Winter doldrums, the time of wishing and waiting – that’s February for most gardeners. It’s a fine time for planning and reading, but there are some practical things to do as well, both outdoors and in.
First, go outside when the sun is shining. You can go do these things outside when it’s cloudy too, but a February warm-up is the time you’re most likely to put on the waterproof boots and enjoying walking around the yard. (Avoid walking on wet soil if there isn’t a solid snow-covering. It’s never good to compact the soil.)
Start with these activities:
• Prune berry bushes, grape vines, and fruit trees. While it’s fine to prune most deciduous trees in late winter, it’s most important to prune fruit trees early because you are influencing where they put their energy as they prepare to form buds. Similarly, prune raspberries, blackberries and grapes in late winter or early spring.
For most berries, it means taking out old canes, but for fall-bearing crops such as Heritage, it can mean leveling all the canes. Repair or establish trellises, posts or wires (especially for grapes). Find a good pruning book written for Northeast crops to learn correct timing and methods for pruning all the fruit plants.
And before that sunny day, clean and sharpen your tools (or buy better ones). Being lazy or cheap about tools is the path toward frustrating or hurting yourself.
• Evaluate trees; call the arborist. The winds of March will come, and every arborist gets busy. Then, too, some scammers or under-educated people suddenly appear to “fix your trees” at low rates. Don’t fall for it. Instead, anticipate storms. Look up and around your home, sidewalks, and driveway now. Are there large trees with over-hanging branches, cracks showing, big wounds, or dead sections? A professional arborist’s evaluation and work plan could save you from severe damage, injury, and huge expenses.
Most of all, be good to your limbs and digits: Don’t attempt large tree projects yourself.
• Schedule garden tours, events, and classes. The Orchid Show at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the Master Gardener Education Day, Plantasia, Hosta and Daylily Society breakfasts and meetings, the WNY Home and Outdoor Living Show, and classes at various garden centers or garden club meetings all happen in late winter and early spring. Mark the calendar.
Four ways to track coming events:
1. Garden Notes listings on BuffaloNews.com and in The Buffalo News Home & Style section on Fridays.
2. Upstate Gardeners Journal (free at garden centers and Plantasia).
3. Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com (online gardening magazine).
4. “Open Gardens Book & Events Guide” produced by Gardens Buffalo Niagara shows spring and summer walks, tours, and self-driving excursions (the guide is $5 at Plantasia and some garden centers).
Indoor gardening begins
It’s wise to decide now what props, products, and tools you’ll need to start these projects:
• Seed starting. Timing is everything. The biggest single error made by beginners is starting seeds too soon. That’s because you can’t grow seedlings in soil that’s too cold, depending on the species or crop, so seedlings get lanky and weak while they wait indoors.
Do figure out whether you want to start seeds indoors; it’s not for everyone. Farmers markets and garden centers carry most seedlings and plants you will want. If you do it you’ll want a lighting set-up, heat mats, potting mix and seed starting kits. (Window-sill seed growing has limited success.)
You can find good seeds at many garden centers (selected as suitable for WNY) or you may peruse catalogs to find the newest or more unusual types.
Which crops, when? The key factor: Read packets that tell you “Weeks to Planting Outdoors.” Our soil does not warm up enough to plant most warm-season crops until mid to late May, so don’t rush it. You may want to start lettuces, other leafy greens, and onions early; they can go outside in early spring. Wait until mid-March (and heed packets) to start cole crops (crucifers ‑ broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower) indoors. Wait until mid-April to start tomatoes, unless you are a competitor in the high-risk Tomato Olympics.
As the hours of daylight increase, many of my houseplants are looking perkier already. Especially those in the bright, south-facing kitchen are developing buds or new foliage even though I won’t resume fertilizing until March.
The living room plants respond slower (with north- and east-facing windows and some plant lights), and are the first to reveal some scale. Pests and diseases tend to show up at this time of year as they have been stressed by inadequate humidity (our heated, dry homes).
It’s a good time for the winter houseplant bath. For large houseplants, first remove and discard yellowing, sticky, or diseased leaves. Cut back excessive or poor quality growth. Hand wash the leaves with water or a mild houseplant cleaning solution.
If pests or diseases are getting started, houseplant products such as Pharm solutions are good. Ask garden center professionals. If any plant is severely infested, remove it so the problem doesn’t spread.
For smaller plants it’s fun to put them in the shower or dunk them in a sink or tub in warm water. Humidity and a good soaking never hurts us or them. Just drain well afterward.
It’s easy to search online for answers to everything, but remember that many sources are imperfect and not all scientifically screened. Go back to your garden book shelves or visit a bookstore and use the carefully researched and inspirational books that garden writers labored to produce.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.