Though February is usually a cold one, it's a month filled with hope as we are just starting to see fruit trees, crocus, daffodils and others emerge from dormancy. It's the perfect time for that primal surge that tells us to wake up and start thinking about the garden again, because there are a few things we can do to plan for summer color and a successful veggie garden. Here's the to-do list for February.
Plant summer bulbs. After a few gray days in a row, I become susceptible to the appeal of those tropical-looking pics on the bags of dahlias, lilies, begonias and the rest of the summer-blooming bulbs. And if you're with me, you may as well give in because now's the time to plant. The frizzled purple spikes of Liatris is one of my favorites just due to the sheer number of butterflies it attracts, while the burgundy-flecked and fragrant Acidanthera always suck me in despite the fact that these heat-loving bulbs rarely flower a second year in my garden (even treated as an annual, they are worth it). Alliums are another to try: The tall, elegant stems rise above the emerging foliage of perennial flowers and make a dramatic show in early summer. Mediterranean bells (Nectaroscordum siculum) and stars of Persia (Allium christophii) are two varieties available locally that are worth checking out.
Plant more Gladiolus. Yeah, glads have a reputation for gaudiness, but if you avoid the nursery-school brights and instead choose shades of blue, purple, white, chartreuse and even "black," these easy growers fit into the most modern of gardens. While you might think you could do without, consider the great popularity you will achieve by sending every visitor home with a bouquet of flowers for months on end. It's the perfect flower for the socially inept.
Apply your final dormant spray of the season. Just as the buds begin to swell open, but before actual flowers emerge, give your fruit trees one final spray with a mix of dormant oil and copper. While it takes regular observation to get the timing just right, this last spray does the most good since it hits any fungus or insect eggs overwintering in the tiny crevices from which leaves and flowers emerge.
Set up your Amaryllis for rebloom. If you were lucky enough to get an Amaryllis for Christmas, you may be wondering what to do with it now the flower has wilted. Here is where Amaryllis are better than orchids — they rebloom reliably with very little fuss. As soon as it's done blooming, cut the flowerstalk at the base and treat it as a houseplant until October, when you stop watering and set it in a dark place. In November (once the leaves have withered), put it in a bright window, give it some water and talk kindly to it for a few weeks, after which it will reward you for your loyalty with another massive, Dr. Seuss-like bloom.
Shear winter-blooming heathers. Winter-blooming Erica are wrapping things up in the coming months, so if you'd like to prune them for size or shape, we're coming up on that time. Not only do the plants look better for having the brown flowers sheared off, a good trim has the added benefit of "pinching" growth tips, which encourages plants to push new foliage from within so they stay full and compact.
Fertilize rhododendrons and other acid lovers. Rhododendron experts recommend fertilizing on Valentine's Day and Father's Day, plus lightly in November, to see shrubs through the winter. Applied now, an organic fertilizer meant for acid-loving plants will give them the juice they need to turn it up to 11 when those blooms open. I also like to hit other evergreen acid-lovers at the same time, like azaleas, camellias and conifers, so I don't have to deal with everyone clamoring for food on different schedules.
Start annual and biennial flowers from seed. I've got my seed catalogs out and have been plotting my orders for months. Reseeding annuals and biennials are perfect for filling those awkward spots in the garden while you wait for a prized shrub or tree to reach its mature size. Try Mulberry Rose love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena 'Mulberry Rose') for a twist on the original blue version, or the Tequila Sunrise mix of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), which are reddish-orange splashed with yellow, with a few cream-colored blooms in there for contrast. Both Renee's Garden and Botanical Interests seeds are sold locally, so you can get advice at the nursery before buying.
Pre-sprout seed potatoes. European gardeners use a process called "chitting" to pre-sprout their potatoes before planting, to force them out of dormancy and get a strong start to the season. Simply spread out seed potatoes in a shallow tray or box, with the eyes of the potatoes pointing upwards. Leave them in a moderately bright, warm spot such as in the kitchen or living room for about three weeks or until green shoots emerge. Don't be concerned if the potatoes turn green; while you shouldn't eat green potatoes, it's a natural part of their growing process for this time of year.
Get a jump start on the spring vegetable garden. If you like to start vegetables from seed, now's the time to start them indoors for spring. Lettuce, spinach, cilantro, dill, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy and Asian greens are all good candidates to start inside at this time of year. Though a sunny window and an inexpensive warming mat will do, given the foggy nature of most Humboldt days, I use an LED seed-starting light. If you have a worm compost bin, water seedlings regularly with vermicompost tea to provide nutrients and keep the seeds from succumbing to damping off, a fungal problem. If you are still shaking off your winter doldrums and aren't quite ready to start, order one of those full-color catalogs from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to get inspired and plan on planting next month.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata.
She blogs over at www.NorthCoastGardening.com.