February is the shortest month, but sometimes feels like the longest month as we anticipate the first spring-like days in March.
Yet we shouldn’t wish for warm days to come too soon; while we may welcome t-shirt weather in February or March, it can be a disaster for insects if they are awoken from hibernation too soon. This can happen to those butterflies which spend the winter as adults, such as Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. And while it can be exciting to see a first butterfly of the year we must remember that these butterflies will need a constant supply of nectar if they are to make it to spring when they will breed.
For this eventuality, I always grow some very-early flowering plants in the off-chance that some insects may use them. The best are the early-flowering heathers, many of which you can even buy in supermarkets now. Most of them have pink or white blooms that really brighten the place up when little else is flowering, and I almost always see my first butterflies or queen bees on these plants.
One thing to remember with heathers is that they prefer neutral or slightly acidic soil. Here in Scotland, they are fine in most garden soil, but if you are in an area with chalk it is best to grow them in pots with peat-free compost.
I find that snowdrops really are too early for most insects in the north so I rarely recommend them here, but in southern parts, they may be of great use to insects especially bees. Of more use are crocuses which should be emerging in February or March, giving us our first big splash of colour of the year and plenty of food for insects.
While we’re all still in the midst of the pandemic, being outdoors (safely) has never been more important for our mental wellbeing. The simple act of spending time looking at things in nature has been shown to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety – similar to practising mindfulness.
The more closely you look at things in the garden the more you appreciate them and realise how remarkable it all is; personally, I’m forever amazed at how lichens might look pale green but can have orange, blue and endless shades of greens and wonderful textures, all in miniature. If you struggle to just sit and look at things, you could paint or draw them in fine detail – if it’s no good it doesn’t matter as nobody has to see it!
So perhaps February can be a time to be kind to ourselves and not feel pressured into working too hard in the garden so we can just take it in before it all gets too busy. The garden is wintering, so why shouldn’t we?
In spring 2020, during the first wave of the Coronavirus Pandemic and lockdowns, the artist David Hockney released a beautiful iPad painting of daffodils and others of fruit-tree blossom in Normandy. The daffodils picture was entitled ‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring’ (he released another in autumn called ‘Remember they can’t cancel autumn either’). When everything else is failing, sometimes we need these clear reminders to look around us.
Over the past year, all of us have missed out on sharing birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions with our loved ones. As the important dates have come and gone I’ve often sought solace in the garden – sometimes by working to distract myself from it all, or sitting with a cup of tea and birdsong and feeling content just to be there, and grateful for all the good things that remain.
As we face another few uncertain months I’ll be leaning more heavily than ever on those three supports in the garden: working when I need to clear my head, resting and remembering David’s words: they can’t cancel the spring.