my garden chores for february 2014

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelPOOR IMPULSE CONTROL can be a real liability for the gardener in February, so shall we try together to stifle our urges to start seeds too soon, or order plants galore without a plan for where they will go, exactly? Strengthening light and longer days are causing not just our houseplants, but also us, to stir and fidget, I know. But let’s sit tight a moment longer and review the February garden chores first, instead of jumping the gun:

First, about that astronomical provocateur, the sun: On the last day of December where I live, the day was only 9 hours 6 minutes 8 seconds long; by February 1, it was 9 hours 59 minutes 7 seconds, and February 28 promises me an embarrassment of light: 11 hours 11 minutes 1 second. (Calculate your daylength for any day of any year here.)

Rushing around right now can be harmful, including to the soil. Keep feet on mulch, stone or gravel paths—off the lawns and out of beds—if thaws prove warm enough to soften the ground. Mucking around in mud is a no-no, and honestly, I don’t even walk on frozen lawn grass unless I must.

In the January chores, I reminded us to start by looking backward, remember? It’s impossible to make a good garden plan for the year to come without some critical hindsight. Before I order any perennials, for instance, I am taking stock of which ones I have good-sized clumps of that I can divide; before I start seeds I’m double-checking the timeline for each crop in this when-to-start-what calculator tool. Speaking of seeds…


MY RECENT SEED SERIES—in stories and podcasts—introduced some new (and new old!) varieties and new companies, too; find those here. Get caught up now if you missed any installments, or scan my Resources list for all my seed-company suggestions.

MY TOP TIP: Don’t! (Don’t rush, I mean.) A short, stout, sturdy 6-week-old tomato transplant (or anything else) is better than a leggy, all-stretched-out weakling. Only leeks and onions are started indoors this month in my zone, at the earliest.

SKETCH OUT what will go where in the vegetable garden–space, water, and your maintenance time are not infinite commodities! To that end: Read up on the seed-shopping rules we live by here at A Way to Garden, meant to help you resist buying every last sexy thing you see. Here’s that info in a video format. I concentrate my seed purchases on companies who take the Safe Seed Pledge, and strive to deal in seed that’s been grown sustainably or organically.

PLAN NOW TO PREVENT STRETCHED, leggy seedlings later by reading this. (Again: My “when to start what” seed calculator will tell you the proper dates.)

INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable. Lately I’ve been reading up on how not just viability (the ability to germinate) but also vigor (the ability to thrive after that) are at work; more on that important topic here. Store keepers in a cool, dry place. A friend stashes his in the fridge, first sealing in zipper bags with the air squeezed out, then placing the bags in a sealed plastic box.

WHAT SEED-STARTING GEAR and lights will you use? Best to get the equipment in order—or built or bought. In 1989, I had this proper rig built (lights and all) but a couple of years ago, I got a miniature version with new-fangled grow bulbs that I love. All my seed-related posts are here, lest you need them now. Also: Do you have fresh seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots, labels?

PREVENT DAMPING OFF, a fungal disease that kills seedlings, by starting with clean containers and sterile soilless mix each year. Wash flats, cell packs or pots with a 1:10 solution of bleach:water, and stock up on fresh seed-starting medium. My friend Ken Druse fights damping off this clever way.

IF YOU HAVE a cold frame and conditions allow, sow an early crop of spinach and lettuce in it. I’ll start spinach in the open ground at month’s end if snow has melted.


TIME FOR A HOUSEPLANT TUNEUP. Everybody over here is getting a trip to the shower and more, like this.

KEEP AN EYE OUT for signs of houseplant pests like spider mites, mealybugs and scale insects. If tackled before they get out of hand, nonchemical methods are usually successful: that simple shower, as above; insecticidal soap spray (as directed on label), or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip.

I DON’T FEED in early winter, but by late January or early February, as plants begin to notice slightly longer days, I resume by feeding them weekly and weakly (half-strength dilute organic liquid every week or so).

trees & shrubs

IF THE COMBINATION OF not-too-deep snow (or none) but still-frozen or at least not-muddy soil occurs on a sunny day, get out and prune. Fruit trees, like my old apples, benefit from a late-winter cleanup; here’s how. First: Are all your cutting tools sharp, blades cleaned, moving parts oiled?

I’LL WAIT a bit longer to cut back twig willows and dogwoods because I’m enjoying the show. Maybe March with those, though their colorful twigs would make good indoor arrangements now, so I may steal a few trimmings now before the March stooling (cutting to maybe 8 inches from the ground to rejuvenate), which I do every other or third year.

LATE THIS MONTH, I may force branches of early spring-blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry, once buds have begun to swell. Cut on an angle or better yet hammer the ends of stems to make for better water uptake, and put indoors in water. I submerge them overnight, then place them in a bucket of water in my mudroom, draped with a plastic bag, until the buds push off their coverings. The closer to actual bloom date you force things, the higher the success rate (no big surprise).

SOMETIME IN FEBRUARY, the intermediate witch-hazels will try to bloom, I expect.  Other extra-early blooming shrubs in my garden include the pussy willow called Salix chaenomeloides.

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune it out as discovered. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.

WHILE OUT THERE, I’ll make a list of beds that will get simplified with the use of some favorite groundcovers, for instance. Other to-do’s for whenever you can to-do them:

SCOUT FOR VIBURNUM BEETLE egg cases on bare viburnum twigs October through April. Remove cases by pruning off affected wood to reduce larvae and beetle issues. The bump-like cases are usually on the underside of youngest twigs. (I also watch in May for larvae hatch and rub the twigs then to squash the emerging pests I missed.)

VOLE AND MOUSE PATROL CONTINUES, in perpetuity: I am still setting out mousetraps under my special homemade boxes in the gardens where I see any activity, to reduce them in my beds and borders.

pantry, cellar, shed

BE SURE TO CHECK stored vegetables (“one bad apple…” and all that, you know). My garlic doesn’t make it all the way through the year in the cellar so about now I freeze some, as whole cloves. Like this. Ditto with onions if needed to keep them fresh, not sprouting. Remember the ideal storage conditions for each crop?

TENDER ORNAMENTAL PLANTS in the cellar, garage, shed need a check, too–and perhaps water in some cases, or culling of any bulbs that have started to soften and may taint the rest.

(All chores are geared to my Zone 5B Hudson Valley NY-Berkshires MA area garden; adjust accordingly for your area.)

  1. Susan Bauer says:

    Thank you for giving me the courage to cut back my dogwoods and other woody shrubs. Like you, I have tried to judiciously prune out those older stalks, but often the task gets bigger than I anticipated (with two large yards that I garden), and as other early spring garden tasks call to me, I don’t get all the late winter pruning done. Thus I am left with beautiful but admittedly overgrown shrubs. Not this year. This will be the Year of Rejuvenation!

    1. margaret says:

      You are welcome, Susan! Some things don’t take to it, others do — and I wait awhile for much of the work, till closer to spring.

  2. Holly says:

    Thank you for the great information! I’ve been eying seed packets here on my desk all day — lettuce, kale, spinach, even some annuals, I know it’s too early, but I’m so anxious for gardening, warmer weather, and fresh-from-home greens! There is so much to read here, great advice and inspiration!

  3. Linda Turner says:

    The weather was so nice today here in southern CT I decided to start on the winter pruning. I usually put it off and then suddenly it’s spring and I miss the window. I was excited to discover 9 praying mantid egg cases, 5 on a spirea and 4 on the azalea. I hope they will stick to ‘bad bug’ patrol and leave my hummingbirds and beneficial insects alone!

  4. I am rejuvenating my planters. These are ten gallon barrels that had the top cut off and holes drilled in the bottom for drainage. They have proved to be difficult to keep consistently moist. if the get to dry the water runs right down the sides and out the drains without soaking in.

    I have decided to convert them to a bottom reservoir soil wicking planter. So I am plugging the drain holes and placing 3 lengths of drain pipe in the bottom for the reservoir and a piece of under carpet foam on top to separate the soil then connect them to the surface with a length of plastic pipe for filling.

    All of this is coming from my scrap pile so it is free and keeps me busy in the unheated green house which is still to cold to start seedlings.

  5. Jane Scorer says:

    How timely that tip is – ‘Don’t rush!’ Every fibre is screaming, ‘Get sowing’ but my logical self know, from bitter experience, how hasty seed sowing leads to sickly seedlings. I have sown 1 lot of seeds so far (Rosa ‘garden Party’) which, if sown early, will flower the same year. It is a nightmare ensuring that they get enough light to grow well, as I have no grow-lights.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Jane — and yes, me too! I think you need to buy a cheap shop hood and some fluorescent tubes at least at the hardware store! :)

  6. Sharon says:

    Can’t… get… to… the… shrubs… and… trees!

    I’ve had to throw out more catalogs than I can count because I can’t afford another spendy year like I had last year. This year I try more propagation, less buying of already established plants.

    Probably almost time to start tomato & pepper seeds in zone 6, huh?

  7. Michelle says:

    So I did the February pruning chore on a mild (rarely) warm Saturday and now have a screaming case of carpal tunnel pain in the pruning hand. So much for easing into it. Now have to go out and shovel a foot of snow. Yes, it was worth it ;)

  8. Fran hamburg says:

    Hi Margaret,
    Thanks for the encouragement to get out soon and start pruning!
    Any advise for those of us who can’t start seeds indoors but want to sow directly in the garden?


  9. endless mtns edna says:

    thanks for all your advice on not getting too anxious i’m there I did start oregano,basil,parsley and thyme and they look great under the lights

  10. Deborah says:

    Hi Margaret,

    As part of my February planning I am giving serious thought to the underplanting idea. Thank you so much for all of your helpful (and beautiful!) posts on that subject. One question for you: I would like to underplant some fruit trees, much as you have beneath your apple trees. My question is, how to accommodate the underplantings AND the ability to harvest the fruit, which would mean needing to get in close to the tree to pick fruit? I’m afraid I’ll trample something and compact the soil. I know you harvest your apples — how do you manage?

  11. Jean says:

    Margaret, I have loved your books and blog for their inspiration and encouragement in gardening. My husband and I, who garden slavishly, would like to take a motorcycle ride through New York state this simmer, and I’m wondering if you will be announcing any open garden dates this year, or did I miss them?

    1. margaret says:

      They’e listed under the “ABOUT” tab up top…and there is a dropdown choice for the events, which takes you here. May 10, June 7, Aug. 16 and September 20.

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