By the time that February rolls around it can feel a little like being in Narnia under the reign of the White Queen, always winter, never spring. When you spy the first Snowdrops and winter Aconites (Eranthis) daring to defy the weather then you know that spring is definitely on the way and it is time to spring into action. Seeing bulbs emerging is a great spur to getting on with the clearing up, removing brash, leaves and dead herbaceous growth so that they can come through. Mild spells are also a great time to plant or divide clumps of bulbs. Opinion amongst gardeners often differs on the subject of planting snowdrops ‘in the green’ or not. I prefer to divide, pat and replant in the green as I think that it allows the bulbs to settle into the new position better. It would be unfair to expect a spectacular show from freshly divided stock but those snowdrops that I divided and replanted last year are looking good right now. Snowdrops and aconites planted individually rarely do well so it is best to keep them in a clump. They also look more natural this way and you can tell a long established garden from a new one by the drifts of snowdrops and aconites.
There are ways to cheat however and there are nurseries which sell snowdrops and aconites by mail order. I received a packet this week, parcelled out into bundles of 100 and wrapped in plastic and newspaper with the soil shaken off. Some have flowers on but are still rather short. Plant them at the normal depth anyway and they will sort themselves out. One of the main reasons I prefer bulbs in the green is that there is only a short time in between being lifted and arriving at my door. That way they don’t have much time to dry out and shrivel which can happen when they are put into dry storage. It is testimony to the power of nature and the ingenuity of bulb companies that so many bulbs survive. These dry bulbs will have been lifted soon after they have become dormant, which for snowdrops will have been in the early summer.
Mild spells are also ideal for planting other things such as trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. If you are lucky enough to have a sandy soil you need not worry too much about compaction but on clay take care that you are not forcing the plant into a hole from which it will never escape. Clay smears and it is easy for even the lightest footfall or spade to squash the air out of the soil. When digging I look at my spade. If the soil sticks to the blade then it may be too wet to be worked or need some organic matter such as leaf mould or compost working in to break up the clay. It is a bit like when you put your knife into a sponge to see if it is done. Indeed gardening and baking share certain alchemical qualities!
February is also a time to release the inner mechanic in all of us. Basic machine maintenance is part of the gardener’s creed and should be something we all feel able to attempt. I’m not talking about major repairs but changing the oil, checking the sparkplugs, basic cleaning and lubrication are not beyond anyone with the right attitude. I was always a bookworm so I always found it easier to pour over the manual than actually do the thing but ‘approach with confidence’ is my motto. It bears repeating that you can never underestimate the importance of plentiful lubrication; it saves both time and money in servicing and mechanical breakdowns.
Keen gardeners will be itching to mow the lawn so start with the mower. Better to get it into prime condition before you need it! If you have a petrol mower which has been left standing it is worth checking the lines and giving it a start occasionally. Hopefully you will have cleaned off any grass from the underside in the autumn so that it does not rot the metal top. If you feel confident and safe enough you might also consider removing the blade, putting it in a vice and sharpening the cutting edge with a grinder. A word of caution; it is worthwhile remembering to put it back on the right way or checking that your engineer has done it for you or even the sharpest blade will be rendered useless. Happens to the best of us!
Finally, take a walk around the garden as often as you an. February is a time when things are turning, symbolised by the purity of the snowdrops, or the sunshine colours of the aconites. Take a companion to, I do.