What to do in a warmer winter? Get out and garden

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The Independent Online

In the days when February kept Britain languishing in an icy grip, it was a basic rule of gardening that this was the month to clean up the tools and tidy out the potting shed.

But after the second mildest January on record, gardeners were urged yesterday to get out and undertake the myriad new February tasks which a warming climate has brought. From mowing the lawn - already a year-round chore for 35 per cent of UK home-owners, according to the Natural Environment Research Council - to pruning shrubs and sowing vegetables, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and Garden Organic (formerly Henry Doubleday) are encouraging gardeners to adapt to the climate.

Unwelcome news though it may be to some, weeding should now be a February job. Chickweed, dandelion, dock and many other weeds all grow at temperatures of 6C and above and if their growth is unchecked, it could be detrimental to the plants which are beginning to shoot: snowdrops, bluebells and spring bulbs. "As we move through February the higher light level will also increase the growth of weeds which in the past have tended to be fairly dormant in the winter," said Sally Smith of Garden Organic. "It's beneficial to get out and tackle them."

Before you start wielding that hoe too enthusiastically, however, she has a word of caution. Dealing with weeds now runs the risk of disturbing insects like ladybird and bumble bees which hibernate until late spring. If they succcumb to a frosty spell as a result, this, in turn can affect the pollination process. Go about your weeding with care, is the professional advice.

Sowing, a task once left until March at the earliest, is now a real possibility for those prepared to gamble with an unexpected frost. Though French or runner beans and courgettes have a low frost tolerance, early salad leaves, broad beans and garlic can be planted.

The RHS advises putting plastic sheeting around plants to prevent rot in cold, wet spells. Cloches and fleece provide frost protection and vegetable growers can also take advantage of higher temperatures and cover the soil with polythene to get seedlings off to a speedy start when they are planted out.

Pruning is also a February task, since it needs to be done before the sap rises - a process which is beginning earlier as the climate warms. "You can weaken the plant by leaving it too late," warned Ms Smith.

The mild weather also provides a chance to install a water butt, the experts say, and to start mulching - which will help retain moisture later in the season. It could also be a time to to create protection against the extreme storms, such as those last month, which are a feature of climate change. "Hedges are the best option as they slow down the wind. Fences just get blown down," said Leigh Hunt, horticultural adviser at the RHS. And give the compost heap a turn, says Ms Smith. The composting process also begins as the weather warms.

Horticulturalists agree that the warming climate offers opportunities as well as problems. This might be the year, for example, to start planning to grow more exotic plants such as bananas or olives.

For those who just want to stand still and smell the flowers, sensory experiences at this time of year - like the smell of witchhazel - are often at their best on warm days.

February tasks for climate-change gardeners

* Plant for the future, using trees and shrubs that are drought-tolerant.

* Plant windbreaks to protect the garden from stormier weather

* Sow frost-resistant plants, such as parsnips and lettuce

* Prune summer-flowering shrubs, such as buddleia and clematis, before the sap starts to rise. Do not prune spring-flowering shrubs and trees, or you'll lose the blossom

* Introducing a pond or water feature. It will help wildlife survivve in hotter. drier summers

* Get your soil thoroughly prepared and maximise drainage by adding organic matter, gravel or grit

* Weeds will grow and multiply in milder weather. Tackle them now before they take over

* If you have hedges, cut them now, before the birds start nesting