Updated: Feb 8
I always think that Pope Gregory Xlll must have enjoyed a joke when he created February. It is the shortest month, but it is one of the busiest for a gardener, especially in France. There is so much to do if you want to do things thoroughly - and what you do now will shape the garden for the whole of the coming year. Here are some of the things I hope to accomplish:
THE ORNAMENTAL GARDEN
Prune roses and mulch under them with well rotted horse/cattle manure.
Apply the first (and main) dressing of slow release plant food to shrubs, trees and bulbs/corms as they begin to die back. This can be in the form of bone meal, dried blood or a plant based dressing if you prefer. Gently rake it into the top layer of the soil.
Remove any perennial weeds from borders and then mulch wherever possible. It is best to mulch a smaller area of your borders correctly (i.e. to a depth of about 6cm) than to spread a very thin layer over everything. You can always concentrate on the area you missed this year, next year. I tend to do one large bed and maybe ancilliary beds each year, varying the mulch according to the plants the bed contains and the soil type. This year I will concentrate on a rectangular bed, measuring about 10m x 5m. It is a mixed shrub and perennial border so I will mulch with a mix of garden compost, well rotted leaf mould, some well rotted manure and inexpensive universal compost. Apply the mulch to wet soil (so after a good rainstorm) and do not go right up to the collar of plants as this could cause them to rot. Well applied and appropriate mulch will help improve the condition and nutritional value of the soil as well as help retain moisture and deter weeds.
Apart from roses, other shrubs will need pruning from now on. The first to prune is Wisteria if you have not already done so. Last summer you will probably have cut back wild and wayward growth to keep your wisteria manageable, but now you must take it back to its basic structure, retaining the main stems and branches plus any other tendrils which you want to encourage to become part of the plant's skeleton. Then go along each stem/branch and cut the whippy shoots back to about two buds from the main branch. This is where the plant will develop its flowers over the next couple of months. Ensure it is firmly tied in and able to support the coming year's growth. This is the only time of year you can prune and tie in a wisteria with such forensic precision, so don't delay. Incidentally - if you have only recently planted your wisteria and it still hasn't flowered, don't despair, they can take up to 5 or 6 years to produce their first purple (or white) racemes. Ours has been in the ground 5 years and flowered for the first time last year.
The principle behind pruning other flowering shrubs is that if they flower before the end of June then you should cut them back after flowering as, generally, they will flower next year on new wood produced this year.
This means that February/March/as they finish flowering is the right time to prune winter flowering jasmine, flowering currants, flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica), mahonias which flowered over winter, winter flowering honeysuckles and forsythias. You can also prune viticella clematis (the ones that flower repeatedly over the late summer), cutting them back to about a foot from the ground and ensuring that they have some means of support as they will put on metres of growth very quickly. I also prune (very cautiously) my beloved Daphne odora once the flowers have finished and cut back our brilliant yellow flowered Coronilla glauca Citrina. This Mediterranean plant loves a sunny spot, good drainage and if you can provide a sheltering wall it can grow to over a metre tall. I cut ours back to a rounded shrub of about 60cm diameter. By this time of year - i.e. on the point of flowering - it is almost a metre tall.
It is also the right time to pollard and coppice plants you grow for their brightly coloured, thin, young stems - such as dogwoods (Cornus) and willows (Salix). Do this as soon as you see the leaves begin to burst, which, in our garden, is now. You want to remove about a third of the oldest growth including anything which is dead, diseased or crossing.
Willows ready for pollarding
You can also divide snowdrops now - they establish best when moved "in the green".
You can just about make out the leaves of snowdrops which I transplanted last February "in the green" - this year they are all healthy little clumps.
THE EDIBLE GARDEN
If you have not sown your chilli seeds then either do so now or wait and buy young plants in the market or at a nursery. The difficulty in France is that unusual varieties can be hard to find - you usually have a choice of one - Douce de Landes - which is very mild. This year we have sown Jalapeno - our staple chilli which we use in cooking and jams - as well as Poblano and a hot little chilli which is also an attractive pot plant - Piccante a Mazzetti. I bought all of the seeds from https://www.seedaholic.com/ which is my principal seed source post Brexit.
Sow parsley directly into the garden. It helps to soak the seeds overnight first. I always prefer direct sowing if the seeds are inexpensive. You have a less prolific and more unwieldy process of germination and seedlings can take a bit longer to get started, but you can often eat the thinnings, which helps to thin your plants out, and the roots suffer much less disturbance. It is also easier. At this time of year you can start to sow salads and salad onions directly into the ground along with broad beans, parsnips (parsnips are difficult to germinate from old seeds - only use seeds produced last year and no older) and early carrots. Try to sow small quantities successively rather than a huge quantity in one go. You don't want a glut and then a famine. I have made a note in my diary to sow purple sprouting broccoli at the very start of March. I have never grown it before.
Prepare your vegetable beds for the year ahead, clearing any remaining weeds, mulching and topping up raised beds where appropriate and fixing fences, cloches and cold frames ready for the growing season. Ideally you should plan your vegetable garden so that you rotate crops across a four, five or even six year cycle. This ensures that nothing is grown in the same soil over successive years. The reason for this is that your plants use nutrients more efficiently and minimise the risk of a build up of pests and diseases in the soil. Two examples - First: if you repeatedly plant brassicas in the same bed there is the risk of introducing club root which can take many years to eradicate, meaning that you cannot plant brassicas in that spot again for perhaps a decade. Second - legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, providing you dig the roots in, rather than pull them out, when you remove the bean or pea plant. Nitrogen promotes leafy growth, so follow legumes with leafy things like spinaches or salads. Crop rotation is a science in itself, to be covered in a separate blog article rather than in one paragraph.
Sow under cover if you want to get ahead. Aubergines, cucumbers and tomatoes are started in a heated propagator, while you can sow spinach, beetroot, parsnips, carrots, peas and mangetouts under cover. Do be careful with some root crops, however. One year I sowed parsnips under cover and left it too long before I potted them on. They came out of the ground looking like cork screws.
IN THE KITCHEN
We are harvesting and eating - leeks, ruby chard, cavolo nero, rocket, mustard leaves and winter salads and beetroot.
We can't grow Seville oranges where we live (they are called oranges amère - or bitter oranges - in France), but I am sure you can grow them somewhere along the Mediterranean coast. Furthermore the recipe for Seville orange marmalade includes lemons, which grow in and around Menton*, so I have included making marmalade in February's to do list. Each year we make about 25 jars of straightforward Seville orange and another 10 of a version which includes muscovado sugar to create a lovely chunky dark brown marmalade. The recipe came from Richard's step-father, who was an admiral - so it is known as Admiral's Marmalade, and is my favourite. I buy our Seville oranges from a man who travels up from Spain each January/ February and sells oranges, lemons and the most beautiful, naturally ripened avocados in Sauveterre-de-Guyenne market. True marmalade contains only citrus fruit, sugar and water, nothing else - beware of imposters.
* And talking of lemons - if you want a winter break then Menton holds a lemon festival each February - details below: