As I look towards the new growing season, there are many things that I can do as February garden chores to work towards a productive year in the garden.
Yes, there are February garden chores.
Again, like last month, you’re probably reading the title “February Garden Chores” and think I must be joking about there being anything to do outside in the cold days of this month. Like January, I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong! There are plenty of things that need to be done to promote a better yard and garden during the rest of the year, AND it will make things easier in the long run if you start doing some work now. Especially for folks like me, chronically ill and/or mobility impaired, getting a start on things early and slowly working on them is the key to getting them done at all. So, get your garden gloves and tools ready and read along on my garden efforts for February. It might inspire you to take the next sunny afternoon to bundle up and do some pruning.
February Garden Goals
In February, I have a handful of priorities for the yard and garden bed to help support a more successful growing season and promote longer term plant health:
- Take advantage of the weekends with fairer weather and do as much pruning as I can on the shrubs and bushes
- Complete the soil amendment process for the new vegetable bed that I’ve started
- Start the more cold-hardy vegetables and herbs indoors
- Plant a few bare root bushes and dwarf trees
- Continue to maintain my onion seedlings, including periodic trimming
- Expand the indoor grow area for more starting room
Why am I doing these things now?
There are lots of advantages and reasons to do this work now that will help support the longer term health of the vegetable garden and landscape, though I have some specific reasons that I am prioritizing this work in February.
Focus Growth of Shrubs and Trees
Most shrubs and trees are dormant right now and still getting ready to put energy into producing buds and new growth. Completing pruning now will help ensure that more of this energy this year is put into new growth on healthy or desirable branches versus other parts of the plant that may ultimately need to be removed. It’s also much easier to see what I’m pruning and where I’m trying to clip when there is less foliage to try to maneuver myself and the trimmers around.
Soil Amending Supports Productivity
Continuing this now allows for a few weeks’ time for the different amending materials to breakdown into the soil and be usable for the plant versus in a concentration that could be damaging to the plant. It also gives me time for the nutrients to more fully distribute and for me to then do a retest of the soil before I start planting. This retest of the soil will help inform how I continue to feed and supplement the bed throughout the year.
Starting Seeds Indoors Gives Plants a Head Start
If I start these plants now, I can get them in the ground as soon as 4-6 weeks ahead of the last frost if I also provide them a little protection. This means that I could have my first solid vegetable harvest of the year by mid-April, when I would be looking to plant some of the more tender vegetable starts anyways. Additionally, most herbs take a long time to germinate and develop into plants that can be permanently transplanted outdoors. Planting them this early gives them plenty of time to grow in a more protected environment before I try to harden them off and transplant them into the garden.
Planting Now Allows for Early Establishment
Like how now the time is to complete pruning in the garden, it’s also the time to plant those bare root shrubs and trees while they are still dormant. They will take advantage of this time to slowly begin their new root development while the ground around them continues to warm. Once it’s warm enough outside for them to produce foliage, they’ll have a more substantial root structure prepared to pull nutrients from the ground and establish themselves.
Promoting Larger Onion Growth
Onions take a long time to grow from seed but are too tender to be outdoors until much later in the season. This means starting and keeping them indoors for 15 to 20 weeks before they go outside. An advantage to starting them indoors like this is that it provides them enough time to develop a larger bulb and stock before they are moved, which ultimately means a bigger plant at the end of the season.
Increase Indoor Gardening Productivity
To support the succession planting as intensively as I want to, I need to have at least 6 trays of seedlings under lights indoors at any given time. To be able to support this, I’m trying to recreate the grow set up I had at my old house. That included using a 4’ wide shelving unit with three shelves for seed starts. Having this much space allows me to grow more and keep more indoors for longer which means healthier and stronger plants overall.
How am I approaching this work?
A lot of this probably sounds like a significant amount of effort, and it can be. I try to do things in a way that will allow me to spread the work out and continue to make progress towards a better yard and garden.
Shrub and Tree Pruning
Whenever there is an hour or two of good weather, I’m grabbing a pair of gloves and some clippers and heading outside. Having rheumatoid arthritis means I can’t do much for long anyways, so it’s better for me to spread out work like this over a longer period which works perfect for fickle February weather. I’m prioritizing trimming the more mature shrubs in the yard so that there is no foliage within 12 inches of the surface of the soil. This is because these shrubs (and already one this last year) are eventually going to die, and something needs to be established nearby to take their places.
To do this, I need to expose the soil surface to lighter and help get plants growing around them. Other things I’m looking for as I prune are growth that is crossing or rubbing against other growth (or will soon). This is something that can cause damage to the shrub and keep it from having healthy foliage. It also looks messy. I evaluate the conditions of the branches I find doing this and then make decisions about how far back to cut because sometimes the whole larger branch is part of a bigger problem for the shrub. Lastly, I look at how I can open up the middle of the shrub more and let in some light and air to enhance it’s growth and ongoing health.
Soil Amending and Double-Digging
As seen in my post on Soil Testing last month, there was a lot of work that I needed to do to improve the soil enough to support a vegetable bed. After calculating what I needed and how much to add, I purchased my materials from the hardware store and set to work with double digging the garden bed.
This was something that I also opted to spread out, not just because of weather, but because this was just plain hard work. I can only do work like this for at most two hours at a time, and this was particularly strenuous work. I did these 6 foot by 12 foot bed in two 2-hour work sessions over two different days and took plenty of breaks the whole time I worked this. For an arthritic woman, I felt proud of myself…though I will definitely not be looking forward to doing that again.
After double digging the bed, I let it rest for a week before going back and incorporating another cubic foot of compost, some limestone, and vermiculite into the upper layers of the soil. This should help balance the overall pH of the soil and continue to improve its water and nutrient retention. I will retest the soil at the beginning of March once things have had more time to settle again.
Starting Seeds Indoors
Like how I normally start my seeds, I made a mix of soil, compost, and light fertilizer for my seedlings. Starting these seeds now allows them plenty of time to grow under my grow lights with the warmer indoor temperatures before I transplant them outside.
Vegetables like mustard greens and broccoli are very cold hardy, but they also like a lot of light and will mature to a better size in a short period of time if I give them the head start indoors. Starting them in early February will allow them to spend nearly one third of their growing time before harvest indoors in a protected environment.
These will be hitting their maturity around mid to late April, which is just in time for harvesting before I replant the best with things like tomatoes, peppers, and cucumber.
Planting Bare Root Shrubs and Trees
The property around the house I’m in has been minimally maintained until I moved here. Most of it as I mentioned is starting to reach end of life or has died from disease or other issues. So, getting new plants established around the existing ones is a priority to maintain the landscape of the property. To support this, planting bushes and trees that also produce fruit can be a great way to add landscaping interest but also provide some benefits to the homeowner long term. In and around the existing beds are several conifers and other things with litter that makes the soil more acidic. This is ideal for blueberries that prefer the acidic soil and have pretty foliage in the fall and winter. Another great fruiting landscape specimen is a peach tree which has very delicate flowers and thinner leaves that keep it from being too obstructive when fully leafed out. These also like more acidic soils and do well in the area. When planting bare root specimens, I generally follow the package or tag, with a couple exceptions: I don’t always soak the plant ahead of time and I use compost to mulch the plants. Because it’s usually so wet in February when I’m planting, I will skip the soak and plan to plant immediately before a period of particularly wet weather. This means I can put the plant directly into the ground, do a single post planting deep watering, and then let mother nature do the rest of the work. So far so good, but I’ll let you know if my planting technique fails me at this house considering the poor soil. I’m hopeful, between the existing acidic litter, my soil amending efforts, and the post-planting mulching with compost will keep the health of these guys up for a good growth though.
Onion Seedling Maintenance
Four weeks since planting, my onion seedlings are going strong and it’s time for the first crucial decision with their lives. To trim or not to trim, that is the question. By trimming, I am referring to the practice I had been told of where you keep the onion seedlings no more than 1 inch tall to focus energy into the bulb, root, and stalk production. This is supposed to result in larger onions at the end of the season. Additionally, at this point is when you would thin the onions, according to the package instructions.
After polling the internet (because that’s what you do these days), I decided to trim and thin my onion seedlings. It felt slightly murderous, but after two more weeks, I was happy to see that they were all doing quite well and were again four inches tall and technically ready for another trim. So again, I broke out the snippers and trimmed them down. Just in case this turned out to be an absolute disaster, I do have another set of onion seedlings going that are not trimmed at all.
At the four-week mark, I noted that many of the old lettuce seeds I had attempted to germinate had done absolutely nothing in their cells. So, I decided to take advantage of the extra space and sow more onion seeds. These are sown more thickly and will be left entirely alone during the indoor growing period just to see what happens in comparison to the trimmed onions. Both sets of onions are receiving bi-weekly feedings, alternating with fish emulsion and seaweed emulsions. The soil is kept constantly moist while they continue to grow.
Indoor Growing Space for Seed Starting
Starting seeds indoors takes a lot of space and a lot of light. That is not something that most people have, nor do I. To get the space that I need, I’m attempting to recreate a growing set up that I had at my old house. This was made from a 48” wire rack and a bunch of LED lights I ordered and daisy-chained together from Amazon. After some searching, I discovered a similar used rack for sale at a salvage store in Seattle. In total, I spent about $200 recreating my indoor grow station at my new house. When I consider that I need to constantly support up to 6 trays of seedlings at a time though from now until June, I think it’s worth it. As I wait for the last set of lights to arrive, my latest seedlings have gotten a little leggy without the extra light. No issue though, these are still going to be salvageable and are not something that a little extra air movement, feeding, and proper lightings can’t fix quickly.
What are things I’m planning on tackling next month?
As I look towards March, I’m planning on continuing my gardening maintenance effort by:
- Installing supports for plant protection and trellising in the vegetable bed
- Hardening off the seed starts for transplanting
- Planting out the vegetable bed with my seedlings
- Direct sowing root vegetables into the vegetable bed
- Starting the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, summer squash, and melons indoors
- Direct sowing wildflowers and other perennials in the garden beds outside
- Protecting my flowers from the bunnies!
Helpful Tip to Protect Against Slug and Snail Damage: Save Your Eggshells!
Snails and slugs find coarse and sharp surfaces unpleasant to crawl on. You can make the ground around your spring bulbs and plant sprouts super spikey to them by sprinkling crushed eggshells there. Eggshells also provide a good source of slow releasing calcium as they breakdown in your soil which is an added benefit for plant health.
Fortier, Jean-Martin. The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, 2014.
Gehring, Abigail R. Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, NY, 2014.
Hansen, Ann Larkin. Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner, Storey Publishing Llc, 2017.