Mid-February is the perfect time to spring into action in the garden.
IT MIGHT STILL feel like winter, but before we know it, spring will be here. Right now, in mid-February, before new growth starts, is a great time to prune many of the earlier-flowering perennials. It’s also a good time to cut back a number of summer-flowering shrubs to keep them a manageable size and looking their best.
Although it resembles a perennial, Epimedium (bishop’s cap) is a tough, drought-tolerant, slow-spreading shrub that thrives in dry shade. The leaves emerge bronzy-pink, and often take on lovely red tones in winter.
Although the foliage looks great now, its appearance soon will deteriorate. Cut the stems right to the ground now, before new growth appears, to allow fresh foliage to show up unimpeded by unattractive old leaves. Removing the old foliage also will allow the delicate little flowers to show up better. Don’t put this task off too long. It’s practically impossible to remove old foliage without cutting off newly emerging leaves and flowers.
Elephant ears (Bergenia) are early bloomers that look much better after a light trimming this time of year. Featuring large, leathery foliage, the leaves on many varieties of this evergreen clumping perennial turn spectacular shades of red in winter.
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Pruning back leggy, woody stems and any leaves that turned brown over the winter will make the entire clump look much more attractive, especially when the tall flower spikes occur in early spring.
Most ferns look much better if the old foliage is removed in early spring, as well. The only exception is the Giant Chain Fern (Woodwardia fimbriata). Removing the 8-foot-long fronds before they die back naturally in summer can seriously weaken this gigantic native fern.
But the fronds on all other ferns can be removed without harm by cutting them back to just above the crown of tightly bound fiddleheads waiting to unfurl in spring. Pruning ferns is a bit of work, but well worth doing, because removing the ratty older fronds will make them look beautiful all season long. Again, do it soon. Once the new fiddleheads begin to elongate, trying to cut out only the older fronds can be quite the Zen experience.
Some perennials need a haircut this time of year to remove foliage that died back over winter. Pulsatilla vulgaris (pasque flower) is an example of an early bloomer that looks spectacular in spring, when the new leaves and buds emerge covered with beautiful satiny down. The buds open to reveal beautiful 2-inch-wide crimson or purple flowers with deep-golden-yellow centers. If, however, you don’t remove the thick cover of foliage that died back to protect the plant from winter cold before the new growth and flowers appear, the entire spring display will be hidden and go unnoticed.
A couple of summer-blooming shrubs that are best pruned in mid-February are Japanese Spiraea (Spiraea japonica) and Hebe. Many varieties of these drought-tolerant shrubs have colorful foliage and attractive blooms, making them great choices for the mixed border. The main problem is that they often grow larger than expected and end up covering up or shading out neighboring plants.
Keep them a manageable size by cutting the stems back by two-thirds or more before spring growth begins. Your plant will bloom as beautifully as ever, albeit a bit later in the season.
Finally, shearing your lavender back every spring before new growth occurs can help keep it from forming those unsightly bare, woody stems at the base. Nothing will stop the lower leaves from dropping, but shearing every spring to within a half-inch above the top of the bare stems will significantly slow the process, especially if you start when the plant is young.
Be forewarned, however, that shearing lavender can cause weight gain. That’s because it’s impossible to shear lavender without thinking about Provence, and the next thing you know, you’re in the house feasting on baguettes and pain au chocolate!