Even though it is still cold, damp and miserable outdoors, an occasional dose of sunshine always gets me jonesing for dry warm soil and getting the gardening year started…

snowdrops - the harbingers of spring

We are now at the tipping point, a time when we can no longer put off those garden projects, waiting for a nice day… Don’t be caught off guard though, winter is far from being over! If truly cold weather is forecast, provide protection for early flowering or tender plants by covering them with some type of cloth, a blanket may even work. (seriously!) Just remove your blankie on bright sunny days or when the weather is more cooperative.

If you look, you can find plenty of opportunities throughout the month to get your hands dirty!

February Garden Chores

Tools and Equipment for February

  • Repair and paint window boxes, lawn furniture, and other items in preparation for outdoor gardening and recreational use.
  • Make labels for your spring garden. Plastic milk jugs or bleach bottles cut in strips 1 inch by 6 or 7 inches work well. Use permanent ink markers to write on them.
  • The common, inexpensive, alcohol thermometer often varies more than 32° from the true temperature, resulting in wasted fuel or improper plant growth in greenhouses. To check the accuracy of a thermometer, immerse it in a container of crushed ice and water for 3 to 4 minutes. Any deviation from 30° F can then be marked on the scale, or the tube may be moved up or down to match the 32° F reading.
  • Start building up your supply of gardening aids, such as plastic milk jugs for hot caps and orange juice cans to make guards to stop cutworms.

Growing Food in February

  • For an interesting ornamental plant and a culinary addition, buy a plump, unshriveled, ginger root at the grocery store and plant it in a light, sandy soil just under the surface in a 6- to 8-inch pot. Place it in a warm, sunny window and keep damp until shoots appear. Water more frequently and fertilize monthly with high-phosphorus fertilizer. Harvest your crop in about eight months saving a piece to replant.
  • If you are going to grow onions from seed, time to start them now.
  • Start planning now for next year’s holiday gifts and decorations. Record those items you wished you had this year (dried flowers, herbs, pickles and preserves) and make sure you plant appropriate plants for next year’s harvest.
  • Parsley seeds are slow to germinate. Sometimes it can be three or more weeks before they show signs of growth above the soil. To encourage them to sprout more rapidly, soften the seeds by soaking them overnight in warm water. Then put 3 or 4 seeds in a pot full of soilless mix, such as equal parts of peat moss and vermiculite, plus a tiny bit of ground limestone and fertilizer. Keep the media moist during the entire germination time. Set plants in garden in early May.
  • Start snow peas and sugar snap peas outdoors around the Martin Luther King holiday.(in zone 7) Soak seeds overnight (or pre-sprout them), and use a legume inoculant to encourage beneficial soil bacteria.
  • By the end of the month, start lettuce and brassicas, such as broccoli and cabbage, indoors for transplanting outdoors in March.
  • Spread an inch of rich compost or rotted manure, plus an organic fertilizer, on your asparagus bed, and weed it well.
  • If you’ve cover-cropped your vegetable garden and annual beds with a grass or grain, such as cereal rye, you can turn it into the soil any time after the middle of the month. Mow it first to make incorporation easier. You can leave your crimson clover cover crops alone until they bloom in the spring.
  • Check your old seeds. Some vegetable seeds, such as beans, okra, and sweet corn, have a fairly short life. Other seeds, such as tomatoes, can last several years. When in doubt, do a germination test – count out 10 seeds, wrap them in a moist paper towel, put the towel in a baggie, and keep the baggie at room temperature. Keep the paper damp (not soggy!), and check daily. If 7 seeds germinate, then you can expect a germination rate of about 70%, and you’ll just need to over-plant a bit. Seeds that germinate at less than 50% should be composted.

Lawns and Landscaping in February

As mentioned in January… While this is a website espousing organic gardening methods, even the most organic gardeners have been known to turn to chemical lawn fertilizer so the next paragraph is for them…
No need to water the lawn this month, the ground is cold, frozen, or covered with snow. The grass is dormant. Do not fertilize. Applying fertilizer to frozen soil can pollute the water. Melting snow and winter rains wash the fertilizer off the soil surface into surrounding storm sewers, rivers, and lakes.

  • Variety in form and texture is important when designing a planting. However, too many different types or mixtures of plant materials should be avoided because it can create a confused or cluttered appearance as well as increase maintenance.
  • Consider using ferns in your home landscape. Maidenhair, sensitive, cinnamon, and Christmas ferns are good choices. Ferns like an even supply of water throughout the growing season, so soil with a high humus content is ideal because it retains water.
  • When choosing plants for the landscape and garden, remember crops that are suited to your soil and climate will be more resistant to problems. If you experiment with exotics, be prepared to give them more care.
  • Don’t forget wildlife when creating a landscape plan. They need both living and dead trees for survival.
  • If you think back over the yard work of last year and feel it took too much time and effort, an analysis of your site and the suitability of your plantings is in order. Landscaping looks best and is most easily maintained where a site has been analyzed for its natural characteristics, including soil texture, pH, drainage, slopes, sun and shade patterns, wind direction and intensity, exposure to salt or air pollution, and so on. With such an analysis in hand, you can select plants that work with your site, rather than in spite of it. The result will be reduced maintenance and a better-looking landscape.
  • Avoid walking on grass or ground covers while they are frozen. The frozen leaves are brittle and easily damaged. Ajuga is especially sensitive to being walked on during the winter, and large portions can die back, leaving bare spots for the spring.
  • Place stakes in intended planting spots and view from several angles to help you picture how new plants will look. Once you have the plants ready to plant, always place them, still in the pots, where you intend to plant and step back and view the whole area one last time before committing the plant to the ground.
  • While going about your business, keep an eye out for plants with interesting winter form or color. Consider planting similar varieties in your yard so you can enjoy them at home next year.
  • Watch the sun as it wheels around your house. See which sheltered outdoor nook it illuminates, and begin to plan your sunspot today.
  • Cold winds this month should remind you to order evergreen windbreaks. Some suggestions: American arborvitae, Austrian pine, Canadian hemlock, and white spruce.
  • Plan to attend garden and landscape meetings and clinics arranged by the Extension agents in your county or city. The latest and best in gardening information will be presented. Call your local Extension office to find out what is offered in your area.
  • If bird feeding has been a favorite activity this winter, order trees and shrubs that provide cover and small fruits for your feathered friends. Consider species such as crabapple, hawthorn, holly, dogwood, and pyracantha that can help lure hungry birds from cultivated fruits, if planted on the opposite side of the yard.
  • Top dress fescue lawns with an inch of compost or an application of an organic fertilizer such as Espoma ‘Plant-tone’ (5-3-3) to encourage healthy growth.
  • Remember, clover in a lawn is a natural source of nitrogen. A diverse lawn is more natural, healthier, and less boring.
  • Don’t fertilize warm season grasses, such as Bermudagrass, because they are dormant now.

Perennials, Annuals, and Bulbs for February

  • Delphinium and echinop will bloom again this fall, if cut back to the ground after flowering this spring. Coreopsis, heliopsis, and gaillardia should bloom again in the fall, if seed is not allowed to develop on the plants in spring.
  • For a full-sun border, try mixing colors of perennial coneflower and shasta daisy with annual globe amaranth. Place the taller coneflower toward the rear of the bed and shasta daisy toward the front, with the globe amaranth mixed in between.
  • If the soil dries out against a house under the eaves where rain rarely reaches, water well during a thaw to prevent loss of plants. Remember that plants require water during the winter to replace water lost due to wind desiccation and lack of rain or snow.
  • Hardy violets may be forced to bloom indoors. Dig a small clump from the garden or flower border and plant in fertile, potting soil in a 4- or 5-inch pot. Place in a cool,sunny window to promote growth and flowering.
  • Gazania is a heat- and sun-loving flower. Start in February for planting out in May.
  • Geranium seeds started now will produce plants large enough to transplant to outdoor flower beds in May. Plant in sterilized potting soil, covering them about one-fourth inch deep. If you overwintered geraniums indoors, root cuttings now.
  • Gardeners who want to have tuberous begonias for summer-long flowering in pots, beds, or hanging baskets outside should start the tubers indoors during late February or early March. Sprout the tubers by placing them, hollow side up, fairly close together in shallow, well-drained pans. Use a mix of equal parts perlite, sphagnum, peat moss, and vermiculite; or chopped sphagnum moss and perlite. This should be kept damp (not soggy) in a shady window with a temperature in the lower 60s. Transplant the tubers to pots or baskets when growth starts, normally within 3 weeks. Place outside only after all threat of frost has passed.
  • Gardeners have been supporting pea vines with prunings from twiggy shrubs for years. “Pea brush” can also be used as an unobtrusive support for perennial flowers. Cut twiggy branches about 6 inches shorter than the ultimate height of the plants. Insert three branches around the plants as they emerge in the spring; the branches will soon be disguised by the foliage. Any protruding twigs can be removed when flowering begins.
  • Start slow-developing flowers such as alyssum, coleus, dusty miller, geranium, impatiens, marigold, petunia, phlox, portulaca, salvia, vinca, and verbena in January or February.
  • Design a flower bed for a shady area. Plan to try impatiens, foxglove, begonia, and browallia.
  • Watch for signs of growth in early spring bulbs. When foliage is 1 inch high, gradually start removing mulch. Cloudy days are best for the initial exposure of the leaves to strong sunlight which can burn tender foliage.
  • Pinch off early buds from developing pansies to encourage plants to branch and form more buds.
  • Order perennial plants and bulbs now for cut flowers this summer. Particularly good choices are phlox, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, aster, gladiolus, and lily.
  • Ageratum, begonia, marigold, and petunia seeds can be started indoors now. Sprinkle the small seeds sparingly onto moist soil and gently press them in.
  • Check stored bulbs, tubers, and corms. Discard any that are soft or diseased.
  • Don’t remove mulch from perennials too early. A warm day may make you think spring is almost here, but there may be more cold weather yet to come.
  • Order gladiolus corms now for planting later in the spring after all danger of frost has passed. Locate in full sun in well-drained soil.
  • Plant hardy annual seeds, such as poppies and cornflower, outdoors after mid-month.
  • Indoors, start more delicate plants, such as coleus, lobelia, various vincas, and pansies.
  • Pansies bloom fearlessly through the worst weather. Along with feeding them organically, pinch them back, keep mulch in place, and water regularly.
  • Watch out for “heaving” when pansies and other plants pop right out of the ground after cold snaps. Simply press roots back into their proper position as soon as you notice.
  • Trim back dormant ornamental grasses when they begin looking too ratty. A lawnmower does this pruning chore efficiently if less-than-elegantly.

Trees, Shrubs, and Ground Covers in February

  • Examine the limb structure of your shade trees. Remove dead, diseased, and storm-damaged branches. If left on the tree, these weakened limbs can cause damage by falling on buildings or passers-by.
  • Assess the energy efficiency of your landscape. Do you have evergreen trees or shrubs blocking a window where the sun’s warmth would be welcome? Consider replacing them with a deciduous plant that would let sun in during the winter, but cast cooling shade in the summer.
  • On mild winter days, remember to water window boxes or other outside containers planted with evergreens.
  • Fertilize broad-leaved evergreens in the winter or spring. Fertilizing in the late summer induces late-season growth that is susceptible to winter injury.
  • If grown in good garden soil with adequate drainage, yews will grow in shade, withstand almost any exposure, and resist most pests. Direct sunlight and strong winds may injure foliage in winter in the colder parts of the state, as will the summer heat in the Tidewater area. Keep yews well watered to avoid winter browning of foliage.
  • Looking for plants suitable for containers with roots capable of withstanding very cold winter temperatures? Try winter creeper, white spruce, shrubby cinquefoil, yews, English ivy ‘Baltica,’Vinca minor, creeping and shore junipers.
  • For large shade trees needing removal of storm-damaged limbs,call an arborist or tree surgeon now to get on their schedule for pruning while the trees and underlying landscape plants are dormant.
  • Check guy wires on trees planted in the fall. Stakes may need to be re-secured if they have been heaved out of the soil by frost. Remember to remove guy wires in spring after root growth has started. Trees move with the wind grow stronger than those supported for too long.
  • During winter thaws, water fall planted and established evergreens, especially those on the south and west sides of the house.
  • During the short days of winter, landscape ornamentals with striking silhouettes draw attention. Try corkscrew willow, kousa dogwood, weeping cherry, and ornamental grasses. Consider placingone of these where it can be seen from a west window at dusk.
  • Winter is the time to apply dormant oil sprays to kill overwintering mites, aphids, and scale on deciduous trees and shrubs. Spray miscible oils when temperatures are above 40°F, but not within 24 hours of a freeze. Because the oil kills insects by suffocation, avoid spraying on windy days to ensure that all surfaces of the plant are covered. Want to make your own home-made dormant oil spray?
  • When choosing a location for new shrubs and trees, remember spots that are sunny in the garden now may be shady in the spring or summer. Ornamentals, such as azaleas, camellias, dogwood, mahonia and leucothoe, prefer shade.
  • When using salt to melt ice on walks and drives, spread it carefully to avoid damage to nearby shrubs. Damage to needle-type evergreens will be evident next spring by copper and yellow tones. Damaged deciduous plants will have bronze or reddish leaves. Consider using sand or sawdust instead.
  • Stamp down snow near young trees to discourage mice from nesting under the snow around them and damaging the roots or bark.
  • Remember, trees and shrubs have an economic value. If killed or damaged by ice or accident, they may be covered by homeowner’s insurance.
  • Tree branches that cast excess shade over herbaceous flowerbeds should be removed in winter when they will not damage the bed as they fall.
  • Brush snow from evergreens as soon as possible after a storm. Use a broom in an upward, sweeping motion. Serious damage may be caused by heavy snow or ice accumulating on the branches. Prop up ice covered branches and let the ice melt rather than try to remove ice from brittle branches.
  • In the colder parts of the states, construct wind breaks around plants predisposed to winter damage, such as broad-leaved evergreens. Drive four wood stakes around the plant, wrap with burlap, and staple at each corner. Consider moving these plants to a more protected site in the coming months.
  • Don’t delay planting a live Christmas tree, especially if it has already been in the house three days or more.
  • Borderline hardy plants, such as aucuba, camellia, and gardenia, can be protected by a mound of soil or compost placed over the crown after the ground surface freezes. These may also require windbreaks or screens.
  • For added security around the home, plant thorny shrubs on your property lines and under your windows. Some very thorny ones to consider include pyracantha, tri-foliate orange, Rosa rugosa, andthorny elaeagnus. Order plants now for late-winter planting.
  • Look at your landscape. Do you need evergreens to protect your privacy, reduce street noise, block the glare of street lights? Order plants in February and February for March planting.
  • Some plants that should be pruned in later winter or early spring are hydrangea, butterfly bush, Rose-of-Sharon, hibiscus and other summer-flowering shrubs that flower on new growth. Prune spring-bloomers, such as azaleas, right after they flower.
  • When pruning large limbs, always undercut first. This means to cut from the bottom up, one-third of the way through the limb,then finish by cutting from the top. The undercut keeps the limb from splitting and breaking off, which could damage the trunk and become an entryway for insects and diseases. Do not cut flush to the trunk, the collar or enlarged base of a branch produces hormones that help heal wounds.
  • Seeds requiring stratification, such as many of the woody ornamentals, should be started to condition now. Plant them in your cold frame or put them in your freezer for the required amount of time.
  • Vines that are strangling trees, such as bittersweet, wisteria, wild grape, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, and Japanese honeysuckle, should be cut off and removed.

Indoor Gardening February

  • For an interesting, large, indoor plant, try camellia. They need acidic and moist (but well-drained) soil. Camellia are grown outdoors in the south in partial shade, but are not hardy north of zone 8.
  • An interesting indoor fern to try is the brake fern, Pteris cretica. It grows better in a sunny window than most ferns.
  • Once a month, water your acid-loving house plants, such as gardenia and citrus, using a solution of 1 teaspoon of vinegar to 1 quart of water.
  • Check plants on southern indoor window sills. Low winter sun angles may cause scorching.
  • Resume a fertilizer schedule for indoor plants.
  • When placing plants around the home, remember as a general rule, plants with thick leaves can take lower light levels than those with thin leaves.
  • Pot up a few clumps of crocuses from the garden as they emerge. In a sunny spot indoors, they will develop blooms before the ones outside.
  • Late February is a good time to air-layer such house plants as dracaena, dieffenbachia, fatsia, and rubber plant, especially if they have grown too tall and leggy.
  • Spathyphyllums are native to the Amazon swamps, so they require regular watering. If the soil becomes so dry that leaves wilt, the root hairs may become non-functional, making them more susceptible to root diseases.
  • Check all five growing factors if your house plants are not growing well. Light, temperature, nutrients, moisture, and humidity must be favorable to provide good growth.
  • A welcome touch on a bleak, winter day is the verdant vine of a common sweet potato growing in a jar of water. Suspend tops in the water by sticking some toothpicks into them if necessary. Kiln-dried potatoes are not so suitable for this purpose, and those that have been sulphured are useless. So get them direct from a gardening neighbor, if possible.
  • Amaryllis bulbs may not bloom if they are in too large a pot. There should be no more than one inch of space on each side of the bulb. At least one third of the bulb should be above the soil line.
  • House plants with large leaves and smooth foliage (philodendron, dracaena, rubber plant, etc.) benefit if the leaves are washed at intervals to remove dust and grime, and thus keeping the leaf pores open.
  • The Rieger begonia offers vibrant shades of red, orange, or gold blossoms above its dark, glossy leaves. Although it can be maintained for years with some special care and conditions, its several months of bloom are a worthwhile investment, and it can be discarded without a guilty conscience when it begins to look untidy. Its blossoms will last longest if given a half-day of sunlight and normal room temperatures.
  • As a mid-winter project, grow plants from fruit seeds. Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and pomegranates may have viable seed. Try germinating them in a light, potting-soil mixture containing half peat moss. Keep seeds well watered and in a warm location. If seedlings fail to appear in six weeks, try again with new seeds. Citrus plants grown from seeds generally will not produce flowers or fruit, but they do have attractive shiny-leaved foliage.
  • Tired of your Christmas poinsettia? Don’t feel guilty if you toss it out. Like the Christmas tree, it has seasonal symbolism that many of us prefer to keep intact.
  • Good air circulation is absolutely necessary for cacti and succulents. Avoid placing them in hot, stuffy areas. Be sure the indoor garden is well ventilated, yet not drafty.
  • Research has shown that some leaf shine products sold for house plants can reduce the amount of light reaching the interior of the leaves, where food is manufactured photosynthetically. Using weeping figs as subjects, it was shown that surfaces of leaves treated with leaf shine products reflect significant amounts of light instead of absorbing it. Low-light conditions, plus use of leaf shine compounds, could add up to unhealthy plants.
  • Never fertilize a plant in dry soil. The fertilizer could burn roots that need water. It’s better to water plants a couple of hours before fertilizing.
  • On mild, sunny days be sure to ventilate cold frames and greenhouses to avoid a buildup of excessive heat.
  • The fumes produced by kerosene heaters in a small, home greenhouse may damage plants.
  • Avoid overcrowding in greenhouses and hotbeds. Crowding can lead to trouble in the middle of winter when the ventilators are rarely opened. Still, damp air encourages fungus diseases, and the soft, new growth on the plants invites aphid infestation, especially when crowding occurs.
  • Let your houseplants rest. Do not resume fertilizing them until they begin to show signs of new growth. Trim off anything unsightly. Keep them evenly moist – don’t flood them or let them dry out. If pests show up, control by hand removal or insecticidal soap.
  • Keep an eye out for fungus gnats. They thrive in overly wet soils. Visit the articles section
    on Integrated Pest Managment (yes, even for indoor gardening!) for information on these annoying little creatures.

Miscellaneous Gardening Reminders for February

February can a difficult month in the garden, often very wet; it is often wiser to leave any sowing and planting until March. However for those who wish to carry on regardless, there is much that can be done.

  • Surprise a friend or relative with a flower arrangement of something different (like red carnation, anthurium, tulip, or exotic protea) for Valentine’s Day, or give a subscription to Homestead Express!
  • Check the roses in your Valentine’s arrangement for “bent neck”. When your roses droop this way, it is best to pull them from the arrangement and discard since re-cutting the stems will not perk them up again.
  • As you travel this spring, consider visiting the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. It is a research institution for the improvement of plants through introduction, breeding, and selection. It not only conducts research on trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, but also educates the public. It is part of the USDA and is open to the public free of charge.
  • When purchasing cut roses, choose colors that are clear and sharp. Look for flowers with petals that are just starting to unfurl, and buds that are springy to the touch. A rosebud that is too tight is known as a “bullhead” and will never open. The cause of bullheads is unknown.
  • A jar of germinating grain is an old-time propagator’s tool that is worth a try. After the grain has soaked for a day or two, dip the bases of cuttings in the sprout water. The hormones produced by the sprouting seeds may stimulate rooting of the cuttings.
  • To save time when the growing season is in full swing, sort seed packets by season now. Put each group (transplant, early, middle, late) in its own box. In each box, group packets into early, middle and late subsections. When sowing time comes, there will be no time lost searching for seed.
  • Handle seed packets carefully. Rubbing the outside to determine how many seeds are inside can break the protective seed coats, thereby reducing germination.
  • To beat the high cost of Valentine’s Day floral decorations, try giving red gladiolus instead of roses. Glads should be reasonably priced near February.
  • Insecticidal soaps can cause browning of leaf margins and brown or yellow spots on leaves of some plants, especially if the plants are stressed from re-potting or transplanting. Some varieties of begonias, impatiens, geraniums, fuchsias, gardenias, and nasturtiums show sensitivity to soap sprays. Test for sensitivity by treating a small part of the plant, then checking the plant several times over the next two days. If a test plant wilts, rinse it off with water and do not use soap spray on that cultivar.
  • Poor seed germination often results from planting in cold soil. Seeds pre-sprouted between layers of moist paper towels may become successfully established when dormant seeds fail. But pre-sprouted seeds are fragile to handle. A planting gel can be made by suspending pre-sprouted seeds in a mixture of 1 tablespoon of cornstarch heated to a boiling 1 cup of water. When the mixture cools, put it in a plastic bag, add pre-sprouted seeds, and stir gently to distribute seeds evenly. Then cut a small hole in the bottom of the bag and squeeze the gel out along the planting furrow. You have solved the problem of poor germination as well as plant spacing.
  • Instead of buying a seed packet combination at a premium price, create a culinary theme garden yourself by carefully selecting seeds for the cuisine you favor. For Oriental cooking, choose snow peas; green onions; daikon radish; Chinese cabbage; and long, thin eggplant. For the French gourmet, include haricot vert green beans; courgette zucchini; mini-carrots; butterhead lettuce; and the herbs, chervil and French tarragon. Indian cuisine needs shell peas, fiery peppers, and cumin.
  • Research has shown that hydrophilic polyacrylamide gels, currently being marketed as aids to watering house plants, do not absorb water as well when fertilizer solutions are used.
  • If the soil dries out against a house under the eaves where rain rarely reaches, water well during a winter thaw to prevent loss of plants. Remember that plants require water during the winter to replace water lost due to wind desiccation and lack of rain or snow.
  • Pressed flowers collected last summer or pictures from your old garden catalogs can be used to add a romantic floral touch to an old-fashioned valentine.
  • To make old hay and manure weed-free, spread them on the soil in late winter, water well, and cover with black plastic. Weed seeds will sprout after few days of warm weather, then will be killed by frost and lack of light.
  • If you seek unusual glass vases for cut flowers, try test tubes and beakers, available from hospital supply stores and catalogs. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Offering a full view of stems, they add a new dimension to flower arranging.
  • The grain, triticale, is only about 100 years old. It is a cross between wheat and rye. This grain has a higher protein content and better balance of amino acids than wheat. Triticale flour is already being used in some breads. It is best mixed with wheat flour to make a pliable dough that rises well.
  • For the serious grower using heat, there are many tasks that can be undertaken in the greenhouse, with the days growing longer, fuchsia and geranium cuttings can be started off, early seeds can be sown in trays. But be warned this early production has its problems; seedlings and cuttings will damp off (go rotten at the base of the stem) in certain weather conditions and must be sprayed with a suitable fungicide. Many people buy
    part grown plug plants at this time of year, and to avoid damping off it is advisable to spread the plants out in your greenhouse so that fresh air can circulate.

“In joy or sadness, flowers are our constant friends.”
~ Kozuko Okakura

February Gardening Calendar

The Ready Store
"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patient in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease" ~ Thomas Jefferson