One word. Patience!
February. It can be very cold yet, as daylight begins to noticeably lengthen, a random warm day will come along and it is so very tempting to get out there and do something. If you are reading this on the day it is posted, you may well be experiencing an all time record high temperature! This is when patience is needed the most of all.
Just as in fall, when many of us were taught we needed to "clean up" the garden, there is a corresponding "spring cleanup." If you were able to discard the fall cleanup and leave the leaves in an area of your garden this year, warm days can tempt one to finally corral those. But wait! You will possibly be undoing all the good you have done by creating a place for firefly larva, overwintering comma butterflies and many other insects to survive over the winter. The same is true for cutting back stems of perennials.
A year or two ago, on social and in print media, there was lots of advice on when you could safely start to remove leaves and work in garden beds in spring. The advice was to wait until we had a succession of days where temperatures reached 50 degrees. The thinking was consistent warm temperatures would allow over wintering insects to "wake" and stir and be on their way, leaving leaf litter and stems of perennials where they may have spent the winter. Just as fast as that advice came, scientists said no. Some insects would be on their way after 50 degree days but many others would not. Insects apparently each have their own over wintering strategy and habits. Some will not stir until summer. The scientific advice is to leave as much as you can for as long as you can and that will differ for each of us. So what's a gardener to do on a sunny February day when the thermometer is climbing?
Warmer temperatures and longer days mean the earliest of weeds are already growing and some are even setting flowers. It's a perfect time to weed if you can do it without disturbing soils or leaves. The University of Maryland Extension Service has a great photo guide for identifying common weeds.
Starting More Shrubs from Cuttings
In many countries, gardeners acquire new plants by propagating the ones they have. Monty Don, the British television gardening guru, says from November through March, you can take cuttings from many types of hardwood shrubs and place them in a pot and within a year you may well have a new shrub. Perfect February experiment.
I have not tried this with cuttings other than red twig dogwood so no promises on the results. If you can spare a branch from a shrub though there isn't much to lose. I am trying it with beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quericfolia), possumhaw viburnum (Viburum nudum), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Place several cuttings around the edges of a gallon sized container filled with potting soil and place the container in a protected area where it will get rain. You can check mid-summer on your cutting to see whether it is rooting in by tugging on it ever so gently. If you get any resistance you know it is rooting in! It is advised to wait a full year before planting it in the ground. For more info, check out Monty Don's Gardeners World directions. Red twig dogwood is also an easy one to try (Cornus sericea).
Planning where to add a tree or shrub
This is true whether you are a veteran native plant gardener or new to it all. The most powerful thing we can do to add more life to our gardens is to plant a native tree. The next best thing is a shrub. As larger plants, trees and shrubs tend to support more wildlife. Most gardens can take another tree or shrub.
I often walk in a nearby park and marvel at a cluster of oak trees on a grassy slope. From a distance, it looks like one large tree, but as you approach, you see it is four trees growing together. Dr. Doug Tallamy always says we can plant more trees in our gardens than we think. If you are very industrious, you can select your tree or shrub by looking at the number of insects it would support according to a summary of Dr. Tallamy's research. Or, you can just pick the native tree or shrub that speaks to you.
February in the native plant garden: the respite between calm and spring!