RESTLESS, ANYONE? The houseplants are noticing, and so am I: the days are longer, making us both want to get up and grow. Rather than torture tomato seeds by starting them too soon, divert that energy into fruit-tree pruning, perhaps—or into making plans for when spring really arrives to install a water garden, improve your compost set-up, or finally get a deer fence. Those and other productive stalling tactics form the February chores.
Some stats on that astronomical provocateur, the sun: On the last day of December 2023 where I live, the day was only 9 hours 7 minutes 16 seconds long; by February 1, 2024, it is 9:59:06, and February 29 promises me an embarrassment of light: 11:13:03 (Calculate your daylength for any day of any year here.)
garden elsewhere? regional links
THE ORGANIC-GARDENING approach and the how-to tips I offer in the chores will apply most anywhere–pruning a rose or sowing a tomato seed is similar, wherever the rose or tomato may grow. But the when is not the same. To help adjust the timing: My garden is in Zone 5B, in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA) area, where frost can persist well into May and return in October. You may need next month’s chores, or last month’s (the archive is here). For more Zone-specific advice, I’ve rounded up a new page of links to calendars and checklists from around the nation (and the U.K.). Again, I encourage you to read on first, because I’m betting there’s something here for you, wherever you may dig, weed, or prune.
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.
Some years in February I get lucky, and a sunny day or two coincides with firm soil underfoot, and I can get started cutting back the hellebore foliage. (Not all kinds need or even like it, but my x hybridus or orientalis types do.) Epimediums are another good early cutback target.
My top tip: Don’t! (Don’t rush, I mean.) A short, stout, sturdy 6-week-old tomato transplant (or any other crop, in its young, vigorous state) is better than a leggy, all-stretched-out weakling. Only leeks and onions are started indoors this month in my zone, at the earliest. You may be in a warmer or colder spot; make your own location-specific calendar for seed-starting using my calculator tool at this link.
garden design, garden functionality
IN JANUARY, I typically pause on the cusp of a new year to put some words to what will be the focus in the garden ahead. Of course none of my resolutions become actions then or even in February in my Northern garden. As 2021 began, I recall, made my resolves aloud in my column in “The New York Times.” I focused on simple things like maybe new seed-starting lights, and bigger matters like removing miles of thuggish groundcovers in favor of natives instead. At the start of the next year I promised myself to take back the edges of overgrown paths that have become too narrow, among other tasks, work that continued in 2023. Do any of these following tactical initiatives match your needs for this year and beyond?
SICK OF DEER? Maybe it’s time to plan for upgrades in deer control. If by this point in winter you have tired of browsing damage, perhaps this will be the year you fence the yard, or at least a key area, using one of these approaches. Also: Ohio State University wildlife expert Marne Titchenell explains when to use (or not bother with) sprays, exclusion methods like “peanut butter fence” or winter protection, and more, at this link.
IS YOUR COMPOSTING operation just not yielding enough, or taking too much work? I am envious of the composting operations of two great gardeners: Lee Reich, who composts like this, and Daryl Beyers (who even composts in a series of pits--I love it!).
SICK OF MOWING? Do you want to mow differently (as I have done the last few years to good result, making more semi-wild spots for insects and birds to enjoy)? It cost me nothing, saved me time, and had a dramatic effect on beneficial insect and bird activity.
WILDLIFE GARDEN THOUGHTS: Besides mowing differently, here’s how to create a habitat garden, and also a Q&A with wildlife ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware on creating backyard habitat. Speaking of wildlife magnets: Will this be the year you add water, whether in-ground or simply an easy, seasonal trough like this?
ARE POLKA-DOTS dominating your garden—you know, lots of “onesies” (a single plant of each kind, instead of an impactful group or drift of each variety)? I try to discipline myself to divide plants and repeat sweeps elsewhere–rather than buy so many new one-off’s. The work continues. Additional DIY garden-design advice.
IF YOU HAVEN’T yet, it’s definitely time to shop for seeds. Each winter on the radio show and on the website, I power-shopped the catalogs with expert friends who share their favorite things to grow and where to get them—including many little-known resources. Join us in my ongoing Seed Series—in stories and podcasts—introduced some new (and new old!) varieties and new companies, too. Plus, in recent years there’s a newish “brand” name appearing increasingly in some of the catalogs: OSSI or Open Source Seed Initiative (learn about why to look for it). Get caught up now if you missed any Seed Series installments.
STUDY UP on how to grow specific vegetables from seed, before you get started:
- How to grow beets
- How to grow brassicas
- How to grow spinach
- How to grow carrots
- How to grow kale
- How to grow melons
- How to grow tomatoes
- How to grow onions
- How to grow peppers
- How to grow Cucurbits (squash, melons, cucumbers)
- Oddball vegetables you might not have tried
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 my seed-shopping rules, meant to help you resist buying every last sexy thing you see. Here’s that info in a video format.
INVENTORY LEFTOVER SEEDS, whether by checking my Seed Viability Chart and/or doing germination tests, to see what’s still viable. Not just viability (the ability to germinate) but also vigor (the ability to thrive after that) are at work, though; 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; another adds silica gel to the plastic boxes filled with seed packets.
WHAT SEED-STARTING GEAR and lights will you use? Best to get the equipment in order—or built or bought. I just got a lesson from Leslie Halleck, who wrote a book on the topic, about which lights to use and why, because I’m pondering whether to go LED. Backstory: In 1989, I had this old-style proper rig built (shop lights and all) but maybe eight years ago, I got a miniature version with far more efficient T-5 high-output grow bulbs. 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. Four-season vegetable gardener Niki Jabbour of Nova Scotia has several cold frames and lots of tactical advice for season-extending.
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.
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?
ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in other trees and shrubs and prune it out as discovered. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too.
SOMETIME IN FEBRUARY, once upon a time, the intermediate witch-hazels would try to bloom, in a typical year, when there was any such thing. Now it seems more often than not, like the insanely warm “winter” of 2015-16, weather forces some into bloom in December here. That acceleration repeated right around the New Year in 2022-23 and 2023-24. Other extra-early blooming shrubs in my garden include the pussy willow called Salix chaenomeloides.
I’LL WAIT a bit longer to cut back twig willows like this and also twig dogwoods because I’m enjoying the show. Maybe March with those (with pussy willows, right after bloom is good). With the willows especially, which are so vigorous, I’ll cut them close to the ground to rejuvenate.
PRUNE GRAPE VINES to no more than four fruiting canes with 7 to 10 buds apiece.
FORCE BRANCHES. Early blooming shrubs and trees like pussy willow, forsythia, apple and cherry are all good candidates, and branches can be cut once their buds have begun to swell. Also try the shrubby clove currant, the so-called Cornelian cherry, Cornus mas, and pear, beeches, birches, and redbuds. No big surprise: The closer to actual bloom date, the higher forcing success. Gather branches–taking only judicious prunings, being mindful to not disfigure plants–then prepare for forcing by either splitting the bottom inch or two with a knife or pruner, or hammering the ends gently to split them and make for better water uptake. Prepped branches go in a bucket of water in my cool mudroom out of the light, draped with a plastic bag, until the buds push off their coverings. Then I can move them to a warmer, brighter room to arrange.
WHILE OUT PRUNING, I’ll make a list of beds that will get simplified with the use of some favorite groundcovers, for instance, or better yet masses of native plants. 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.)
TIME FOR A HOUSEPLANT TUNEUP. Everybody over here is getting a trip to the shower and more, like this.
ADOPT SOME EASY ORCHIDS if you need a burst of color before the garden really awakens. Longwood Gardens’ orchid grower Greg Griffis demystifies orchid-growing, and suggest the best adoptees.
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 when watering, then plain water only the fourth week of the month).