February Gardening Newsletter

Dear Fellow Gardeners,

Phenological Calendar

In Ireland February is officially the beginning of spring.  I never fully believed it as it is still is a very dark month, but in the last few years, February has been one of the best months of the year so I’m finally convinced that February is the beginning of spring.

Sowing recommendations:

It is very difficult to give adequate recommendations for sowing seeds.  First of all the climate within a country is quite different.  I often hear about the sun in Dublin and Wexford while we have our usual rain here in the north-west.  It’s also a good bit colder up here.  The inland counties tend to suffer more with sharp frost.

To make it even more complicated – in every year the weather is different.  There was one year when the grass didn’t start to grow until May and Irish farmers had to import hay and silage from France. In some years grass growth could start in February.

So how do we know when to sow or plant our vegetables?

I regularly travel around the country and I am always surprised about the different times when certain wild plants are in bloom.  The blackthorn usually starts around 4 weeks earlier in Dublin compared to Leitrim.

So this is where the phenological calendar fits in.  Instead of sowing at a given time of the year, you adjust your sowing to the occurrence of certain features in nature – here the flowering or fruiting of well-known wild plants.

Seeds of some vegetables need a minimum soil temperature of 6-7°C so they will germinate.  Others need substantially higher temperatures.  I was told that in the olden days, German farmers would take their trousers down and sit on the soil to check if the soil was ready for sowing.  Nowadays you could buy a soil thermometer instead.

Alternatively we could look at plants:

The first flowers that appear when the soil temperature has reached 6°C are daisies, coltsfoot and hazel catkins.

The table below is a summary of the seasons along with natural occurrences, either flowering, leaf emergence or fruiting.

Here is a little request.  I’m looking for a few volunteers to complete this table.  I think it would be a brilliant idea to see what difference there is between different locations.  If anyone has a few minutes to spare each week, have a look around your local area and record the dates when the below plants flower or fruit, or when their leaves emerge.  You can also add more plants to this list.  Only avoid plants that flower over a long period of time.

It’s also a good way of getting to know plants through regular observation. By the way, my Hamamelis (Witch Hazel) is in full flower at the moment.  It’s a stunning plant.

It would be great if you could return the table to me with your own notes in May and I will do a summary for the June newsletter.

Many thanks in advance.


Season Plants Vegetables First flower in your area

Please enter your location

County ………………………………

Area …………………………..

Pre- spring Coltsfoot flowers

Daisy flowers

Hazel catkins

Blackthorn (Sloe) flowers


Tomato and pepper indoors on heating bench

Broad beans, garlic and Jer. Artichoke outdoors

eg Coltsfoot 13.02.2016
Early spring Forsythia flowers

Primula flowers

Horse chestnut leaves

Gooseberry leaves


Onion and shallot sets, early potatoes
Mid to late spring Apple flowers

Oak and ash leaves

Lilac flowers

Cuckoo flower


Peas, beetroot, parsnip, early carrots, main potatoes outdoors
Early summer


Elder flowers

Rosa rugosa flowers


Runner beans, French beans outdoors, maincrop carrots


Mid summer Lavender flowers

Blackcurrant fruit maturity

Lime flowers


Chinese cabbage, Florence fennel, winter radish
Late summer Rowan berries mature


Corn salad, winter purslane



Early  autumn Rosa rugosa – rosehips

Elder berries


Radish, corn salad, autumn onions
Mid autumn Horse chestnut fruit

Oak – acorns


Garlic, broad beans (Aquadulce)
Late autumn General leaf fall


Cover beds

Sow green manure


Late winter Hamamelis flowers

Winter jasmine flowers





Upcoming Courses and Event:

19th -21st February 2016:

Gardening Weekend in Renvyle House Hotel, Connemara.  There are still a few places left for this event at my favourite spot in Ireland.  It includes gardening talks, practical sessions, a trip to Kylemore Abbey Gardens with Head Gardener Anja and a special session weather session with Evelyn Cusack.  There will also be a wonderfully entertaining gardening and weather quiz night on the Saturday night.

Have a look at the Renvyle website:



Courses at Milkwood Farm

This year we run a couple of Day Courses here at our home garden in Co. Leitrim.

12.03.2016      Complete Beginner’s Hands on Gardening Course

02.04.2016      Growing in Polytunnels and Greenhouses

The courses cost €65 per day which includes coffee and scones on arrival and a home-cooked lunch.


Onion sets, shallots and garlic for sale

We’ll be getting in bulbs and sets soon.  They will be available from the 10th February onwards.

The onions are SturBC20, maybe not a great name, but an excellent variety which I have grown in the last few years.  It’s an improved Sturon type and produces excellent quality onions.

The garlic is Casablanca – a delicious and reliable spring garlic.  We’ll also have red onions and shallots.


Pruning fruit trees and bushes

Last week I was pruning all sorts of fruit trees and bushes at all size and shapes.  Pruning is certainly one of the most rewarding and satisfying gardening jobs.  It’s also a job you can do in winter for most fruit trees with some exceptions as usual.  Just one word of caution – Bad Pruning is a lot worse than no pruning at all.

Below I outline some guidelines and important pruning information I hope you’ll find useful.  Please do not over-prune.  I have seen so many butchered fruit trees which may never fully recover.

Timing of pruning

Apple and pear trees are usually pruned in late winter.  I usually prune them towards the end of January.  This is a very convenient time as there is little else to do in the garden.  Espaliers and fan trees are often pruned in late summer as well.  This has the advantage that less growth is formed following a summer pruning.  It may also reduce the tree’s tendency to biennial bearing.  I will, however, stick to winter pruning as I am far too busy in summer.

All stone fruit (cherries, plums, peaches and nectarines) should only be pruned in summer time.  If pruned in winter there is a danger that silver leaf disease will enter the pruning wounds.

Gooseberries, red and whitecurrants and autumn raspberries should be pruned in late winter, usually late January.

Blackcurrants, blackberries, hybrid berries and summer raspberries should be pruned soon after they have finished fruiting, usually in late summer or early autumn.




A good pair of secateurs is the most important tool for pruning.  Don’t be tempted to rush into sales of discount stores that offer secateurs for less than €10.  They usually break within a day or two and never cut a branch over 2cm in diameter.  I still have a pair of Felco secateurs that I got for my 18th birthday and it still cuts like no other one.  I often think that Switzerland is usually renowned for chocolate and cheese, but I think their real contribution to the world was the Felco secateurs and the oscillating hoe.


Loppers are a lot stronger than secateurs and quite thick branches can be pruned.  Unless you have a good model, the pruning cuts can sometimes be less clean.  Never use a loppers if you are on a ladder as you need two hands to use the loppers.

Pruning saw

A pruning saw is needed for bigger branches that the secateurs or loppers can’t manage.  It’s a long and narrow saw and slightly curved.  It fits easily between branches.  Again buy for quality not price.

Extended saw

You can get pruning saws with long handles.  With those you can reach branches up to 3m in height.  It’s much safer than climbing up a ladder.


If you only have fruit on small rootstocks there is no need for a ladder, however if you have an established orchard a ladder is essential.   Most serious accidents in the garden occur with ladders.  I also had a few lucky escapes.  Make sure the ladder is securely placed, ideally tied at the top to a branch and someone holding it at the bottom.  Never lean or stretch top far to harvest a particular apple or prune a certain branch.


Pruning – General Information

Apical dominance

This is a very important piece of knowledge.  Apical dominance simply means that a plant sends out all its vigour to the end bud.  If you prune a branch, the bud below the cut will suddenly become the dominant one as it is now at the end.  From this bud the stongest shoot will grow.  Additionally the plant will produce a second and possibly third shoot.  This will create a more branched framework.  An unpruned shoot will often keep growing straight without branching out at all.

Where to prune?

If you prune to an outward-facing bud this simply means that you should make the cut just above the bud that faces away from the tree.  This is important as you don’t want to have branches growing inwards.

Hard of light pruning

Whenever you prune a tree, it tries to compensate the loss of branches and put on more growth.  Over-pruning is worse than no pruning at all. When too many bigger branches are cut off,  the tree simply reacts by sending out a lot of weak upright watershoots.  So if your tree is already too vigorous, hard pruning will make it even worse.  Ironically light pruning may improve the situation.  If you prune less than a quarter of the new shoots, compensation growth is little as well and this will often initiate fruiting.

Fruiting and Growing – Vertical and Horizontal Growth

There is often a balance between fruiting and vegetative growth.  Some trees – especially if planted into very fertile soil will grow very healthy and upright with annual shoots often over 30cm long.  This vegetative growth comes at the expense of fruiting.  This is the same with all plants – if a branch is horizontal or at a slight angle it will produce flower, if it is vertical it will grow.  That applies to all trees and shrubs, not just apples.

To change this habit there are two options.  You can prune to an outward facing bud (see above) or you can tie branches down.  I have done both last week.  I loosely tied baler twine around a branch.  Make sure it’s a loop and doesn’t strangle the branch. Then I checked the length to the ground while bending down the branch and tied the other end onto the metal part of plastic electric fence posts.  You can also use a heavy stone.  Then bend the branch down slowly and tighten until the branch is fixed at a horizontal or at least 45° angle.  Check after a few months and remove the string once the branch stays down.


This is quite a useful technique to manipulate growth.  You simply cut out a small V-shaped wedge just above a bud using a sharp knife.  This will encourage growth from this bud.  This is quite a useful technique especially for tip-bearing plants (see below) and for vigorous trees where you don’t want compensation growth/

Sorry for the repetition.  If the branches are trained to a horizontal level the tree switches its command board and decides to flower and grow less in vigour.  The methods you can employ to encourage o more horizontal growth are:

  • Pruning to an outward facing bud
  • Weighing down long vertical branches
  • Notching


Spur or tip bearers

Fruit can be categorised into two groups in relation to where they will produce flowers and fruit.

Spur bearers

Spur bearing varieties will produce flowers and fruit on small side-shoots or spurs which are really clusters of little fruiting buds along a short stub of a stem.  These spurs are often long-lived and apples will grow there every year.  Luckily about three quarters of all apple varieties are spur bearers.

Tip bearers

Tip bearers produce flowers and fruit at the very end of each shoot.  This fact makes pruning a lot more complex. With a normal pruning technique of shortening the new shoots by half to encourage better branching is not an option for tip bearers as you would prune away all fruiting buds.  Some varieties are partial tip bearers – they produce some spurs and also produce fruit at the tips.

Examples of tip and partial tip bearers include: Bramley’s Seedling, Discovery, Irish Peach, Worcester Pearmain.  It’s very important to find out what type your apples are and all good nurseries will be able to tell you.


Why not buy a few apple trees?

You could buy three apple trees for about €50.  After two to three years they will produce fruit.  You could expect to get about 100 apples per tree every year for the next 25 years.  That’s about 7,000 apples – with very little work.  Isn’t nature bountiful.

A couple of sources for buying fruit trees and bushes are:

English’s Fruits Nursery, Co. Wexford

Irish Seed Savers Association, Co. Clare

Fruits and Nuts, Co. Mayo

Future Forests, Co. Cork


Enjoy spring

Klaus Laitenberger