Gardening with Charlie Hart
PUBLISHED: 10:28 16 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:25 16 January 2018
February, a month of preparation when we can hold onto the hope that winter will soon be over
February is a hard month so I’m grateful it’s the shortest. The glow of Christmas has worn off, but spring has not yet sprung. On the other hand, the garden provides some important consolations to help us along the way – the golden glow of winter aconites, or perhaps witch hazel, crocuses threatening to reveal themselves, but best of all, the dawn chorus starts again outside our windows as our feathered friends begin looking for love.
Gardeners pay particular attention to light and it is in February that I notice the evenings begin to creep out. By the end of the month we are out of the darkest quarter of the year. If you keep chickens the improving light will mean they might even start laying eggs again. So it’s not all bad news.
In our garden, the end of the month witnesses the annual rose pruning campaign. Climbers and any plants particularly exposed to wind get pruned in autumn, otherwise they are vulnerable to wind rock, but the bulk receive their annual haircut now. There is no particular horticultural reason for this, and if you live in the north it might be better to wait until March, but for me the final snip on the final rose must come before the last day of February. It is a symbolic passage, a moment to say goodbye to the old gardening year and welcome in the new.
Last year I worked out that I get through roughly 60 individual roses, which sounds like an awful lot, but really it isn’t compared to professional gardens. In fact, I would happily have more. It has been said that if roses could choose, they would probably choose clay, something that we are not short of here in the east. Roses are hungry plants so they like the heavy, nutrient rich soil that Suffolk so often has to offer. Perhaps this is why the oldest recorded rose growers in the country, Cants, are just outside Ipswich.
The month for mulch
This is also a good month to finish tidying borders and give everything a jolly good mulch. We use our own homemade compost, an amalgam of grass and plant cuttings, kitchen waste, chicken wallop and any leaves that didn’t go into leaf mould production. You can add spent mushroom compost and well rotted manure if you can get hold of them.
My strategy is to feed the soil rather than the plant. Good soil – what gardeners call friable – has a crumbly texture and is packed with nutrients. It may take years of adding organic matter to get friable soil, particularly if like us you start from a clay base, but it is the gold standard of successful gardening. It is satisfying after a sweaty day with a barrow and shovel to know that you have made a large deposit in the garden’s bank account. This approach, year in year out, is the surest path to gardening heaven and, as my wife says, beats any work out in the gym.
I have long neglected irises, particularly the tall bearded kinds, and I plan to address that with a strain of Suffolk’s very own. Sir Cedric Morris, one of the founders of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, led a bohemian group of mid 20th century artists based around his house, Benton End near Hadleigh. But he was also a keen gardener. Beth Chatto was a frequent visitor and mentions him in her books. He often gave her plants.
Sir Cedric bred his own strain of bearded irises. They have subtler colors than their modern counterparts and are particularly elegant. Many were considered lost until Sarah Cook, former head gardener at Sissinghurst, took up the challenge. She now lives in Suffolk and is creating the National Collection of Cedric Morris irises with her husband Jim Marshall. The work of these two horticultural heavyweights culminated in an excellent display at the Chelsea Flower Show last year and a number of the Cedric Morris irises will be available to buy for the first time this season. Todd’s Botanics are bringing on I. ‘Benton Susan’ and I. ‘Benton Caramel’ both of which I will be planting out this spring.
I had thought about creating a bed dedicated to the Cedric Morris irises, but if I do any more digging this winter I run the risk of turning into a mole, so I think I will pepper them through my borders in little groups of three and five instead. If you do take the plunge and you are on heavy soil add plenty of grit at planting time to avoid them rotting over winter, and try not to crowd them out.
In the garden this month
Tidy old dead growth left on perennials over winter before new shoots start emerging in earnest.
Cut back Buddleja (and other late flowering shrubs), tidy winter jasmine.
If you use organic fertilisers (seaweed meal, fish blood and bone or pelleted chicken manure) they can be applied now with a generous mulch of organic matter as they release more slowly than inorganic ones.
Aim to conclude general pruning sooner rather than later because birds will shortly be house hunting. Now is a good time to put up bird boxes.
If you bring on your own plants, order plenty of compost now to avoid endless wasted trips to the garden center later.
You can still plant bare root trees and shrubs, deciduous shrubs can be moved.
Prune autumn-fruiting raspberries, but not summer fruiting ones, which fruit on the previous year’s growth
Keep sowing early vegetable crops indoors and prepare a runner bean trench outdoors
Don’t forget snowdrops are best planted in the green, that is when their flowers have just gone over, so if you wish to increase your stock divide or plant them now.
Charlie Hart is a gardener and garden writer who is occasionally let loose in other people’s gardens. He is also campaign director for the Modern Slavery Garden being created for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. He lives on the Essex/Suffolk border with his wife and four children. He tweets @peverelsgardens and blogs