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February Garden Tips

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant."
- Anne Bradstreet

February may well be the toughest gardening month here in the Pittsburgh area. Thank goodness it's short. Yes, it is cold outside, but that doesn't have to stop the true gardener from working on the garden. February is a good month for planning because the first signs of spring just around the corner. The following are a few other gardening topics to think about this month.

GENERAL GARDENING TIPS

  • Branches of forsythia, pussy willow, quince, spirea, and dogwood can be forced for indoor bloom. Make long, slanted cuts when collecting the branches and place the stems in a vase of water. Change the water every four days. They should bloom in about 3 weeks.
  • Feed the birds and other small creatures which may not be able to find food due to snow on the ground. For only a few dollars you can feed an enormous number of birds. If there is snow on the ground and you don't have a feeder, a simple piece of plywood, a scrap of carpet or even cardboard will create a very good feeding area. It's easy to clean off and turn over if it happens to get covered by a fresh snowfall. You don't have to be a bird watcher to enjoy the feeling that you get when you've helped the local wildlife. 
  • It's not too early to begin to think of a strategy for new spring plantings. You might want to create a small diagram of your garden, and use it as a guide for spring planting.

SHRUBS and TREES

Late February is a good time to prune most of your deciduous trees and shrubs. Look over your plants now and remove dead, dying, or unsightly parts of the tree, sprouts growing at or near the base of the tree trunk and crossed branches. Pruning will encourage vigorous new growth and will yield more beautiful and productive plants. The exception is spring flowering shrubs that should only be pruned after bloom. Take advantage of the warmer sunny days in late February to get back into your garden. 

If bird feeding is important to you, order trees and shrubs which provide cover and small fruits for your feathered friends. Consider species such as crabapple, serviceberry, dogwood, winterberry, viburnum, and hawthorn. Give Mark a call, if you have any questions or special requests. 

You can take a walk around the garden to check for ice and snow damage to shrubs, evergreens, and trees. Look for damage by rabbits and rodents. Install hardware cloth around stems, or use Liquid Fence to protect against further damage.

In the event of snow, be sure to shake or brush it off the branches of your evergreens and shrubs. The light fluffy snow poses no real threat, but if it should become wet and frozen, the weight dramatically increases. Branches are more brittle when the plants are dormant, and the weight of the snow may snap them off.

ANNUALS and BULBS

  • Check stored bulbs, tubers and corms. Discard any that are soft or diseased.
  • If you potted bulbs for forcing last fall, check their progress. Soil should be barely moist. If tips have sprouted and have a few inches of growth, bring the pot into a cool, bright room (50 to 60 degrees F). Gradually expose the plant to increasing warmth and indirect sunlight. Increase watering, and feed once a week with half-strength houseplant fertilizer. To help the stems grow straight, turn the pot every day. When buds and foliage are fully developed, bring into full sunlight, and enjoy! 

PERENNIALS

  • Order perennial plants and bulbs now for cut flowers this summer. Particularly good choices are phlox, daisies, coreopsis, asters and lilies.  
  • Don't remove mulch from perennials too early. A warm day may make you think spring is almost here but there may be more cold weather yet to come.
  • Outdoors, check your perennial plants. In an "open winter," (one without much snow cover) there is a need for protective mulch on strawberries and many perennial flowers as well as other crops that can easily be damaged by alternate warming and freezing of the soil. If you have not already done so, mulching now can prevent damage caused by spring fluctuations in soil temperatures.
  • Fireplace ashes can be saved to use a fertilizer for your Iris, Lilac and other plants that prefer alkaline soil.

VEGGIES & HERBS

  • This year plan to grow at least one new vegetable that you've never grown before; it may be better than what you are already growing. The new dwarf varieties on the market which use less space while producing more food per square foot may be just what you're looking for. These new varieties are also perfect for container gardening.
  • Don't start your vegetable plants indoors too early. Six weeks ahead of the expected planting date is early enough for the fast growth species such as cabbage and tomatoes. Eight weeks allows enough time for the slower growing types such as peppers.
  • Test the germination of last year's surplus seeds before ordering new ones. Place ten seeds between damp paper towels. Keep them consistently damp and in a dark place. Check germination rates to determine how many seeds to use for your real planting.
  • Start onions from seed now. They'll be ready for setting out in April. Onions from seed are generally firmer and longer lasting than from sets.

FRUITS

  • Prune fruit trees and grapes in late February or early March after the worst of the winter cold has passed but before spring growth begins.
  • Fertilize fruit trees with Espoma Tree Tone as soon as possible after the ground thaws but before blossom time.
  • Dormant spray, (Bonide All Seasons Horticultural Spray Oil or Lime-Sulfur Spray) is considered one of the best organic defenses against diseases on fruiting plants, and even ornamental plants, because the spray smothers over wintering insects, spores and fungus. Because Dormant Spray can damage leaves and needles on trees and shrubs, you must spray your fruit trees when they are dormant, before the buds have begun to open (bud-break). The spray can also damage surrounding evergreens and perennials, so it's advisable to cover any susceptible plants in the over-spray zone with a tarp. It's also important to choose a clear dry day, with no breeze and one that is preferably above freezing.
  • Keep this in mind while pruning: fruit usually grows on the horizontal branches, rather than the vertical ones. Vertical branches may be trained to become horizontal by weighting them down for a few weeks. This may also be done in the summer.

THE LAWN

  • Lawns maintained at the correct height are less likely to have disease and weed infestation. Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue should be mowed at two or three inches in height. Mow frequently, removing no more than one third of the blade at each cutting. Setting your mower for a higher cut during the spring months will help the grass to grow in fuller and help choke out the weeds.
  • If the weather becomes hot and dry raise the cutting height of the mower.
  • It's not too late to reseed or over-seed (spreading seed over areas of weak or spotty grass) the lawn. Be certain to keep newly seeded areas well watered.

HOUSEPLANTS

  • Don't forget your house plants! Dust on the foliage can clog the leaf pores, so clean them up a little with a damp cloth, or a quick shower under the tap. Actively growing plants, if you have any, will benefit from a shot of Bonide Liquid Plant Food. On very cold nights, it is good to close the curtains or blinds between the window and your house plants. Really, this is a good thing to do every winter night in order to save energy.
  • Make certain that your houseplants have sufficient humidity, by setting them on a tray filled with clean pebbles, and a little water, or by simply setting a cup of water nearby. Misting is another consideration.
  • Check all five growing factors if your house plants are not growing well. Light, temperature, nutrients, moisture, and humidity must be favorable to provide good growth. ·  Continue to watch for insect or disease damage and take the necessary steps to control problems. Bonide Systemic Houseplant Insect Control will provide protection for 8 weeks. Organic solutions include Capt. Jacks Deadbug Brew. Bonide “Eight” is a quick acting chemical insecticide. Use Bonide Infuse systemic fungicide for disease problems.
  • Re-invigorate your houseplants by removing the top 1/4 inch of soil and top-dressing with fresh potting soil.
  • Houseplants will be sensitive to overfeeding at this time of year. Provide lots of sunlight, fresh air, and frequent bathing for plants that seem a little worse for the winter. 

PEST CONTROL (Indoors)

  • Insect pests multiply very quickly indoors. There are no natural predators to keep the insects in check, so you have to be very diligent about checking for symptoms. Keep an eye out for leaves that become discolored or curled and for plants that look limp even when they’re watered. Learn to spot the following common houseplant pests.  
    • Spider Mites leave telltale webbing, especially on the inner joints of plants and in plants with lush foliage. The tiny mites are about the size of a pinhead and injure plants by sucking their juices. Attacked leaves will have yellow stippling. As the infestation gets worse, the leaves will turn totally yellow and brittle and quickly die. Capt. Jacks Deadbug Brew is an organic insecticide that will control aphids and mites.    
    • Mealy Bugs are small cottony white blobs, usually attached to the plant at the stem joints, but they may also be found along the stems. They make themselves at home and slowly feed off the plants by sucking. Plants infested with mealy bugs often look like they are drying out, even when they've been watered. Mealy bugs are very hard to get rid of. If you catch the problem early, cut out the infested branches. You can also dab the mealy bugs with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. If you plants become severely infested, use Bonide Systemic Houseplant Insect Control, or just get rid of them. Mealy bugs spread quickly.     
    • Scales are small insects that attach themselves to the stem of a plant and cover themselves with a hard, oval shaped shell. Like mealy bugs, they slowly suck the sap from plants, leaving them too weak to sustain themselves. Like mealy bugs, they are very hard to get rid of. Pesticides often don’t penetrate their hard shells. You may have some luck rubbing the scales off with your fingernail. Young scales have to crawl unprotected to a new location to set up shop, and can be sprayed at that time with insecticidal soap. The soap has only minimal use against the protected adults. Bonide Systemic Houseplant Insect Control may again be the only remaining solution.     
    • Aphids look like small green, white, yellow or black spots that can surface on all parts of a plant. Aphids can reproduce so quickly that an infestation will cover the plant in days. Aphids are soft bodied insects and can be killed quite easily by a strong blast of water or repeated sprays of insecticidal soap. But they are persistent and you will need to remain diligent to rid your houseplants of these pests.

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