February Gardening Tips for the Northeast
While winter winds down, spring garden chores -- inside and out -- will get you ready for the new season.
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Get a Jump on Spring
When spring arrives in the Northeast, urgent garden tasks bombard you. Whittle down your warm-weather to-do list by tackling these chores now when you have plenty of time to ready your garden.
Inventory and order seeds. Check your seed supplies. If you have a vegetable garden and haven't planned this year's rotation, figure it out now. The earlier you order seeds, the better the selection will be. Don't forget to include seeds for fall plantings in your order. This could include lettuces, peas, and greens.
Inspect and maintain tools. Get cutting and digging tools sharpened now. For sharpening jobs that you can't handle, take tools to a local hardware store that advertises blade sharpening. Make sure power tools are in good working order, too.
Review your garden supplies. Besides seeds and plants, think about items needed to prepare your garden for the growing season: potting soil, weed cloth, mulch, plant markers, frost blankets, or other supplies. Refresh supplies that are low.
Test Garden Tip: Examine any tubers, roots, or corms you stored for winter. Compost any that are soft or growing mold.
Indoors: Start Seeds
- Sow seeds now for early-season vegetables that can go in the ground a couple of weeks before the last average frost date in the Northeast. This includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and leeks. Aim to start these seeds five to seven weeks before you want to transplant them outdoors.
- Consider sowing early lettuce crops in cell packs. When it's warm enough, you'll have clumps of greens ready to transplant into pots or the garden.
- Sow plants such as tomatoes or peppers six to eight weeks before the last average frost date. This means you may have to wait until the end of the month or even a little later before planting the seeds.
- Choose a warmish day to prune landscape plants. Remove any dead or damaged branches. Thin plants with heavily branched interiors.
- Do not prune spring-flowering shrubs or trees until after they bloom. If you prune now, you'll be cutting off blossoms.
- In coastal areas, Lenten roses will begin unfurling new leaves this month. Remove old leaves, cutting them off as close to the soil as possible. You can differentiate old leaves from new growth by their darker color and the fact that they stand above new growth.
- Do not prune oaks and walnuts until July to avoid wilt disease.
Test Garden Tip: Some trees bleed sap profusely if pruned in spring. It doesn't harm the tree, but if you want to avoid the mess, wait to prune maple, birch, and dogwood trees until early summer.
Battle Winter Burn
In February more winter burn or desiccation occurs. Frozen soil, strong wind, and bright late winter sun in the Northeast combine to rob plants of moisture, and leaves can burn (turn brown) as a result. Evergreens, such as rhododendron, azalea, holly, boxwood, or Nandina, are more susceptible to winter burn. To limit the effects of winter burn, spray an antidesiccant (also called an antitranspirant) when the forecast predicts a 24-hour period of above-freezing temperatures. These products coat leaves to prevent moisture loss.
Use Dormant Sprays
Spray woody plants while they're dormant to help destroy overwintering aphids, mites, and scale insects. Read label directions carefully. Most often dormant sprays require above-40-degree temperatures followed by eight hours without precipitation or freezing temperatures. Do not spray evergreens that show signs of winter burn.
Use dormant oil on evergreens to control scale, on hemlocks infested with woolly adelgid, on ornamental trees that were infested with aphids or mites last year, and on roses to deter aphids.
Test Garden Tip: Beat cane fruit diseases by spraying liquid lime-sulfur on berry crops such as raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. Spray before buds begin to swell.
Handle Winter Ice
If a Northeast storm sheathes landscape plantings with ice, act carefully. With young and/or short plants (less than 15 feet tall), taking action will help minimize damage. If major limbs look like they're going to break, take these steps. Wear protective gear to shield your head (such as a hard hat) and goggles. Never stand directly beneath ice-coated limbs; stand to the side. Reach up with a long pole or broom and gently tap the ends of ice-covered branches to shake the ice free and relieve the load on the branches. Wait until the ice has melted to prune damaged or broken branches.
For more mature plants (taller than 15 feet), it may be best to allow nature to take its course. If you can't reach limbs with both feet planted firmly on the ground, do not take action.
In either situation, if you're outdoors after an ice storm, keep an eye out for ice-coated electrical wires that may be brought down if branches break. Protect yourself from falling ice, too.
Test Garden Tip: As snow begins to melt, watch for cool-season weeds to appear. Henbit, chickweed, hairy bittercress, and other weeds will have sprouted last fall and survived beneath snow cover. Deal with these offenders before they set seed.
Pretty Plants -- Tuberous begonias are a colorful choice for pots, planters, and windowboxes in the shade. You can buy them in pots later on, but save money and get better selection by buying them as tubers and starting them now indoors. Plant the tubers stem side up in potting soil and keep evenly moist. Grow in your sunniest window indoors and plant outdoors once danger of frost has passed. Then, if you're really thrifty, save the tubers from year to year.