Sauk County GardenerL February tasks to help prepare for spring gardening

Jeannie Manis

“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.” ― Alexander Graham Bell

On the last day of January, I was curious as to how much snow we had. I discovered we had 15 to 20 inches of snow cover, which doesn’t offer much opportunity to garden outdoors. However, there are some gardening tasks that I (and probably you) should do in February if you want to be ready for spring.

One of those tasks is getting ready to start your seeds, bulbs, tubers and rhizomes. Starting your own plants can be rewarding and also potentially save you money. If you’re planning to reuse pots, containers or seed trays from previous years, it’s important you clean them first. Your pots from previous years most likely will have accumulated soil, mineral deposits and other material that harbor disease organisms. This can cause problems for your plants. Clean clay pots using a steel wool or a wire brush to remove any debris. For plastic pots, a scouring pad should suffice. Disinfect the pots or containers in nine parts water to one part household bleach for 10 minutes. It doesn’t take a lot of effort but can greatly increase your success rate in starting seeds, bulbs and such.

If you plan to start seeds, you may want to set up “seed starting” stations. Once again, I’m setting up a table in my finished basement and using heat mats and lights. Make sure all your equipment is in good working order and purchase any replacements if needed. There’s nothing like having a bulb not work in your light stand when it’s time to turn the lights on for your new seedlings. Also, consider using a timer for your lights so you don’t have to try and remember to turn on or off the lights. If you don’t have the space for a full-size seed starting station, move things around so you’ll be able to set your planted seed containers in front of a sunny window. It’s also recommended to use a sterile, soil-less seed starting mix if you’re starting seeds to improve your success rate. Use a well-drained potting mix for your bulbs, tubers and rhizomes.

Once you have your seed-starting station ready, it’s time to plant. Start your petunias, impatiens, pansies and geraniums from seed in February as they are slow growers. If you plant them now, they will big enough to plant outside once the danger of frost is past. You can also start leeks and onion seeds around the second week of February. If you haven’t already, take a quick inventory of your seeds. Seeds are in the stores now and if you want something in particular, it’s best to shop early.

It’s also time to start potting up those tuberous begonias and caladiums you stored over the winter or have recently purchased. Start the begonias first as they take a little longer to grow. If you are planting in clay pots, allow the pots to soak in water until you are ready to use them. If the pots are dry, they will quickly leach the moisture out of your potting mix. As you get out your begonias and caladiums, also take the time to inspect your cannas, dahlias, geraniums and any other stored bulbs, tubers and rhizomes for spoilage.

As the weather permits, continue pruning your dormant trees and summer-blooming shrubs such as the Annabelle hydrangea, rose of Sharon, butterfly bush, Russian sage and more. If you’re unsure which of your shrubs are summer-blooming, check this list from the UW Wisconsin Horticulture – Division of Extension: If you need to prune your apple trees, make sure the air temperature is above freezing and it’s not wet or snowy weather. If need be, wait until March or early April to do your dormant pruning before bud break. As you’re inspecting your trees and shrubs to see what needs to be pruned, also look for any mummified fruit, galls, and eggs clusters on your trees and shrubs. If you find any, remove and destroy. If you find any fire blight cankers on your apple or pear trees, these too should also be removed. Unfortunately, there is no cure for fire blight, but you can best limit its spread by pruning during the dormant season. Prune six to eight inches below the diseased area. When pruning fire blight, always disinfect your pruning tool between cuts by dipping it for at least 30 seconds in a 10 percent bleach solution or spraying with a disinfectant that is at least 70 percent alcohol. Remember, your pruning tools should always be disinfected after finishing each tree or shrub, even if you’re not pruning out diseased plant material.

Indoors there are a couple tasks as well. If you indoor forced bulbs such as daffodils or hyacinths are done blooming, continue watering them and place them in a sunny window. Once it warms up, plant them outdoors and they should bloom again in a year or so. Don’t bother saving your paperwhites though; they won’t rebloom so put them on the compost pile.

Taking the time to do these tasks now will save you time, and hopefully some money, when it finally gets warm enough to start planting outside.

Remember to contact Extension Sauk County if you have any gardening questions. Please send an email to or call the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension Sauk County office at 608-355-3250.

Jeannie Manis is president of the Sauk County Master Gardeners Association (SCMGA).