At last, we’re done with January — it has to be the longest month and this one seemed impossibly long, especially as the ability to garden outdoors was severely limited by the weather and ground conditions. With the arrival of February, things are beginning to look up as spring stirs.
Going around our garden at the moment, the hellebores are starting to unfurl their nodding blooms alongside drifts of snowdrops, which continue to make a stunning show through the shadier borders, and Garrya elliptica, with its long, drooping tassels of silky, silvery-grey flowers is looking very impressive.
This large, bushy, evergreen shrub is best grown in a sunny, sheltered spot, ideally next to a south or westfacing wall. Its leathery, dark green, wavy-edged foliage makes a good backdrop for lower-growing flowering shrubs and perennials.
February is the month we concentrate on our rose bushes, with pruning the main task for the weeks ahead. It’s also a good time to plant roses and most garden centres will have their best selection of varieties now.
Prepare the soil by digging in some well-rotted farmyard manure, which you can buy in bags from a garden centre. Pick a planting position that gets plenty of sunlight and where the soil has good drainage. It’s a good idea to plant several of the one variety for impact.
Be sure to check the height and spread of your roses and space them accordingly to allow good air circulation around each plant. This reduces the potential for fungal disease problems. When planted, if there is a dry spell, water the plants occasionally while they settle in.
Keep a note of the variety name in case you decide to plant more later.
I’ve recently planted the lovely English shrub rose ‘Tottering by Gently’. Last summer, I admired it in a friend’s garden and she kindly gifted me a plant for Christmas. Its beauty is in the simplicity of its mildly fragrant, single, yellow flowers that create a prolific and enchanting display. It forms a rounded bush to around 1.2 metres height and spread, and is repeat-flowering through summer, if deadheaded.
This type of rose is less rigid in its appearance than hybrid tea or floribunda roses, which are normally grouped together in beds or borders, and so, it fits easily into a mixed border with shrubs and flowering perennials.
Sow sweet pea seeds
To cheer myself up on one of those miserable January days, I picked up a few packets of sweet pea seeds in anticipation of fragrant cut flowers and their pretty summer blooms which come in a range of colours. They are mostly climbing plants, ideal for training up a trellis, pergola or obelisk to bring height and colour to borders or support them on a wigwam of canes in large pots.
There are two main types of sweet pea — the common annual, Lathyrus odoratus, and perennials or everlasting peas which include cultivars of Lathyrus latifolius and L. grandifloras and others. Annual sweet peas are an excellent choice for novice gardeners, and for sowing with kids. A favourite variety of mine is Lathyrus odoratus ‘Cupani’. This old heirloom variety is one of the most strongly scented of all sweet pea varieties, bearing beautiful, two-tone, purple and wine-red blooms from June to September.
Growing sweet peas from seeds couldn’t be easier. The seeds can be sown undercover anytime from October until March, but I prefer to sow them in February. They dislike root disturbance so growing them in long, thin biodegradable pots or cardboard tubes will enable you to plant them out in their containers into their final growing position without damaging the roots.
I plant my sweet pea seeds into the cardboard cores from toilet rolls, sowing two seeds into each, using a seed compost. Deep pots or tubes allow the young plants to develop a long and robust root run.
Sweet peas have a hard seed coat and, although not essential, to aid germination you may find it helpful to soak them in water for 24 hours, drying them with kitchen paper before sowing.
Dampen the compost, then, with your finger, push each seed in 2-3cm below the surface. Water well and place on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse or cold frame. Mice love sweet pea seeds and your whole crop may disappear in one go so keep them somewhere mouse-free.
Once the seedlings appear, keep them cool. This promotes root growth, rather than stem growth and stops them becoming leggy. Water the seedlings regularly. As they grow, you’ll notice roots start to emerge through the sides of the cardboard tubes. Pinch out the growing point when seedlings have two to three pairs of leaves, to encourage bushy growth. Harden the plants off before planting out in late March or early April. Sweet pea are hardy annuals so should withstand any late frosts.
1 Firm back down any plants that have been lifted by frost or loosened by wind-rock.
2 Cut down deciduous ornamental grasses left standing over winter, before fresh shoots appear.
3 Divide congested clumps of herbaceous perennials and grasses to make vigorous new plants for free.
4 Cut away the old foliage from epimediums, before the spring flowers start to develop.
Tucked away in the scenic Dublin hills overlooking the city, check out Hellebore Weekend at Mount Venus Nursery, The Walled Garden Tibradden, Mutton Lane,
Dublin. It is running from 16 to 18 February (from 10am to 5pm).
It’s a celebration of spring-flowering perennial hellebores with many choice varieties for sale.
See mountvenusnursery.com for more details.