The Ornamental Garden in January

The Ornamental Garden in January

  • By Susan Martin
  • /
  • January 2018 - Vol. 4 No. 1
  • /

January is the perfect time to enjoy the tempting photos and descriptions of plants we’d like to introduce into our gardens next spring. It’s also a good time to review notes on last season’s successes and failures and sketch out a few ideas. But, despite the lure of the easy chair and the fire, there are still some tasks that require our attention. Gardening is an active pursuit after all, and those little garden elves whisper in our ears, “Go outside, get moving, and enjoy some fresh air. A visit to the garden will do you good.” In addition to outside tasks, there are some indoor tasks as well. But let’s consider outside first.

January Outdoor Tasks:

Feeding Birds

The cold weather spells of January make many of us more aware of providing seed and water for our backyard birds. We need to make sure, however, that we are helping rather than hurting the birds we love. A bird feeder can be compared to the office water cooler with coworkers crowding around and sharing paper cups during the cold and flu season. To prevent the spread of disease, we must be very conscientious about cleaning bird feeders on a regular basis.

Feeder Maintenance

Do not allow residue and mold to accumulate in the bottom of hanging tube feeders. Feeders should be cleaned with soapy water and a brush and then rinsed with a disinfectant solution of one part white vinegar and four parts water or a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Rinse well with clean water and dry thoroughly before refilling. Choose feeders that can be dismantled or otherwise cleaned easily. If you use a platform feeder or feed on a deck or balcony, put out only as much seed as birds can consume in a day. Scrub the feeder with soapy water and a disinfectant solution. Rake up and dispose of droppings and food residues scattered beneath the platform. Recommendations on cleaning schedules vary for both tubes and platforms, but most advise cleaning at least every 2-4 weeks.

Types of Bird Seed and Feeders

European Goldfinches at tube feeder

Most common birds will visit platform feeders and will be attracted to black-oil sunflower seeds. Hanging, tube-type feeders attract American goldfinches, chickadees, and a variety of other species. Tube feeders permit these types of birds to avoid competition with blue jays and grackles that dominate platform feeders. Small sparrow-like birds, such as juncos and song sparrows, prefer white millet. In general, ground feeders prefer white millet, whereas birds attracted to tube feeders prefer black-oil sunflower. Therefore, white millet and mixes rich in millet should not be used in tube feeders or feeders with small perching surfaces. Cardinals and mourning doves are attracted to safflower seeds.

Red-bellied woodpecker and white-throated sparrow at platform feeder Photo: Ralph Morini

Bird Watch Programs

If you enjoy bird watching, consider volunteering for a program such as FeederWatch sponsored by Cornell University. There are easy instructions for registering online and directions for how to participate in the bird-counting project. Another program is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a cooperative venture launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. More than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide join the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds. This year’s count will take place February 16-19. Follow the link for general information and to register.

Feeding Year Round

Most people concentrate their feeding efforts during the winter months so that they can help birds withstand the rigors of cold and snowy weather when natural food might be harder to find. Feeding birds year round is also enjoyable. Although autumn provides many seed and berry options, naturally produced seeds are not always plentiful in the spring and summer. You may consider extending winter feeding a while longer so that you can enjoy having birds visit your yard in spring and summer. Fresh water is always needed but is especially welcomed during the hot summer months.

Dealing With Snow and Ice

It’s advisable to spread sand rather than salt on paths and steps so as to avoid salt damage on plants. Although sand provides friction, it won’t promote melting; safety should take precedence. It’s also a good idea to notice indentations in paths or uneven surfaces where water pools and freezes. Add those spots to a repair list for next spring.

Heavy snow can damage boxwoods and other evergreens. Use a broom with an upward sweeping motion to clear snow. If shrubs are covered in ice, allow the ice to melt naturally. Attempts to remove ice may damage plants.


Continue to blow leaves off the lawn when leaves collect in heavy piles that could inhibit airflow and prevent sunlight from reaching the lawn.

Outdoor Plants

Inspect garden plants for frost heaving; gently lift the plant, loosen the soil, and settle the plant more deeply into the ground. Check fruit trees for rodent damage on bark. Note any broken tree branches, especially if they are near traffic areas.

Spring Projects

Identify hardscape or other projects you’d like to undertake this spring; contact a contractor in January about getting on the spring client list.

January Indoor Tasks:


Dust houseplants regularly; this allows the plant to gather light more efficiently.

Don’t overcrowd plants; spacing between them helps deter insects from traveling to other plants sites.

Watering With Tap Water — Fluoride and Chlorine

It is fairly common advice to let tap water sit overnight before watering houseplants to help reduce the amount of fluoride and chlorine that could be harmful to plants. Fluoride, however, does not dissipate from water (evaporate into the air as a gas). Some houseplants are particularly sensitive to fluoride; fluoride inhibits photosynthesis and other processes. It will move in the transpiration stream from roots or through stomata and accumulate in leaf margins. Damage shows up as brown spots and scorch marks along the margins and tips of leaves. If you enjoy growing fluoride-sensitive plants, it would be best to use distilled water or rainwater. Houseplants that are particularly susceptible to fluoride include:

  • Cast Iron Plant (Aspidistra elatior)
  • Dracaena (Dracaena)
  • Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum)
  • Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans)
  • Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum)
  • Prayer Plant (Maranta leuconeura)
  • Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum

Chlorine, on the other hand, seldom causes significant damage to houseplants. Chlorine might sometimes damage the root tips, which will affect the overall growth of the plant. You should be able to taste or smell chlorine in the water if it’s at levels that might cause problems. Unlike fluoride, chlorine will dissipate from water if you let the water stand for about 24 hours.

Spider Mites

Red Spider Mite

Check houseplants for pests such as red spider mites which flourish in sunny, dry rooms. Look for a fine webbing on the leaves and between the leaves. Or, place a sheet of white paper under discolored leaves. Tap the leaves, then watch for tiny moving creatures on the paper. Mites are not insects; they are more closely related to spiders. They attack plants by sucking plant sap which makes the leaves look faded, or yellow, or lightly speckled. A regular misting with room-temperature water is a good deterrent. Mites are very tiny; inspect the leaves with a magnifying glass and wash the leaves with soapy water if you see early evidence. Use a mild dish detergent without fragrance or other additives; add about 2 tsp. of soap to a gallon of water.

Often called red spider mites, mites may also be green or yellow. The two spotted spider mite is one of the most common mites to attack houseplants, but the mite is too small for us to see its spots. Its eggs can hatch in as little as 3 days, and become sexually mature in as little as 5 days. One female can lay up to 20 eggs per day and can live for 2 to 4 weeks, laying hundreds of eggs. It is useful to understand this life cycle for treatment applications.

If plants have become infested, spray sturdy plants forcefully with water, including the undersides of leaves, to dislodge mites and break up their webs. Plants also can be sprayed with an insecticidal soap suitable for houseplants. Follow label directions for safe use. It is often necessary to spray with water or with insecticidal soap every 2-3 days to break up the life cycle.

Holiday Plants

Poinsettias, Euphorbia pulcherrima, are synonymous with holiday decorating, but these beauties are subject to a great variety of pests including: spider mites, aphids, thrips, fungus gnats, and more. Look for wilting or yellowing leaves, stippled leaves, white webbing, and other signs of damage. Either isolate the plant until you diagnose the problem or discard the poinsettia so that other houseplants are not affected. Although poinsettias can be kept year round, they require very specific light conditions for reblooming the following year.

Stored Bulbs

If you are over-wintering bulbs, make sure they are plump and free of mold. If they look shriveled, spray just enough water to barely moisten them. Make sure they are protected from freezing.

Now that you’ve checked off your list of outside and inside tasks, it’s time to curl up again with a good garden book or seed catalogue or a list of try-me-first plant descriptions. Enjoy your rest, because before you know it, February’s issue of The Garden Shed will bring another set of Tasks and Tips to your inbox! (If you’re feeling especially energetic and would like additional Tasks and Tips for January, the source list below includes links to three previous articles from 2015-2017.)



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