February 2005
Victoria County Master Gardener Association
Ground rules and tools for February
February 3, 2005
Victoria County Master Gardener

Spring is just around the corner; I can just feel it. At this time of year with the gray skies, drizzle, cold temperatures, bare trees and snow-damaged plants, mixed with a few South Texas warm spells, I sure hope it is right on schedule. I'm looking forward to the first flushes of new growth and good gardening weather.

The new gardening year really gets in full swing in February with many activities and options for growing and learning. The average last freeze for this area is about Feb. 19, but, as you know, that is totally up to Mother Nature. The gambler in us urges us to plant early and get a jump on the season. This is fine, but be prepared to take freeze precaution for your tender vegetation. By planting early, plants will be off to a better start and can become adjusted before the stresses of summer arrive. Now would be a good time to take some soil samples and get them tested so that you know what you are dealing with to help insure success with your plantings.

This is the time for getting ready for spring gardening. We've had articles in this column on bed prep and pruning - so fine-tune those landscape plans. Now is a great time for visiting your local nursery. New plants are arriving for late winter and early spring planting. Have your shopping list ready so you don't go bonkers and stray from your landscaping plan. If you took some pictures last year of different specimens you have seen growing and want to try, get these out and plan where you want them in your landscape. Take into consideration the amount of sun and water needed, the mature size of your specimen so that you don't have to move them later, and how it all fits in your overall scheme of things. If it is obvious that you have lost some plants because of our brief but cold winter blast, what do you have in mind to take their place?

February is time to plant roses, bareroot fruit and nut trees, shade trees and others. Select varieties recommended for our growing conditions. Many fruit trees require higher levels of pruning, fertilization and pest control. Find out the requirements of the types you are interested in because some need more work than others. Contact the Extension Office for recommended varieties. New shrubs and trees should not be fertilized until after they have started to grow. Wait until around April or May and then fertilize them lightly the first year. Follow up with another application about a month later. Each application should be about 1/2 cup of complete fertilizer applied in a zone 1 to 3 feet from the tree trunk.

It may be a little early to determine if you have lost some plants to our surprise white Christmas. Be patient, you might be surprised when they survive. For instance, on woody perennials, if you scrape the limb with your thumbnail and expose a green cambium layer, you probably have a "keeper."

Early to mid-February marks the time to apply a pre-emergence herbicide for lawns that had a summer weed problem last year. These products kill germinating seed. The mild weather may already be triggering weed germination. A second application may be needed in late May or early June. The best defense against lawn weeds is a healthy, thick turf resulting from good management. Don't rely on chemicals alone.

Early to mid-February is vegetable planting time for cool-season crops, including onions, radishes, greens, spinach, sugar snap peas, carrots, broccoli, beets and turnips. Irish potatoes, while not a cool season crop, can be planted by mid-February also. Sweet corn should follow toward the end of the month. Early planting assures a good harvest before summer heat. But don't be in a hurry to plant summer vegetables such as tomato, peppers or squash. A late frost or freeze will result in repeated plantings. Summer vegetables require warm days and warm soils to quickly establish. Planting too early, before the soil has had time to warm up, can lead to seed rot, slowed germination, poor growth and disease. For instance, setting pepper plants out before the soil temperature is 70 degrees could stunt their growth for the entire growing season.

To correctly determine soil temperatures, readings need to be observed on three consecutive mornings. They should be taken at a depth of 1-2 inches for seeds and 4-6 inches for transplants. Soil thermometers may be purchased at local nurseries and hardware stores or ordered from gardening catalogs.

As spring arrives, be on the lookout for caterpillars or cabbage loopers feeding on your favorite greens, broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage. An application of "Bt," which is a very safe product to use, will prevent major damage. "Bt" stands for Bacillus Thuringiensis and is sold under many brand names such as Bactur, Dipel and Thuricide.

February is an ideal month for transplanting any plants not in bloom that might need to be moved to a desirable location. Cool season flowers, such as pansies, petunias, snapdragons, alyssum, ornamental cabbage, kale, dianthus, cannas and daylilies, may all be planted at this time. Do not prune plants that will be blooming this spring, such as spirea (bridal wreath), azalea, forsythia, quince, climbing roses or Indian hawthorne, until after they bloom. Prune daylilies and liriope to remove unsightly growth. Ornamental plants should be appreciated for their natural forms and usually look better and are easier to care for if heavy pruning is avoided.

With spring getting nearer each day, get out there and dig in the dirt. Here is a quote that I found from John Teas on the Web page for Teas Nursery in Houston: "The best time to plant a tree was a long time ago. The next best time is right now." So plant that tree to memorialize a new child, grandchild or a special event; you won't regret your effort in the coming years.

And speaking of spring - get out your calendar and mark the date for Annual Garden Tour 2005. It will be the weekend of April 30 and May 1 with delightful - and educational - gardens on tour along with highlighted and Master Gardener plant sales. There will be something for everyone interested in gardening - and even for those who just want a spring outing. Co-sponsored by Victoria County Master Gardeners and Trinity Episcopal School, the gardens will provide education on good gardening practices and display attractive and sustainable plantings for this area. Plan to attend now; more information will be forthcoming in this column and throughout the community.

Happy Spring! Happy Gardening! I can't wait - how about you?