The Garden in February 2024
I’m certain that you will all be pleased to read that over the Christmas period I came across another book about gardening through the year and I am sure it will help me come up with some new ideas for future blogs. It is not a new book, I actually found it in a second-hand book sale at our local National Trust property, but it is beautifully written by Lance Hattatt and illustrated by Elaine Franks (Parragon ISBN 0-7525-2250-7). In the January/February section the writer takes the delightful stance of the optimistic gardener, referring to the two months as ‘exciting times’! Yes, days may be short and dreary, light levels low, nights long and cold but outside the garden is far from lacking in interest as I have tried to show in past winter blogs. The early bulbous plants are beginning to push through the cold earth, leaves retained through the winter are prominent, clinging ivies, shiny hollies, glistening laurels and the dull, copper of beech all contribute form and colour to the landscape and the trees, hedges and shrubs, already in bud, emphasise the structural framework of the garden. Many of the plants highlighted in the book I have commented on before but I will pick out a few others which come highly recommended. In the ‘bulbous’ section there is Iris unguicularis, the Algerian Iris, the rhizomes of which require an open, sunny position and very good drainage. The flowers which occur in late winter to early spring are large, fragrant and pale lavender to deep violet with contrasting veins and a central band of yellow on the falls (large, bottom petals). ‘Mary Barnard’ (bright violet), ‘Walter Butt’ (very fragrant, pale lavender-blue) and ‘Alba’ (creamy white with a yellow central line) are named forms worth looking out for. A second bulbous plant is Crocus tommasinianus which is a small, late-winter to spring flowering species crocus with starry, lavender-purple flowers and is ideal for a rock garden where it will seed freely a to establish attractive drifts. It too has several good cultivars such as ‘Barr’s Purple’, ‘Ruby Giant’ and ‘Whitewell Purple’. Also at ground level Bergenia purpurascens is a very useful plant for creating drifts of winter colour with its rich, ruby-red, bold leaves which as the weather warms up revert to green. These are added to in mid to late spring by nodding, purple-red flowers. In the shrub section the book recommends, apart from the more obvious flowering plants such as Witch Hazel and Sarcococca, Euonymous fortunei ‘Silver Queen’. Its creamy-white variegation gives the plant a wonderfully wintry appearance which, later in the year, is also a good foil for ‘hot perennials’. The book also highlights a useful plant for winter borders which I haven’t written about in much detail before and that is Pieris japonica. This is a member of the Erica family and as such requires an acid soil. It is grown for its lance-shaped, glossy green leaves which are attractively coloured when young and its panicles of small, urn-shaped, white or pink flowers which are usually produced in spring. Pieris japonica ‘Mountain Fire’ has particularly intense scarlet shoots and leaves in the late winter/early spring.
Looking back through past February blogs I see that in 2021 I was concentrating on the flowering plants which perform well at this time of year including Hamamelis (Witch Hazel), Sarcococca (Christmas Box), Galanthus (Snowdrop), Cyclamen coum, Helleborus, Primula and Pulmonaria. There is also a section on February jobs including winter pruning, tidying beds and borders, adding compost to the soil surface, planting bare root shrubs and trees, looking after the birds and beginning to think about seed sowing.
Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) // Helleborus
In February 2022 I was writing about the ‘sleeping giant’ of the gardens at Aberglasney and picking out some of the plant highlights of the month including Daphne, Camellia, Viburnum tinus, Cornus and evergreens such as Pittosporum, Nandina, Leucothoe and Bergenia.
A very impressive Daphne and a spectacular group of Winter-stem Cornus at Aberglasney
February 2023 saw a review of ’21 and ’22 along with the second of my ‘Bee Friendly’ months which picked out the willow, Sorbus caprea, along with Galanthus, Erica x darleyensis and the early flowering Cherry, Prunus cerasifera. February 2021 also saw the second part of ‘Creating Garden Ponds’ where I looked at bringing a pond to life in terms of plants, using a pump for water circulation and pond maintenance through the year.
Those of you who are regular followers of my blogs- bless you! or have attended any of my monthly talks at the Old Railway Line (due to start again by the way in March this year) will probably have worked out that in addition to my interest in gardening I am also a keen birdwatcher. As such in the past I have suggested ways in which gardeners can make their gardens more bird friendly and this also formed an important part of an earlier blog on ‘Gardening for Wildlife’ from March 2021 (to be found under ‘show tags’ and ‘monthly tips’). Recently an article on this topic in the December 2023 edition of ‘The Garden’, the excellent RHS magazine, caught my eye. In it RHS horticulturalists from four of the main RHS gardens, Hyde Hall in Essex, Wisley in Surrey, Bridgewater in Greater Manchester and Rosemore in Devon, looked at ways in which gardeners can help to provide food, water and shelter for our feathered friends not just in the winter months but also through the other seasons. The winter section was by Robert Brett, the curator at Hyde Hall, which you won’t be surprised to hear was mainly but not exclusively about berry-bearing shrubs and trees including Berberis, Cotoneaster, Viburnum opulus (Guelder Rose), Sorbus (Rowan), Malus (Crab Apple), Ilex (Holly) and Crataegus (Hawthorn). These will always attract the usual suspects such as Blackbirds, Song and Mistle Thrushes and Bullfinches but also possibly some winter visitors such as Redwings and Fieldfares. If you are really lucky, unfortunately I haven’t been to date, you may also get a glimpse of a flock of the berry-lover extraordinaire- the exotic Waxwing.
Hedera (Ivy) // Ilex (Holly)
Cotoneaster // Rose Hips
Finches such as Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch and Siskin are more interested in seeds and catkins and shrubs such as Hazel (Corylus) and trees such as Birch (Betulus) and Alder (Alnus), if you have the room, are ideal. Of course, winter is a time when the supplementary feeding of birds is definitely necessary particularly as many of our common garden birds have by then moved back from their summer and autumn feeding areas in the countryside, woods and hedgerows. This additional food is even more important these days when it is estimated that 45% of our bird species are under threat in some way. Providing such things as fat balls, peanuts, seed mixes and nyger seed literally can mean the difference between life and death through the winter months and will certainly bring even more bird species into the garden for you to enjoy such as Blue, Great, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Robins, Dunnocks, House Sparrows, Nuthatches and Greater Spotted Woodpeckers as well as a few perhaps less welcome ones such as Starlings, Jackdaws, Carrion Crows, Magpies, Wood Pigeons and possibly even a fleeting glimpse of the fabulous (unless you are a small bird!) Sparrowhawk. Finally and just as important as food is the provision of water for drinking and bathing so it is a good idea to keep bird baths not only topped up but also ice free on the colder days. I just add some warm water first thing in the morning to the top of the bird bath and to a plastic container on the pond surface. I will return to this topic in the spring when the birds’ thoughts and actions turn towards breeding but I would just say that now is the time to clean out and add new nest boxes so that the birds have time to check them out before they are required.
In anticipation of the coming season of seed sowing, taking of cuttings and the potting on of container grown plants I thought I would try to bring you up to date with the latest on the use of peat-free composts. I am sure you are aware that the ban on the sale of peat-based composts is coming soon and if you haven’t already converted to peat-free you will need to do so in the coming months. I know that this is a concern for gardeners who have become used to, and have had good results with, peat-based products but there are now some excellent peat-free alternatives available which just need to be used in slightly different ways. I’m sure that most gardeners are aware of the reasons for the change and I don’t need to go into too much detail here, suffice it to say that some of our most fragile ecosystems rely on peat bogs which are also one of the world’s most efficient carbon sinks as well as being giant sponges when it comes to water retention and the reduction of damaging runoff. As it stands at the moment the government has pledged to ban the use of peat in bagged potting compost ‘by 2024’ but exactly when in 2024 remains unclear and Wales has pledged to fall into step with the ban in England. Irrespective of this ban the RHS is sticking to the pledge it made in 2021 to go peat-free at the latest by 2025, all the main compost manufacturers now offer a peat-free range and many garden centres including the UK’s largest chain, Dobbies, and all RHS Plant Centres now sell only peat-free products. Many gardeners have already made the switch and as a result the use of peat has reduced to around half a million tonnes annually, less than a third of what it was just a few years ago. Of course, making the change from one sort of compost to another has been successfully done before- older gardeners will remember when lightweight, peat-based products were introduced in the 1950’s and 60’s to replace the traditional, heavier, often homemade composts based on soil (loam) with the addition of leaf mould, garden compost, grit, sand and a carefully guarded, secret blend of fertilisers! I’m sure there was much grumbling then from gardeners having to discover how to get the best out of the ‘new’ compost and this is the position that we are now in again with the change to peat-free. Over the last few years I have tried quite a few different peat-free composts, some I have liked, others I haven’t, but one common feature I have noticed is that they rarely come with an ingredient list. Most, however, will contain a mixture of the following- slow- release fertiliser granules, composted bark, composted green waste, coir (the waste product from coconut husks), anaerobic digestate (fibres from the processing of farm crops such as rye and maize) and wood fibre. Together these provide nutrients, hold on to water and nutrients for plant use while at the same time allowing excess water to drain away.
As for how to use these new composts, I came across an article in the January 2024 edition of ‘The Garden’, the RHS monthly magazine, in which several experts gave their tips on getting the best out of peat-free composts. Changing the watering regime seems to be a key element in achieving success. Peat-free composts often look dry on the surface while remaining moist underneath which in one way is an advantage in that it reduces the growth of weeds and algae but in another way it can lead to over-watering. Feeling the weight of the pot or tray is one way to avoid this and another is to check the moisture levels below the surface with a finger or plant label. Changing the feeding regime also seems to be a common theme as most peat-free composts are free draining which can result in nutrients being washed out particularly if this is coupled with a degree of over-watering. The advice is to get into a regular feeding regime using a liquid fertiliser, a seaweed based one is ideal as it contains lots of useful trace elements, say once a week between March and October. Some peat-free composts, particularly those with a high percentage of composted bark can be rather coarse in texture. This is fine for potting plants on but for seed sowing it is a good idea to sieve such composts to remove the larger, coarser elements. Another good tip on seed sowing is to water just-sown seeds with a mist spray. This keeps the seeds moist as they germinate but stops the compost below becoming too wet. Another tip is to find a compost which you like and then to stick to it as peat-free composts do vary quite a lot in their mix of ingredients. It is also possible, of course, to blend your chosen compost with your own ingredients in order to produce the best possible growing conditions for a range of different plants. Drainage can be improved by the addition of sand and/or grit while the addition of perlite opens up the compost while still keeping it light and is ideal for sowing seeds and taking most types of cuttings. Perlite is a very interesting product, it may look a little like polystyrene but is in fact a volcanic glass which has been heated to a high temperature so that it ‘pops’ like popcorn and expands to many times its original size. As a result it is light in weight, sterile, long-lasting and easy to handle. For planting up pots and other containers where the plant will stay for some time sieved garden soil can be added to your peat-free compost to make it go a little further. You can also do this by adding your own homemade garden compost which is nutrient-rich, has a low carbon footprint, keeps food and garden waste out of landfill and is free! Just one final point on this subject is not to worry if you see any signs of fungi in peat-free compost as this is perfectly normal in a compost which is biologically active. If any small mushrooms appear on the surface just pick them off and add them to the compost bin or heap. I hope that the above will make you feel a bit more confident about using peat-free composts and help you to get the best out of them.
That’s all for this month but I will be back in March for another blog and for the first of this year’s free, monthly talks on Saturday 2nd March at 9-30am in the Tea Room at the Old Railway Line. The title will be ‘Springing into Action’ and I will endeavour to cover a variety of topics including taking softwood cuttings, home composting, spring pruning and starting off vegetables as well as showing off some of the great plants available at the Old Railway Line at this lovely time of year. Also, as usual I will be bringing some flowers from my own garden and would be delighted to see and hear about some of your favourite ‘plants of the month’.
Until then keep well and enjoy your February garden as much as you can.