the february garden chores: 2013

shoes-trowel-3I AM STIFLING URGES over here—and maybe that’s what February is about, especially in the Northern garden. Keep calm—but don’t carry on, at least not until the signals are all aligned, please. I blame the expert seduction performed on me by seed catalogs for most of my fidgeting right now, that and the noticeably longer days and strengthening angle of the sun. Those big teases are combining to make me want to start seeds, but let’s think about that and other possible to-do’s carefully together, shall we?

prefer the podcast?

THE FEBRUARY CHORES (and especially how to know when to start seed) were the topic of this week’s podcast with Robin Hood Radio, based in Sharon, Connecticut and the Hudson Valley of New York–NPR’s smallest station (and right down the road apiece). Stream the show now, while you read, or get it on iTunes, or Stitcher, or at RobinHoodRadio.com. Look for the January 28, 2013 edition.

Spring is coming; you can feel it, even here in Zone 5B where the intermediate witch-hazels were trying to bloom despite single-digit F temperatures that rolled the rhododendron leaves up tight as cigars as January wound down.  Brrrr! But oh, the luxury of it: Fiat lux! (Let there be light!)  Like this:

On the last day of December where I live, the day was only 9 hours 16 minutes 18 seconds long; by January 31, it was 9 hours 57 minutes 20 seconds, and February 28 promises me an embarrassment of light: 11 hours 11 minutes 42 seconds. (Calculate your daylength for any day of any year here.)

I’m stifling the urge to start ordering plants before I do some planning—reviewing the 2012 garden in my photo library and any notes, trying to match my purchases to what the garden really needs most–not shopping on impulses. I’ve been stifling the urge to start pruning the fruit trees, too, since the soil had been pure sponge until last week with so many warm spells, but suddenly temps went to 0ish degrees F and the ground got good and solid, at least for a few days.

Most of all my self-restraint has been about not starting my seeds yet—but when is “too soon” and when is “the right time,” anyhow? Read on (or listen in).


MY TOP TIP: Don’t! (Don’t rush, I mean.) A short, stout, sturdy 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.

WHEN TO START WHAT? These calculator and calendar tools will help you time your sowings properly, no matter where you live.

HOPING YOU TREATED yourself to some new catalogs (or their online counterparts), and maybe a new garden notebook or journal, too. (While you’re over on my Resource Links page, connect with some new-to-you plant and bulb resources.) 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.

ALSO HOPING YOU 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.

NEXT, 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 last year 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. Do you have seed-starting medium (not potting soil–that’s too coarse for seeds) and flats, trays, pots? What about 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.

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 again this year, actually, to give myself another spot to rotate through to avoid tomato troubles.

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.

NEED HELP WITH SPECIFIC CROPS? My seed-expert Q&A interviews are good reference:


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. Overwatering is the biggest risk to houseplants in winter…go easy.

I DON’T FEED in the low-light months, 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). I started watering my Clivia again, both yellow- and orange-flowered ones, by the way.

trees & shrubs

IF THE PERFECT 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 so enjoying the show. Maybe March with those.

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. This is especially important in winter, with its harsher, windy weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.

BUT DON’T RUSH: Keep feet on mulch, stone or gravel paths—off the lawns and out of beds—if January thaws prove warm enough to soften the ground. Mucking around in mud wrecks the soil.

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:

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.

CONIFER RESEARCH: Take note in your local travels (or in books), of conifers that look good to you, and think about adding a few to the garden come spring. Some of my favorite colorful conifers.

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. How and where I stash everything non-hardy. The rosemary’s handled this way; the fig is over here.

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

Categorieschores by month
  1. Meredith says:

    Are you able to say what brand of seed-starting medium you use or do you make your own? If you make your own can you share your recipe. Most of what I’ve bought that is labeled for seed starting is almost as coarse as potting soil, really not very fine at all. Maybe I’m being overly picky.

  2. Katie says:

    I’m new to seed catalogs – can you recommend 2 or 3 that cover a wide range of plants, preferably organic, non-gmo? I’d like to get started but hesitate to request too many.

  3. Nixus00 says:

    Just curious, have you entertained the idea of innoculating your soil with mycorrhizae (beneficial fungi)? Even though your area may be a little colder than mine in the winter (LA) it should just go dormant.

    (Another round of shameless promotion…in 3,2,1..)

    For the people out there that aren’t aware, using mycorrhizae for you garden has a lot of added benefits. I’ve written an article explaining the basics of picking out and using mycorrhizae. If your interested, here’s the link:


    Lemme know what approach you take when dealing with your soil. Take care!

  4. Fran hamburg says:

    Hi Margaret,
    For those of us who can’t start seeds indoors, can you offer some suggestions and how to on direct planting of seeds outdoors?
    I love your posts and like you, can’t wait to get my hands in the soil again!

  5. Hi Margaret!
    Thanks for all the helpful info! I get a little overzealous when buying seeds and don’t always think things through. Just like you, I’m getting antsy to start sowing seeds. On this cold, snowy February day (I live just northwest of Boston), I’m sowing onion seeds and starting the cold treatment on lavender and sage seeds. I can’t wait to read your book – all the librarys in my county have either the book on ‘hold’ or ‘out.’ I think several are waiting for a copy to come in. Perhaps if I press the librarian further, they’ll order an additional copy.

  6. Larrey Riddle says:

    I’ve seen lots of catalogs listing “grafted” tomatoes. The idea makes sense; grafting heirloom tomatoes (which are generally indeterminate) onto hybrid plant roots (which are generally “determinate” and often bred for disease resistance.) However, I certainly am not going to pay $11.95 for a tomato plant. Can you tell me how to do this grafting?

  7. Donna West says:

    Even I’m tempted to start Spring garden chores in my desert Southwest garden but I try to remember that February and March are unpredictable. In a couple of weeks I will be able to slowly begin with these tasks. I’m eager for Spring.

  8. COLLEEN says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I recently checked on the plants stashed in the basement, all in pots.
    The Glads leaves are growing, 8-10″ tall now. This is their first winter with me, so I don’t know if this is normal. I don’t have much choice but to just ignore, do I?

    Also, thanks to your newsletter, I saved my Bonfire Begonias for the first time this winter. I hope they make it!!

    Colleen from Chicago Area

  9. Mary Withrow says:

    I always set goals but I can’t help but add a little more. I save and trade with family and friends, so that is always a blessing every year.

  10. Theresa Meehan Currie says:

    I need some advice about pruning. I live in Georgia, a little south of Augusta. We have had a rather bizarre winter/spring! I know I am supposed to prune my pear trees and mulberries in January and February. My problem is with all the warm weather we’ve had all the fruit trees and bushes are in full bloom. If we get a hard freeze(which we usually do before Master’s week in April) everything will be lost. My question is, is it too late to prune them since they are no longer dormant?????

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