Margaret's garden clogs and trowelRESTLESS, 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 2018 where I live, the day was only 9 hours 9 minutes 36 seconds long; by February 1, 2019, it was 10:01:06, and February 28 promises me an embarrassment of light: 11:11:28. (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.)

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. In 2019, I am preoccupied with my new (old) book that’s about to be published, so I didn’t manage to put a resolution into words (yet). In 2018 I did that in a chat with PBS host Joe Lamp’l of “Growing a Greener World” and here’s what we promised to finally work on in our respective gardens, from composting hotter (to reduce seeds that sprout later) to deer fencing (Joe’s issue) and various other garden-improvement projects.

A NATURALIST’S NOTEBOOK: With Dr. Nathaniel Wheelwright, I also got advice on keeping a journal of nature observations, and on generally becoming a keener observer–a better naturalist. Like this.

ANOTHER YEAR’S mantra was “Don’t stop now,” because I am in Year 2 of a multiyear project of rehabbing the oldest beds in the garden, and there’s much more to do. Lately I’ve also focused on mantras like: “Be thoughtful, keep weeding,” with the “thoughtful” part standing for “thoughtful organic gardening,” as in thinking carefully before any action. (A year before that, I’d suggested, “More mulch, no spray,” another way to say: Be kind!) Any of them sound like the intention you wish to set this year?

Some needed changes are more practical and tactical:

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?  Nobody does it better than my friend Lee Reich, who composts like this.

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.

seeds

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, 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 growing specific vegetables from seed, before you get started:

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 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.

PLAN NOW TO PREVENT STRETCHED, leggy seedlings later by reading this. (My “when to start what” seed calculator gives the proper dates for your zone.)

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. Here are my recommended components. 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 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 lots of tactical advice for season-extending. I’ll start spinach in the open ground of my raised beds at month’s end if snow has melted.

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?

SOMETIME IN FEBRUARY, the intermediate witch-hazels will try to bloom, in a typical year. (Insanely warm “winter” 2015-16 weather forced some into bloom last December here; in 2016-17 the first to bloom was mid-January, slightly more “normal.”) 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 coppice them (cutting 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.

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. Never, ever use mothballs. Here’s why.

houseplants

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).

for other regions…

NEED REGION-SPECIFIC ADVICE? My new page of links to garden checklists and calendars may get you to an expert who can help. (I’m in Zone 5B, on the border of NY-MA-CT.)

  1. Shelley says:

    Excellent! Love the monthly chores post! This one especially because it gets me excited for the real spring that is to come. I am in Old Chatham, NY not too far from you so we’ve been dealing with the same lack of wintery conditions… I noticed yesterday my garlic is sprouting about 1/4 to 1/2″ out of my vegetable garden… Think this will be an issue later? Thanks for the chore tips!

  2. Jennifer Staton says:

    Thank you for posting lists ahead. Our frost date is usually mid March, so it is tomato seed starting time for me. I’ve noticed I’m in a purple mood this year, if there is a purple variety of something, I’ve bought it. Several purple radish varieties, purple carrots, etc. Except eggplant.. those I’ve bought in orange.

    My problem this year is rain. I bet we’ve had close to 20″ of rain since mid October, and we’re not even in the part of South Carolina that got crushed by rain. Usually we’re pretty high and dry, but not this year. It’s a soggy, squishy mess. I think I will lose a lot of plants to drowning.

  3. Christiane Marks says:

    I would like to recommend a fantastic book to everyone, a Christmas present from my English daughter-in-law, the memoirs of a very influential English master vegetable gardener and garden writer:

    JUST VEGETATING, a Memoir, by Joy Larkcom, ISBN 978-0-7112-2935-8

    She studied traditional methods of growing and traditional crops in Asia as well as Europe, and is credited with popularizing the mixed baby lettuces and unusual and oriental vegetables.

  4. Deb Parker says:

    Love the chores list. I inventoried my bought and saved seeds. This week I’m testing viability of older tomato and pepper seeds and also my onions and leeks. Probably have to buy more seeds , of course!!
    Bought seed starting mix. Dusted off my perfectly good grow light bank that I trashed picked at the swap shack at our local transfer station! Have my 20 row seed trays all set to fill if the onion / leek seeds are viable. I really loved the chart, and the pictures of what they should look like if they are healthy once they germinated.
    I may just take a leap of faith an go ahead and plant the alliums, I am anxious to see that vibrant green!
    Thanks for being such a great source of information.

  5. Kim Smith says:

    When we can start mentioning the monthly chores, then we know the garden season is about to arrive. I am so anxious for spring, even though I am not doing any seed planting inside this year. I do sow some things in late fall outside so that they come up in spring. Hurry spring.

  6. Cindy Keller says:

    Thank you for your precious garden tips especially the article on preventing seedlings with spindly stems. I am new to vegetable gardening and decided to take this as a hobby to divert attention from my recent illness. So far, I have not been too successful having had to deal with lots of pests and growth issues of my seedlings. Over time, I hope it’ll change and my plantings will show some promise. But I plan to start small for now and grow with time. Along the way, your valuable insights help tremendously. A big thank you for that!

  7. Kate says:

    I love and look forward to your monthly chores list! I am so anxious for spring to come. I keep going outside to see if my hellebores are blooming yet :). Question – we keep getting sporadic warm days (I’m zone 7b, Long Island, NY) and then they go back to freezing. But on those warm days, do you recommend clearing some of the leaves that have fallen/collected during the winter? Or should I leave everything be until its consistently warmer? I’m ready to do some spring clean up, but don’t want to remove the bed of warm leaves if the ground/tree/plants need it.

    Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kate. I don’t think there is any absolute right answer, but more of weighing the pros/cons in each spot. If I have things that I know are going to start to emerge soon (like little very early bulbs, or as you mention the hellebores) I will probably rake those areas off, because the debris will mat down the upcoming plants. I tend to leave the rest in place since it’s only early February, after all, and winter has a way to go. When there are fair days and I want to be outside (stir crazy) I make myself busy in hardscape areas like along the driveway and stone paths and patio, where leaves have scuttled in and built up.

      The other reason I am shy about too-early cleanup is that the frozen or extra-damp ground isn’t good to walk on, so I don’t want to compact the soil or damage the lawn by wheeling my cart around and stomping around in general till the soil thaws and drains off a bit. So again: lots of factors to weigh to pick a strategy for each area of the garden.

  8. Alissa says:

    I recently had to replace the container I use to store my seeds in the fridge. It was a total pain trying to find something the right size, but I ended up finding one at Amazon that works well. I like to store my packets on their side, upright, with dividers between the types made from notecards. This gives space to have a row like this of various size packets and some space along the side to tuck silica or really oversized packets.

  9. lani says:

    We moved to Oregon 2 years ago to be near our children and grandchildren. We are enjoying this wonderful growing climate! I’m planning on planting more peppers this year so I hit the “How to grow peppers”. I went to the article about the Selective Seed company. Good grief my friend, our new home is Sweet Home! So of course I promptly ordered their catalogue. Your site never fails to be an inspiration and motivation in enjoying the gardening life.
    Thank you!

  10. “Some stats on that astronomical provocateur, the sun”
    “Provocateur” indeed! Matching a plant to a place with the right amount of sun can be tricky! The amount of sun varies by time of day, and season, so most people just guesstimate.
    But you don’t need to guess any more!
    A new app in the Google Play Store tells you exactly how much sun or shade any place will get.
    Try it out. Share with your friends! Give feedback!
    click here: SASHA
    Have Fun!.

  11. Beverly says:

    Ok, I won’t! I won’t rush starting tomatoes, which I’ve been guilty of doing. I did plant Artichoke seeds yesterday, I think they’re beautiful, though I’ve never had much success with them. Third time’s a charm?

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