This Month in the Garden – February 2024

Well here we are in February – what a fabulous month.  The days are lengthening and there is the promise of everything to come.  This month the long awaited snowdrops are the stars.  The Victorians associated them with death which was why they were often planted in churchyards – St James’ has a magnificent display.  But today we associate them with joy and hopefulness.  In the words of Mary Robinson in her Ode to the Snowdrop written in the eighteenth century  “A beauteous gem appears”  Of course the winters Mary Robinson experienced were likely to be much colder than those we have now and her poem reflects, not only the struggles of the snowdrop against the elements, but also her own rather chequered life …

February is also the month when garden visiting begins and there are lots of places which have spectacular displays of snowdrops.  Many of us have been to Anglesey Abbey, Chippenham Park or Coton Manor.  However, I have now discovered that Thenford Arboretum, near Banbury also has a collection of over 600 different snowdrop species and is open for snowdrop walks but tickets must be booked online.  Thenford is the home of Michael Hesseltine and his wife.  The arboretum which he has planned and planted over more than forty years is well worth visiting.  The BGA organised a trip there several years ago and we met Michael and his daughter, who was serving tea – we had such a lovely afternoon.  So lots of interesting places to explore.  And ….. whilst I am on the subject of snowdrops it is said that people planted them along their cottage garden paths so that when the snowdrops caught the moon light they shone out and lit the way for night time visits to the privy!

Aside from snowdrops there are many other delights in the winter garden.  The low light in winter has a magical effect and illuminates the garden in a different way from the bright light of summer.  We should reflect on this when planting grasses to ensure that they, and seed heads, are back lit.  I was watching an episode of Gardeners’ World on BBC 2 a couple of weeks ago.  Nick Bailey was visiting Kathy Brown in her garden at Stevington – they filmed it last year.  Kathy had planted Cornus Midwinter Fire whose yellow, orange and red tipped stems are delightful.  However Kathy had taken this to another level by combining this cornus with the white stemmed bramble Rubus cockburnianus – the effect was stunning in the winter sun.  Once these plants are established they will need pruning back in late February – the Rubus to ground level every year and the cornus a few inches from the ground every couple of years.  This ensures that the stems stay bright and vibrant.  Kathy’s garden is well worth a visit in winter as is Anglesey Abbey and Cambridge Botanic Garden – they all have winter walks.  Here you will be able to see hellebores, daphne, mahonia, sarcococca – all good for winter pollinators and the daphne and sarcococca are particularly fragrant.  But especially good for over wintering insects and pollinators is ivy – we should all let some grow in our gardens and if you have a wild area the humble primrose – primula vulgaris will naturalise well in light shade.

There is plenty to be getting on with during February.  Chit early and main crop potatoes.  Sit  each seed potato in an egg box in a light, cool, frost free place to encourage small, strong, stubby shoots to appear.  This will give them a head start when you plant them out later in the year.  I always found my children and grandchildren loved doing this and were so excited when we tipped out the potato bag at harvest time.  The potatoes, when they have chitted can be planted in old compost bags, pierced with a few holes for drainage.  Only a few inches of soil or compost is needed to start with – and as the potatoes show their shoots “earth them up” by putting in a few more inches of compost each time the shoots break through.  I remember the excitement in my 4 year old granddaughter’s voice when I arrived at her house and she greeted me at the door with “Great news Nana – the potatoes are up!”  It’s good to start children off when they are young – so that, hopefully, their interest in all things growing will continue.

Fruit trees can be pruned whilst they are still dormant as can autumn fruiting raspberries.  Now is the time to prepare the ground and plant summer fruiting raspberries.  Ventilate the greenhouse and try not to water too much.  Check over-wintering dahlia tubers and remove any signs of disease or rot.  Make a start on potting up lily bulbs.  Order gladioli and other summer flowering corms and bulbs.  Prepare the soil for sowing early vegetables by covering the ground with polythene sheeting to warm it up.  Shallots and Jerusalem artichokes can be planted now.  Do dig a small hole and actually plant the shallots rather than pushing them straight into the ground.  This gives the roots a chance to grow into the soil rather than sit on a hard surface which enables the birds to scratch them out.  It’s so disappointing when carefully ordered rows are reduced to a shambles after the birds have been at work.  Gardening is full of downs as well as ups – for me this month the up side is the bowls of miniature iris that I planted before Christmas and the fat buds of the amaryllis  – Christmas presents planted at the start of the new year – and, of course, my refurbed pond bringing great joy as I knew it would as each month passes.  I hope you are enjoying more “ups” than “downs” in your garden as we progress into the Spring. 

Linda Truscott

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