The Ornamental Garden in February
February By the Numbers
Many gardeners endure February as the month that makes them wait too long for spring. Our hopes are raised by tantalizing activity in the garden, only to be dashed by a late winter snow. In fact, the numbers explain this ricochet between hope and impatience during the shortest, yet seemingly longest, month. According to data collected between 1981 and 2010, February is the second coldest month of the year after January in Charlottesville, with an average high of 49 and an average low of 29. It is also the snowiest month, with an average snowfall of 5.8”! December averages 4.3” and January 3.4.” March, however, is truly spring-like, with an average high temperature of 58 and an average low of 36. Its average snowfall is 2.1” and with those temperature ranges, snow time on the ground is fleeting. No wonder we want to get out from under the “burden” of February into the promise of spring!
A Poet’s Look at February
Just as the numbers give evidence to our perceptions, the poets give voice to our moods. Margaret Atwood describes the bleakness of the month:
Gertrude S. Wister takes a more hopeful view:
I think we can all relate to that!
So, what is the impatient gardener to do?
Prepare Garden Tools
Make sure your tools are prepared for the job ahead:
- Clean pruners of any dirt and grime. It’s a good practice to oil your pruners after heavy use. This will prevent rust from accumulating on the blades. When pruning, wipe pruning blades often, ideally between each cut, at least between plants. Use a weak bleach solution to clean pruning blades.
- Sharpen pruners. Sharp blades make the job easier for you, and clean cuts are much better for your plants. Ragged edges can provide entryways for diseases and pests.
- Service lawnmowers. Avoid the service rush once the weather turns warm by getting a tune up and sharpening blades so that you’re ready for that first mow.
- Ensure good condition of hoses and sprinklers. Take advantage of warm days to make sure all your planters and saucers are clean and ready for spring plants.
If you’ve always wanted to “professionalize” your garden with plant identification markers, now is the time to start. If you don’t have markers, purchase weather-resistant metal or ceramic markets. You can also make your own, but wood will need to be replaced. Plastic is lightweight and needs to be reinserted fairly regularly. The type of material depends on your time horizon and budget. But the important thing is to start!
Prune Dormant Shrubs
Late winter is the time to prune deciduous bushes that are still dormant, generally those that bloom in late summer or fall. These shrubs bloom on new wood, and so produce foliage and blooms after pruning. Early spring-blooming shrubs such as forsythia and azaleas, however, should be pruned immediately after blooming. These shrubs bloom on old wood, and if pruned before blooming, the buds will be cut off and you’ll need to wait another year without pruning to enjoy their flowers. Now is the time to prune berry bushes such as blueberries, currants and gooseberries. Remove about a third of the oldest stems and cut them back to the ground. There are many very helpful VCE publications on pruning. For a list of recommended pruning times for specific shrubs, see A Guide to Successful Pruning, A Pruning Calendar.
Cut Back Perennials
The February blooms of hellebores are one of the first and most encouraging signs of spring. Once the plants are blooming, trim back the old foliage to encourage new growth. The trimming also makes the blooms more visible. Some have blooms that are tucked away under the foliage like hidden gems, and other have blooms that are more upright and visible.
Cut back liriope now to help encourage new growth for the spring.
Towards the end of the month, check ferns for signs of new growth. Leave the old fronds to protect the crown from harsh weather. When the new frond curls start to appear, carefully trim off the dead fronds.
Cut back dormant ornamental grasses. See the February 2017 issue of The Garden Shed for tips on specific grasses.
February is an excellent month to start preparing for planting seed. According to the University of Virginia Climatology office, there is a 10% chance of frost (32⁰) in our area after April 16 and a 10% chance of dipping below 36⁰ after April 28. Some seeds are better started indoors, while some seed can be sown directly outdoors. Divide your seed packets accordingly. Count back from the last frost date using the germination time for each type of plant you intend to sow indoors. If it takes 10 days on average to germinate, and about 6 weeks to get to a size appropriate for transplanting outside, add those times together and count back. Be prepared to protect tender transplants from chilly weather that strays from the average—nature does that sometimes!
Treat Invasive Species
There is activity in the late-winter early-spring landscape that is not welcome and we need to get energized for battle. National Invasive Species Awareness Week is February 26-March 2, 2018. Invasive species means a species that is nonnative to the ecosystem under consideration, and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause harm to the environment, the economy, or the health of humans. This is a large, complex topic, but resolve to set aside some time this February to familiarize yourself with invasive species in our area. Go to the PRISM website for information on identifying and treating invasive species. Be aware that late winter to early spring is a good time to target certain species such as Autumn Olive, Porcelainberry, Privet and Tree-of-Heaven with the basal bark method. Basal Bark: Apply a concentrated herbicide in horticultural or vegetable oil, to plant stems of 6 inches or less in diameter. Spray or paint all stems from ground level up to about 12 inches. This is most effective in January and February or from May to October. The topic of invasive species is planned for a future article in The Garden Shed.
Provide Natural Food Sources for Birds
In the January 2018 issue of Tasks and Tips, there was a discussion of different seeds and types of feeders to help birds through the cold winter months. Early spring is a good time to identify shrubs and trees to plant in our landscape so as to provide natural sources of nuts and berries. A starter list published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends tree, vines, and shrubs that produce fruits attractive to birds. It is helpful to identify those that offer spring or summer fruiting as opposed to fall and winter fruiting, so that you can provide a more consistent, year-round natural source of food.
Some plants provide fruits and seeds. Some varieties of crabapples, for example, have smaller fruits that are easier for birds to swallow. The flowers and flower buds of crabapples in spring are also edible and the fruit lasts throughout the winter.
Different shrubs and trees are attractive to different types of birds, so you may want to consider the types of birds you especially want to attract. Trees also provide nesting sites. The size of the shrub or tree should be evaluated for its fit within your landscape. Coniferous trees such as the Eastern red cedar, Juniperous virginiana, and spruces, Picea species, offer fall fruiting and winter-persistent fruit. Evergreen needles also attract insects that are a good food source for birds in early spring. These trees are very large, however, and so will only be appropriate to large landscapes. The Easter red cedar was featured in the December 2017 issue of The Garden Shed.
An example of a deciduous shrub that provides fall fruit that lasts through winter is Winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata. This hardy shrub is tolerant of wet conditions and grows from 5’ to 15’ tall. Scarlet berries are important food for winter resident birds. Both male and female plants produce flowers, but only fertilized flowers on female winterberry shrubs produce berries. In general, one male winterberry holly is adequate for pollinating three to six or more female plants, so allow enough space for multiple plants. For more information on this beautiful shrub, see the December 2015 issue of The Garden Shed.
As you enjoy the activity around your bird feeder this February, make a list of the birds you especially enjoy or birds you would like to attract. Then spend some time researching trees and shrubs that attract those birds. Compare that list to your current collection of trees and shrubs and see what will complement and add to your overall landscape. It’s a great opportunity to “remodel” or refresh your landscape with a new goal in mind: provide a natural source of food for birds in all four seasons.