure what to say when I’m asked the ‘correct’ time to do your rose pruning. I tend to do them any time that they are dormant during the winter. In the past, when a lot of roses were grown in dedicated beds and included plenty of ‘standard’ (grafted onto a tall stem) specimens, it was necessary to reduce their longest stems before the onset of autumnal storms to avoid the dreaded ‘wind rock’. This may still be an issue in very exposed locations but the trend towards planting more shrub-like varieties, such as ‘English Shrub Roses’, means that they are generally stronger growing and more weather resilient.
Just like wisteria, the aim of most rose pruning is, having removed any dead, dying or diseased material, to reduce everything else to just a couple of buds. In an ideal world you prune out any stems that are crossing, or touching, another stem and when choosing a bud to cut back to it’s preferable to select an ‘outward facing’ bud. In the real world what this generally means is that you look along the stem and find the best looking bud that’s pointing away from the centre of the rose, and is roughly two or three buds along that stem, and cut back to it with a clean cut.
Somewhat counter intuitively, I tend to shorten the thinnest, weakest, stems the most drastically, cutting them out altogether if they’re really thin, while leaving the sturdiest stems a little longer, probably more than the ‘two buds’. Roses tend to respond to hard pruning by producing extra vigorous growth, hence an already vigorous shoot needs less encouragement than a more feeble one.
Looking forward to the summer, a very pleasant prospect during this last month of winter, now is a good time to obtain and pot up summer flowering bulbs like lilies – I have a real weakness for Lilium regale, both grown in pots and strewn throughout mixed borders. Similarly, if you have dahlias overwintering in your greenhouse then they can be gently coaxed back into growth this month, with a bit of extra warmth, and a moved into the light if they’ve been kept in the dark until now. I tend to keep them on the dry side, and not pot them up into fresh compost, until I can see that they have active shoots developing. Plunging dormant bulbs straight into damp compost may cause them to rot, rather than root, if you are unlucky.
Also with one eye on the fast approaching growing season, when plants break winter dormancy and burst back into growth, it will soon be necessary to ‘feed’ your beds and the plants growing in them. The high winter rainfall will have washed out many of the nutrients which were contained in your mulch, assuming you’ve mulched with an organic mulch rather than an inert one, so forking in a general purpose organic fertiliser, I still rely on ‘fish, blood and bone’, is a good idea towards the end of the month as plants start actively growing again.
The onset of active growth, bud-break and leaf emergence, is a little way off for most plants yet so there’s still time for bare-root planting and moving around established plants while they are dormant. If there is a period when it is dry enough to get onto your flower beds then it’s a good time to dig up any herbaceous perennials that have got too large, or that you wish to produce more of, so that they can be chopped into smaller sections.
Replant some back where they came from, with a good dose of organic matter and some general feed, and pot up the spare ‘divisions’ to produce new plants. If you have room in your garden, or the luxury of a nursery bed, the divisions can be chopped into quite tiny sections, anything with a few shoots and attached roots will suffice, and replanted in rows, just like in a vegetable garden, to grow and establish into new plants ready to be lifted again in the autumn and used elsewhere.
Having an area of the garden that can be used as a temporary home for all those plants, both old favourites and new acquisitions, that are in limbo is practically a necessity if you garden actively. My inspiration, and I fully realise that not many gardens are as large as this, is ‘Great Dixter’ and especially the period when (I think it was during Fergus Garrett’s original reinvigoration of the place) the original stock beds, organised in rows and serried ranks, were dug up and rearranged into more informal drifts and groups of plants. In this way even a ‘functional’ area of the garden can still be aesthetically pleasing—which is, after all, the whole point of having a garden.