News and Views

'February is the border between winter and spring'

12 Feb 2021

UCC has one of the most beautiful university campuses in Ireland and the Head Gardener of UCC, Jack Murphy, writes this following piece with some gardening tips for the month of February.

Since the 1st of January, we have gained forty five minutes of daylight to our evenings. We are now in the last of the dark months, and we are also in the shortest month of the year, so the long evenings that we are all craving are just over the hill. 

Little did we think that eleven months on from the first lockdown that our gardens would still be our sanctuaries, a place to retreat to from a day working from home, a place that we have all become more familiar with in the last year.

A gardener can learn a lot through careful observation of their space. 

With the arrival of Spring, the gardening year begins. It is my belief that there is no right or wrong approach to gardening now that we are gardening with our instincts, rather than being guided with what was seen to be seasonal, up until recent times. Furthermore I am of the view that it is good to learn from your gardening mistakes - you will learn a lot more from them than any book! I believe that if you are happy with your garden and how it looks, then that should be enough, as your garden is your space. 

A gardener can learn a lot through careful observation of their space. Paying attention and looking at what is going on in your garden is very beneficial to how you will ultimately manage your area. While our gardens can bring us happiness and joy, we should be willing to pay mindful attention to the wildlife who share the space with us. The following are some pointers and suggestions that maybe of some use to people who are becoming more active in the garden this February. Much of what I am discussing here is following the pattern of our gardening year in UCC and my own home garden. 

Gardening tips 

It goes without saying that what we do in the garden in February can be dictated and controlled by the weather. A wet month will curtail the work we hope and plan to do with our soil, but despite this there is plenty that can be still progressed, regardless of the weather, such as pruning. There are a number of plants which benefit from early Spring pruning. These plants are those that flower on new growth. To prune these early will provide an abundance of flowers and healthy new growth later in the year. Effective pruning will also help you to control the size and improve the shape of your plant. It is of vital importance to ensure that you have a sharp edge on your secateurs, loppers and pruning saw prior to undertaking the task. These three tools are essential to the work, along with a good pair of gardening gloves. For the purposes of this article I will look at pruning roses, buddleja, grasses, apple trees and climbers.

Look out for the 3 ‘Ds’ 

Roses are a tough plant and really benefit from a good pruning at this time of the year which will give them a good shape and structure along with benefitting their flowering. The first thing I look at before I start pruning is the actual bush itself. I assess the state it is in and look out for the ‘ 3 Ds’ - dead, diseased and damaged wood. Once these are identified they should be removed from the bush. After this any weak or wispy stems should be removed, as these may not be strong enough to support blooms going forward. Now it is time to create an open bush with strong branches by pruning stems, at an angle, just above a bud. Once you are happy with your pruning, feed each rose bush with a good fertilizer. We use either a liquid or a seaweed pellet fertilizer. 

Buddleja or Common Butterfly Bush are a wonderful shrub which can put in a great deal of growth over a growing season. If left unpruned these shrubs can really take over an area. They respond well to being pruned back to a few healthy buds above their bases. This means that you will lose from 70 to 90% of the plant's previous growth. Don’t worry, the plant can take this sort of pruning and will provide you with a healthy bush and a good flowering season. Ultimately this will benefit the butterflies that it will attract to your garden in due course. 

Deciduous ornamental grasses that have been standing over Winter will now benefit from being cut down before new shoots start shooting from the base of the plants. Following on from this and if your grasses are strong enough, now would be an opportune time to dig up these plants. They can then be divided at the base and replanted around your garden, filling in any gaps in your borders. 

It is time to cut back 

In relation to climbers now is a good time to cut back late flowering Clematis i.e. Clematis jackmanii and Clematis viticella which are two of the more popular Clematis varieties. These flower on growth made in Spring. If you are unsure of when you should prune the following might be of help ‘if it flowers before June do not prune now’. Another popular climber which may be in need of some attention this February is Wisteria. The wispy growth on this climber can be pruned back now. 

Apple trees can still be pruned in February, the purpose of pruning now is to clear any damaged or overcrowded growth and to allow more light into the tree. Taking action now can stimulate more vigorous growth and can establish a good framework of fruiting spurs. It is also beneficial to the tree to give it a good feed of a rich compost or sulphate of potash to help get a plentiful blossom.  

February is of vital importance for wildlife

To support and encourage wildlife in the garden in February is of vital importance. It is important to keep bird feeders topped up and to leave out water and food for animals emerging from hibernation if you know you have such callers to your garden. Hedgehogs in particular benefit from this act of kindness. If you have nest boxes in your garden, now is a good time to give them a clean with boiling water before any bird comes to your garden seeking a new nesting place for their young. 

The window for planting bare root is still here and there are some lovely mixes of native hedging available if one would like to plant a wildlife hedge. These make for a fantastic fast growing hedge, which will attract an array of species to your garden. 

Leave the Dandelions alone!

Dandelions are now emerging in lawns and borders. What was once considered a weed, I would consider to be a wildflower, I would urge you to ‘leave them bee!!’ as they are a wonderful source of nectar for bees and pollinators. Where else would you get free wonderful yellow flowers to brighten up your garden this time of year. It is worth remembering that all parts of the plant are edible and really beneficial to the human body. A new year gardening resolution could be to give the dandelion a chance. 

In the veg garden weather permitting now is a good time to prepare our veg beds for sowing by digging over the soil. This will help aerate, drain and warm the soil. When digging over, dig in compost from your compost heap, well rotted farm manure or garden centre bought compost. The work done now will be of benefit later on in the year when you are planting or sowing directly into the ground. You could also consider to chit first early potatoes by standing them in trays in a frost free place.

One of the stand out plants on campus at the moment is Sarcococca Confusa or commonly known as Sweet Box or Christmas Box. It is an evergreen plant that flowers in late winter or early Spring. Its white flowers have a strong sweet scent that fills the garden at this time of year. As well as its highly scented flowers it has black berries that come into show after flowering.Ideally planted near doorways, windows, patios or in a large planter on balcony gardens. We have this shrub planted on the East Wing border of the quad and in front of the lodge on the South Avenue. 

One of the first plants to flower in the garden is the snowdrop, Galanthus Nivalis, which translates to milk white snow. They are often characterised as being a shy or sad flower as their heads are always drooping but the reason for this is that their pollen must be kept dry and sweet for the few flying insects that are in the garden at this time of year. In folklore the plant was never to be brought indoors as it was thought that they made the cow’s milk watery and hence would affect the colour of the butter. They are symbols of purity and renewal, and are sometimes known as the purification flower or Candlemas Bells.

I hope to be back to you all soon about the benefits of creating a wildflower meadow and more gardening tips. In the meantime best of luck to everyone with their endeavours in the garden this month, as the old saying goes, February is the border between Winter and Spring.


University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF