There are times when I think that anyone in Austin Texas should be forbidden to have a blog. Like today, when I go into the blog for Homewood Heights Community Garden and find that they're all out there gardening in sleeveless T-shirts. (The air turns green with envy.) Milan and Austin are supposed to have the same hardiness zone rating for heavens sake, yet I was out there today in my Norwegian fisherman's sweater and padded boots ...
However, even if temperatures aren't quite in the Austin league, the last two weeks of February do mark the official start of the Balcony Garden year. Most of the work to be done is only preparatory, but there are one or two things that count as real gardening. So here goes with a list. If you're a balcony gardener, what should you be doing in February?
It does depend where you are of course. We're having daytime temperatures of about 11°C now, and the plants are starting to show signs of coming back into growth. if you're not that far on, then you may have to wait a few more weeks before getting on with some of the things here.
1. If you have perennials or biennials or bulbs coming through, remember that higher temperatures will mean you need to start watering more often. Check at least once a week - more often if it's sunny. But don't overwater, and remember that the top layer may have dried out while the soil below is still moist. Check first.
2. Plan. What are you going to grow, what combinations are you going to have, and what will you need to do month by month? If you have such restricted space that you can do little else but buy in plants from the local garden centre, then you may prefer to let this develop month by month as things catch your eye. But if you have a little extra space (I have three balconies, each 10m x1m) and want to grow from seed, now's the time to be thinking about it.
2. Pop out to the nearest garden centre and pick up some primulas. No balcony should be without them at this time of the year. Whether you go for classic yellow, a bi-coloured display or just a riotous mixture of all the colours you can get your hands on, they'll cheer you up and remind you that spring is on the way while you do ...
3. ... the boring stuff. Yes, I know you don't want to, but if you don't give the balcony a good spring clean now, you won't be able to. Wash down the railings before you put the containers back up and have plants trailing all over the place. Sweep and wash down the balcony floor before it's covered in heavy pots. And then empty all the old soil out of the containers and give them a good wash too. With disinfectant, to get rid of any fungus or virus infections left over from last year. When you've done all that, you can give yourself a pat on the back and make a cup of tea. Now the fun stuff starts - you can start thinking about your plants.
4. If you're in a zone where temperatures are high enough that there's no longer any risk of frost on the balcony itself, you should be able to take off the fleece from plants which have overwintered, and maybe even move them away from the walls of the house or the more sheltered parts of the balcony. But be careful - if you're not sure the weather will co-operate, then leave them a bit longer. If you do move them out, check them for damage, cut off any dead bits, and clear the containers of dead leaves. Then scrape away as much of the old soil as you can without disturbing the roots and replace with new.
5. Now is the time to prune certain shrubs, like plumbago, which flower off the new growth of the year. Last year I didn't get round to mine and this, together with the fact that I'd put it in a position where it got only limited sun, meant I got a very poor showing of flowers. This year, I've cut it back hard, pruning each stem of last year's growth back to about two leaf buds from the main branch. And I've moved it back on to the balcony railings, where it gets more sun and has always done well. Don't forget though, that some shrubs - like my philadelphus - flower off the previous years growth. Prune them now and you'll have no flowers at all.
6. A few things can already be sown now - some vegetables and flowers which grow from bulbs, corms or tubers can be planted outdoors, while seeds can be started indoors. I'm trying Jerusalem artichokes up the trellis in front of the bedroom this year, and they went in last week, and so did my garlic. And I continued planting my summer bulbs, putting in some liatris and several sorts of allium. Plus some corms which for now are being referred to as Mysterius Whatthehellaretheseus. I have a clear memory of taking them out of their pots last autumn, putting them away and thinking Oh, I'll remember what those are. Yeah yeah. In the house, I've got a mix of herbs, flowers and veg seeds sitting by the bed and waiting to germinate - if they're not too intimidated by my husband's frequent laments of Do those really have to be there?
And that's about it for this month. But there's only a week to go till March - and then the fun really starts.