Getting some February gardening work done might be a bit of a battle with the weather, but it is valuable in the long run for having a more productive landscape. In my second February here in Auburn, I’m working on renovating an old apple tree, pruning mature rhododendrons, and establishing as many new plants as possible.
Of course, I got sick.
Well, I knew I was going to be getting seriously sick one of these days…and that day came earlier this month. It seems, and has for many years, that I will always get seriously ill once a year. When I was younger this happened every fall, but as I’ve gotten older it’s now January or February. Last year, it ended up hitting me in once in January and then harder a second time in March, which is why my attempt to do a month-by-month gardening blog update fell completely off the tracks last March. It’s like that whole section of my life disappeared last year (it didn’t, obviously I was still gardening, just not blogging about it). The worst part of getting sick for me is that it always drag on so long that it kills two weekends worth of productivity, which in late winter can be really derailing with the limited number of sunny, or at the very least, not frozen or drenching and miserable days.
Nevertheless, I squeezed out as many good days in the yard as I could (once I had stopped sounding like a frog and dripping like a faucet) and ended up finding myself today reflecting on the hard work and really happy about how much I had actually gotten done. Though I have a few things to follow up on this month, the work I did this past February has set me up for a lot of really awesome landscape improvements for this coming year.
February Gardening Work
Despite the fact that our climate is making predicting or following the typical PNW gardening schedule a little unreliable, this year a lot of the work I planned to do in February was very similar to what I did last year in my first February in Auburn and this house. It was the second phase of what is a never-ending home improvement effort, and with that has new exciting and complex elements to it. So what did I plan to do this year?
- Expand the veggie bed and amend the soil
- Plant bare root roses
- Continue pruning the mature shrubs and trees around the property
As the month continued though, a number of new chores were added onto my list as things evolved:
- Planting bare root shrubs and trees
- Starting seeds indoors
- Master Gardener classes, reading, and the tangential projects and research that creates for a gardening nerd!
Gardening Work in Practice
Expanding the vegetable bed and amending the soil
As February came to a close, I’m finding this particular task has mostly rollled into March. I did lots of things this past month, but this was not one of them. If you read last year’s post about gardening in February and my experience double-digging my current vegetable bed, or if you have double-dug a bed yourself or know of the process, then you understand that it’s an undertaking. It was a multi-weekend event last year, so with two weekends completely wiped from my productive time due to illness this past month, as well as that it’s not absolutely critical to complete quite yet since I have nothing to transplant out there yet, I’m allowing the expansion work and most of the soil amending effort there to push into March.
That doesn’t mean I did absolutely nothing on this in February though. I frequently check my beds and on finding that someone had broken through my little garden fence and nibbled through most of the remaining overwintering veg I had there, I saw it as an opportunity. I finished some cleanup and updates to the existing bed that I had been putting off through last year. This included installing some more bricks in the bed to create some walkways through the beds, and rearranging the row hoops that I have to preplan what my plastic or mesh row cover needs will be. Now my beds have improved footpaths and I am ready to cover my transplants when they migrate outside.
Planting Bare Root Roses
I happen to love roses. I didn’t think I was going to be one of those people who love roses, but I love roses. I have found them to be one of the easier shrubs to care for and one of the more forgiving ones as well. I used to think that roses were going to be really complicated to grow based on how I had heard people talk about them when I was growing up, but after growing several of them myself for over the years, they have become one of my favorite landscape plants. As an amateur florist, I also appreciate having a stock of roses in my garden to use for home arrangements during the spring and summer.
Planting roses is a pretty easy process. At this time of year, you can usually get bare root roses from your local nursery or shipped to you from growers. Getting bare root roses or other plants is a great way to get a good quality plant at a lower cost. It does take a little longer to get them established and growing sometimes from a bare root, but once they take off, they can be just as wonderful as a carefully babysat potted plant you might buy in full bloom from a nursery later this year for twice as much money.
Bare root roses generally come as a naked root, in some wood shavings, wrapped in plastic. You can also find the dormant canes in a potting medium or soil, also usually wrapped in plastic, with the major stems or canes cut back to only a few inches long. They don’t look super pretty at this point, but the label will be able to show you what type you are getting and what the rose will eventually look like.
Refer to the specific instructions that come with your bare root or potted rose from the grower. The ones that I potted this year direct me to take them and place them directly into a hole dug slightly wider than the pot that the rose is packaged in. I sprinkled a little compost and light organic fertilizer at the bottom of the hole to help encourage the rose to establish itself. I then pulled the rose from the package, trying to keep as much of the growing medium and root ball together and placed it in the hole. The pot is biodegradable, so I just threw it in the compost. I then filled the rest of the hole in around the root ball and mulched around the base of the rose with compost.
In the past I’ve had roses come with much less growing medium or soil, but the process was honestly very similar. Two other roses I planted this month told me to just cut the biodegradable pot up the sides and plant it with the rose root ball in the hole and allow it to just incorporate into the soil. This was kind of neat and made planting them roses even easier since the pots themselves were so soft I barely had to do anything to break them up before I planted them with the roses.
Pruning the Mature Shrubs and Trees
There are many of these around that still need lots of work on my property, so this is a slow moving process. This month I’m working on the shrubs and trees on the southeast side of my house, in hopes of improving their growth this year and seeing less disease and general distress from them. This will help them use water and nutrients more efficiently this spring and into the hot days of summer.
The majority of my effort so far has been on pruning back this mature old apple tree. Last year it showed signs of disease as it came into fruit, and not knowing a lot about apple tree care, I was mystified what to do about it based on what I was seeing. This year, I have been working on giving the tree the best start I can and will try to do some proper maintenance and hopefully I will get a clearer picture of what the real issue is for this tree (maybe it just needed a haircut and some compost, who knows).
Fruit trees generally follow the same pruning principles. There is not a lot of harm you are going to do to your tree as long as you:
- Remove all the dead branches
- Remove all the diseased branches and shoots
- Remove all the damaged branches
These three guidelines apply to most every plant in the garden, but especially fruiting trees as these issues are all going to impact the quality of the fruit you get at the end of the season (if any!). My next priority with the apple tree is to remove the watersprouts coming out of the top of the major branches. These are not going to produce a lot of fruit, and are using a lot of energy and nutrients that could be devoted elsewhere by the tree. So out they go. This leaves the tree with it’s major horizontal fruit producing branches which can be pruned back even further to help open the tree up and improve air circulation through the tree.
I am not planning on pruning these out too drastically this month as I just have other things to work on. As long as I get to it before the tree blooms, I’m OK. My home micro climate is such that the crocuses are only just starting to open, so I likely have a few more weeks before any blooming starts.
Broadleaf evergreen shrubs like Rhododendrons are also part of my February pruning effort. There are two large ones in my backyard that have a lot of small leggy growth drooping around their bases as well as several damaged or dead branches in their crown that need to be removed. As I did my previous year, I’m really focusing on removing small growth and branches that droop and drag their foliage within 1’ of the ground. This helps minimize water splashing back up onto the plants from the ground which can encourage disease.
As with the trees, I’m taking out anything that is dead, diseased, or damaged and am also looking for the rhododendron’s versions of watersprouts which are more mature shoots from the base of the plant that are shooting straight up through the middle of the bush. These shoots are causing the middle of the shrub to feel really congested and is again, preventing air circulation similar to how they would on trees. Once these are removed I can step back and admire my pruned up bushes and also start planning what to plant around their bases this spring! Pruning up your bushes helps to gain so much more planting room for low herbaceous plants.
Planting Bare Root Shrubs and Trees
As with roses, buying and planting bareroot shrubs and trees is going to save a lot of money on plants. Similarly, the plants will not produce a lot of growth the first year above ground, as most of their development is likely going to be occurring in their roots as they establish themselves. The main benefit is being able to buy in bulk at lower prices than a nursery plant later in the season. You can spend less than half what you would on potted nursery plants and get twice the plants for a gorgeous orchard or garden bed. However, it requires planning as you usually have to pre-order these in the fall, and even if you don’t, you have to know to go out and purchase them in mid-winter from the nursery and then go out and plant in the freezing temperatures we’ve been experiencing this February. I can tell that now after explaining all those amazing benefits, you are now super into this whole concept and are enthusiastically wondering how you can participate!
Now after telling you all of that, I am going to admit that I happen to be extremely lazy about how I approach this. I basically commit a number of gardening cardinal sins before I even get the plants into the ground. To start, once I receive them, I don’t immediately plant them or unpack them. I usually just let everything sit outside somewhere undercover in it’s wrapping until I have time and energy to plant (typically the coming weekend). Secondly, I don’t pre-soak the plant roots before planting. The last few times I’ve had a planting day, I’ve timed it such that it immediately rains after and continues to be stormy and wet for the next week or so, which it was again for me this month. All said, if it doesn’t work for all the plants this year and I end up with a bunch of dead stuff later this, I will let you know.
So, after I commit these two horrible atrocities against my bare root plants, I grab a couple bags of organic compost, some alfalfa meal, and my shovel and go out to start planting. I have very limited top soil depth at my house, so I am asking these little bare root guys to do a lot for me after being so mean to them to start. I dig a hole that is about twice the size of the roots of the plant. I fill the bottom of the hole with compost and alfalfa meal before situating my plant in the hole where I want it. As I refill the hole with the native dirt, I add in a little more compost. Then instead of mulching the plant with wood chips, I mulch with the compost.
Here is where I commit what many will say is another gardening cardinal sin and I am only going to mulch up to an inch of compost around and over the plants and their holes. Ideally, I would be doing closer to three inches, but I have more plants to plant in the vicinity of these plants, and only so much compost on hand and energy.
Most gardening books and experts are going to recommend that you mulch with wood chips at a minimum of two inches, though I’ve read of some folks using as much as six inches. That’s just not going to work with the way I’m starting these plants as they will require more of the supplemental moisture from the rainfall which will not be allowed to quickly penetrate the soil to the roots if there is three to six inches of material on top. I’m just going to be moisturizing my wood chips, which has some benefit to breaking them down or being fire-wise, but not to providing water to my new plant.
As I continue planting this spring, I will continue mulching with compost throughout my garden and will be coming back each month to add another inch of compost to my new plantings until air temps heat up this summer. By that point, the plants will have been able to take advantage of the spring rainfall and the continual source of rich nutrients the compost provides them.
Starting Seeds Indoors
I think this is my fourth year in a row that I am starting seeds indoors and transplanting plants out to a vegetable garden. That’s pretty exciting to have that much growing experience (or maybe tribulations) under my belt. There have been times where everything goes completely wrong and I throw whole trays of seedlings out, then there have been times where I can’t believe the amazing seedlings I’ve grown only to see them eaten by slugs immediately after transplanting.
This month, I’m only starting one tray of seedlings. I know some folks are starting racks and racks of seedlings, but I’m starting just one tray. I’ve also moved my grow rack out to my uninsulated garage where temperatures are not much better than they are outside, but at least it’s still protected from the elements. I do not have a warming mat still, so the tray is only as warm as it can stay under the lights and with the humidity cover on in these super cold temps of February. All said, the seeds I’m starting are all ones that can generally tolerate germinating in colder temperatures, with the exception of some parsley I’m trying to germinate as a long shot. I’ve got onions, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, mustard seed, and lettuce all scattered in a plastic 48-cell seed tray. I broadcast seeded them in each little cell, so I’m going to get a ton of little seedlings that I will have to thin out severely later if they all germinate. It will take one to two weeks under lights with the humidity dome for the seeds to germinate, during which it’s forecasted to be in the 30s some nights overnight so we’ll see how rapidly I get any growth.
Anything that does germinate will continue to live indoors under lights until late March or early April when I will transition them outside under plastic covers until they mature further.
Fire-Restive Landscape Planting
Recently in my Master Gardener training, we had a presentation on fire-resistive landscape planting. This was one of my favorite presentations of the entire course, mostly because it really caused me to pause and think about my landscaping strategy thus far and consider my fire risk level because of my location.
One doesn’t always think about the risk of fire to their homes, but it’s something that all of us should be thinking more about, especially when you consider how climate change is already impacting our local landscape. Each year when I think about activities and am strategizing for myself when I might go on a vacation somewhere or work on a project outside, I have to consider the weather and when it’s going to be hot and dry. I think about things like if I should water the garden and lawn leading up to the evening of the Fourth of July because fireworks might land on my property and ignite dry grass or brush. I think about if there was a fire somewhere nearby would I need to worry about embers floating over into my trees and what that might do. I also think about if I can be outside in the first place to do any work or preventative measures at all, because now August through October is wildfire season and the air is likely thick with smoke. All of these things show how the increasing risk of fire is present in our home gardens, and are also reasons to consider how someone could create a fire-resistive landscaping without just surrounding their house in hardscape.
Fortunately, there are great resources that can be referenced for how to landscape around your home to minimize that risk, as well as the types of plants that you can use and how to locate them so that you can have a gorgeous landscape and garden without putting your home in harms way. This guide is written for Chelan/Douglas County specifically, but was referred to in my course as the primary source for fire-resistive landscape planting for all Western Washington and King County residents. The information that was used to create this guide is also in and (I think) more in-depth description in this guide from the Department of Natural Resources. I really appreciate how both guides break down the different planting zones and how to size them as well as the full pictures with the plant descriptions.
What are things I’m planning on tackling in March?
For 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!
Thanks for reading and following along in my gardening adventures. Keep an eye out for my March post, hopefully coming before the end of April (haha).
Looking to see what I did last month? You can find my post about what I did in January here.
Also, find out about the work I did last February by following the link here.
Fire Resistant Plants for Chelan/Douglas County Washington, Washington State University Master Gardeners Extension Program, 2017, https://s3.wp.wsu.edu/uploads/sites/2086/2018/01/fireresistantplants2017.pdf.
“Fire-Resistant Plants for Eastern Washington.” Department of Natural Resources, Washington State University (WSU) Chelan/ Douglas County Master Gardeners, https://www.dnr.wa.gov/publications/rp_fire_resistant_plants_guide_easternwa.pdf.
Hill, Lewis, and Leonard Perry. “Pruning: Not Just for Trees.” Fruit Gardener’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruits and Nuts in the Home Garden, STOREY BOOKS, S.l., 2020, pp. 241–259.
Kourik, Robert, and Mark Kane. “Growing Tree Crops: Roots, Soil, and Rootstocks.” Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally, Chelsea Green Pub., White River Junction, VT, 2005, pp. 161–234.