5 Feb 2013

Gardeners' paradise

If you’re looking for a lawn that will make the Joneses wilt with envy, now’s the time to get going in the garden. But creating your own piece of perfection doesn’t have to be time-consuming, as Patricia Carswell explains

February may be a winter month but all around are signs the darkest season will soon give way to spring. Snowdrops and crocuses are spreading across gardens and woods, tips of bulbs are appearing in pots and flowerbeds, birds are starting some tentative singing as the days get longer.
For gardeners, this means one thing: there is work to be done to get your garden in shape before the serious business of spring.


Climate control

February is unpredictable so be ready to adapt. There may still be cold conditions so don’t overlook that in your enthusiasm to get ahead. If you get a covering of snow shake it off the branches of trees and shrubs, using a broom to reach the higher branches. It’s not as pretty as a winterwonderland but neither is a wonky shrub.

Check your perennials too, to make sure they haven’t been pushed out of the ground by the frost. If they have press them back down. If on the other hand you feel a bit of warmth in the air, step into your greenhouse for a moment to check it’s not overheating – it may be time to ventilate it a little.


Tools of the trade

This is your last chance to get your tools ready for the busy months ahead. Even if you only have an elderly pair of secateurs they deserve a little love and attention. Sharpen and organise your garden implements and get your lawnmower serviced. In a couple of months you’ll be smug you’ve beaten the rush.

If you have a greenhouse or cloche give it a good scrub with warm, soapy water. No plant will thrive in light filtered through the film of green that creeps across it in the winter months.


Manicuring your lawn

If you want your lawn to be the envy of your neighbours, start now. Scarifying – using blades to cut out lawn thatch – and spiking is a surprisingly fun job that children enjoy helping with (under careful supervision). If you only have a pocket-handkerchief of a lawn you can probably get away with a rake for this job, but anything much bigger will justify hiring machinery. Any leaves lying on the lawn should be lifted, as they harbour fungus and will leave your lawn yellow. As for mushrooms and toadstools, how you tackle them depends on how fussy you are. They are fairly easy to brush away but can be left if you like the look of romantic folklore.


Pond life

Whether your water feature is a giant millpond or a glorified paddling pool it will benefit from attention. Rotting leaves can kill fish, so clear them away. It’s also time to clean out pumps, fountains and filters. There’s still a risk of freezing, so many gardeners float a ball in a pond to create an open area on the surface if it ices over. The hole allows gases to escape and gives fish access to oxygen.


Cutting edge

There’s no getting out of pruning duties at this time of year but think of it as an investment rather than a chore. Your hedges will welcome a trim but be careful not to get carried away. Stand back as you cut or they could end up with a bad hair day.

Also have a go at winter-flowering shrubs once the flowers have died off. Later-flowering shrubs such as wisteria and clematis will benefit from a bit of pruning before the sap rises to prevent them becoming tangled and untidy. Cut them back to the hard, woody stems, removing green growth from last year.

This is also a good month to divide perennial bulbs such as snowdrops. Just dig them up, divide them and replant them to encourage healthy growth and more blooms. Don’t worry about damaging them; they are pretty robust as long as you’re careful.

It may be chilly but weeds will still grow in February, especially if the weather is damp and frost-free. Look out for buttercup, nettle, couch and bindweed – they should all be removed, digging out their roots as thoroughly as you can. Unless you’re a whizz at hot composting, it’s best to burn weeds or let the council garden waste services deal with them.


Planning and planting

Before you start spraying seeds around spend a bit of time planning or you’ll end up with a mess. Think about how you will use your garden this year. Are you dreaming of summer barbecues and outdoor lounging or is your outside space dominated by kids’ ball games? Do you want a chic or relaxed look? And how much time will you have to devote to it? There’s no point labouring for the whole weekend if you don’t leave time to sit and enjoy it.Also consider your budget. Gardens don’t have to be expensive. Seed swaps and plant sales can save you a fortune and plants will grow just as happily in a discarded boot or can as an expensive urn – but it helps to know your limits from the start.

Will you be growing fruit and vegetables? Remember, a garden can look stunning just with simple perennials but there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from harvesting the fruits of your labours.

Once you’ve done the groundwork, think about what to put in the ground. It’s not too early to put potatoes in a cool, light, frost-free place – or a conservatory or porch if you don’t mind tripping over trays.

You can also plant slower-growing half-hardy annuals and perennials such as begonias or pelargoniums on a warm windowsill or heated corner of a greenhouse. As for vegetables, you can kick off early carrot seeds in a cold frame or even sow lettuce under glass if you’re impatient for early greenery.

Outside it’s a good time to plant roses and hedges and to sow hardy vegetables such as beetroot and spinach, using cloches for protection.


Instant flowerbeds

There’s nothing wrong with cutting corners. If you’re short of time or don’t enjoy gardening there are plenty of ways to grow a lovely garden without hours of toil.

If you still want to do some of the work you can buy plug plants where the painstaking and time-consuming work of germinating and pricking out has already been done. Many gardeners buy bedding plants for vegetables and flowers to put straight into the soil. It’s a useful way to bring a splash of colour to your patch.

Some companies will send you a garden in a box. This involves a series of boxes packed with baby plants delivered at the right time for planting. Equally time-saving is a floral mat impregnated with flower seeds that can be rolled out and watered.

But whatever you do this month enjoy it. However grand or fun-sized your space, it’s yours to tame or encourage as you please. And that’s well worth some muddy fingernails and cold toes.