Roddy Llewellyn and his February garden
PUBLISHED: 11:44 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013
Souped up gardening with Roddy Llewellyn
Try growing Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) this year. February to March is the best time to plant them, about six inches (15cm) deep and about two feet (60cm) apart. A close relation to the sunflower and a native to North America, this uniquely tasty root vegetable makes, arguably, the most delicious soup ever. The joy of growing this saliva-inducing delicacy is that it thrives in ordinary soil although it does demand an open, sunny position. I made the mistake years ago of growing a long row of them in soil that I had previously over-enriched with deer manure and was rewarded with lofty and luscious foliage and pathetically small tubers, a reminder that not all plants like it rich. Jerusalem artichokes prefer an alkaline soil, so if yours is very acid you may have to add some lime. They make welcome additions to the winter larder and are best dug up, for a richer taste, as needed, from October onwards. This crop grows into an excellent tall windbreak for the summer months. One word of warning, any tuber left in the ground will produce a new plant next year.
As you stare out of the window is there anything that catches your eye or does your stare veer off into the fog? It seems such a pity that your precious garden, a source of such joy in the summer, becomes a dead place in the winter. The weather during this month, perhaps the most depressing of any time of year, does not entice one into it, but there is no reason why it should not still give some pleasure. The knack is to position some sort of eye-catcher a statue, large urn, or a topiary figure for instance somewhere in the garden. It needs to be spot-lit. Yes, the wiring of such lights is not always easy or cheap but if your garden is brought to life during these dreary months it is, surely, worth every penny.
There are a number of trees worthy of illumination even if they are stark naked. This is because they happen to have ornamental bark. The most startling is a variety of birch (Betula utilis var. jacquemontii Grayswood Ghost). Initial judicious removal of the lower branches once it has become established will reveal long, straight, glistening trunks that positively defy the stark winter landscape that surrounds them. The art is to give the trunks a scrub with a stiff dustpan brush dipped into a bucket of cold water in order to remove the thin, paper-like, flaky bark and green stains, towards the end of the summer. Allow the trunk to dry out after which any remaining flakes can be rubbed off with a soft glove. If you have the space, this tree is best planted as a group, at best a quincunx. Even if you plant a single specimen of this beauty in your garden, no one could ever accuse you of barking up the wrong tree.
I remember walking round Rosemary Vereys garden with her at Barnsley some years ago at this time of year. She was in the process of raising the canopy of a number of her larger evergreens by cutting all branches off from the base to a height of at least six feet. I went back a year or two later and she was delighted by what she had done because she was able to grow countless new plants, especially spring bulbs, under these trees now that she had created lighter and damper conditions. This is an especially useful tip if you have a small garden in which you are entertaining such a space-depriving conifer. Trees will remain dormant during this month and therefore it is the ideal time to remove dead, untidy and crossing branches. Resist cutting back shrubs, the majority of them are best cut back soon after flowering and the resulting re-growth bears the following years flowers. A prime example of such treatment is the forsythia which is almost ready to flower now.
The cheering news is that the days now start to lengthen. If you potted up spring bulbs at the same time as planting them outside, you can bring them into the warmth to force them to flower early. Those species of clematis that flower in late summer can be cut right down to the ground. Towards the end of February you can start to prune bush roses. Although trials by The Royal National Rose Society have proven that roses tend to flower better if cut back with shears or even hedge trimmers, I prefer to prune with secateurs. Take out all weak shoots and do not be afraid to cut back hard.