February Stepping Stones

Week One

Appropriate Plants

Continue to look over those gardening catalogs. It’s always a delight to try new varieties, especially with vegetables. Our choice of different vegetable varieties is limited in our grocery stores; decide to plant something not currently available. Seeds of Change (1-888-762-7333, from Santa Fe, New Mexico) offers seeds for 36 different lettuces, 19 hot peppers (including AJI Amarillo, with a hot smoky flavor) and 10 sweet peppers, 34 pumpkins and squash, and 46 tomato varieties. The Cook’s Garden Catalog, also organic, offers a wide selection as well. Other seed companies may be among your favorites. Place seed orders and start any cool season plants indoors now.

Order ornamentals or flowers not available locally. This year, (2005) I’ve ordered a few container plants that like it sunny and hot. Hechtia texensis, Texas false agave, is tops on my list. Hechtias are succulents and are Texas natives, found along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park, Zone 8b and terrain south, available from Yucca Do Nursery in Hempstead, Texas. Hechtias are in the Bromeliaceae family. They are very similar to Dyckia’s, which originate in South (rather than North) America. Next year I’ll order some Dyckia’s for a touch of the exotic.

Efficient Use of Water

Contact an irrigation specialist to install a drip irrigation system. Book him now before he gets too busy. Or study up on installing a drip system yourself.

Week Two or Three

Analyze and Amend the Soil

Prepare early spring garden beds; add lots of compost (refer to advisory in Maintenance, Composting, Killer Compost).

Analyze the results of the soil sample to determine proper organic and mineral amendments.

Valentine’s Day falls within this time. Men, give your gardener ‘significant other’ the gift they’ll really appreciate. No, not lingerie, or a hunting/fishing get-away for two. Promise to dig out that new flower bed she’s been asking for, amended with your own homemade compost. Remember, before breaking ground for new beds, consult with the utility companies for location of utility lines to avoid damaging or severing them.

Maintenance

This is also a great time to clean out the compost bins and replenish the beds.

Week Four

I hope you rested over December and January, because the gardening pleasures start to increase this week. I have designated the fourth week of February the beginning of spring.

Appropriate Plants -- Spring Vegetables

I have planted early spring vegetables in the garden, depending on the year, as soon as mid to latter February. If you get a sense spring weather will come early, by all means plant earlier using frost blankets and poly tunnels as needed for protection. Average date of the last frost (ADLF) is April 20th.

  • Onion seeds and sets may be planted from 4 – 10 weeks before the average date of the last frost.
  • Lettuce and radishes can be planted 6 weeks before ADLF.
  • Irish potatoes 4 – 6 weeks before ADLF.
  • Sweet potatoes and English peas planted 2 – 8 weeks before ADLF.
  • Plant spinach 1 – 8 weeks before ADLF.

Cover with a row cover. Many times I cover with two thicknesses, or a frost blanket underneath and a poly tunnel over that when temperatures approach the teens. Row covers provide many benefits: decreases evaporation, keeps the ground warmer, keeps birds from eating the seeds and decreases wind damage. For new tender seedlings and plants, row covers are used to prevent sunscald, as well.

Maintenance

Begin to clean out the flowerbeds. Once March begins (unless we have that rare year of a heavy snow cover), plants have gotten the signal to wake up and start growing. It’s better to rake away and remove last years spent growth without disturbing the new shoots.

Likewise, now is the time to cut ornamental grasses to around 3 inches from the ground (except for the evergreen (blue) ornamental Festica ovina glauca varieties, blue fescue and Helictotrichon sempervirens, blue avena grasses, which don’t need to be cut back). These evergreen grasses should be raked or combed to remove their dead leaves from within the clumps. Divide large clumps or clumps forming dead centers.

Pruning

Now is also a good time to begin pruning. Pruning of these plants may be carried over into March. Prune to about a half or a third their size: Caryopteris, blue mist spirea, Salvia greggii, Anisacanthus and Buddleia daviidii, Falugia paradoxa, Apache plume, Pavonia lasiopetala, Texas Rock Rose, and Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian sage at this time. Prune back Chrysothamnus nauseosus, rabbitbush, and artemisias. Prune back Potentilla fruticosa, cinquefoil, by 1/3 in late winter if the shrub has gotten tall and fallen open at the center. Pruning these shrubs helps maintain a nice compact shape and more blooms.

Do not prune spring flowering shrubs such as Chaenomeles japonica, Japanese flowering quince, forsythias, flowering fruit trees, mock orange, Symphoricarpos, snowberries, spring flowering spireas, lilacs and weigelas. Do not prune roses yet.

Many shrubs never need to be pruned. It’s best to check a reference book or ask other experienced gardeners if unsure about a plant.

Do not make stub or flush cuts; cut down to a joint, or to the ground. When pruning larger branches, cut just above the branch bark collar. Do not cut into the collar. When pruning smaller branches, cut on a diagonal of about 45 degrees, about 1/8th inch above an outward facing bud.

Do not apply pruning paint or other sealer. The plant will naturally heal itself with a proper cut.

Prune out any dead or damaged wood and branches in whatever season you notice them. Leaving it on the plant is an invitation to disease.

The end of February through March is also a good time to tidy up your junipers and other evergreens, especially if they intrude into walkways. Again, do not make stub cuts. With evergreens, this is referred to as shearing. It’s better for the health and look of evergreens to spend the extra time and prune back the larger, intruding branches to a joint. Doing this allows the small branches to cover the cut, and avoids the dead center look.

Extras

  • Attend a garden training class or series.
  • Enroll in a web gardening class. There is always something new to learn.
  • Volunteer to clean out someone’s flower bed who is too old or sick to do it – be a Gardening Angel to someone.

Be a Plant Explorer

This time of year plant exploration should take one southwest. Next stop on the Blooms Trail might be the Desert Botanic Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, www.dbg.org. The Desert Botanic Gardens is comprised of 50 acres of gardens and exhibits nestled among the red buttes of Papago Park. Walking the trails is an easy way to explore the diversity of desert life. Still in Arizona, drop by the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson with 21 acres and over 1200 kinds of plants (www.desertmuseum.org).

Not leaving Texas? Then plan to stop at the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at the Centennial Museum at the University of Texas at El Paso (www.museum.utep.edu) for desert plants closer to our home and conditions. Purchase the guide, Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers by Steve West; it’s a great introduction to learn about this eco-region’s top performers. Many of the plants profiled are found starting just south of Midland, in the Fort Davis, Guadalupe, Big Bend and Carlsbad park areas. By late February, many flowers begin to bloom, particularly in Big Bend National Park.

Keep it up

  • Plant trees and shrubs.
  • Continue winter watering as needed.
  • Add new material back to your compost pile after cleaning it out.
  • Turn the pile every two weeks.
  • Keep up the entries in a garden journal.
  • Read a good garden book.
  • Continue to feed and water the birds if you’ve been their restaurant.

Oops! and/or Don’t

  • Do not transplant seedlings outdoors yet. Wait to put transplants out until March. After all, they're growing inside for a head start.
  • Wait until March to start seeds indoors for warm-weather crops.

Angie Hanna

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