February in the Flower Field
It feels like it’s been a long winter but, at last, there are definite signs spring is on its way. Look closely and you’ll see that shrubs and perennials are beginning to form shoots. The snowdrops have been making me smile for a few weeks now and in the tunnel the anemones are starting to flower regularly. I’ve even spotted a couple of ranunculus buds - so exciting!
I’m already cutting scented narcissi. ‘Cragford’ is a really early variety which bulks up every year and is incredibly reliable. Its petals are slightly crumpled - like they just woke up after a great night out. If you’re lucky enough to have any narcissi in bloom, I urge you to pick a few for the table - it’s a great way to make you feel like it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to get outside for a couple of hours. Choose a sunny day and wrap up warm - there’s plenty to be getting on with:
Have you done your seed order? I’ve only just got mine finished. I find that if I order seeds any earlier, I can’t resist sowing them and it’s not really a good idea to sow too early. With the exception of a few annuals which need a long season to flower (like cobaea and snapdragons) it’s best to wait until March, even if you have a heated propagator. It’s not just the temperatures but the number of daylight hours and the difference between day- and night-time temperatures which affect germination and growth. Seedlings grown later will catch up with those sown earlier and be healthier for it. I am toying with the idea of sowing according to the moon calendar this year. If any of you have tried it, do leave a comment to tell me if you thought it worked.
My autumn-sown hardy annuals are bursting out of their pots. I’ve planted as many as I can in the tunnels - they will provide our earliest annual crops - but the rest really need to be planted outside. I’ve been resisting as it’s so cold but I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and get them out this week. I drink a lot of sparkling water and (partly to ease my guilt about the plastic) I use the bottles as individual cloches*. Once they’re established and big enough to resist any slug attacks, I’ll take the bottles off.
Your ranunculus plants should be growing away now. They are very susceptible to powdery mildew which if it takes hold will sweep through all of them and, although you’ll still get flowers, they’ll be a bit manky. As soon as you see any signs of white dust on the leaves, pick them off and burn or bin them. Don’t put them in your compost as the spores may spread elsewhere. To keep it at bay, make sure there’s plenty of ventilation and that the plants don’t dry out.
Keep checking on any dahlias you lifted in the autumn and chuck any tubers that are soft or mouldy. When I looked at ours last week, a few were pushing out roots. As we’re lucky enough to have a heated propagator, I will pot them up and start them into growth so that we can take some cuttings from them.
Sweet peas can be sown now for an early display. Root-trainers, loo rolls or just any tall pot are best, as they like a long root run. Soak the seeds overnight to soften them, then sow them about an inch deep and protect them from mice. Most importantly, choose varieties for scent rather than stem length - sweet peas are for sticking your nose in. If you want long stems for bouquets, grow them as cordons (I will try and remember to write about how that’s done later in the spring).
The hellebores are flowering! Hallelujah and hoorah for hellebores. If yours are, do cut some for the house. Many people think they don’t have a long enough vase life for cutting but searing the ends of the stems in boiling water will make them stand up in the vase and last days longer. Cut the stems and put into water as soon as you can. Once you get indoors put the kettle on and pour about an inch of boiling water into a mug. Recut the stems and hold the stem ends in the boiling water for about 20 seconds, then put them straight into water in your vase. Believe me, you will be astounded by the difference this makes.**
Another job to get done by the end of February is pruning the roses. I know many people do them earlier but I find it easier if they have begun to shoot a little - none of that peering at black marks wondering if it’s a bud or just a blemish. I cut ours down to about 18 inches. I take out any stems that are damaged or crossing, then cut just above a shoot with a sharp pair of secateurs. Aim for a goblet shape with an airy centre. After pruning, I give them a feed and mulch the plants well. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on pruning but it seems to work for me.
One of the big jobs for us in February is cutting the willow fedges. We have three fedges (a portmanteau word from ‘fence’ and ‘hedge’) which are primarily there as windbreaks but also give us pussy willow and withies for weaving. If you would like to plant one, now is the perfect time. Push thin withies (I got mine originally from Musgrove Willows) about a foot into the ground and make sure they get lots of water. I pushed some of mine in at an angle to make a crossed pattern - have a look online for ideas. Bear in mind that the willow will suck up a lot of water, so don’t plant one too near your best flower bed.
Got questions about your February jobs? Leave them in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them.
*Cut the tops and bottoms off. The tube you’re left with makes great protection from the wind and slugs without restricting growth. The bottoms can be planted into and the tops make mini cloches to go on top of pots.
**We use this searing method for the vast majority of our flowers. It doesn’t work with everything but it doesn’t seem to hurt anything so is always worth a try.
Next month: growing sweet peas as cordons, sowing and a quick guide to No-Dig.