The Ornamental Garden in January

The Ornamental Garden in January

  • By Pat Chadwick
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  • January 2017- Vol.3 No.1
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  • 1 Comment

It’s January and the ornamental garden lies dormant.  But there’s much to see and enjoy if you just put your mind to it.  Note how a coating of ice can transform a tree or shrub – even an entire forest — into a shimmery, breathtaking spectacle.  Likewise, a light blanket of frost on a single leaf or seed pod can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.  For sheer magic, look for a flash of red as a single cardinal flits across a snowy landscape and delicately lands for a quick snack at your bird feeder.

Wintry Coating of Ice on Crape Myrtle Seed Pods

At the beginning of each new year, many of us resolve to improve our lives in one or more significant ways. The suggested resolutions listed below are designed with gardeners in mind.


Gardening is one activity that improves us in multiple ways.  People who garden tend to place a high priority on their health and well-being. The exercise from working in the garden for even a half hour per day helps strengthen bones, muscles, and joints,  improve balance,  improve mental health and outlook, increase hand strength, and relieve stress and anxiety.   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s article on Gardening Health and Safety Tips ( states that gardening is “an excellent way to get physical activity” and  that active people are less likely than inactive people to be obese or have high blood pressure or suffer from type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, strokes, etc.


For the gardener with physical or age-related limitations, resolving to spend more time gardening may not seem feasible.  However, with a little planning and a few modifications, it may be possible to continue enjoying all the positive benefits that gardening provides.  For example:

  • If you have issues with bending or stooping over, consider installing raised beds with sides that are wide

    Raised Garden Beds

    enough to sit on.  Make the bed no more than 3 to 3-1/2 feet wide so that you can safely reach into the center.

  • If you are an arthritis sufferer, modify your garden tools using tape, foam rubber or plastic tubing to provide a better grip. Better yet, if your budget allows, invest in some ergonomically designed garden tools.
  • Wear sturdy shoes and make sure walkways or paths are flat and free of obstacles such as tree roots that might cause you to trip and fall.
  • Work in the garden either in the early morning or in the evening to avoid heat stroke or overexposure to the sun. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen.
  • Do some light stretching exercises to warm up your muscles before you start gardening.
  • Vary your activities so that you don’t overwork any one muscle group.
  • Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
  • Replace high-maintenance plants with low-maintenance choices that don’t require much pruning, deadheading, or staking.
  • Reduce your plant inventory. If it’s too much effort to care for a large perennial garden, identify the plants you love most and keep those.  Replace the rest with shrubs, conifers, or small deciduous trees that provide color and interest all year round.  That way, you’ll still be able to enjoy your garden, but with a lot less effort on your part.

For additional information on ways to adapt your garden, see Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Publication HORT-66NP, “Therapeutic Gardening,” .


If you’re considering establishing a new ornamental garden, January is a good time to think about all the practical aspects this might entail.  For example:

  • Assess the site of the proposed garden. Is the soil acid or alkaline?  Is it sandy, silty, or mostly clay? Does it drain well or is it moist? Is the proposed site sunny, partly sunny, or shady?  Is the site windy or is it reasonably sheltered from the wind?  Is the soil sandy, silty, or mostly clay?  Is the site potentially subject to wildlife damage?   Is there a water source nearby?
  • Define the effect you’re going for. Too many people become mired down in the conceptualization stage because they don’t have a clear idea of what they want.  What style of garden appeals most to you:  A formal garden with perfectly symmetrical beds and hardscape features?  A meadow garden planted with all natives? A mixed border of trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals?  A simple perennial or annual bed?  Once you settle on a concept, the design will then be easier to execute.  But if you’re still not sure, try visiting some public gardens and noting the plant materials and landscape features that appeal to you.
  • Develop a list of possible plants that are suitable for the site’s growing conditions. Important considerations include:  time of bloom, height and width of mature plants, flower and foliage colors, and texture.  Choices of specific plant varieties are very personal.  The important thing is to know what effect you want to achieve.  For information on growing perennials, see VCE Publication 426-203 – Perennials:  Culture, Maintenance and Propagation.
  • Identify all the practical aspects of establishing the garden. Ask yourself:  How much time can you devote to maintaining the garden?  Are you physically able to care for it?  Will it have all-year round interest?  Do you want to incorporate hardscape features such as trellises, walls, sculpture, or fences?


After spending the summer growing lush and beautiful outdoors, many houseplants (particularly delicate ferns) protest being moved indoors for the winter. They appear to start out well after the move but, if conditions don’t suit them, some of them curl up their leaves, turn sickly yellow or crispy brown, and die out of sheer spite.  Frustrating?  You bet.   Most likely, it’s the reduced humidity or insufficient light that makes them unhappy.  You can improve your success rate by selecting houseplants that are better equipped to thrive under such adverse conditions. Many succulents do well indoors during the winter months.  For example:

  • Aeonium – This fleshy-leaved succulent has taken the gardening world by storm with its beautiful rosettes of colorful, spoon-shaped leaves.

    Aenonium ‘Sunburst’

    Available in many color variations, including green with white, pink or yellow tips and solid deep reddish-black leaves, it also comes in a variety of sizes and textures. Aeonium does have shallow roots, however, and requires more moisture than most succulents. So don’t allow it to dry out completely.  Conversely, too much water can cause root rot.  For best results, place it in a sunny southern-facing window.

  • Jade plant (Crassula ovata) – This old favorite succulent has thick, glossy green leaves and a shrub-like form.

    Crassula ovata (Jade Plant)

    A few selections have attractive red margins (for example, ‘California Red Tip’) on the leaves, which contrast nicely with the dark green centers.  Always check the soil before watering and water only when dry. If the plant starts to drop leaves, it needs water.  A southern exposure works best where it can get about four or more hours of direct sunlight per day.   Too little light results in weak, leggy growth.  For more information on growing Jade Plant, see Clemson University publication HGIC 1507, Jade Plant.

  • Pony-tail palm (Beaucarnea recurvate)

    Ponytail Palm

    Not really a palm at all, this member of the agave family is actually a succulent. It gets its name from its tropical, palm-like appearance and long arching leaves that give the plant a pony-tail effect (hence the name).  Indoors, it may grow one to three feet tall, but in a conservatory, it can reach 20 feet or more.  It prefers bright light but is pretty forgiving if it receives lower light levels over the winter months.   Pony-tail palm stores water in its bulbous-shaped trunk, so let the plant dry out somewhat between waterings.  Keeping it too wet will result in root rot.

  • Echeveria


    This astonishing succulent belongs to a large family of species and hybridized members. It is available in a broad range of glorious colors and shapes. Many of the fancy ruffle-edged hybrids mimic roses, camellias or even water lilies.   Place Echeveria in your brightest window or grow it under grow lights.  Otherwise, it will stretch toward the light, ruining its shape.   Always water the soil – not the plant – and only water when the soil has dried out between waterings.

  • Sansevieria – For the gardener with a self-proclaimed “brown thumb,” this low-care plant is a particularly good choice. It tolerates low light as well as low humidity.

    Sansevieria ‘Golden Hahnii’

    Once considered old fashioned, this widely hybridized plant has made a comeback in the horticultural world in recent years.  Sansevieria is available in two types: tall (more commonly known as Snake Plant or Mother-in-law’s Tongue) and rosette (commonly known as the birds nest type).  The tall type looks good either as a standalone plant or as the “thriller” in a container garden.  The rosette type can be used in a dish garden or terrarium.  While you have to work really hard to kill a Sansevieria, one way to do it is to overwater it.  If you don’t want to kill it, allow it to dry out between waterings.  Always water to the side rather than the center of the clump.

  • ZZ Plant (Zamioculas Zamiifolia) –

    Zamioculas Zamiifolia (ZZ Plant)

    This plant with the unpronounceable name is practically indestructible. When it comes to plant care, it doesn’t get any easier than the ZZ plant.  It prefers bright light but will tolerate low light conditions as well as dry soil and low humidity.  The fleshy, oval-shaped leaves are glossy, dark green, and look almost artificial, which makes this plant a good choice for a windowless room or even a bathroom.  Although it can go for a long time without moisture, do remember to water it occasionally.  Like other succulents, this plant does not like soggy soil.


For something fun to do this month, make a list of botanical gardens and arboreta that you would like to visit.  This country enjoys a wealth of truly amazing gardens and the mid-Atlantic states are blessed to be home to many of them.  Closer to home, a number of interesting gardens exist in and around Charlottesville (with the Monticello gardens being the best known) to inspire you. But you have many other choices as well.   Resolve to visit a few over the coming year as you are able.  To get you started, here’s a short, but by no means complete, list of gardens to think about seeing here in Virginia:

  • Boxerwood Nature Center and Woodland Garden (Lexington) – A 15-acre property operated by the Boxerwood Education Association, a non-profit organization. In additional to being an environmental learning lab for people of all ages, the garden is home to a collection of rare and unusual trees in a naturalized woodland setting.    Admission is free but donations are appreciated.
  • DeHart Botanical Gardens (Ferrum) – A 172-acre garden and nature preserve operated by Ferrum College (in Patrick County) and open to the public free of charge as a day use hiking facility.
  • Edith J. Carrier Arboretum (Harrisonburg) – A 125-acre urban botanical preserve located on the James Madison University campus. Admission is free.
  • Green Springs Garden (Alexandria) – A 27-acre public park and national historic site/museum operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority. Admission is free.
  • Hahn Horticulture Garden (Blacksburg) – A 5.8-acre garden located on the Virginia Tech campus. The garden is used as a learning resource for teaching landscape concepts, plant materials, and environmental awareness. Admission is free.
  • Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Richmond) — A 50-acre property with more than a dozen themed gardens. Located on a historic property, it is rated as one of the nation’s best botanical gardens.  Admission is $13 for adults.
  • Maymont (Richmond) – A 100-acre historic estate including Italian, Japanese and other specialty gardens. Admission to the grounds and gardens is free.  Admission to the historic Maymont mansion is $5 (suggested donation).
  • Meadowlark Botanical Garden (Vienna) – A 95-acre park filled with extensive ornamental gardens and native plant collections managed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Admission is $5 per adult.
  • Norfolk Botanical Garden (Norfolk) – A 175-acre public garden with 52 themed gardens managed by the Norfolk Botanical Garden Society. Admission is $12 per adult.
  • Oatlands Historic House and Garden (Leesburg) – This exquisite 415-acre estate is a National Trust for Historic Preservation property and a National Historic Site. Cost of a grounds pass is $10 for adults.
  • River Farm (Alexandria) – Headquarters of the American Horticulture Society, this historic 25-acre property overlooks the Potomac River. The land was part of George Washington’s original five farms.  Admission is free but donations are welcome.
  • State Arboretum of Virginia (Boyce) – Occupies the central 172 acres of the 712-acre Blandy Experimental Farm, which is operated by the University of Virginia. It contains more than 5,000 woody trees and shrubs from all over the world. Admission to the arboretum is free.
  • Virginia Western Community College Arboretum (Roanoke) – A 2-acre educational garden located on the Virginia Western Community College campus. Admission is free.
  • Williamsburg Botanical Garden (Williamsburg) – A 2-acre community demonstration garden located within Freedom Park. Admission is free.





  1. Fern Campbell

    Thanks for a great article with lots of valuable information.
    I love the reminder of how many wonderful Botanical Gardens and Arboretums we have to visit within our area!

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