February: cruel to be kind

I love this time of year: it is all about promise.

Yes, there are the horribly gloomy days when a duvet and a hot drink are the only things that appeal. However, with the temperature slowly rising and the days getting longer, there are plenty of things in Hampshire gardens to beckon us out. Every foray into the garden reveals another sign of life: those who are keen will already be preparing for spring.

                              A very practical advantage of gardening at this time of year is the fact that deciduous plants still have no leaves: it is easier to see what you are doing. I can get at all those annoying docks (Plantains)with my spiked weeding trowel and dig out the overwintering perennial grass weeds without having to fight through walls of greenery.  Likewise, trees and shrubs are far more accessible at the time of year when many of them are best pruned.

Remember - the main reasons for pruning are to remove dead or diseased growth, to shape a plant and to improve the air circulation and access to sunlight. All these factors will help keep your plants healthy. 

Mulch and feed all plants after pruning to bolster the replacement growth. Bark chippings over a handful of slow-release, organic fertiliser such as 'Growmore' or 'Blood, Fish & Bone' will do the job, as will any well-rotted manure or compost.

So, on the 'to-do' list is:

  • Between now and mid-march and after the heaviest of the frosts, many summer-flowering species can be cut back hard to encourage vigorous spring growth. This category includes Buddleja, Hydrangea, Ceratostigma, Leycesteria, Perovskia, hardy Fuchsias and deciduous Ceonothus. A rule of thumb as to how far to cut is: prune down to approximately one tenth of the existing height of the plant. 
  • Avoid pruning the deciduous Prunus species (almonds, ornamental cherries and plums) as they can be susceptible to silver leaf if pruned before the summer.
  • Snowdrops can be lifted and divided after they have flowered and whilst the shoots are still green and vigorous.
  • Trim winter-flowering heathers (Ericas) after flowering.
  • Climbers such as Virginia creeper and ivy can be chopped back to keep them in order.
  • Winter flowering jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) can have their new shoots tied into the main framework and their lateral growth shortened to about 5cms from the main stems.
  • Clematis are a bit more complex. They can be cut back to the lowest, most vigorous pair of buds the variety belongs to Group 3 (check the label). 
  • Nesting boxes for birds put up now will enable them to check out their potential homes before calling the removal men and starting a family.
  • Wait until mid-spring before turning your compost heaps as hibernating frogs, small mammals and possibly some small gardeners may still be over-wintering there.

A bit of late winter drama by way of pot-grown bulbs and primroses will not only give a bit of a colour show but will also support and encourage bees emerging from hibernation.

Not a bad gift then for humans who find it difficult to get out of bed. A few of those on the bedside table may just do the trick.