February Gardening Calendar

There are many signs of spring now, but February can be the wettest, coldest month of the year in Humboldt County. Yet, there is usually one weekend when the weather is perfect for gardening. Don't let a false touch of spring lead you into setting out tender plants that can be ruined by a sudden frost.

Maintenance

Make your motto "I'd rather be snailing"! They are capable of wiping out an entire planting of lettuce seedlings overnight, so keep watch for those hungry little characters and dispose of them in your snail bucket (a coffee can filled with water and a little detergent, wax or kerosene). Snail eggs look like little pearls and are found under garden debris.

Dormant SPRAYING is a must. If you did not get a winter-strength oil spray on deciduous fruit and flowering trees and roses to wipe out scale and smother eggs, do it now before the buds swell.

Pruning is another important task. With ROSES, wait until the 15th of the monthto begin. If you start earlier, frost can damage resulting new shoots and cause imperfect flowering. In our coastal and valley areas, roses never go completely dormant so pruning should not be as heavy as in colder areas. A good general rule is to shorten the major canes no more than 1/4 to 1/3 of the previous year's growth. Prune hybrid teas no lower than 24 inches and grandifloras no lower than 30 inches. An ideal result is a "V" shaped bush with a relatively open center. Climbing roses should have their unproductive canes removed and the lateral branches cut back to within two or three buds from the canes. However, climbers that flower only in the spring produce strong new growth after they flower, and that new growth produces flowers the following spring. Prune these just after they bloom, removing the oldest canes that show no signs of producing strong new growth. Floribundas should have the old blossoms trimmed off and that is about all. Remove suckers from the rootstocks of budded roses.

Prune large-flowered RHODODENDRONS at or after bloom time. Earlier blooming will sacrifice some flower buds but is the best time for extensive pruning. The plant's energies will be diverted to dormant growth buds, which will then be ready to push out early in the growing season. Prune older, leggy plants to restore their shape by cutting back to a side branch, a leaf whorl or to a cluster of dormant buds.

Fruit-tree pruning should be completed as soon as possible, but flowering shrubs and trees should not be pruned until immediately after they have flowered, or while they are in flower. For fuchsias, wait until March.

Cut back vines of large-flowering CLEMATIS varieties (those that flower on new growth) to within a foot of the ground. Summer-blooming shrubs such as HYDRANGEA and BUTTERFLY BUSH should be pruned this month (see below for details on how to make your Hydrangea pink again.) Remove all wood that bloomed last year and about a third of the weakest and twiggiest remaining growth. Thin and prune RASPBERRIES, currants and blueberries.

CAMELLIAS are in bloom, and buds which are showing color may be cut and brought indoors where they will open in a few days. This is also planting or transplanting time since camellias are at their most dormant period while in flower. Do your Camellia flowers turn brown right after they open? This disease is called petal blight, and the spores live in the soil below the plant and will infect next year's flowers. Pick up all dropped flowers and remove the old blooms from the plant. A thick mulch under the plant also will help.

New LAWN seedbeds can be prepared now, but it is too early to sow the seed. Crabgrass pre-emergence killers can still be applied in most areas. All lawns can stand an application of high nitrogen fertilizer to stimulate spring growth.

Fertilize all actively growing plants and shrubs. Rest up while you can and be prepared because next month is a biggie.

Planting

Planting of bare root trees and shrubs heads the list of important tasks. After planting roses and cane fruits, mound some soil around the canes to protect them from drying winds. Be sure to remove this soil when growth starts.

Should you have a new house, and be planning to plant rhododendrons, heathers and other acid-loving shrubs next to it, beware of excess LIME. Plaster and concrete deposits are sometimes left on the ground by workmen. These are then collected in the foundation trenches and are often the cause of plant fatalities.

Sow seeds of the ANNUALS sweet alyssum, clarkia, larkspur and calendula in the ground. For early-blooming sweet peas, sow in rich, well-drained soil (make a mound).

TUBEROUS BEGONIAS should be checked for signs of life. If you see the tiny pink buds showing in the center of tubers, start them growing in damp peat moss.

Start the VEGETABLE season by setting out divisions of artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb available at nurseries this month. Seed of lettuce, spinach, chard, parsley, peas, beet, carrots, radishes and onions can go in. Use the fast-growing radish seed to mark the rows of the others. They will be ready to harvest before the others need the space. Plants of broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower are available. Stagger the planting dates or plant different varieties of each so they will not all mature at the same time. Keep planting those onion sets and pull most of them as green onions. Start the tomato seeds.

New vegetables to try: Several seed companies have replaced the popular 'Sugar Snap' pea with 'Super Sugar Snap'. The flavor is comparable to the standard, but it matures six days earlier, bears thicker, plumper pods, is more productive, and displays greater resistance to powdery mildew. A company called Seeds of Change (1-800-957-3337) is reintroducing an heirloom perennial broccoli called 'Nine Star' with cauliflower like white heads followed by side shoots. When seeds are sown in spring or early summer, its first crop appears early the following spring and continues to produce for about two months. The plants reportedly are perennials and will bear annually for three to five years.

Blue or Pink Hydrangeas

Maybe when you brought it home it was blue but the flowers became pink last year. What to do? Did you get a bum plant?

The pH of the soil (how acid or alkaline) determines the color of the flower in Hydrangeas. To make the flowers blue again, apply aluminum sulfate (not ammonium sulfate) to the soil ahead of bloom. Flowers can be made red or redder by applying a lot of superphosphate.

Rock Gardens

There are all sorts of fascinating ways to garden with rocks. Each is quite different and offers exciting possibilities for your creative skill. You can develop a naturalistic setting where stones look as though they had always been in your yard (maybe they have), and where the plants are the kind that grows normally in such situations. You can build a wall with soil pockets filled with flowers and succulents. A Japanese type garden-or one that modifies and adapts Oriental ideas to the American way of life-is fun to construct and a delight to enjoy later. Pebbles, rock chips in different colors, aggregate, gravel, crushed brick, sand, and even coal, can be used as ground covers or in ornamental patterns. Some are used as surfacing for pavements. Specimen rocks can be so handsome that they are worthy of use as pieces of sculpture, or as the important background for a distinctive plant. Let your imagination have full sway. You will be surprised at what you can do.

Rocks make good homes for plants for reasons that you might not suspect. The soil beneath them, being shaded and being covered so that it is protected from the drying effect of air and sun, is more cool and moist than surrounding ground. Roots take advantage of this, though the tops of the plants may be in sunlight. Small pebbles or rock chips used in quantity as mulch-several inches deep-serve the same soil-sheltering purpose as large rocks. Dark-colored rocks absorb and hold heat, while light-colored ones reflect it. The sunny side of boulders is warmer than their shady side. These facts can be useful when you plan your plantings. For instance, flowers that bloom very early in the spring should be planted on the warm side of rocks so they will be awakened as early as possible. Evergreens injured by drying sunlight in winter should not be planted above white pebbles that reflect and intensify such light.

Plants usually considered as typical rock garden subjects are those from mountain tops-true alpines-or those that are native to stony situations elsewhere. The high altitude kind from above the timberline are ground hugging dwarfs that usually like cool temperatures and a ready supply of moisture (they are used to melting snow), and fast draining soil. Rock inhabitants from lower elevations often have built-in, drought-defying, protective devices such as thick leaves that store water, or gray or hairy foliage that reflects or insulates against the sun. To these true rock dwellers, gardeners tend to add all kinds of dwarf shrubs and low compact plants. In general, all of these plants are tolerant of various kinds of soil, though to keep them dwarf the ground should not be too fertile.

Because all kinds of rock gardens are popular, most garden centers are well stocked with assorted kinds of materials for them. These include lightweight rock and stone chips. Japanese garden accessories such as lanterns of metal, stone or concrete are also available. Rock for walls is usually obtained through a quarry. (Miller Farms in McKinleyville has a nice assortment of rocks and stones on display). Smooth, water worn pebbles can be found along the ocean shore and along our local rivers, since it is the tumbling action of the water that wears them to such beautiful shapes. You will enjoy collecting such rocks and pebbles on trips, but you will find that they are surprisingly heavy; do not attempt to load too many into your car or you may find yourself replacing a broken spring!

Sun angles for February

February sun passage, click to enlargeEnlarge image

During February, at a latitude of 40° north and at solar noon, a board fence six and a half feet high will cast a shadow that is over eight feet long to the north, more so during the the rest of the day. The sun's altitude (elevation) will peak at approximately 37°, or a bit more than a third of the way up the southern sky.