Groundhog Day or not, February is a mixed bag in the garden. Here in the first hours of the month, "cafeteria gardening" is very much in fashion. You're able to pick and choose garden chores as the spirit moves you.
However, in the next three-plus weeks, your winter vacation will end abruptly as you launch preparations for spring, first addressing the needs of indoor plants, then venturing outdoors to prepare fruit and shade trees for the growing season.
Meanwhile, here is a potpourri of indoor chores worth pursuing:
Geraniums. If you kept potted geraniums going since the fall, modify your care program now. Having applied warm water to the soil in the morning, come back a minute later and remove the top inch of old soil with a tablespoon. Have pre-mixed 1-1-1 on hand, wetting it down separately, then spooning it into the pot to replace the discarded soil. Sprinkle a half-teaspoon of pulverized limestone over the soil, fork it in, then apply warm water to remove the air pockets. Improving the soil now should carry the geranium through the upcoming growing season.
At the same time, move plants into full, direct sun. Up to now, you allowed the soil to go dry a day or two before watering, but you now revert to the schedule of keeping the soil lightly moist at all times. Every other week, fertilize with Peters' 15-30-15 plant food at the full rate.
Commercial growers have been propagating geraniums since December for sale at the garden shops come May, so you could take stem-tip and stem cuttings to grow new plants.
Gloxinia. Resurrect dormant tubers from the basement now that the first leaf buds are showing; if there are no buds, leave the tuber in the closed bag, but check again in two weeks. If you neglected to grow gloxinia last year, stop at the garden shop in the next few days and treat yourself to a handful of tubers. Gloxinias from the florist are generally bell-shaped in form whereas those grown at home are tubular; colors range from purple-pink to orange, cherry red and magenta. Tubers potted up now will flower in May and June; tubers planted in mid-March will flower in summer.
Use plastic pots about two inches wider than the diameter of the tuber. Gloxinia prefers a moist soil at all times, so mix up your standard 1-1-1 soil formula, then add an extra part of milled or compressed sphagnum peat moss (in effect, this creates a 2-1-1 mix). Scatter broken-up clay parts at the base of the pot, followed by your pre-wet soil. Use your soil tester to adjust the pH to 6.5 by adding pulverized lime.
Properly planted, the top of the tuber should be level with the top of the soil in the pot. Dust the tuber first with dry fungicide powder; choose from any powder on your shelf, including Benomyl, Captan, Daconil or Phaltan. Now, measure the height of the tuber, then scoop out enough soil so the tuber can be planted to the proper depth. Apply a few ounces of warm water to remove air pockets, then drain thoroughly.
Gloxinia has specific growing requirements. In a warm room with humidity of 30 percent, it needs four to five hours of direct sunlight to grow satisfactorily, then moved under grow lights (about 2,400 foot-candles like African violets) for another four to five hours. Locate plants four to six inches under the lights.
Temperatures are critical, too. Daytime readings should be just above 65, but around 70 degrees at night to stop leaves from becoming brittle. Apply warm water in the morning as temperatures rise, not later.
Gloxinia seed may be started indoors now, giving you flowering plants by midsummer. Begin with a 12-inch plastic pot, using two parts of milled sphagnum peat moss and one part vermiculite as your soil mix; add lime to adjust the pH to 6.5 or so. Scatter seed thinly atop the pre-wet soil, but do not cover the seed with soil. Enclose the pot in clear plastic with a twist-tie cord at the top. Keep the pot in the warmest possible room to provide temperatures of 70 or higher.
Every five days, open the plastic and spray-mist warm water once over the soil, resecuring the plastic bag right away. Seeds should sprout in 14 to 21 days, after which seedlings should be moved to 3 1/2-inch plastic pots filled with 2-1-1 soil. By early May, transplant the developing tubers to 2-1-1 soil in five-inch plastic pots, barely covering the tubers with soil. The soil should be kept lightly moist from then on, fertilizing monthly with Peters.
Fruiting fig tree. If you have kept the tree in the garage since Thanksgiving, move onto the late winter care schedule now. First, with the tree still in the garage, wet the soil thoroughly with warm water, allowing it to drain for 20 minutes, after which the container tree is moved indoors to a cool, unheated basement. Light is not critical just yet. Make no attempt to prune the tree now or for the foreseeable future.
From then on, keep the soil lightly moist, always using Peters' 20-20-20 in place of water. To simplify things, place a plastic dishpan or tub on the floor, placing two six-inch pieces of 2-by-4 lumber side by side. Put the container fig tree over the 2-by-4s. When you next fertilize the plant in the basement, pour the fertilizer directly over the soil so fluid drains out the pot and into the dishpan. This way, fertilizer cannot reenter the pot.
The fruiting fig should remain in the basement for two weeks; during the Feb. 16-17 weekend, the tree will be moved upstairs in full sun to resume growing again. At that time, you will add new soil to the old pot and revert to the tray-and-pebble method of growing the tree.
If the fig tree has grown to a point that it cannot be moved indoors, simply leave it in the enclosed garage, but continue wetting the soil every 18 to 21 days to keep the roots alive. The tree should be planted in full sun in the outdoor garden after March 31.
Clivia or kaffir lily. Resurrect the plant from the cool basement now that the resting cycle is over; since Halloween, clivia should have been exposed to temperatures in the 45 to 55 degree range, with infrequent watering to keep the roots alive.
Despite your fears, keep clivia rootbound, otherwise flowering will be impeded. If no roots are exiting the drainage holes, the old plastic pot can be used for another year; if you find roots exiting the pot, move up to a plastic pot that is an inch wider than the old. You can also split the fleshy roots, pulling them apart with your hands and potting up each section in its own four-inch plastic pot.
Making sure that the soil is bone dry, strike the base of the old pot with your fist, thereby dislodging the soil and rootball together. Spray the perimeter of the soil with warm water, then use a pencil to dislodge old soil clinging to the perimeter of the rootball. Repeat this on all sides to remove only the old soil along the edges.
If using the old pot, clean it first, filling with new pre-wet 1-1-1 soil most of the way. In a new pot, add clay shards at the base followed by 1-1-1 soil. In both cases, add pulverized lime to adjust the soil pH to six or slightly higher.
Place the clivia atop the new soil, making certain that the top of the old soil is almost at the top of the pot. Fill around the plant with your pre-wet 1-1-1 as needed, pressing down on the soil to make sure that roots contact the soil. Apply no water right away so roots grow quickly into the pre-wet soil below. When the soil goes bone dry, water thoroughly with lukewarm water; apply no fertilizer for the time being.
When flower stalks are six inches high, use warm water to keep the soil lightly moist. Apply Peters' 15-30-15 every other week starting the first days of May through mid-August. Cut flower stalks to the soil line when flowers wither. After spring flowering, clivia will produce abundant leaves to supply the energy for next year's flowers.
Jack Eden is the host of "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM).