February Garden Sustainable Maintenance Practices for the Southeast

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FEBRUARY Lengthened daylight hours and shortened shadows are noticeable as February approaches. A winter-weary mood is elevated as light lifts the spirit. Holding onto winter can bring great joy when we’re reminded, every season has its reason.

February, cold and cruel to some, is hope to others. After all, February touches March, the month of spring. February is a bridge month, crossing over from winter into spring. Instead of rushing forth into a new season, take one more look around at the joy and the life only February can bring.

Before the gardening season kicks into full gear, evaluate your landscape with regard to sustainability Are you doing all that you can to reduce water, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer use? Are you composting? Are you harvesting rainwater? Are you planting the right plant in the right place? Do you mulch? Let this be the year you consider a more eco-friendly approach.

BLOOM Pansies, early daffs, edgeworthia, galanthus, camellias, ranunculus, and flowering apricot; and we can't discount the color change if the 'Hillside Winter Gold' pine.

GROOM. Pinch spent blooms off pansies to maintain their peak flowering performance through spring. I didn't do this until recently. I learned from workmate the importance of this, and I can see the results. In addition, she also taught me to add an organic fertilizer, I used Espoma products when I use fertilizers; and frankly, I don't typically fertilize.

Fertilizers in my mind make a plant more needy and artificial. But when growing for purely ornamental, such as pansies, it makes a difference.

February is a good time to cut back liriope. The key is not to trim liriope too late, or you’ll risk cutting new growth. The plant will not recover from the damage, and it can look tattered. The solid green liriope or lilyturfs will  spread. It is not uncommon for designers to site liriope as an edge. If your original design had a pattern, and if you want to keep that pattern (usually an alternating X pattern), dig out the liriope that has spread, after the cutback, bringing back your original design.

Cut back the rain lily foliage, (Zephyranthesspp.) You don't have to, but I do.  It just makes the garden look fresher.

Tame vines. If your vines have gotten out of hand, late winter is a good time to tame them. Cut back our native Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefoliaand non-native plants such asEnglish ivy, Hedera helix; Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica,and Chinese wisteria, Wisteria sinencsis. Better yet, remove the non-natives. They have escaped cultivation and are taking over where our native plants once ruled. 

Prepare new gardening beds. A warm winter day is perfect for preparing a new or extending an existing garden bed. For a new site, mark the area of the new bed and dress it with several layers of newspaper and/or recycled cardboard. Wet it down. Add organic matter, such as composted leaf mulch, as the final top dressing.

For existing beds, work the ground with a garden fork to loosen the soil and mix in the organic matter. In doing so, you will improve soil fertility and drainage.

PLANT. You can still plant peonies. Fall would have been ideal, but they can be planted now, as well. Make sure the top of the crown is just above the soil line. Peonies need cold weather to set the buds. If you are going to fertilize, do so  now before the spring growth, so that nutrients will be readily available when the plant needs it.

As long as the ground isn’t frozen, it's still a good time to plant trees and shrubs. Prepare the planting hole with ample mulch mixed with the native soil. Dig a hole twice a wide as the root ball.

BULBS. February bulbs begin to bloom in earnest. In the Bee Better Teaching Garden, we will begin to see the early bloomers showing their color, likeNarcissus'February Gold'.

VEGETABLES. To get a head start on the growing season, start seeds indoors.

FRUITS. In the Bee Better Teaching Garden the varieties we grow do not require spraying. As such, February is a time to focus on other projects.

WILDLIFE. February is a great time to sit back and watch the birds. It's like a winter wonderland in the Bee Better Teaching Garden. Cardinals, Chickadees, Brown Thrashers, Bluebirds, Bluejays, and so many  more!   Just this year, I have a pair of Red-bellied woodpeckers making their home in the Bee Better Teaching Garden.

Waterwise:  With a waterwise design, watering in the absence of rain is a breeze.  My garden at home, the Bee Better Teaching Garden was designed with waterwise principles. I have very little watering to do, and what I do have, is a choice. My boxwood collections is contained. But the watering is wise. These containers are near a watering source, so moving around a hose isn’t a big deal.

Mulch: As time permits, the winter is the best time to mulch. The leaves are down, herbaceous perennials are dormant, deciduous shrubs are leaf-free. Mulch is much easier to spread during this time of openness. In the Bee Better Teaching Garden we used composted leaf mulch from the City of Raleigh. This year, we used collected oak leaves. Yes, they tend to blow around, but with so much rain we have had lately, it hasn't been a problem.

I'll admit, it was a lot of work collecting around 80 bags of mulch. I'm not sure I'll do it again. Next year I may go back to having composted leaf from the City of Raleigh delivered by Jack.

We also use sustainably harvested pine needles from the streets of Raleigh where they have naturally fallen. This mulch is used around the perimeter of the property where we also compost in place. The pine straw is used to cover the biomass in the back 40 (ft.)

Fertilize: February is the time to fertilize your flowering ornamentals. My beds get most of their nutrients from decaying composted leaf mulch, but oftentimes after a soil test, I will use an organic fertilize if recommended. Fertilize tulips and daffodils as the foliage begins to break ground; again, fertilizer those prized for ornamental value.  A general 10-10-10 fertilizer works fine but there are also products made especially for flowering bulbs, such as organic Espoma brand products.

Pest control: Fallen camellia blooms should be picked up from under the bush to help prevent the spread of disease.

DECORATE. Paperwhite, narcissus, and hyacinths are easy to force, and can be enjoyed indoors while waiting for spring.

Also, walk your garden for anything evergreen. You'll be surprised just how easy it is to pull together conifer foliage for an arrangement.