FEBRUARY: Keep telling yourself that the rain will, in the long run be good for the garden!
If it turns cold, take measures to protect them from the weather and particularly frost, which causes the water in plant cells to freeze, damaging the cell wall. Frost-damaged plants are easy to spot; their growth becomes limp, blackened and distorted. Evergreen plants often turn brown and the leaves of tender plants take on a translucent appearance. Frost problems are often made worse where plants face the morning sun, as this causes them to defrost quickly, rupturing their cell walls.
Hardy plants and tough evergreens can also be damaged by prolonged spells of severe cold when soil becomes frozen. Roots are unable to take up water and plants die from lack of moisture. Periods of cold, frosty weather during April and May can also kill blossom and damage fruit.
Prevention is far better than cure, so try to minimise the damaging effects of cold on your plants:
– Avoid golden or variegated plant varieties that are often more tender.
– Choose plants that are reliably hardy in the area where you live.
– Avoid high-nitrogen fertilisers as they encourage plants to make lots of sappy leafy growth that is particularly susceptible to damage, especially early and late in the year.
– Make sure tender specimens are planted in a sheltered spot, under large trees and shrubs or against walls, give them some heat and protection during the winter.
– Ensure that plants with tender flower buds or shoots are not planted in east-facing sites.
– Leave the old growth of tender plants unpruned over the winter months. This will help to protect the central crown of the plant and take the brunt of any frost damage. If plants are cut back hard in autumn new growth could be damaged by frost.
Cold air and frost always descend to the lowest point in a garden so avoid planting tender plants in obvious frost pockets.
It’s not all doom and gloom out there though. You can enjoy fresh veg even in the depths of winter. Leeks, Brussels sprouts and cabbages can be picked as you need them. Check sprouts regularly to catch them before they become too large. There are also root crops to lift, including Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips. Covering the soil with straw will help to ensure that it doesn’t freeze solid so you can carry on harvesting in the harshest of weather. Lift them carefully, with a garden fork, to avoid damaging them. Remember to save a few Jerusalem artichoke tubers to replant in spring.
On the warmer days crops that can be sown under cloches include broad beans, early carrots and parsnips. Shallots can also be planted out. Sow summer cabbage, leeks and onions under cover in a warm propagator. Take cuttings from overwintered stools (root stocks) of chrysanthemum during February. It’s also a good time to order new varieties from specialist chrysanthemum nurseries. Prune outdoor grape vines, shortening last year’s fruited shoots to encourage new growth.
Spread mulch this month before plants get too large. Use a thick layer of compost, pulverised bark or similar material over borders and between trees, shrubs, roses and fruit. This can be applied up to 5cm to 7.5cm (2in to 3in) thick, if you have sufficient material. Newly emerging perennials should grow up through it. Take care not to cover dwarf bulbs, such as winter aconites, soon in flower. Send off to mail-order companies for seeds to sow this spring.
An impressive range of new varieties of flowers and vegetables can be found in most catalogues, so do try some of these exciting introductions to complement your tried and tested favourites. Remember to store seed packets in a cool and dry place, such as in a sandwich box in your fridge, until ready for sowing.
Even if you don’t get time to start the winter digging, try and cover areas to be dug with a layer of compost or manure. This will be worked in by worms over time, or it can be lightly forked in to the surface in spring to prepare the soil for planting.