Gardens: Start chitting seed potatoes this month

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FEBRUARY can be a fickle month for the gardener. Bulbs burst into life and fattening buds unfurl when the weather is mild, but our dreams of spring can easily be dashed by a sudden cold snap.

The challenge is to resist rushing into pruning and sowing anything that is too sensitive to the cold, while still managing to get ahead before spring.

Be sure to take some time though to enjoy the first delicate blooms of the year. Snowdrops, winter aconites and Cyclamen coum are among the earliest bulbs, and dwarf narcissi may also be opening in sheltered spots. Although its name suggests it ought to peak earlier, my autumn-flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella “Autumnalis Rosea”, is at its best now, swathed in the tiniest pale-pink blossom.

Then, I’m afraid, it’s down to work. Finish cutting back herbaceous perennials, grasses and ferns, get on top of the weeds, and improve the soil in vegetable beds with a mulch of well-rotted garden compost. My greenhouse always needs attention before the growing season gets underway. Replace any broken glass and give the rest a good wash with soapy water, along with any staging, as well as removing remnants of last year’s plants and spent compost. This will maximise light levels and help get rid of any overwintering pests and diseases.

Once this is done, the fun can start, which for me means getting sowing. Chillies and sweet peppers need a long growing season, and are best sown now in a heated propagator at 21C or on a warm windowsill. Garlic and hardy broad beans can go straight into the ground now, but many soils are so wet this year I would recommend starting them in pots or large modules in the greenhouse to plant out later. Start chitting first early seed potatoes this month too, by standing them in egg boxes somewhere cool and bright, so that stocky shoots form. This gives them a head start when they are planted out in March.

There is still plenty of time to finish winter pruning of fruit trees and bushes while they remain dormant into early March. It is, however, important to prune wisteria during February, by cutting back the long, whippy shoots, which ideally should have been pruned in summer, to two or three buds. The large, silky flower buds are easy to spot and avoid, and are a lovely reminder that spring really isn’t far away, even if your hands are almost frozen to 
the secateurs.