FEBRUARY 3, 1997
Gardening: Hints of spring in February
by Mary Robson, WSU Area Extension Agent
Yes, February will give us hints of spring, but the month can also produce wintry blasts of cold, icy air. Often an Arctic cold spell strikes somewhere during the first two weeks of February. Some days, however, will be mild and invite the gardener outdoors. "Unsettled" is a good term for February weather and often a description of the gardener's state of mind.
Especially during the first three weeks of the month, keep the garden's winter protection in place. Hardy spring bulb shoots will continue to emerge this month, and if mulch remains around them, they are remarkably resistant to cold temperatures. Many gardeners worry about the three-inch daffodil shoots, or snowdrops and crocus beginning to bloom when a cold snap hits. The only action gardeners can take if a serious freeze is predicted is to place 2-3 inches of organic mulch around any shoots that are exposed. With mulch for root protection, these plants will manage well, stopping their growth during cold spells and reviving during warmth. The message for February is: enjoy the promise of new bulb shoots growing, and trust that their beauty will survive cold spells.
February offers good opportunities for pruning the garden, but only when the temperatures are above freezing! Freezing weather prevents most garden activities. Do not walk on frozen soil or frozen lawns, do not prune, do not transplant or install plants if temperatures drop into the mid-30s and below.
Prune hydrangeas now, and other shrubs that bloom in summer, such as butterfly bush (buddleia), escallonia, and cotoneaster. Hydrangea pruning often puzzles gardeners. If the hydrangea is thickly overgrown and stuffed with old branches, remove about 1/3 of the stalks that bloomed last year, keeping a balance in the plant. Then shorten some of the remaining stalks (but not all of them) back to a growth node, cutting them back to a node where last year's growth originated.
Toward month's end, prune and fertilize roses. Many growers, after pruning off old growth, treat the bush immediately with a fungicide, helping to control diseases such as black spot that overwinter on the old canes. Daconil, Funcinex, and wettable sulfur are some of the fungicides currently registered for use on rose diseases. If you choose to spray, do it on a day with temperatures over 40 and no rain. (If you find such a day in February, rejoice!) Read the label carefully and wear appropriate protective gear, including goggles, gloves, and a hat when using any pesticides.
As plants begin to swell buds and put on their spring growth leap, they need nutrients during February and March. In spring, trees, shrubs, and perennial plants grow using stored reserves of nutrients from the root system. Replacing these reserves is a vital part of keeping plants healthy. Not all trees and shrubs will need fertilizing. Large, established plants can frequently get along fine with a spring compost mulch and no other fertilizer. It's easy to over fertilize, applying too many nutrients too often. Be sure to follow label directions for quantity and do not add fertilizer to tree and shrub plantings after active spring growth has finished.
Fertilize those that have been planted recently, within the previous 2 or 3 years. However, do not fertilize woody plants during the first summer growing season after planting. They need to re-establish feeder roots to take in nutrients, and they are easily harmed by too much fertilizer. Also, fertilize any that are not putting on sufficient new growth, have shown smaller leaves than normal, or are "off color" and yellowed. These symptoms may indicate the need for nitrogen. Nitrogen is the one nutrient commonly needed for good spring growth in the Pacific Northwest, since it is leached out of soil by winter rains.
Before fertilizing, check the root structure of the plant. Symptoms such as yellowing leaves can also be caused by root rots or other root damage. If you suspect a root problem, dig gently around the base of the plant to look at the root structure. Dumping fertilizer on a plant with a failing root system won't improve the plant. It will waste the fertilizer and may result in nutrients being washed away into surface water, where they can contribute to pollution problems. Fertilizing isn't just a matter of buying a bag and applying it. Observe the health and stage of growth of the plant first.
If the urge to dig strikes, be sure to check soil moisture first. Digging in or walking on saturated soil can damage the soil structure, especially with clay soils. Pick up a small handful of the garden soil and squeeze hard. Open your hand and poke the soil wad (This process requires two hands, one to hold the soil and one to poke with.) If the soil wad breaks up easily into smaller clumps and crumbs, the garden is probably dry enough to work. If the soil mass is gooey and sticks together, the soil is too wet to dig. With the weather conditions this winter, many soils are utterly saturated and will take some weeks to be dry enough for digging.
Plant tree fruit, choosing cultivars adapted for local cool-summer climate. Relax, sharpen tools, and read catalogs, planning the spring ahead. Once March weather arrives, everything begins to happen at once!
Visit WSU's Agriculture Site on the World-Wide Web at http://www.cahe.wsu.edu.