February is a strange month to be a ‘grow your own’ gardener. It could be wintry for most of the month but there are often at least a couple of days that offer more than a hint of spring. This prompts me to want to impulsively start planting something or tidying up. As the evenings get noticeably lighter there’s an unmissable feeling that another growing season is on its way.
There are lots of easy but effective things to do this month that are easily forgotten at the start of spring when the garden becomes a busier place. Enjoy the peace of a few productive February days on the veg plot. With spring getting closer, it’s a month to ‘do’ and to dream!
More February fruit and veg advice:
Starting something new
If you’ve got a greenhouse or a polytunnel then now is a great time to get a new crop of aubergines underway. If you’re going to grow them outside, sow in March instead because you’ll need to wait until late May until they can be finally planted out. Aubergines don’t take kindly to our climate at this time of year (who can blame them?), needing a temperature of 18-21°C after sowing.
Sow the seeds in module trays filled with seed-sowing compost, sowing two seeds per module on the compost surface, then covering with a layer of vermiculite. Once germinated, keep them somewhere warm and well-lit, discarding the weakest seedling to leave one sturdy young plant per module. Water the compost gently each time it's pale and dusty.
Super healthy and always greatly improving the quality of my culinary efforts, I’m not sure that it’s ever possible to have enough garlic. Although if you eat it all the time it's also impossible to have enough toothpaste! Don’t worry if you didn’t get around to planting garlic last autumn, varieties such as ‘Solent Wight’ and ‘Picardy Wight’ are suitable for planting now once the soil is dry enough for holes to be dug without creating sticky mud pies!
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Choose the sunniest, best-draining patch of soil that you have in order to get the heaviest crop that you can. You are also more likely to get a heavier crop from the largest cloves so if space is tight, prioritise planting the biggest ones. Plant them with the tips of the cloves 2.5cm below the soil surface, or a little deeper if your soil drains very well. Shallow planting can lead to a poor crop.
Plant Jerusalem artichokes
If your veg plot needs shelter, these sunflower relatives can grow up to 1.8m tall, and so can give cover to lower-lying crops, if grown in a block, and they can also provide useful shade for leafy salads that you don’t want to ‘heart up’. Plant the tubers 15cm deep and leave 45cm between the plants in each direction. Any soil that drains well will be suitable. They are a fuss-free crop. Just remember to label where you’ve planted them, then leave the plants until the autumn. Then dig up the tubers, which will add a nutty, earthy flavour to soups and stews. It’s best not to over consume this vegetable, which you will know from bitter experience if you’ve ever been sat next to someone who has just overindulged on them…
Feed spring cabbages
If you’ve managed to keep the pigeons at bay so far this winter (well done!), these tasty cabbages should be looking promising. Just like the pigeons, they are prone to being a bit peckish, especially on thin, free-draining soils. Give them a boost with a granular high-nitrogen plant food now to encourage strong growth in the run up to maturity in two to three months.
If you are an organic gardener, use organic chicken manure pellets, sprinkling them on the soil at the base of the plants when rain is imminent. If the plants have been covered with netting, take it off to check the plants. There could be weeds and slugs that were lurking underneath. Blow their cover and get rid of them before putting the netting back.
Feed fruit bushes
Giving your soft fruit bushes a feed just before the buds begin to burst will stack the odds in favour of you getting a good crop this year. It’s easy to forget these plants while they are just bare twigs but impossible to ignore them when they are covered in juicy fruit in just a few month’s time. Such a quick job will give a relatively quick, not to say delicious return for a couple of minutes of gardening!
Remove any weeds from the base of the bushes, while they are easily visible. Then sprinkle a potassium-rich granular fertiliser around the base of the plant and water it in unless rain is imminent. For blueberries, use an ericaceous fertiliser, and for fruit in pots use a high potassium liquid plant food that you can mix into your watering can and apply it when the compost is dry.
Put up bird prevention for soft fruit
While you’re paying attention to soft fruit, now is a good time to take steps to protect your plants. Yes there is lots of time until the plants are holding fruits but it’s good to know that the plants are protected early. The new buds on the stems are also vulnerable to being eaten by hungry finches too. To protect the plants without netting getting tangled up or damaging the stems, cages covered with netting can just be placed over the plants and pegged down to give plants total protection. You can get purpose-made ones or just knock four posts or long canes into the ground, attach four more at the top (you can attach them horizontally using flexible connectors) then drape the netting over and peg it down.
Pot up strawberries
The taste of the first strawberry of the year is always a special moment (and one that my children always seem to get to before me!). For this moment to arrive sooner, force a few potted strawberry plants this month to give you some super-early fruits. Bring strawberries in pots into an unheated greenhouse, conservatory or a windowsill in a very well-lit porch to start them into growth. As the plants begin to flower, transfer pollen from one flower to another using a paintbrush each day when plants are in flower. Water each time the compost is dry and feed with a high potassium liquid plant food each week and you should have some tasty fruits before April’s out.
It's a good time to start harvesting material to act as natural plant supports for your crops. Thick hazel stems can make good supports for runner beans, with their sideshoots useful as pea sticks. Cornus needs hard pruning this month and the stems can help prop up rows of broad beans and peas.
Getting the garden in order
Give fruit trees a tidy up
Apples, pear, plums and cherries are such landmark plants, showing off memorable blossom to announce the arrival of spring. Then there’s the excitement of seeing fruits develop before grabbing buckets and bowls (hopefully needed!) for the ritual of autumn harvest. But at this time of year it’s easy for the trees to go completely unnoticed, just another skeleton. Give them the attention they deserve though, to help them along.
Check the base of the plants and remove any perennial weeds growing close to the trunk of the tree. Also use a spade or edging tool to remove grass encroaching around the trunk. Grass and weeds can choke young trees and seriously stunt their development. Also remove any suckers or shoots that have grown very low down on the plant. Finish off by applying a 5cm thick mulch of well-rotted compost over the soil around the trunk. Take care to make sure the mulch isn’t touching the bark of the tree because it can cause rotting.
Tidy up raspberries
A productive raspberry patch seems too good to be true doesn’t it? Once the plants are a couple of years old, the soft, sweet fruits just keep coming, especially if you grow summer and autumn ones to extend the cropping period (try not to get them mixed up, because it becomes a muddle, said from experience!) Now is a good time to tie in the young canes of summer raspberries that were made last year but haven’t fruited yet.
Trim the tops back by 8cm to encourage more side growths, which can carry more fruit, then secure them to their supports with rubber ties or soft string. Cut out any small, spindly canes because these won’t crop well. The old autumn fruiting raspberry canes that finished fruiting last autumn need cutting back to the base now because they’ve done their job. New canes will sprout from ground level to produce a new crop this autumn.
Clear up leafy brassica debris
If you’re organised (or not organised but can’t help growing veg) then there can always be brassicas of some sort to harvest. Winter seems to be peak brassica time though and now is a good time to tidy them up. Pull off any yellow leaves on plants that are still being picked from, such as kale and Brussels sprouts. Bin any showing signs of disease. It’s also a good time to clear up brassica debris that has accumulated over the cropping season, if you’ve been harvesting for a while. Old, discarded leaves could be harbouring slugs or disease and are best binned.
Pull up old Brussels sprout stems and put them through a shredder if you have one. If not use loppers to chop them up into small pieces and place them at the bottom of a new compost heap, with some brown, twiggy growths. It’s also a good idea to dig up and remove any crops that are very small or pigeon-pecked and not going to make a worthwhile crop, to free up space for something else.
Now is a good time to consider whether you need all of the lawn that you have. Could some of it make a little extra veg patch? Use a spade or turfing iron to lift the grass. Cut into the grass in lines with the spade and make horizontal cuts along the line. Then use the turfing iron (or spade, again) to cut into the ground horizontally to lift the turf in pieces. Spread a layer of compost (as much as you have spare) over the soil and leave it for a month before planting or sowing into it.