The Ornamental Garden in December

  • By Pat Chadwick
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  • December 2016-Vol.2 No.12
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Photo Credit: Pat Chadwick

Frosted Nandina Foliage in Winter Garden

December marks the beginning of the winter solstice and the shortest, darkest days of the year.  Now that the gardening chores are done and the garden is asleep until spring, it’s time to break out your warmest sweaters, light a fire in the fireplace, and decorate the house for the holidays.  While you’re at it, invite a few friends and neighbors over to indulge in some holiday cheer.


At this time of year, it is customary for many of us to decorate our homes with outdoorsy elements for the winter holidays – holly, ivy, yew, and mistletoe, to name a few.  The origins of this tradition are lost in the mists of time.  According to a University of Vermont Extension article, (, the Greeks and Romans were among the first to bring evergreen tree boughs indoors in winter.  Centuries later, as a nod to tradition, we continue to decorate our homes with beautiful evergreen boughs.

Lawn Decorations — A lot of people go overboard with lawn and house decorations at this time of year and that’s OK.  As for me, I draw the line at the oversized Frosty the Snowman and Darth Vader figures on the front lawn.  Personally, I prefer to keep things simple.  The easiest and, to my mind, most pleasing way to decorate for the holidays is to position a single spot light at the base of a tree with interesting bark.  The cinnamon-color bark of the “Natchez” Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia) is a good candidate for this simple treatment.   The River Birch’s (Betula nigra) peeling bark and graceful silhouette make that tree another excellent candidate.  Our neighbors to the north could do this to great effect with a White Birch (Betula papyrifera).  Turn the spot light on at dusk and get ready for plenty of oohs and aahs as the light creates a startling contrast of light and shadow against the backdrop of the night sky.  Its Mother Nature’s equivalent of the little black dress and single strand of pearls – understated but oh so perfect!

Evergreen Wreaths — If you’re planning to use a freshly cut or ready-made evergreen wreath, store it in a cool location until it is ready to be decorated.  Soak it in warm water for several hours to keep it moist and looking fresh.  Drain it well and then spray it with an anti-desiccant spray to seal in the moisture.  After the sealer has set, finish decorating the wreath and hang it, preferably in a shady place that doesn’t receive sun. Warning:  If you are using boxwood clippings in your wreath or other holiday decorations, see the last paragraph below for information on boxwood blight.          

Poinsettias — Choose a poinsettia that has healthy green leaves all the way to the bottom of the plant.  Missing or fallen leaves usually indicate that the plant was allowed to dry out.   For the longest bloom time, choose a plant with flowers that are not yet fully open.  The flowers, by the way, are not the brightly colored bracts (modified leaves).  Rather, they are the somewhat inconspicuous yellow-green looking bumps in the middle of the bracts.  Poinsettias are very sensitive to cold temperatures, so protect the plant from the cold while you are transporting it to your house. 


Cut Christmas trees — So you just bought a cut Christmas tree and can’t wait to trim it, right?  STOP!!  Before you decorate, here are some tips for keeping the tree at its freshest:

  • Trim the tree trunk. It’s always best to buy the freshest tree available but most Christmas trees are cut well in advance of the holidays.  If you buy one of these trees, it will be very thirsty.  Before you bring it indoors, cut about an inch or two off the bottom of the tree trunk.  Be careful not to injure yourself in the process.  The fresh cut will allow the tree to absorb water more readily.  Place the trunk in a large bucket of water and leave it in a cool place overnight to allow the tree to soak up as much water as possible.   Of course, if you have just bought a freshly cut tree, you may skip this step.
  • Position the tree away from heat sources and brightly lit windows. Select a place in your home where the tree can be kept cool and out of bright light.  In other words, don’t place the tree in front of a sunny window or position it near a heating vent, fireplace, or stove where the warm air will dry out the needles.  To the extent reasonable, lower the temperature in the room.  The cooler air will help to keep the tree from drying out.
  • Check water levels often. After you position the tree in a tree stand, fill the stand with water.  Check the water daily and refill the stand with fresh water as needed.
  • Mist often with plain water. Dry winter air, combined with indoor heating, can quickly dry out freshly cut evergreens. Keep a spray bottle filled with plain water handy and mist your tree, wreaths, and garlands.  This will help prolong the freshness of your greenery.

Live Christmas Trees — If you bought a live Christmas tree with the intention of planting it in your landscape after the holidays, keep it outdoors until you’re ready to decorate it.  Make sure the root ball stays moist and does not dry out.  Once you move the tree indoors, keep it in a cool room for a few days only.  As soon as possible, move it back outside and continue to keep it well hydrated until it can be planted in a permanent spot in the landscape.  For additional information on Christmas tree care, See the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Publication 420-641, “Selection and Care of Christmas Trees” (


While decorating for the holiday season, look to Mother Nature for ideas to liven up your landscape.  Naturally, evergreens such as junipers, arborvitae, pines, spruce, and yew add much needed color, but your options are much broader than just evergreens.  For example, the crimson red berries of deciduous hollies (Ilex verticillata) make a stunning visual statement in the landscape.  Some trees and shrubs have bark that peels, revealing much needed texture in the landscape as well as beautiful shades of cinnamon, brown or gray.  The unusual branching habit of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Coryllus Avellana Contorta) can’t be beat in the winter landscape. For greater winter interest in next year’s garden, make a note to consider adding plants with colorful berries, bark, or unique growth habits.


If you purchase ready-made wreaths, swags, and other decorations made from boxwood clippings, inspect them for symptoms of boxwood blight (Calonectria pseudonaviculata). Symptoms include leaf spot, leaf drop, browning, or black streaks on stems.  Although reputable nurseries and other suppliers of holiday greenery are taking precautions to avoid spreading this disease, it pays to be cautious.  After working with boxwood decorations, sterilize garden tools with alcohol or a chlorine bleach solution.  Once the holidays are over, do not compost the decorations or recycle them in your landscape.  Instead, bag them for disposal in the trash. For more information, see Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication PPWS-4, “Boxwood Blight: A New Disease of Boxwood Found in the Eastern U. S.”







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