my february 2012 garden chores


I AM TEMPTED TO POST THE APRIL CHORES today instead of February, after waking up to near-50 degree temperatures yet again in this wacky nonwinter we’re having here. I could certainly get out and start fruit-tree and grape pruning, raking and ornamental grass cutbacks…and without a coat or gloves, even…but first, some planning is in order.

I JUST SKETCHED where I’ll plant which vegetables in my various raised beds, for spring and beyond, taking into account that I can’t plant tomatoes or potatoes, in particular, in the same place without skipping a few years. I’m thinking I may grow some tomatoes in whiskey barrels this year, actually, to give myself another spot to rotate through to avoid tomato troubles.

I ALSO MADE 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:

NEW BEGINNINGS, ALMOST: Getting ready for seed-starting action provides a distraction, and one could always order a few more packets to soothe the soul. I keep updating my list of favorite sources, and not long ago, readers shared their favorite seed catalogs, too. I haven’t finished my 2012 orders, but promise to post them soon.

DID YOU DO YOUR germination testing yet to see what leftovers are still viable? And do you have a light stand to grow your seedlings on (my big old seed-starter stand plan is here; I got a small newer one made last year). Here’s my newer chart on how long seeds last, by the way. Popsicle sticks or tongue depressors can make cheap labels.

OR TRY AN ESCAPE: Force branches of 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).

COLORFUL TWIGS from shrub dogwoods and willows would make good indoor arrangements now, and many want stooling (cutting to maybe 8 inches from the ground to rejuvenate) every other or third year, anyhow.

TAKE A WALKABOUT, if your ground is snow-free but not muddy (I don’t walk on sodden soil; it causes damage). Check to see if mulches are in place or if they’ve heaved, or if burlap and other protectors have come loose, exposing vulnerable plants to possible heaving damage or windburn.

DON’T FORGET: Check the plants (both ornamental tropical types and also your stored vegetables) to see what needs attention. Plants may need water (more on that here) and if onions and garlic, for instance, are showing any sign of reaching the end of their storage period, I peel and freeze them (whole cloves, or chopped onions) before they deteriorate.

MOLE PATROL CONTINUES, in perpetuity: I am still re-baiting mousetraps under boxes, buckets or cans in the gardens where I see any activity, to rid them from my beds and borders. Strange note: I catch many moles (and voles, and shrews, and mice) in basement mousetraps, so set them there, too, if yours is a foundation with crevices like mine. I have even caught them in the attic. True.


SEED-CATALOG SEASON is in full-tilt. I am still thinking in vegetable Technicolor, thanks to reader suggestions. I’m also concentrating my purchases on companies who don’t sell genetically modified (GMO) seeds, and strive to deal in seed that’s been grown sustainably or organically.

STIFLE THE URGE to start seedlings too early. Small, compact seedlings are better transplants than older, leggy ones. Only leeks and onions should be started indoors this month in my zone (after mid-month); most seedlings take eight weeks or less to be garden-ready, so I count back from final frost about two months for my very first sowings. More on that next month and beyond.

YEAR BEFORE LAST I TRIED THE TACTIC of grafted tomatoes, for better resistance to some soil-borne issues and perhaps improved yield. Can you believe? A fascinating topic. Now they’re available by mail, even.

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.

PREVENT DAMPING OFF, a fungal disease that kills seedlings, by starting with clean containers and sterile soilless mix each year. Wash previously used flats, cell packs or pots this month with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water, and stock up on fresh seed-starting medium, to prepare for use later. Don’t use potting soil to grow seeds; seed-starting mix is finer-textured and the right choice.


ARE SLIGHTLY AWAKE again, nudged by longer days and stronger late-winter light. They may need a bit more moisture (let them dry between drinks, though) and an occasional half-strength fertilizing starting late this month. But it can get tricky if they are defoliating or looking really pekid, in which case go easy on everything awhile longer. Overwatering is the biggest risk to houseplants in winter…always check with a finger poked well into the pot first.

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: a simple shower, insecticidal soap spray (as directed on label) or with the most tenacious (like mealybugs) sometimes an alcohol swab and Q-tip.

ANY SIGNS OF LIFE from your Clivia yet? What an easy, lifetime investment of a houseplant. I’m watering again after a fall and early winter drying off.


PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece.

PRIME PRUNING TIME for deciduous trees and shrubs (including fruit trees) is now, while they are dormant. Don’t paint the wounds—let them heal naturally. Always use sharp tools to make clean cuts, and be on the lookout for dead, damaged, or diseased wood and prune out as discovered. This is especially important in winter’s harsher weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.

REMOVE VIBURNUM TWIGS that bear egg cases of Viburnum leaf beetle (usually the newest growth, from last year). This reduces potential pest population, but destroy the twigs or put in trash, not compost or brush pile.

DID YOU CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from the area right around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents? Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round. Check them–if you can see them, that is. No sign here yet of the base of anything!

All based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly. If you want to refer back to January chores, they’re here; March’s can be found in this post.

  1. Susan says:

    Oh, how much I would love to play in the mud here – but it is New Jersey, and that mean we still could be in for two months of winter in February and March! I will, however, take your plan and start cutting in the dead wood of decidious stuff. It is always exciting to think of a new growing season coming up – means inspite of all our misadventures, the world will go on. Happy tramping

  2. potager says:

    Even more springlike here in Oklahoma! We’re beginning to feed our pansies and violas, cutting back our liriope, praying we don’t have a hard late freeze…and that we have a cooler summer! Gardening excitement is in the air for sure!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Potager. Jealous to hear about pansies and violas. That sounds wonderful (and I love how fragrant some of them are). Soon…

  3. Jen says:

    Margaret do you sow spinach and lettuce seeds into pots in the cold frame or in the ground? My cold frame gets cold (only 4 degree difference roughly from outside ) – is that ok? (I’m in Portland, CT.) And do you have any tricks to growing tomatoes in pots? Mine don’t do well- is using same pot every year the culprit? Or long hot days in driveway? :) Who knows!

  4. Lorie says:

    Soak up those wonderful temps!!!!! We have broken all-time temp records in NE day after day…and what is on the horizon????? Rain, thunder-snow, measurable snow!! So it’s on the way to you. We’re gritting our teeth and calling it “needed”.

  5. Rachel B. F. says:

    Margaret, I like that one of your February chores is planning to simply some areas of your garden. Prioritizing maintenance resources/time is a great thing to think about this time of year. It’s so quite right now, but before we know it, we’ll be overrun with things to do — so creating good priorities in February is so key! I plan to simplify a lot of beds this year, and prioritize my maintenance time to work on an overall better-kept, less “complicated” garden.

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