February Gardening Tips for the Mountain West

Winter storms will continue to rumble through the Mountain West this month, but you can still start your spring gardening. Some chores are best tackled now, including dormant sprays and pruning.


Cultivate Indoor Color

+ enlarge image Give your seeds a jump-start indoors.

Fill your home with spring color by cutting branches of flowering trees and shrubs and bringing them indoors for forcing. Early in the month, cut forsythia, cornelian cherry, fothergilla, and witch hazel. Late in the month, cut flowering cherries and pears, redbud, and serviceberries. Don't overlook Mountain West trees and shrubs such as willow, Corylus, or birch, which have interesting catkins. Red maples also open lovely flowers.

Cut branches on a day when temperatures are above freezing. Bring the stems indoors, and recut under water. Place branches in a bucket containing floral preservative solution. Allow stems to hydrate in a cool place, such as a garage or unheated porch, for a few hours.

At this point, bring the stems indoors to watch the buds slowly swell and open. Or, store stems in a cool spot until buds swell. Then, bring indoors for an instant flower show.

Keep stems in a floral preservative solution at all points in the process to keep stems hydrated and hinder bacterial growth. Change the solution whenever it appears cloudy. Top off the solution in containers as needed.

Learn more about forcing branches.

Test Garden Tip: Look for pots of forced bulbs at retailers, including garden centers. Bring the bulbs home to savor the colors and scents of the season. After flowering, continue growing bulbs until they can be transplanted outdoors in late spring. Forced bulbs may not flower strongly next year, but in subsequent years they'll stage a nice show (except hybrid tulips, which typically only flower well for a couple of seasons).

Jump-Start Your Spring Garden

Vegetables: Plant seeds of cool-season vegetables (cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli) indoors late this month.

Flowers: Sow seeds, such as ageratum, lobelia, and verbena. Transplant outdoors after the threat of frost has passed.

Don't miss our seed-starting guide.

Summer tubers and bulbs: Plant tubers, such as tuberous begonias, stem side up. Tiny pinkish sprouts may indicate the stem side if you're having trouble identifying the stem end. It's often, but not always, a concave shape. Sometimes a few dried, stringy roots may be present on lower surfaces of tubers.

Test Garden Tip: Check stored roots, tubers, and bulbs for rot or mold. Toss any that show signs of a problem on the compost pile.

Deal with Power Tools

On a warmish day, bring out your mower, string trimmer, and any other power tools you use regularly. Add fuel and change the oil and spark plug to get the tools ready for the season. If tools don't start or work correctly, schedule service before the spring rush.

Spray for Pests & Diseases

  • Apply a dormant spray of horticultural oil to ash, aspen, roses, and lilacs to control overwintering insects.
  • Apply an antidesiccant (also called an antitranspirant) to evergreens susceptible to winter burn. This group includes broadleaf evergreens, such as boxwood and rhododendron. Spray when temperatures will remain above freezing for 24 hours.
  • Apply deer repellents again this month if browsing pressure remains intense. Rotate products for more effective results.

Must see: More tips for deterring deer.

Water the Landscape

Deep-water landscape plants when air temperature is above freezing and soil isn't frozen. Use a soaker hose or water spike. Aim to soak soil 3-4 inches deep. Watering is crucial when plants haven't received moisture from snow or rain for 21 days or more.

Test Garden Tip: Keep bird feeders and heated birdbaths filled. Birds remain dependent on supplemental food sources until spring fully arrives.

Sharpen Your Pruners

Late winter is an ideal time to tackle pruning in the Mountain West. Wait for a warmer day and work out some of your cabin fever by spending a little time in the garden.

Prune these plants now:

Shrubs and young trees. Cut away branches damaged by winter storms. Remove any branches you know are dead. If older shrubs have a densely branched interior, consider thinning branches, removing up to one-third. This is especially important for plants that are declining in bloom or experiencing pest or disease outbreaks.

Perennials and ornamental grasses. For large grass clumps, a pair of electric hedge clippers slices through stems easily and quickly. Tie the clump together with bungee cords first to make pruning even easier.

Fruit trees. Late February is the ideal time to prune fruit trees. If you're unsure how to cut, check with your local extension office for species-specific recommendations.

Wait to prune these plants:

Spring-flowering shrubs or trees. Wait until after flowers open to prune.

Bleeders. This term refers to trees that tend to bleed sap heavily from pruning wounds in early spring. The bleeding doesn't hurt the tree, but it can gum up surfaces in outdoor living areas. This group includes birch, maple, and dogwood trees. Wait until early summer to prune.

Check out our BHG pruning guide.

Test Garden Tip: Sharpen all cutting tools. If you can't sharpen a specific item, take it to a local store that advertises mower blade sharpening. Typically, they'll be able to handle other tools, too.

Get our tool-sharpening tips.

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