An unseasonably warm February has given me the chance to get ahead on all the spring jobs that I usually start in March. I have had 3 blissful uninterrupted days of pruning, weeding and tidying. I even managed to sand down and repaint the crazy blue pergola which had a bit of a bashing from pidgeons' feet last year - the horizontal beams provide a perfect perching spot for flirting and generally hanging about. If you are considering painting any of your garden structures with outdoor paint, do consider the maintenance tasks - my wood work lasted only 2 seasons before looking shabby-chic distressed, but not in a good way. Now, it looks fabulous and crazy again, and the intense blue will set off the flowers of the climbing soft yellow Rosa banksii when it blooms in a few weeks' time.
The pleasure of this early start to the year was enhanced many-fold because all my efforts have been accompanied by the intoxicating perfume of one small Daphne odora shrub, growing in a sheltered position behind the greenhouse.
I have always felt that the Daphne is rather wasted, being tucked away in a not-very-visible corner. But this year it's come up trumps, scenting the whole garden, finding me wherever I am, and even inside the greenhouse. Glorious! If there's one plant I wouldn't be without, it's Daphne odora.
I know you don't want to, but here's the thing. Most years, I can't weed until March, because my horrible claggy clay soil won't allow it. Today I attacked the Evil Enemy, hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), before it has got around to flowering.
New gardeners please pay attention! Hairy bittercress is an annual weed with fine lacy leaves, in fact it is rather attractive and lulls you into a false sense of security. So if you are busy and have time for just one task this week, I urgently advise an organised assault on the Evil One. This unassuming little plant with tiny white flowers produces thousands of seeds. That's why you must get on to it before the white flowers appear, and on no account add it to your compost.
There was once a time when I thought it was acceptable to use glyphosate weedkiller occasionally against the worse weed infestations - now I find myself thinking there is hardly any justification for doing so. It is useless against annual weeds like hairy bittercress which spread by seed (see above). Faced with a large area of weedy soil, I have found cardboard packaging to be really effective.
Last year I created a new border, intending to have it planted and mulched by early summer. The very dry weather meant that I never got around to planting anything, so I covered the patch in a thick layer of cardboard, weighted down with a few bricks. Nine months later, it has just about disintegrated and the soil below is as clean as a whistle - no grass, no bittercress, (OK, an occasional dandelion). It's ready for planting and mulching any day soon.
With even the worse cases of perennial weeds like brambles, bindweed, couch and ground elder, I am reticent to recommend weedkiller. The environmental concerns of herbicides building up in the soil are paramount, but also, it doesn't really work. Most of the really tough weeds are difficult to treat, so that high doses and repeated applications are needed to have any permanent effect. The slightest bit of spray drift onto surrounding grass or plants will kill them.
In practical terms there is no good substitute for digging them out (and yes, it may take a few attempts) - or long term mulching under a light-excluding material such as cardboard or landscape membrane. For infestations amongst established shrubs and plants, there may be no choice but to dig up and destroy everything so that the whole bed can be treated.
English gardens have a reputation for being dull during the coldest months. For me though, this is an exciting time of year with plenty of interest - with the help of some forward planning and autumn catalogue gazing. Looking out now, the ground is carpeted with Hellebores, primroses, snowdrops, Pulmonaria, hyacinths, Scilla and a promise of daffodils.
In the low winter sun the borders are ablaze with colour and buzzing insects. Everywhere there are the fresh green shoots of the later spring and summer bulbs pushing up through the soil. I find I am relying more and more on bulbous plants to create seasonal colour throughout the year. In late February there is still time to order Lily and Nerine bulbs and Dahlia tubers for your tubs and borders.