University City

Despite the cold, there is still gardening to be done

February may be the month for warm Valentine’s wishes and preparation for March Mardi Gras parties, but that “once in a lifetime” polar vortex is turning out to be just the first chapter of an epic big chill.

In the garden, all the cold has been hard on delicate plants, but there is a bright side: It might setback the bugs a bit.

Be especially careful when the temperature drops below freezing for a few days. Moist soil provides some frost protection, so try to water before freeze events.

You can cover plants as well, stealing a technique that farmers use to protect crops. Any light fabric will do, or you can invest in a small amount of row cover fabric (Reemay is a good brand) and cut it to fit the plants you want to protect.

Renfrow Hardware in Matthews has small, gardener-scale amounts of row cover available at a reasonable price. You can drape it right on the plant; there’s no need to have a frame. Remove it when it isn’t needed so plants can get full sun.

February, while plants are dormant, is a good time to prune and shape summer blooming shrubs. But don’t overdo it; limit cutting to about one-third of the top or less. If you got new shears, or especially if you received power equipment as a holiday present, be careful not to get carried away.

Crepe myrtles are the most frequent victim of ugly, improper pruning. There’s even a name for such botanical butchery: crepe murder. There is no good reason to whack off limbs, leaving a bare stump. Just take off the old flowers and clean up branches a bit. Other plants that can use a trim are Abelia, Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus), Osmanthus and butterfly bushes (Buddleia).

If you can’t control your desire to cut severely, take it out on the butterfly bush. Stay away from spring bloomers such as azaleas.

Give your houseplants some restrained love this month. Go ahead now and clean them up, removing dead branches and old leaves. Keep an eye out for insects and other problems, and take appropriate organic action.

Hold off on fertilizing until plants start to grow actively again, once things warm up. The end of winter is the hardest time for them.

If you want to grow your own vegetable transplants for spring, it is time to get started. Most transplants need a good six to eight weeks before you set them out, though lettuce might get away with four or five weeks. You’ll want to set out cool season crops such as lettuce and broccoli from mid-March to early April.

You can wait until later in this month for tomatoes, which go out after April 15, and peppers and eggplants, which can wait until May Day. You can start vegetable (and flower) seedings in a bright window or under inexpensive shop lights.

It wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day without flowers, but finding eco-friendly flowers is a challenge. Writing in The Huffington Post, Jennifer Grayson reports that nearly 80 percent of U.S. cut flowers are imported from Ecuador and Columbia, where growing conditions are “less than optimal,” with high pesticide use and poor treatment of workers.

Though it is extremely difficult to grow standard flowers such as roses here this time of year, you can find lovely local flowers if you are willing to look. A good example is grower Jane Henderson of Commonwealth Farms in Cabarrus County, who sells beautiful arrangements at the Davidson Farmers Market.

Grayson suggests another alternative. Give your love a packet of heirloom flower seed and a beautiful pot to grow them in. If you go with red roses anyway, just route them to the compost pile once the smooching is over.