February Stepping Stones to Success
February's weather is unpredictable, and can quickly change. Some of our most damaging extremes come in February. This usually starts as a week of warming temperatures, sometimes reaching near 80º, then a rapid plummet down towards the teens or lower. If your plants started to act like spring has come, there is little one can do to prevent rapid freeze damage. The best offense is a strong defense, by supplying your soil throughout the year with ample organic matter and timely irrigation. This increases the general health and well being of your plants. A thicker mulch in winter will help slow the break from winter’s dormancy.
If your soil was amended with organic matter, the plant’s growth rate will be normal, not accelerated. The hardy plant tissues will have formed properly and will be better able to resist damage. Different plant types react differently to sudden temperature changes. Drought tolerant plants need good drainage, they do not like wet and soggy roots. Many medium and high water-use plants need the soil to be moist (not soggy). In some genera, newer, younger plants may succumb; in others, the old, mature plants are first to freeze.
Important Date to note! February heralds the return of spring. I've noticed the tipping point to warmer soil temperatures occurs about February 20-25th. Time of daylight and angle of the sun's rays (duration and intensity) reaching Earth increases to the point when one can see plant growth, providing we don't have a snow cover or colder than normal conditions. In Amarillo, day length has reached eleven hours and the sun has risen to 45 degrees at Midday providing additional solar radiation intensity. This pinnacle is called equi-umbra, or equiumbra, meaning, equal shadow -- the time when the length of the horizontal shadow of a vertical object is equal to its height; the time when the angle (altitude) of the sun is equal to 45° at its highest altitude at Midday, the solar noon or transit. The altitude of the sun at midday depends on the time of year and the latitude of any location. Locations at different latitudes have a different date for equi-umbra, in contrast to the dates for solstices and equinox shared by all.
If one wants to have a spring crop of cold-season vegetables, this is the time to plant if not already done so. Covering with a grow cloth and/or poly tunnel will increase soil and daytime/nighttime air temperatures that hasten germination. First image is after the Blizzard of 2013. The second is several years earlier before I had my raised beds and tunnel system. This is also the time to harvest any root crops still in the ground. For me, that is usually carrots and turnips. From this time forward, these root vegetables will turn from growing the vegetable to putting on seed. During this process, the root vegetable turns woody. But if you want to grow them for seed, leave them be.
Stepping Stones is arranged in most cases on a week to week basis within the months with gardening tasks described by order of the Seven Principles of Gardening, as needed, namely:
1. Plan and Design
2. Analyze and Improve the Soil
3. Create Practical Turf Areas
4, Choose Appropriate Plants
5. Efficient Use of Water
6. Use Organic or Inorganic Mulch
7. Practice Appropriate Maintenance
Following the weeks' tasks, I've included suggestions under the headings "Keep it Up", "Extras", "Be a Plant Explorer" and "Oops! and/or Don't" -- extra tips I practice and have found to be important or interesting. If you've been gardening for several years, there will be fewer tasks each week for each principle. Included in the sidebar at the right are QuickSteps -- a summary or outline of tasks to do each month. Feel free to copy and print out to refer to during the month.
Don't worry if you can't get to the task in the first week suggested. These times are when I've noticed the earliest most likely success achievable. Naturally, each and every year will be different. Some years will be warmer, some cooler. Adjust and stay tuned to the weather.
Plan and Design
If you didn't give your winter garden a look with an eye to analyze the design of the garden, you still have time. After the fall of leaves and winter die-back, the bones are laid bare. If you have good bones, you'll see it. And if you don't, you'll notice their absence. Perhaps some structural element or hardscape feature can be added that improves garden areas or "rooms'. This is a good time to consult with a professional.
Increase the visual effect by layering plantings, creating drama by balancing contrast with harmony of shapes, texture as well as color. Unity and rhythm is achieved through repetition. One focal point plant is nice, when placed in a five to seven part composition, genuine interest is created. In small spaces, design pocket vignettes by choosing plants with two or more features of interest, whether it be evergreen and berries, bark or branch color with shape, or shape and winter flowering. For more tips on winter interest, and plants for winter interest, click on Plants for Winter Interest.
Continue to look over those gardening catalogs. It’s always a delight to try new varieties, especially with vegetables. Our choice of different vegetable varieties is limited in our grocery stores; decide to plant something not currently available. Seeds of Change from Santa Fe, New Mexico). The Cook’s Garden Catalog, and Botanical Interests offers a wide selection. Other seed companies may be among your favorites. Place seed orders and start any cool season plants indoors, under your tunnel or in a greenhouse now.
Order ornamentals or flowers not available locally.
If you can find onion sets or bulbs, plant them now either under a tunnel or out in the open. Cover with a light covering of mulch. They do fine even if receiving a good snow cover. If you can find them in the fall, its OK to plant over winter too. If you're traveling south of the Panhandle, more southern areas receive their onion sets in January (DFW area). Buy and plant them when you can.
Direct soil seeding or seeding in containers kept in greenhouses? Which is better? I've tried both and there are reasons for both. Take the case of English peas. Starting February 1st, I'm ready to plant if the 10 day forecast is warmer than average, which it is most years now. I'll direct seed in the soil if it's convenient to cover with my tunnel system (see end of February Stepping Stones for instructions on constructing your own). Peas seeded out in 2 inch containers will be placed in a tray and under my tunnels. If I had a greenhouse, I would grow them there. By the first week of March, weather permitting, I'm ready to transplant the peas direct into the ground, and remove the tunnel on those direct sowed in the soil. The direct sowed peas will nearly always produce peas first, as it is easy to put the tunnels back on, as needed. Always watching the 15 day forecast, I'll determine when to put up the pea fence for them to grow up.
I've also started seedlings of lettuce and Swiss chard in the pre-formed trays many annuals are sold in, eighteen to a tray, about a 1" x 2" x 2" size for the individual seedlings to grow. I like to use these greens in containers as an early spring decorative display, that can be eaten later. The greenery provides good filler wherever needed. I plant at least two kinds, red and green leaf, for variety. Swiss chard Bright Lights is an attractive plant.
Efficient Use of Water
Contact an irrigation specialist to install a drip irrigation system. Book him now before he gets too busy. Or study up on installing a drip system yourself.
Week Two or Three
Mysteriously, big box home improvement stores start shipping all sorts of inappropriate plants for our areas. Many times they won't sell, so they are marked down. If you're in the market for any of these later -- buy them now and keep out of the elements until it's safe to plant them. A good number of them won't be shipped to Amarillo during our timeframe for planting.
Buy and plant onion sets. I have seen them in stores here about this time.
Please also note, as the soil warms up, roots really start growing. Bienniels like carrots and other root vegetables planted last year make a switch to flowering and setting seed. If you want to use these root vegetables as root vegetables, pick them all now. Once flower/seed mode kicks in they become woody. A good source of information about vegetable gardening through fall, winter and early spring is Four Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman.
Analyze and Amend the Soil
Prepare early spring garden beds; add lots of compost (refer to advisory in Maintenance, Composting, and scroll down to Killer Compost).
Analyze the results of the soil sample to determine proper organic and mineral amendments.
Valentine’s Day falls within this time. Men, give your gardener ‘significant other’ the gift they’ll really appreciate. No, not lingerie, or a hunting/fishing get-away for two. Promise to dig out that new flower bed she’s been asking for, amended with your own homemade compost. Remember, before breaking ground for new beds, dial 811 and consult with the utility companies for location of utility lines to avoid damaging or severing them.
Create practical turf areas.
Ready the mower and equipment for spring. Now is a good time to take the mower in for a tune-up and oil change. Have the blades sharpened.
Think of ways to reduce high water-use turf to 1/3rd of landscape. Check out these suggestions on Turf Alternatives.
This is also a great time to clean out the compost bins and replenish the beds before seeding out the spring, cold-season plants.
Week Three and/or Four
I hope you rested over December and January, because the gardening pleasures start to increase this week. I have designated the third and fourth week of February the beginning of spring (see note about equi-umbra -- daylength and sun angle at top), weather permitting.
Appropriate Plants -- Spring Vegetables
I have planted early spring vegetables in the garden, depending on the year, as soon as mid to latter February. If you get a sense spring weather will come early, by all means plant earlier using frost blankets and poly tunnels as needed for protection. Average date of the last frost (ADLF) is April 20th. The vegetable photos shown were started in September and ready to eat beginning in October and November, depending on vegetable.
- Onion bulbs and sets may be planted from 4 – 10 weeks before the average date of the last frost.
- Lettuce, chard, kales and radishes can be planted 6-8 weeks before ADLF.
- Irish potatoes (you know, from the Andes in the New World) 4 – 6 weeks before ADLF.
- English peas planted 2 – 8 weeks before ADLF.
- Plant spinach 1 – 8 weeks before ADLF.
- Turnips and beets can be started early too.
Cover with a row cover. Many times I cover with two thicknesses of the light frost cloth, or a frost blanket underneath and a poly tunnel over that when temperatures approach the teens. Row covers provide many benefits: decreases evaporation, keeps the ground warmer, keeps birds from eating the seeds and decreases wind damage. For new tender seedlings and plants, row covers are used to prevent sunscald, as well. See instructions for constructing the tunnels at the end.
The last few years, instead of starting seedlings inside, I place the tray on the edge of my south-facing patio cement. The sun heats this up nicely during the day, and the seedlings get full sun. On days and nights when the temperature dips, I'll either place in a tunnel or in my shed, that's can be heated cheaply to above freezing. I have found this to be quite successful. A small tunnel can be built cheaply in place of a cold frame from cloth and polyethylene 6 mil plastic covering left over from building your tunnels. Cold season vegetables have no trouble with temperatures below freezing if you forget to cover them one night. These seedlings, exposed to temperatures quite similar to growing conditions, fair very well once planted.
A good source of information about vegetable gardening through fall, winter and early spring is Four Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman. Also, check out my GardenNotes on fall and winter vegetable gardening.
Begin to clean out the flowerbeds. Once March begins (unless we have that rare year of a heavy snow cover), plants have gotten the signal to wake up and start growing. It’s better to rake away and remove last years spent growth without disturbing the new shoots.
Likewise, now is the time to cut cool-season ornamental grasses to around 3 inches from the ground (except for the evergreen (blue) ornamental Festica ovina glauca varieties, blue fescue and Helictotrichon sempervirens, blue avena grasses, which don’t need to be cut back). These evergreen grasses should be raked or combed to remove their dead leaves from within the clumps. Divide large clumps or clumps forming dead centers. You may even see new growth at this time.The warm season ornamental grasses can wait until March if your pinched for time. They won't start coming out until April. As I trim the grasses, I start from the top and cut in 6 inch increments, down to three inches from the ground. Takes a little bit more time, but I have some nice organic straw mulch to use in my vegetable garden for the effort.
Compost and use as much of the plant debris as possible. I have what I think is a pretty good section on composting. Read it here.
Now is also a good time to begin pruning. Pruning of these plants may be carried over into March.
- Prune to about a half or a third their size: Caryopteris, blue mist spirea, Salvia greggii, Anisacanthus and Buddleia daviidii, Falugia paradoxa, Apache plume, Pavonia lasiopetala, Texas Rock Rose, and Perovskia atriplicifolia, Russian sage at this time. Prune back Chrysothamnus nauseosus, rabbitbush, and artemisias. Prune back Potentilla fruticosa, cinquefoil, by 1/3 in late winter if the shrub has gotten tall and fallen open at the center. Pruning these shrubs helps maintain a nice compact shape and more blooms.
- Do not prune spring flowering shrubs such as Chaenomeles japonica, Japanese flowering quince, forsythias, flowering fruit trees, mock orange, serviceberries, spring flowering spireas, lilacs and weigelas. Do not prune roses yet.
- Many shrubs never need to be pruned. It’s best to check a reference book or ask other experienced gardeners if unsure about a plant.
- Do not make stub or flush cuts; cut down to a joint, or to the ground. When pruning larger branches, cut just above the branch bark collar. Do not cut into the collar. When pruning smaller branches, cut on a diagonal of about 45 degrees, about 1/8th inch above an outward facing bud.
- Do not apply pruning paint or other sealer. The plant will naturally heal itself with a proper cut.
- Prune out any dead or damaged wood and branches in whatever season you notice them. Leaving it on the plant is an invitation to disease.
The end of February through March is also a good time to tidy up your junipers and other evergreens, especially if they intrude into walkways. Again, do not make stub cuts. With evergreens, this is referred to as shearing. It’s better for the health and look of evergreens to spend the extra time and prune back the larger, intruding branches to a joint. Doing this allows the small branches to cover the cut, and avoids the dead center look.
For more tips on pruning, click here.
- Attend a garden training class or series.
- Enroll in a web gardening class. There is always something new to learn.
- Volunteer to clean out someone’s flower bed who is too old or sick to do it – be a Gardening Angel to someone.
In year's past, I used to throw the woody stems and branches in the trash and spend a half day hauling and spreading wood chips from the chipping station. For a few years, I had a chipper, chipping and using everything. If you've ever had a chipper, you will know how often it gets jammed up. I finally gave it up. Now I recycle twigs, stems and branches by cutting them up with hand clippers and spreading them on paths, instead of getting as much mulch from the chipping station, or buying it. My goal was to save and use as much of the plant debris as possible, except for anything that might be diseased, or has ripened weed seeds. Yes, it takes alot of effort. But I know where my materials come from and know it hadn't been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides.
Be a Plant Explorer
This time of year plant exploration should take one southwest. Next stop on the Blooms Trail might be the Desert Botanic Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, www.dbg.org. The Desert Botanic Gardens is comprised of 50 acres of gardens and exhibits nestled among the red buttes of Papago Park. Walking the trails is an easy way to explore the diversity of desert life. Still in Arizona, drop by the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson with 21 acres and over 1200 kinds of plants (www.desertmuseum.org).
Not leaving Texas? Then plan to stop at the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at the Centennial Museum at the University of Texas at El Paso (www.museum.utep.edu) for desert plants closer to our home and conditions. Purchase the guide, Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers by Steve West; it’s a great introduction to learn about this eco-region’s top performers. Many of the plants profiled are found starting just south of Midland, in the Fort Davis, Guadalupe, Big Bend and Carlsbad park areas. By late February, many flowers begin to bloom, particularly in Big Bend National Park.
Keep it up
- Plant trees and shrubs.
- Continue winter watering as needed.
- Add new material back to your compost pile after cleaning it out.
- Turn the pile every two weeks.
- Keep up the entries in a garden journal.
- Read a good garden book.
- Continue to feed and water the birds if you’ve been their restaurant.
Oops! and/or Don’t
- Do not transplant seedlings outdoors yet. Wait to put transplants out until March. After all, they're growing inside for a head start.
- Wait until March to start seeds indoors for warm-weather crops.
- Big box stores begin selling elephant ear (Colocasias and Alocasias) and Caladiums in January and February. I've even seen, one (Walmart), store them outside! Gardeners, they will freeze and turn to mush at 32o. They also are fond of stapling the tag right into the tuber -- ouch! Avoid these and save money. Elephant ears and caladiums require warm soil. If the soil is wet and cold, they will rot. Planting time is around Mother's Day in May, so make your purchasing plans based on how well you can store them while keeping them alive. You can plant them in a pot, but the pot must be kept above 45o minimum, 55o is better.
Easy 4' x 8' Raised Bed With Double Coverings – Fleece and Poly Tunnel
I use this tunnel system primarily for fall to spring vegetable gardening. It's also handy when you want to toss a shade cloth over vegetables in summer. After trying several ready made tunnels, I developed this double tunnel system for both longevity, cost effectiveness, and ease of use. I found the raised bed size 4' x 8' to be convenient to work with, for me. A raised bed isn't necessary for the use of the tunnel system. I like the neater look.
For the Raised Red
3 – 2” thick x 12” wide x 8 ft. long untreated, redwood or cedar boards. Cut one board in half, screw together using L brackets.
Sink into ground 2-3 inches or just lay on top of soil. Work soil amendments into the soil and fill with soil and soil amendments to the desired depth.
1 – 1 inch x 8-10ft PVC pipe, cut in 8 equal pieces, or 12” lengths to stabilize larger hoop for polytunnel. Sink these 1” x 12” pieces into the ground, leaving 2-3 inches above ground. Insert PVC Conduit pipe in these short PVC pipe pieces.
Spun Fleece Tunnels – used for wind, light frost protection, keeps insects out, lessens evaporation, and protects against birds eating seeds and seedlings.
2 – 8 ft pieces of ½ PVC pipe that will fit in sleeves of fleece blankets. Trim if necessary to fit snugly inside the raised bed.
4 – 1/4” x 5 ft. PVC pipe, very easily bendable. These are thin, and shorter and will hold up the fleece and shade cloth.
Polypropylene fleece creates warmth and insulation allowing water and sunlight to filter through. Light, medium or heavy thickness. Medium is best for most conditions. Dewitt brand medium weight (1.5 oz.) fleece is sold locally 10' x 12', enough for 2 fleece blankets. Lighter weight fleece is sold in bulk at Coulter Gardens and through the Internet suppliers. A twelve foot length unfolded will measure 12' x 12' and yield 2 – 6’ x 12’ very lightweight fleece blankets.
Fold over 2” hem along the 12’ length and sew to make a sleeve to allow the PVC pipes to go through on each end for easy handling. (see http://www.highplainsgardening.com/fall-and-winter-vegetable-gardening for photos and more information.)
Poly Tunnels – used for wind and much colder temperatures in conjunction with the fleece blanket. The polyethylene tunnel is placed over the fleece tunnel. It's purpose is not to necessarily retain heat, but to keep snow and ice off the plants. Cold weather vegetables can withstand temperatures to 0°. Thinner leaf lettuces will decompose below 0°, but will regrow quickly in spring from their established roots.
2- 1” x 2” x 8 ft white cedar or other type wood. The polyethylene sheeting is stapled to these 8 ft. pieces of wood. Trim if necessary to fit snugly inside the raised bed.
4 – 1/2” x 8 ft. gray PVC conduit pipes that bend easily and will form the hoop. I use conduit pipe instead of the white PVC pipe because it’s more flexible for bending and forming the tunnel. Trim if necessary to adjust height.
UV stabilized polyethylene 6 mil sheeting, Cut the 6 mil sheeting approximately 2-2 1/2 feet longer on each end than length of tunnel (5-5 1/2 ft total longer). For an 8' tunnel, the sheeting should be 13-14' long, depending on how high your tunnel is. Bulk roll of 100 ft lengths, 6' wide, available from Amazon.
I weight down the fleece and poly-tunnel to keep them from being blown off in the wind (which will certainly happen if not sufficiently anchored in place).
PVC pipes and wood can be purchased at the local home improvement stores.
Expect the fleece and polyethylene mil sheeting to last no more than 3 years. I store both the fleece and poly-tunnel out of the elements when not in use to reduce deterioration. It’s easy to replace when needed. I use medium fleece in most instances, as the lightweight will easily tear. Lightweight fleece is good for use to cover rows when seeding out plants May-September.
Some handy people install drip systems in their raised beds or use soaker hoses.
Angie Hanna, revised January 2, 2018