This month sees quite significant changes in my garden – and I can’t help but feel excited as I see signs of spring all around me. First of all, the snowdrops are in flower, pushing their way through the carpet of leaves under the trees. Later in the month the earliest crocuses start to unfurl their petals, attracting any early bees and giving the garden a wonderful injection of colour – bright mauve, cream and yellow - just when we need it. In milder areas frogs may be spawning in garden ponds, so listen out for the males croaking to attract a mate. Other eyrie noises you may notice at night are the ‘screams’ of vixens – female foxes also hoping to attract a mate. And if you have robins around in your garden you will possibly see the males fighting for territory. This activity can actually result in the death of the weaker male.
It may seem odd to be highlighting a butterfly this month - After all, they are summer creatures aren’t they? But a few of our native butterfly species spend the winter as adults, hibernating under loose bark on tree trucks or fences, in log piles or in dense ivy grown against a sheltered wall. Cool garden sheds and garages are also a favourite wintering place. The peacock butterfly is one of the first to emerge on a sunny day, and February is not too early to see this gorgeous insect if the weather is mild, although they often look rather scruffy after a long winter hibernation. The butterfly’s first instinct is for nectar and there are very few plants in flower this early to provide it with a meal. Hopefully later this month, a few dandelions or the flowers of wild plum will give them the energy they need, or early emergence could be a disaster. February weather can be very fickle, and warm conditions may bring several species of insect and the occasional hedgehog out of winter hibernation, a little too early to find food.
Any plant that flowers early in the year is worth its weight in gold , and for me it has to be the crocus that wins hands down. Many early garden flowers don’t have much to offer insects, but crocuses have plenty of pollen, so bees will search them out on sunny days. Sadly though, they have no nectar to offer any early butterflies. One of the nice things about crocuses is that they will establish in grass, so an area that is lawn in the summer can be colourful in early spring. Once they have finished flowering and the seeds have set and dispersed, the lawn can be cut as usual. The crocus spends the summer and winter safely underground to flower again next year.
This is the month when I really want to get out and do something. December and January are my hibernation months (I take a tip from my garden wildlife) but by February I’m keen to start my gardening year and there is plenty to do. My thoughts naturally turn to preparation in my vegetable plot, but there are other vital jobs to do, however large or small your garden. Perhaps the most important thing I tackle is the pruning of some shrubs, especially my Buddleias. I have several around the garden, and most of them get a hard cut back towards the end of this month. Buddleias flower on new shoots each year, so if they are cut right down to about a foot from the ground in late February or March I can be sure of a good crop of large flower heads later in the summer. If you have more than one Buddleia, you can stagger this operation, cutting some late this month and others in March or even April. This will prolong the Buddleia flowering season into September to the benefit of many butterflies especially red admirals, peacocks and painted ladies. I also just leave one or two and cut them every other year, allowing them to create some shrubby shelter, but in a smaller garden it’s best to cut them every year. It is easy to get carried away and start tidying up a bit too much in February. I try not to forget that many insects are still hibernating, and I avoid disturbing them in the herbaceous borders. If the weather is very cold, or you live in the North, wait until the end of the month or beginning of March before doing too much. You may even uncover a hedgehog in a hibernation nest if you have left all your herbaceous plants uncut over the winter.
Its worth noting that this is National Nestbox Week, so I make sure all the boxes are in good repair now. It’s then just a matter of sitting back and watching everything start to happen.