The winter garden is beautiful in its own right, but our hearts can’t help but flutter when the first signs of spring appear in February each year. In Portland, the earliest spring bulbs — the snowdrops and crocuses — poke their heads up to greet passers-by and mingle with other early blooming perennials and shrubs. As days lengthen and new life begins to stir, this month is one of anticipation and rejuvenation, and gardeners are sure to want to get out and soak it all up.
Blooms for the Moment
All across Portland, you will notice the bright pink blooms of camellias gleaming like beacons in the February landscape. This month is perfectly positioned at the intersection of Sasanqua and Japonica bloom times, making it an excellent time to flesh out your wish list based on what you see blooming around you. Here at the Farm, we have a few specimens of Camellia sasanqua ‘Shishi Gashira’ planted in front of the Cafe that have been blooming since December, and they’re still going strong in early February — a time when our heirloom varieties of Camellia japonica are just beginning to open up.
Spring may not officially begin until March, but there are a handful of other ornamentals that bloom this time of year, as well, helping to blur the line between late winter and early spring with a beautiful show of color. Hellebores are some of the crown jewels of the winter garden, along with witch hazels and the early-blooming Viburnum ‘Pink Dawn.’ In addition to their lovely flowers, Winter Daphne and Sweet Box (Sarcoccoca sp.) offer wonderful fragrance this month. And although these fantastic shrubs are blooming this time of year, they are technically still in their dormancy, making this a good time to add them to your landscape.
If you’re growing impatient for the full show of spring, containers filled with pansies, primroses, pericallis, and Iceland poppies are an easy way to bring color to a porch or patio. And florists even have a few tricks to speed up the coming display; simply bring the outdoors in! Cut branches of pussy willow, quince, crabapple, forsythia, and flowering cherry can be forced in a vase for a beautiful, early arrangement. While it’s a good idea to be selective with your cuts, this is actually the perfect time to prune fruit trees and many other deciduous trees and shrubs.
Preparing for Spring
Although roses aren’t blooming right now, it’s not too early to be thinking about these flowering beauties. Most garden roses should be pruned back hard towards the end of February to promote healthy growth in the coming spring. This is also great time to add or upgrade trellises and arbors for climbing rose varieties — not to mention other climbing and vining plants. Experienced rose shoppers looking to expand their collection also know that this is the time of year when we have the greatest selection in stock. If you wait until bloom time, you might be disappointed to find that many coveted varieties have already sold out!
While you are pruning your roses, you can go ahead and cut back any Heathers and early winter-flowering shrubs that have finished blooming — as well as any overgrown hedges like boxwood, laurel, and Privet. Doing so before birds begin to nest in the spring helps to ensure that you won’t disturb any active nests.
For bird species that utilize nesting boxes, February is the ideal month to set out new birdhouses. This gives our feathered friends the opportunity to grow accustomed to these boxes as permanent fixtures in the landscape before breeding season, which, in turn, increases the likelihood they will use them to build nests. Similarly, “bee hotels” should be made available to our native mason bees before they emerge in the next few weeks. These gentle blue-black bees very rarely sting, and it's a great idea to help them out, as they are the number one pollinator of orchards in our area.
Although our winters are relatively mild, we can still have freezes this month, so watch out for cold snaps and be ready to protect tender plants with frost cloth. Be sure to periodically check evergreens for signs of desiccation, as well. Some may need extra water to make it through the winter — especially if they are growing in containers or if we’ve gone a few weeks without rain. Apart from this, our mild winters ensure that small trees and shrubs can be relocated this time of year, and you can even get a little weeding done. Although weeds are a constant in a gardener’s life, the good news is that any time spent digging them out now is time you will save later in spring. Be sure to replace compost as needed to prevent more weeds from taking hold, preserve moisture later in the season, and add nutrition to the soil. Just be mindful of any dormant perennials or emerging bulbs while you’re working in your beds.
Shopping for Seeds
Seed shopping is in full swing this month! From flowers to veggies, we keep our seed display stocked year-round, but shop early to make sure you are able to find the varieties that you are looking for. While it might seem early to think about sowing seeds, this isn’t necessarily the case; experienced gardeners know that many seeds can be started indoors to get a head start on the growing season, then transplanted outdoors once temperatures regulate.
Your location and the types of plants you hope to grow will determine the best seed starting method and timeline for you, but a good place to start is by getting acquainted with your average last frost date. (The OSU Extension Master Gardeners have a handy chart for gardeners in our area.) Last frost dates can vary greatly depending on your location — from as early as mid-March for downtown gardeners to as late as mid-April for those closer to the Gorge — but virtually all seed packets will time their instructions in terms of a recommended number of weeks out from this date to start your seeds.
A few examples of veggie seeds you could be starting under lights this month include onions, eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes, but some Kitchen Garden seeds can be sown directly in the ground as early as the end of the month. According to the Maritime Northwest Garden Guide by The Tilth Alliance, this includes seeds of plants in the carrot family such as fennel, onion family members like garlic, and a variety of shelling, snap, and snow peas.
With a little bit of patience, a project or two, and a few blooms to tide us over, spring will be here before you know it!