Home & Garden

Gardening: February activities in the maritime Northwest garden

gardening by Mary Robson, WSU Extension Agent
The Roman source for the name of January is Janus, the god with two faces looking forward and backward. This would be a much more appropriate name for what happens to gardeners in February. February is definitely a month with the weather looking backward to winter and forward to spring, and sometimes both directions on a single day!
   February can bring some of the most challenging winter weather in the maritime Northwest. Often, a week of crisp, below-freezing days will freeze plants into rigidity.
   Even if the weather continues mild, don't remove mulches or unwrap roses in the first two or three weeks of the month. Leave all the garden winterizing protection in place. Unless the weather persists with days of arctic temperatures, the plants will recover from intermittent freezing and grow normally when the weather warms.
   When the urge to garden strikes, sow seeds of cold-hardy vegetables and flowers indoors. Start lettuce, cabbage, kale, collards, broccoli, larkspur, Shirley poppies, and other cold- hardy plants. Leafy crops like lettuce and spinach will grow large enough to transplant after three to five weeks indoors. Other crops may take five or six weeks.
   Provide bright light when starting seedlings indoors. The most common problem people face is too little interior light to grow sturdy transplants. Seedlings sprout readily and then grow spindly, lanky, and pale green for lack of direct light. For best results, an interior plant light set-up will help. Two ordinary fluorescent light tubes in a standard shop-light type fixture will work fine. (I use a combination of one cool-white and one warm-white). Keep the lights on 14 hours a day, about eight inches above the seedlings.
   Warmer weather and stronger light toward the end of the month will get vegetable gardeners out and working. Before digging or planting, check the soil condition. Pick up a small handful of the garden soil and squeeze hard. Open your hand and poke at the resulting tight soil wad. If the soil mass breaks up easily into smaller clumps and crumbs, the garden is probably dry enough for digging and working. If the soil mass is gooey, sticks together, and retains the impression of your hand when you poke it, the soil is still too wet to work.
   Plant and maintain tree fruit--apples, pears, plums, and peaches--this month. Check local nurseries and catalogs for fruit cultivars which ripen well in cool-season summers.
   Some cultivars of apples recommended by Washington State University Cooperative Extension fruit researchers are "Liberty," "Akane," and "Chehalis." Ask the nursery about the "rootstock" for the trees. Growers graft fruit trees on to rootstocks that restrict, or somewhat control, the eventual size of the tree. For example, the rootstock called "EMLA-27" produces an apple tree that, with proper pruning care, can be kept to a 4- to 6-foot height. It's vital to purchase fruit well adapted to growth in western Washington, because the time invested in caring for a fruit tree needs to be rewarded with harvests!
   Before fruit tree growth begins, complete the winter care program for the tree. Many gardeners are familiar with the term "dormant sprays" but may wonder what exactly constitutes dormancy in tree fruits. A superior-type oil spray can be used in late February, and into March, for insect pests such as scale, aphid eggs, and mite eggs. The oil smothers over-wintering eggs and prevents hatching. "Dormant sprays" are used before the buds begin to open—complete all dormant sprays before the buds show any pink color. The dormant spray does not provide protection against either codling moth or apple maggot, which are pests prevalent later in the season, and which need to be treated with appropriate controls at the right time.
   Growing fruit in the home orchard requires both accurate local information and some experience. Two publications from Washington State University Cooperative Extension are invaluable for learning about control of insect and disease problems on tree fruit. For apples and pears, request EB0846: "Apples and Pears: Spray Schedule for Western Washington." For peaches, plums, and cherries (both fruiting and ornamental flowering), ask for EB0918: "Peaches, Apricots...Spray Schedule for Home Orchards." Both publications cost $1, plus handling costs. To order in King County, call 206-296-3900; in Snohomish County, call 206-338-2400. A bulletin on pruning fruit trees, PNW 400: "Pruning and Training the Home Orchard," is available at the same phone numbers.
   Peach trees should receive spray for peach leaf curl; copper sprays or lime sulfur are registered for this disease control and must be applied before the trees leaf. Spray early in the month and once more three weeks later. Even the "Frost" peach, which is resistant to peach leaf curl, must be treated for the first two or three years of its growth when it is most susceptible.
   When temperatures are below freezing, do not spray and do not prune! When it's mild, prune shrubs that flower in summer: butterfly bush (buddleia), hydrangeas, and escallonia can be pruned now. Prune roses after the weather moderates, toward the end of the month.
   February and March are the best months to fertilize trees and shrubs. Apply just before a rain and follow label directions to get just the right quantity on the plants.

Visit WSU's Agriculture site on the World Wide Web at http://www.cahe.wsu.edu.