Some consider February deep winter, others feel they’ve got the worst behind them and it’s just a quick sprint to March.
I have grown to appreciate February. The sentiment is surprising and a long time coming for this once-California girl, but I can trace its evolution back to the moment we moved to Oldmeadow six years ago. Living rurally (however superficial the definition in a metro area) fully immerses me in a four-season cycle. February feels more like a necessary puzzle piece than a unnecessary month of suffering.
It is a short month, for those who will not be swayed, and I often find myself acting as apologist to friends who have spent one minute too many in a wind-whipped driveway wrestling with an ice scraper. The promise of spring cannot come quickly enough for them, so why am I so quick to defend the browns and greys, the cold, the almost fully deciduous landscape of my Mid-Atlantic February?
In a word: Anticipation.
And February is good at it – contrasting stark lines against colorful glimpses. Snowdrops, hellebores, Adonis, winter aconite, witch hazels…even the odd early daffodil reminds us that the season is progressing – but we can’t have everything yet.
I am thankful to the winter for helping us experience a feeling that is dwindling away in our modern lives. From our favorite TV shows to that newest Instagram-advertised gadget delivered through Prime, we wait for very little. And in the process, we lose the delicious aspect of desire.
But this is about gardening, and so I will shelve my philosophy for another day and instead concentrate on the tasks made for a Mid-Atlantic February – even the warmer one we are currently experiencing.
Outside work is good for our bodies and our minds, and made so much more bearable in the winter if we take time to wrap up Farmer-Warm instead of Fashionista-Warm.
“I should have planted that!” for February’s garden:
Carefully observing neighboring gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing.
Eranthis hyemalis – (winter aconite) – Fresh green Elizabethan ruffs encircle bright yellow perfect flowers held on stems no more than 2-3 inches above the ground. You may notice bright colonies of this winter bloomer near old homesteads and gardens in late winter or earliest spring, or you may think a neighbor is growing very early, very tiny daffodils only to get closer and realize that they are something else completely. At Oldmeadow, eranthis reliably blooms for me in February around the same time as my very common snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii). I am constantly trying to increase my supply through division and seed sowing.
Eranthis is best planted ‘in the green’ – which is to say, after bloom but before the foliage has completely died back (and re-planted quickly). A reliable supplier is important. If you can’t get tubers, then ask your neighbor if you can collect some ripening seed in about two months time. It’s easy to collect, and if you scatter it on humus-rich, moisture retentive soil in partial shade, you will have your own colony in no time at all. And don’t worry – that late snowfall rarely stops the show.
Helleborus orientalis. (Lenten rose) – Hellebores are ridiculously underused in the landscape, yet provide deer-resistant, shade tolerant color in the winter garden for 8-10 weeks – often adding to the spring show as well. Their large, palmate leaves are evergreen, but are usually looking a little ragged by the time that the downward-facing flowers emerge from the center in late winter. No matter – many gardeners and nurseries cut the old foliage off just before flowers begin to emerge – new fresh foliage emerges just afterwards and lasts throughout the growing season.
Though they are commonly thought of as a solution to dry shade areas, they actually do much better in rich, moisture retentive (but not wet) soils – and can handle a lot of sunshine. As your clumps grow more substantial, you too will look around and wonder why they’re still considered unusual!
Helleborus orientalis come in a huge variety of colors and cross like mad bunnies – and unless you are dividing the clumps (best attempted in spring), you won’t get the exact same color/variation- but boy will you get seedlings. The newer, v. popular, upfacing niger hybrids (Like ‘Penny’s Pink,’ ‘Ice Breaker Max,’ ‘Cinnamon Frost,’ etc.) won’t seed in this way and are more expensive. I grow both – using H. ballardiae ‘Pink Frost’ & ‘Joker’ along my walkways and H. orientalis in a more natural setting under witchhazels, interplanted with ‘Rapture’ daffodils. I also have an area that serves as a bit of a collection point for some of the other upfacing hybrids.
Keep your eye out for common seedlings at plant exchanges, or scan the late winter floral displays in grocery stores which have taken to carrying many of the HGC collection of upfacing hybrids. If you’ve got your eye on a named cultivar, Pine Knot Farms in Clarksville, VA is a terrific supplier and Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide, written by Judith Knott Tyler and C Colston Burrell is an EXCELLENT book for getting to know these beautiful plants better.
February Outside Tasks:
● Spread mulch from last season’s pile & have some delivered.
● Scrape winter weeds such as bittercress, dead netttle and chickweed with a sharp hoe. If the ground is fully frozen, this job is made much easier (and is incredibly satisfying).
● Cut back and/or trellis vines and berries.
● Prune fruit trees.
● Prune roses (Two little words, but so much work….)
● Mark the stems that need to be removed from early spring flowerers like lilac and forsythia, so you know which ones to cut for forcing or remove entirely after bloom. With leaves removed, this job is so much easier and better choices can be made.
● Re-gravel paths and drives.
● Re-build raised beds and garden structures that do not require digging into frozen earth for footings.
● Check fences and gates for broken pickets, hinges and groundhog holes and repair them.
● Re-fill raised beds that have settled with compost and topsoil.
● Set up a cold frame or plastic covered rack to receive transplanted seedlings in March.
● Check potted plants that are under the overhang of a porch or covering and may be drying out.
● Start laundering money out of the budget to cover the big spring blow-out in a couple months.
February Inside Tasks:
● Sort seeds.
● Plant seed flats of cold season veggies such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, leeks, lettuce and celery indoors or under glass.
● Prepare a place for the seedlings to go when they are big enough to transplant. Basement? Cold frame? Garage?
● Start to put together real plans for one “big project” for this growing season.
● Keep basement or garage stored plants lightly watered.
● Check for mice getting into overwintering plants. My cats are great mousers, but they also love to use that soil for other reasons so I use a layer of gravel to discourage them.
● Aim for a little less screen time at bedtime by going to your local library or your own gardening collection, and picking out a couple of inspiring picture-filled books to pepper your dreams.
Visit a botanical garden conservatory! One sniff of warm, moist air filled with the heavy scents of thriving, healthy plants will motivate me through all the chores above.
If you’re in the Mid-Atlantic, here are some mid-Atlantic glass houses to get you started:
United States Botanic Gardens, Washington DC
Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, Baltimore, MD
Longwood Gardens conservatory, Kennett Square, PA
Hillwood Gardens greenhouse (& estate house), Washington DC
Phippps Conservatory, Pittsburgh, PA
Brookside Gardens Conservatory, Wheaton, MD
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond, VA
And here you were thinking that there was nothing to do this month…..