Rest. Relax. Piddle around the garden’s edges if the weather’s nice, but keep it short. There’s plenty of time to get the few priorities on the worklist done before spring. There are three seasons when there’s some urgency to get things done. Now is not one of them.
First on the list, and probably the only thing that’s a must do before early March (in my Virginia garden), is to remove piles of leaves that cover winter flowering hellebores. Already, leaves have been cleared from the early blooming ones, but these generally have skimpier foliage that doesn’t hold so many leaves, so there’s not much to it. The older, denser clumps of hellebores (below) that flower late in February (maybe earlier this winter) must have leaves removed so that flowers can be seen.
Generally, it’s recommended that hellebore foliage be cut off early in winter, before flower buds elongate to get in the way. Sometimes I do this, sometimes not, but in a mild winter when leaves don’t turn brown I’m not particularly motivated to do it. Flowers stand out on the early types with skimpier foliage without doing anything, and usually the flowers of the fuller, late flowering ones can still be seen even if the leaves aren’t removed.
If you decide to remove the hellebores’ foliage, it can still be done, but it requires more care to be certain you don’t chop off flowers. Instead of just grabbing a handful of leaves and mindlessly cutting as it’s done in December, you must attentively remove a few leaves at a time. Still, I get impatient and cut a few flowers, and since I very rarely do this when it’s best to be done, that’s all the more reason not to cut the leaves at all.
The faded stems and foliage of perennials must be cleaned up before new growth starts, but there’s no growth until April, so there’s plenty of time unless the mess disturbs you. Yes, I’d rather not see it, and if your hesitation is leaving seed heads for birds there’s likely still to be a seed or two remaining. For me, I prefer to leave the dead stems to remind me that there’s something there, even if I haven’t a clue what it was, so I don’t plant something new directly on top.
I’ve dug into bulbs and perennials, ruined a few and cussed a lot, and even if you’re not planting until spring the stems help in planning. And second to clearing leaves from the hellebores, getting inspired and planning is the primary task for January.
For better or worse, this winter I’ve skipped the wait until spring part for planting. A plant catches my eye, and within moments it’s ordered. The long term forecast looks okay, so yes, let’s ship it now. The entire process takes about two minutes and can be done with a minimum of thought or consideration that the forecast might err and severe cold could still come in the next few weeks.
On this mild afternoon I’ve been planting (and stomping on a clump of daffodils buried beneath a thick layer of bigleaf magnolia leaves) ferns and epimediums (above) delivered yesterday. I won’t be out every day, and when I am the time is short, but as February approaches I’m getting a bit anxious. I’m still in no hurry to rake and prune to get the garden cleaned up, but the itch to plant is always there.