What to do in your garden in February

Marcia Tatroe,  – December 28, 2005

Flowers. Scatter seeds of hardy annuals and biennials just before a snowstorm is forecast. Among those that prefer cool weather for germination are bachelor’s button, California poppy, catchfly ( Silene armeria), Chinese delphinium, Chinese forget-me-not, flowering flax, horned poppy, Johnny-jump-ups, larkspur, love-in-a-mist, milk thistle ( Silybum marianum), pot marigold, prickly poppy, rose campion, Rudbeckia triloba, scarlet gilia ( Ipomopsis aggregata), snapdragon, sweet alyssum, sweet William, and wallflower.

Fruit trees. Plant bare-root fruit trees as soon as the soil has thawed. Good apples for cold climates are ‘Connell Red’, ‘Haralson’, ‘Honeygold’, ‘Keepsake’, ‘Prairie Spy’, ‘Regent’, and ‘Sweet Sixteen’. Other fruit trees to try are ‘Chinese’ and ‘Goldcot’ apricots; ‘Montmorency’ sour cherry; ‘Gold’ sweet cherry; ‘Hardired’ nectarine; ‘Luscious’ pear; ‘Contender’, ‘Cresthaven’, ‘Garnet Beauty’, ‘Harcrest’, ‘Madison’, ‘Redskin’, and ‘Summer Serenade’ peaches; and ‘Pipestone’ and ‘Toka’ plums.

Houseplant. For something a bit unusual, try one of many Haworthia species or hybrids. These rosette-shaped succulents from South Africa make attractive and easy houseplants. The 1- to 6-inch-tall aloe relatives come in a variety of forms, with narrow or wide leaves that may be accented with white stripes or markings. The long stalks of greenish or white flowers are not particularly showy. Slip the pot into an eye-catching container and display in a brightly lit room. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings.

Salad greens. As soon as the soil has thawed, sow seeds of arugula, beet, lettuce, mesclun, mustard, radicchio, spinach, and Swiss chard. Cover the bed with a frost blanket (available from garden centers), and keep the soil evenly moist until seeds germinate. You can start snipping greens when they’re 1 to 2 inches tall. A good source for seeds is Territorial Seed Company (800/626-0866).

Winter color. Few things dispel winter’s gloom better than crocus, snow iris ( Iris danfordiae, I. histrioides, and I. reticulata), and the species tulip Tulipa humilis (also known as T. pulchella) blooming through snow. Mark areas where you would like these bulbs to bloom in future years (write “yellow crocuses here” on a plant label) so you can plant them there when they become available in bulk later in the year. All appreciate a hot, sunny site.

Summer bulbs. Lilies and other summer-blooming bulbs start appearing in garden centers this month. Plant lilies as soon as the soil thaws. Store bulbs for begonias, caladiums, cannas, dahlias, gladiolas, hardy gloxinias, and pineapple lilies in a cool, dry place until March, when they can be started indoors in pots. Or wait until May to plant directly in the garden. If you can’t find these bulbs locally, try Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (804/693-3966).

Cover some perennials. Extreme temperature fluctuations in midwinter can damage or kill otherwise hardy perennials, especially those with evergreen leaves or stems. Protect lavender, lavender cotton ( Santolina chamaecyparissus), rosemary, sunrose ( Helianthemum nummularium), and thyme by covering them with evergreen boughs. Leave the boughs in place until May, or throw a frost blanket or sheet over these plants whenever an arctic freeze is forecast; remove the cover between freezes.

Prevent and treat tree suckers. Aspen, chokecherry, and sumac have a tendency to produce suckers (stems that arise from the base of trunks). When other trees sucker, it may indicate declining health caused by cultural problems (such as damage to the trunk), disease, or an insect infestation. To prevent damage to the trunk, remove stakes and braces after one year. When planting trees, take off all ropes, wire, and burlap from the rootball to prevent damage to growing roots. For insect or disease problems, call your local county extension office for advice. When suckers appear, cut them off at the base.

Care for ponds. Check the water level at least once a week, and top your pond off with fresh water when needed. If the pond contains fish and your tap water is treated with chlorine (call the water department to find out), use a dechlorination product every time you fill it. Remove leaves and other debris with a pond skimmer. For pond care products and plants, try Lilypons Water Gardens (800/999-5459).

Protect crocus. Yellow varieties draw house finches and sparrows, which make confetti out of the flowers. To distract the birds, set out feeders filled with seeds. Or to frighten the birds away, place foil pinwheels (such as the ones sold for children’s Easter baskets) every few feet among the flowers.

Pull weeds. By late winter, the soil should be loose and friable from freezing and thawing cycles, making it easier to remove taprooted biennial weeds, such as mallow and salsify. Before yanking one out, stick a trowel straight down against the length of the root and push against the base of the plant to loosen it. Then pull out the trowel, grasp the entire rosette of leaves, and pull up firmly and steadily to keep from breaking the root. Late winter is also a good time to watch for young dandelions, prickly lettuce, and other cool-season weeds; they’re easier to pull while they’re still small.

Tend moth orchids. After the last bloom has faded, snip back the stem to the node that’s just below where the oldest (first) flower emerged; make the cut about ¼ inch above the node. This often triggers moth orchids to send out a secondary spike of bloom.