University City

It’s February, so get prepared for spring

February, the year’s shortest month, is a quiet time in local gardens, but the soil is slowly warming and the days are growing longer.

Before gardeners know it, we’ll be in the swing of spring.

I’m eagerly awaiting the daphne (Daphne odora) to open in the large pot by our front door, spicing the chilly air with intoxicating fragrance.

Quiet or not, there are still garden chores to take care of.

You can plant some cold-tolerant vegetables this month outdoors, such as spinach, lettuce and corn salad (mache). You may not get much of a jump over vegetables planted in March, however, especially if you don’t use a row cover or other frost protection to get plants growing. It is so cold in February that germination and growth are slow.

A gamble worth trying is sugar snap peas, which benefit from an early start so they don’t roast in May and June heat.

“Standard” long-vine sugar snaps work best for me, though they require sturdy trellising. Sugar Ann, a short, precocious variety, is also worth a try, especially if space is limited.

I have done best by soaking and pre-sprouting the pea seeds. Don’t overdo it. Soak them overnight, drain them, keep the seeds moist until they just start to show the beginning signs of sprouting, then plant them an inch deep.

The trick is to get peas up and growing so they don’t rot in the soil. Peas prefer maritime conditions, cool but not frigid, so I cover them with row cover during cold snaps for the first month. Then I trellis them and let them grow.

A quaint alternative to poles and string is “pea bushes,” letting the peas grow over pruned branches from shrubs or trees arranged along the bed.

You can also start seeds indoors for spring and summer transplants. I grow mine under inexpensive fluorescent shop lights in a corner of the basement.

Keep lights very close to the tops of seedlings, and move the lights upward as the tiny plants grow. If you have a big, bright, sunny window, that will work, too.

Get broccoli, cabbage, Napa and lettuce going by early February, selecting varieties with heat tolerance; remember, they’ll mature in May and even June.

Alternatively, you will be able to find cool-season seedlings in March at Renfrow Hardware in Matthews or other local nurseries.

You can also start summer vegetables indoors this month, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. The biggest advantage is that it vastly increases your choice of varieties over what is available in stores.

Even if you aren’t planting this month, stay on top of winter weeds. Henbit (and its cousin, dead nettle) and chickweed are especially important to control while small. In ungardened spots, they are fine to leave as “a poor farmer’s cover crop” to protect the soil.

Wild garlic and onions may be obvious now, too. Weeding is tedious – I usually have to dig them out – but that keeps them from getting established in gardens or lawns.

You can control evergreen invasive exotics now, while many garden plants are still leafless. It is a good opportunity to keep Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy in check, and to stop ivy from growing up trees. Follow the vines and dig them out.

I am still seeing Bermuda grass and Johnson grass rhizomes in healthy shape. Dig them out or pull them up so they will freeze, or bag and remove them completely from growing areas, where they can become a real headache.

It is time to trim monkey grass ( Liriope) and mondo grass ( Ophiopogon). It is a relative easy job: Just run them over with your lawnmower set on the highest setting, or use a string trimmer.

Tall fescue lawns may need mowing this month, since they like cold weather, but cut them tall, at least 3 inches.

You can apply fertilizer this month, following N.C. State University guidelines (1 pound actual nitrogen per 1,000 square feet). For good but non-organic guidelines, visit www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/articles/tf0017.aspx.

(I personally suggest tolerating variation in your lawn. I see no need for herbicides unless you manage a putting green.)

Almanac

At the beginning of February, day length is 10 hours and 30 minutes, with sunrise at 7:20 a.m. and sunset at 5:50 p.m.

At month’s end, day length is 11 hours 20 minutes, with sunrise at 6:55 a.m. and sunset at 6:20 p.m. (all numbers rounded off).

Precipitation this month averages 3.3 inches. The average high temperature is 55 degrees F., and the average low is 33 degrees.

The moon is full on Feb. 3 and new on Feb. 18.

Extended forecasts remain highly uncertain based on ocean conditions in the Pacific, with some suggestion of a generally cooling trend locally.

Don’t forget Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, and Mardi Gras, Feb. 17.

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