In February, the days begin to get longer and – especially in years like this when we got scant snow until late January (and much less snow than I remember getting in western Maine in the 1950s and ‘60s) – I get the urge to garden.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t much to do.

Early in our gardening career, my wife Nancy and I grew vegetables mostly to save money. In February, we’d start pulling the equipment together to let us plant vegetable seedlings under artificial lights. But as our finances improved, and after I retired, we began to travel during the winter months and could no longer tend seedlings; we switched to buying our vegetable seedlings at the Portland Farmers’ Market come spring.

For the first time this year, we did do some winter sowing, but that required work in January, not February, still leaving me casting about for a gardening chore. While the lack of snow makes me nostalgic for my youth, it does give me a chance to bundle up and walk around the yard, checking out the bones of the garden – just the trees and shrubs with no distracting flowers and foliage. It is, of course, way too early to plant anything, but it is never too early to plan something.

This is also the time when I check to see if any of our deciduous shrubs or trees – especially apples – require winter pruning. February and March, before the sap starts to flow, is the ideal time. Winter is also a good time for a garden building project or to sharpen tools.

The mountain laurel at the Atwell home bloomed so beautifully last year, Maine Gardener columnist Tom Atwell wonders if he should be looking to buy more of them to plant this spring. Photo by Tom Atwell

I do have one other task. For the past two years, I’ve successfully grown lettuce planted in a cold frame in March. Never one to rest on my laurels, I intend to plant this year’s cold-frame lettuce earlier, around Valentine’s Day. I’m thinking aloud as I write here, but last summer our mountain laurels, Kalmia latifolia, a native evergreen shrub, were gorgeous. Maybe I should be spending February looking for additional mountain laurels?


So that’s outdoor gardening. But I have been informed by the lady who runs our house, ahem, that we have some serious work to do on the garden plants that live indoors and out at our home, depending on the season. Every May we move about 50 potted plants outside, to our patio, our front walkway and alongside the driveway. We bring them back indoors before the first frost. These are all perennials that could survive outdoors in some other part of the world, but would not make it through even the mildest Maine winter.

A powder puff at the Atwell household. The potted plant stays inside in the winter and goes outside come summer. But Tom Atwell is getting a little tired of lugging it. Photo by Tom Atwell

Some are succulents in containers as small as two inches. Moving those is no big deal. Others grow in pots that are up to two feet in diameter and require furniture dollies or hand trucks to move them back and forth between house and garden. These include full-size and dwarf banana trees, birds of paradise and a powderpuff shrub (Calliandra haematocephala).

This year, some of these larger specimens have outgrown their containers and need to be repotted. Nancy has a year-round potting station set up in our basement. She keeps a bale of Pro Mix, cut open, as well as a large trowel. With the trowel, she moves some Pro Mix into pails, moistens it along with some dried coir, then mixes the two together and we repot.

As the plant-mover-in-chief, I am no longer willing to lug these large pots down the cellar stairs for repotting, and then back upstairs again. That means we’ll have to create a temporary ground-floor potting station and, when the job is done, take it apart again. Even though I’ve been looking forward to gardening, I can’t say I’m looking forward to that.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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