By Susan Stone
This is the time of year that tests our patience as gardeners. The frost and freezing temperatures have turned our perennials and delicate foliage to limp dish rags hanging on the stalk and vine. Wait…be patient. Don’t do anything you’ll regret later like going out there in the sunshine to pruning everything till it looks neat and tidy again. Just wait…it’s almost time.
If we cut our “dishrags” back, whether it be a giant leopard plant or our beloved bananas, we will expose the plant to more severe damage during the next cold snap. The damaged leaves are now protecting the new growth that is tempted by the fleeting warm temperatures. The rule of thumb I have always used is the last frost. After that you can prune away, but when is the last frost? According to the 2015 Farmer’s Almanac, our last frost will fall between March 1st and 9th.
There are exceptions. You can prune most deciduous shrubs as well as cane berries, deciduous fruit trees, grapes, roses, and wisteria before mid-February. You will want to cut away any diseased branches and cross branching that will damage the plants later in the growing season. Many on-line guides are available to instruct you if you’re not sure where to cut or how to shape. Wait to prune spring-flowering ornamentals like forsythia and quince, and spring-flowering shrubs like azalea and camellia until after they flower.
The first of February is a good time to fertilize spring-blooming flowers and fall-planted annuals and perennials. Wait to feed azaleas, camellias until after they finish blooming; use an acid based fertilizer. Fertilize deciduous fruit trees two to three weeks before they flower. Feed other mature trees and shrubs as new growth starts.
With days getting longer and warmer, many of us are anxious to plant SOMETHING! Fortunately, there are many choices. February is a great month to get started. Set out summer flowering bulbs like amaryllis, calla, canna, dahlia, gladiolus, lily, tuberose, tuberous begonia, and tiger flower. Bare-root vegetables such as artichoke, asparagus, horseradish, and rhubarb can be planted now as well. You could plant spring flowering perennials, like bleeding heart, coral bells, campanula and perennial dianthus. This is also a good time to plant bare-root ornamentals such as roses, shade trees and vines.
Continue covering frost-sensitive outdoor plants. Don’t let the covering touch the leaves, and remove it in the morning. Don’t forget to water! High winds and long periods between rains leave your garden vulnerable to cold damage.
Watch for signs of growth in early spring bulbs. When foliage is 1 inch high, gradually start removing mulch. Cloudy days are best for the initial exposure of the leaves to strong sunlight which can burn tender foliage…even at these cool temperatures.
Pest control doesn’t seem very important at this time of year, but it really is the best time to get ahead of the game. Apply dormant oil or spray neem oil on evergreens and deciduous plants whose buds are still closed to control white fly and scale. Cloudy days are the best conditions for application. The sun is still intense here, even in winter. I learned this lesson the hard way when I applied neem oil to more than 200 camellias on a sunny day. Trust me…not a good idea.
The year ahead looks pretty normal for temperatures and rainfall, according to the Farmer’s Almanac. We’ll be a bit dry for February and wet for March. It looks very dry for June & Sept. Other months look pretty moderate…a little above normal and a little below.
You may send Susan your questions and garden wisdom to firstname.lastname@example.org.