the february garden chores
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 2019 where I live, the day was only 9 hours 5 minutes 56 seconds long; by February 1, 2020, it is 9:58:08, and February 29 promises an embarrassment of light: 11:12:37. (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. As 2019 gave way to 2020, my old friend Ken Druse and piled up eight resolutions between us, ranging from reclaiming grass paths that have grown too narrow, to tactics for avoiding overwhelm, and even a commitment to sharing plants (and the important of ruthlessly tossing some out, too). In 2019, I had been preoccupied with my new (old) book that was about to be published, so I didn’t manage to put a formal resolution into words. 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.
ANOTHER YEAR’S mantra was “Don’t stop now,” because I am in Year 3 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.
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—and meet 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; more coming this month and next, too.
STUDY UP on how to grow growing 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
THE QUICK LIST of key seed how-to topics and tools:
- My seed-sowing calculator, for when to start seed.
- How long do seeds last? A viability chart for leftover seed.
- How to start seed indoors (the basics).
- How to prevent spindly seedlings.
- My seed FAQ page.
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.
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. At the start of 2020, Joe Lamp’l shared his and some great tips. 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. Be sure to remove humidity domes (and heat mats if you used any) just as soon as seeds poke through the soil and germinate. 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.)
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. I love the recent orchid book by New York Botanical Garden’s Marc Hachadourian, and got lots of great advice from him, too.
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.)