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Friday, June 14, 2024
GardeningFebruary in the Garden

February in the Garden

From writing about extremely wet weather last month, this month I’m starting with a mention of the decent spell of sub-zero temperatures that we had in January. Many plants require a period of proper winter cold in order to initialize certain functions, the breaking of seed dormancy for example, so it’s nice to know that those frosts can be beneficial. I also like to think that a dose of freezing has some effect on reducing the number of pests that are able to survive the winter, although this may be largely wishful thinking. Just the other day, after the weather had returned to the usual ‘wet and windy’, I was digging out a clump of under performing bergenia (‘Elephant Ears’) when I found a bright red lily beetle which was very much alive and well (until I squashed it!).

There is a danger that plants, having been frosted, can begin to start back into growth as soon as we have any unseasonably mild weather, even though it is still at least a couple of months before the weather really begins to be reliably frost-free. This is one reason why I tend to leave rose pruning until at least this month, often well into next month, because if the rose is hard pruned very early in the winter then there’s a risk that it will produce new shoots, in mild weather, which are then killed when the inevitable frosts return.

Roses respond well to being pruned back to a fraction of their fully grown size, literally decimated, so if ‘wind rock’ is likely to be a problem then reducing them in size during the autumn is a good idea but leave the full, hard, pruning until late winter. Climbing roses, trained on walls or structures, pergolas and rose arches for example, can also be treated this way; a reduction in size as soon as they finish flowering, to reduce the likelihood of being damaged during autumn and winter gales, but a full cut back and tie-in around now. This also means that, where you are lucky enough to have a wisteria climbing against your house, or over a pergola etc., it can have its February prune at the same time. Traditionally wisteria is reduced to around six or so buds, per flowering stem, around July and then these stems are further reduced to flowering spurs, with a couple of buds, in February.

The recent high winds may have already exposed any areas of weakness when it comes to your garden structures, or training wires, but even if they’ve survived intact it’s worth remembering that it’s easiest to see if any repairs are required, or additional training wires added, while climbers are dormant and leafless. The reason why it’s important to train climbing plants onto wires, when they are being coaxed to cover a wall or fence, is so that they can be safely removed if and when the underlying structure requires maintenance. A rose that is safely attached to a framework of wires can literally be peeled off the wall, when required, and reattached after any necessary work, such as repointing or repainting, has been completed.
Roses, and particularly twining climbers like wisteria, can become a real liability if they are allowed to scramble unchecked all over a house. They can squeeze themselves into loft spaces, if they get as far as the eaves, and, on really ancient examples, they can get behind gutters and downpipes which are then forced off the house as the twining stems expand and thicken over time. Climbers which are self-clinging, ivy is the most common example of this, cannot easily be attached to wires so should only be allowed to cover structures which will not require regular maintenance. Despite the bad press, which ivy sometimes gets, it cannot damage a sound wall, or surface, but may grow into already failing mortar, or damaged stonework, which then gets further damaged if the ivy then has to be removed.

Apart from dealing with plants on walls and structures there are plenty of other jobs to be getting on with this month. Its prime ‘bare-root planting’ season (see previous articles!); digging and mulching; weeding and border tidying. It’s amazing how many weed seeds have already germinated, I have huge rashes of speedwell to deal with in my own garden, so it’s a good time to get onto your hands and knees, whenever weather conditions allow, to tackle these before they can become established. I tend to concentrate on those areas of the garden which really benefit from looking their best at this time of year, the beds with early flowering perennials such as hellebores and hepaticas. Here the weeds would detract from the burgeoning display of early blooms and a fresh mulch, after weeding, really sets off the special blooms when so many other areas of the garden are still decidedly dormant. There are so many good oriental hellebores available in garden centres, or from online growers such as ‘Ashwood Nurseries’ (who have got delivering plants by post down to a fine art), and I find it hard to believe that anyone can resist the promise of exquisite blooms this early in the year.

On a more specialist note, I realise that not every garden is large enough for one, I like to get a fine cut of my wildflower meadow done this month, if a break in the weather allows me to get the rough cut mower out of hibernation. To encourage as diverse a population of meadow species as possible it is beneficial to cut the meadow as short as you can, before growth recommences, and for the clippings to be removed with a wire rake. This helps to discourage the coarser grass species and the physical action of raking allows light and air to penetrate the surface. This promotes the germination and establishment of wildflower seed shed during the previous year.

Getting light and air into the sward is especially important in newly establishing meadows where yellow rattle has been introduced as a means to weaken established grasses. The semi-parasitic rattle germinates most successfully having been frosted (‘vernalised’) but they have a better chance of getting established, I find, if the meadow gets this further cutting back around now. If it’s too wet and boggy, to be able to cut it successfully, then it’s not the end of the world for the meadow to be left relatively shaggy but it’s one of those jobs that it’s good to do ‘in a perfect world’.

At this time of year anything that you manage to get done, over and above the absolute essentials, is a bonus which will get you ahead of the game before the headlong rush into spring, when suddenly everything needs doing at once. Having said that, it’s also, perhaps, the last month when the garden is largely dormant and your gardening tasks are mostly voluntary so, if you want to keep out of the garden, that’s your prerogative. Gardening is as simple, or complicated, as you make it!

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