Taking Heart

by | Feb 1, 2015 | Native Plants

IF, WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR GARDEN, you’ve been resting on your laurels this winter: It’s just about time to get to work. In the South, the rule of thumb is to wait until after Valentine’s Day to trim garden plants. Wildflower Center Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya tells us what’s so sweet about that timing.

“Mid-February is the ideal time to cut away winter carnage on plants to make way for new spring growth,” she says. “Waiting until then allows us to leave plants that still have nice form and texture looking good. And standing foliage, even if frozen, can insulate stems and root crowns — although that isn’t critical when using cold-hardy native plants.”

Wildflower Center horticulturists do break that rule of thumb from time to time. If a hard frost occurs sooner than Valentine’s Day and plants are looking sorry, they may cut them back. “Leaving plants standing until mid-February is mostly an aesthetic call,” says DeLong-Amaya, who adds that some plants can and should be left for wildlife. She leaves Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), for example, for lesser goldfinches and other seed-eaters.

As you’d imagine, other chores for your garden this month depend on where you call home. In Texas, chances are good it will feel like spring when March 20 rolls around. Gardeners elsewhere may be still seeing their shadows that day.

In the South, the rule of thumb is to wait until after Valentine’s Day to trim garden plants.

Lorene Edwards Forkner, editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine, says springlike weather in Seattle can be pretty erratic: “It’s not uncommon for March to be more winterlike than February, or for April to be worse than March.”

February is still dark and mostly cold, she says, but Seattle gardeners can usually expect at least a week’s break in the rain this month. This reliably dry period with mild temperatures is perfect for garden clean-up and assessing winter damage to plants.

On these days, Forkner likes to get a head start on cutting plants back; doing so in February means not having to work around new growth that starts in March. Plus, because she leaves many ornamental grasses and perennials standing over winter to protect soil and attract wildlife, they are often pretty beaten up by wind and rain (i.e., in need of TLC) come February.

“This month is also a great time to mulch beds and layer organic material (such all those ornamental grasses I just cut down) beneath shrubs and between plants,” says Forkner. “Doing so is great for soil organisms and makes a good blanket for insulating the soil and retaining all that moisture.”

DeLong-Amaya says gardening is much too regional to prescribe general gardening chores no matter the season. But just as both she and Forkner will be cutting back plants this month, there are some tasks that gardeners from all but the coldest regions can share in common. Here are a few that may apply where you live:

  • It’s not too late to plant or transplant trees or other plants before warmer weather hits. Plants put in place during winter take advantage of rains where winter rains are predictable. Cooler temperatures are much less stressful for plants that don’t have to pump as much water through their systems as they do when it’s warm. Instead they can focus their energy on root growth.
  • To make way for new seedlings, rake up leaves that may have accumulated in the garden. You won’t want to bury new plants under leaves.
  • You might want to lend a nice appearance to your garden beds by refreshing mulch. Having a fresh layer can make your plants stand out in spring.
  • It’s not a bad idea to clean tools and check them to make sure they are all in working order and ready for spring. Fix hoses that might need repair and check irrigation systems before you will need them.
  • Head out and purchase some pots (often on sale during winter) and assemble some spring flower arrangements.
  • In places where it’s recommended to do a lot of planting during spring, prepare your soil now. Test it for soil type and conditions.
  • If freezes are still predicted for your area, make sure to give your plants a healthy dose of water before one hits. Properly hydrated plants endure freezes better than dehydrated ones. And soil moist from watering before a freeze is warmer than dry soil.

There’s always something to accomplish for your garden — even when you’re cooped up with cabin fever. “Study up and do armchair gardening,” says DeLong-Amaya. “Plan for what’s ahead.”

Forkner says, “Rather than a date on the calendar, I like to tie garden tasks to what’s going on with nature. Even if the weather is still all over the board, when the foliage of Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) begins to emerge and the robins are making a racket, spring is here for sure and it’s time to gear up for the growing season. I just pick indoor tasks (like seed starting, catalog shopping or cleaning the mud room) rather than outdoor ones on the really nasty days. If we waited for truly beautiful weather here it could be the 4th of July!”

Graphic by Joanna Wojtkowiak