Small Tortoiseshell on Dahlia - Steve Maskell

By the time February comes around, it can seem like such a long time since anything new grew in the garden. The last new thing I can remember was the sunflowers opening in September, finally joining the drifts of Cosmos I had planted beneath them. Since then it’s all been a long, slow decline as the winter strips the garden back to the bare bones.

Yes, a garden gilded in frost or blanketed in snow can have a stark beauty. But when the days start getting longer and we feel there’s a bit more light in the air, it’s easy to feel optimistic and carefree. The sunlight on an expectedly warm day can make us forget that it’s still winter. ‘It’ll be spring soon!’ we say, foolishly, and get seduced by seed catalogues, picking up packets of seed in the supermarket, or coming home with armfuls of bulbs when we only popped out for a pint of milk.

But this is hope working on us, and where would we be without it. We would never do anything in the garden if there was no hope of us or others enjoying it. We can extend those aspirations to the wildlife we wish to share our gardens with. By choosing certain plants with the intention to attract and sustain insects and other animals, we are doing our bit to help them and to address the long-term declines in their populations which we so often hear about. In the midst of bad news everywhere, we wildlife gardeners work with hope in our hearts.

That’s not to say there is nothing to do now; there is. Some summer-flowering bulbs can be planted and are newly available in shops. Two of my top bulbs to plant now are Allium and Muscari. Muscari is also known as Grape Hyacinth, but this plant is more closely related to Bluebells. Each bulb sends up a single spike of deep blue flowers in May, and there can be upwards of thirty little flowers on a single spike. The important thing is that they’re packed with nectar for springtime butterflies, and they have pollen too for bees. They’re so easy to plant, and you can fit a lot into a small planter.

In larger planters and in the flower beds I grow alliums. Like Muscari, each plant sends up a single flower spike topped with a round head of dozens of small flowers. You can get small yellow-flowered varieties such as Allium ‘Moly’ for small planters, but it’s hard to beat good-old Chives, which are a type of Allium and are so useful in cookery. Other larger types are excellent at providing a strong pop of purple colour wherever you grow them but all Alliums generally prefer sunny positions if they are to return year after year.I plant them almost randomly about the garden so I’m surprised when I see them.

With all bulbs, you just want to avoid planting them in waterlogged soil, where they’ll just sit and rot. You need to plant them deep enough so that their tips don’t come up too early and get burned by the last frosts too. Most are advised to be planted in a hole which is about three times the height of the bulb but do read the instructions on the packet. Other bulbs you can buy and plant now include Iris and Crocus.

Small Tortoiseshell on Dahlia - Steve Maskell

I’ve also seen Dahlias for sale in shops, and at this time of year, they’re sold as thick tubers, like wrinkled potatoes. Dahlias should never be planted outside until the risk of frost has gone – usually in May for most of the UK – as they are tender plants and cannot survive freezing, even when they’re underground. If you buy one now, just keep it in a cool dark place until you’re ready to plant.

You can get ahead of the season by planting them up from April but keeping them in a greenhouse or cold frame until they can go outside. When choosing which one to buy, go for those with open flowers where you can see a yellow centre surrounded by the petals. Those with large round heads are useless for insects as the frilly petals prevent them from getting at the pollen and nectar! 

 And if seed catalogues have caught your eye that’s no bad thing. I love growing annual plants from seed, but I usually wait until March – at the earliest – to sow them. Here’s my list of annual plants which are easy to grow from seed which are attractive to butterflies, moths and other insects, and which will flower this year:

  • Sunflower
  • Nasturtium
  • Calendula
  • Night-scented Phlox
  • Night-scented Stocks
  • Nicotiana
  • Cornflower
  • Zinnia
  • Echium

If all else fails and you still want things to do, you can always wash your pots and seed trays. After all, you’ll be needing them before you know it.

The Secret Gardener