February in the Ornamental Garden
The best thing about February – besides Valentine’s Day — is that it’s short! For many of us, February is a month to be endured while we wait for spring. The days are noticeably longer now, but the bone-chilling temperatures and the frozen ground clearly remind us that it’s still winter outside. We know it’s too soon to start working in our gardens, but there’s plenty that we can be doing while we wait for spring to arrive.
February is a good time to take root cuttings from your houseplants. The basic procedure is to use a sharp knife to sever a cutting just below a node. The severed piece should be about 2 to 6 inches long. Remove all but the top 2 or 3 sets of leaves. For expert advice on methods for propagation, see Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication No. 426-002, Propagation by Cuttings, Layering and Division. (http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/426/426-002/426-002_pdf.pdf).
If you’re interested in re-purposing plastic soda bottles to keep them out of the land fill, use them to make mini “greenhouses” for rooting house plants or cuttings from annuals and perennials. Here’s what you do:
- Remove the paper or plastic label that surrounds the empty 2-liter soda bottle.
- Thoroughly rinse out the bottle and screw the cap back on.
- Carefully cut the bottle in two about 3 to 4 inches from the bottom.
- Fill the bottom portion with a couple inches of well- moistened (but not soggy) potting soil.
- Using a pencil or other pointed implement, poke a hole in the moistened potting soil.
- Insert the stem cutting of your plant into the hole deeply enough so that it can support itself.
- Place the top portion of the bottle over the bottom portion and maneuver the two so that the top overlaps the bottom portion slightly. If you find it difficult to do this, try taping the two parts together.
- Place the bottle where it can receive plenty of light, but do not place it in direct sun.
- Depending on the plant you’re rooting, it may take 6 to 10 weeks for roots to develop. You should be able to see the roots through the clear plastic soda bottle.
Cut amaryllis flower stalks off about one-half inch from the bulb now that the plant has finished blooming. Do not remove the strappy leaves. They are needed for photosynthesis so that the plant will bloom next year. Give the plant plenty of light and keep the soil moist but not soggy.
Are you wondering what to do with forced bulbs now that they have finished blooming? Don’t throw them out! If you forced spring bulbs such as daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses or paperwhites into bloom this winter, continue to give them sufficient water and light to keep the foliage alive and healthy until spring. Plant them in your garden then. They will gradually replenish their stores of nutrients and will eventually re-bloom in a couple of years.
Pinch Christmas cactus stems back to encourage a thicker, fuller-looking plant. Pinching them back after they finish blooming is a good way to control their size. Otherwise, they can become quite large and leggy.
If you plan to grow annuals from seed, check the seed packets to see how many weeks they need to reach transplant size. If you intend to transplant the seedlings outdoors in late April or early May, you may find that you need to start the seeds now for such annuals as ageratum, begonia, snapdragons, marigolds or melampodium. As a reminder, the last frost date in this area of Virginia is approximately May 10. If you transplant your seedlings outdoors before that date, you may need to protect them from chilly overnight temperatures.
Do a germination test on seeds left over from previous years to make sure they are viable. This is easy to do. Just moisten a paper towel and place about 10 seeds of the same variety on it. Roll up the paper towel and put it in a plastic bag. Don’t seal the bag. Place the bag in a warm area. Check the seeds daily and keep the paper towel damp. After several days, see how many seeds have sprouted. If at least half of them did, then the rest will likely sprout as well. If less than that, you may need to acquire fresh seed.
If you stored tuberous begonia bulbs over the winter, sprout them in late February or early March for transplanting later into flower beds or hanging baskets. Place the tubers, hollow side up, in a potting mix that drains well. Keep the soil medium damp but not soggy. Place the container in indirect light in a cool room. The tubers should start to sprout within three weeks. Don’t place them outside until about mid-May, after the threat of frost has passed.
Look for the appearance of spring bulb foliage as you stroll through the ornamental garden. A few warm days in February can trigger the emergence of early blooming daffodil, snowdrop, hyacinth, crocus, or other spring bulb foliage. The foliage can generally handle short periods of frosty temperatures without harm as long as daytime temperatures rise above freezing. On the other hand, if temperatures are forecast to drop well below freezing overnight or if prolonged freezing weather is predicted, then you may want to protect the foliage with a frost cover, a layer of evergreen boughs, chopped leaves, light mulch, or even a layer of newspaper.
Prune shrubs and trees while they are dormant, but make sure you know which plants respond well to pruning now and which ones should be pruned later. For example, February is the ideal time to prune arborvitae, juniper, nandina and late spring or early summer flowering abelia, beautyberry, buddleia, or caryopteris. Spring-blooming shrubs, such as forsythia and flowering quince should not be pruned until after they finish flowering, later in the spring. Before you make that first cut, check VCE Publication No. 430-462, A Guide to Successful Pruning, A Pruning Calendar (https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/430/430-462/430-462_pdf.pdf ) for guidance on when to prune shrubs and trees.