Although February can often be the coldest month of the year, you should still be able to see a few signs of the coming spring. Snowdrops and crocus will be breaking through the frosty ground adding pockets of colour, and the buds should be starting to swell on many trees and shrubs.
Begin the month by taking a good hard look at the garden to see if there is anything that might have outgrown its allotted space, or simply doesn’t ‘work’ where it is anymore. If it’s not too big, move it to a new home now while it’s still dormant. On sunny days dust off the secateurs and get stuck in out there. All the perennials and ornamental grasses that were left unpruned to provide winter interest should now get a short back and sides. Some of them may even be lifted and divided into smaller clumps. It always looks a bit drastic initially, but it means you will be able to get a clearer view of the spring-flowering bulbs when they appear. If it’s mild towards the end of the month you could also get a head start on the roses and Clematis that need cutting back too. As soon as that’s done, the beds can get a generous cover of mulch from the compost heap and then they will be ready for all the lovely new growth to start.
My favourites for February
It is unclear when these diminutive beauties first came to our shores, but they are now fully entrenched in our hearts. The nodding white flowers, which often have to push up through a crusty layer of snow, are one of the first signs of spring, so seeing them never fails to lift my spirits. Of course they at their best when naturalised in great swathes, but they still look lovely even when squeezed into a windowbox or patio pot. Planting them in the green like this (ie actively growing) will guarantee a better success rate too, as the bulbs tend to dry out quite quickly once they are lifted and many die off.
Daphne odora 'Aureomarginata'
For most of the year this modest evergreen will loiter quietly in the border. Yes, it provides year-round interest and yes, its lustrous leaves are attractive, but it would not immediately jump to the top of your ‘must-have’ list. That is, until you smell the late winter flowers. They appear in small clusters, usually at the tips of the branches, and although these are not too big or showy, they smell divine. Make sure you snip one or two sprigs for the house, as the scent becomes even more powerful when brought into a warm room.
A superb all rounder and incredibly useful, this evergreen shrub is fast growing so will provide quick cover in next to no time. Its flowers appear in generous clusters over several months, lightening up the dullest days of the year, and as it takes hard pruning in its stride, it makes a fabulous hedge or topiary specimen. Tough and tolerant, it will take difficult settings in its stride - including heavy shade, salt laden winds, drought (once it’s established) and real cold or exposure.
Erysimum 'Bowles's Mauve'
I think this is the best perennial wallflower. It often flowers non-stop from late winter to midsummer, and then, incredibly, if you remove the spent flower stems, it may produce a second flush in autumn. It is a little short-lived (it will usually wear itself out and need to be replaced every two or three years), but it still offers tremendous value for money. It mixes easily with nearly every colour in the spectrum, but looks particularly good next to something with silver or bluish-grey foliage.
Helleborus × hybridus Harvington lime
The flowers of this hellebore are fabulous - fresh and vibrant yet understated. It will look great when allowed to form a naturalistic drift through a woodland floor, and even more sensational when planted with snowdrops or ferns. A rugged, low maintenance plant, it will put on a good show without the need for constant attention, which if you ask me, is very good news indeed.
Another versatile plant, this native, evergreen fern can be used for carpeting the ground, but it is equally at home growing in stone walls or crevices in large rocks. You can even wrap the rhizome in moss and tie it into the crooks of a tree branch to help give the garden a tropical look. It is very effective in jungle or woodland style planting schemes. The sculptural fronds make it one of the more attractive ferns, and unlike many other evergreen types, the foliage does not get really tatty in winter. It’s a gem.