A new year, a new growing season.

snowdrop galanthusJanuary is a wonderfully busy month in my garden, as I am given the opportunity to get on top of difficult areas of bramble and vine without the overwhelming and often impenetrable problem of foliage.

This is the month I attack the woodland garden and the stream banks, getting exercise and fresh air while I beat back the invasives that would swallow me whole during the summer months.

The sense of accomplishment is heightened (and perhaps exaggerated) as they cannot grow back within a few weeks and make me feel like I’m losing the battle. In addition, I’m able to witness the snowdrops slowly gaining momentum in my woodland garden as I ruthlessly hobble the competition. What a joy!

A fairly deciduous cultivated landscape also means I can clearly see any problems with spacing, shapes and structure. As long as I am dressed warmly and well, I can address these issues too, sometimes marking branches for pruning for later in the winter, or putting in flags to show where something will need to move to or from. I specifically mark branches of hamamelis, forsythia and peach to remove for forcing in another six weeks.

Overall, January is a month characterized by supreme clarity, and without refocusing that lens it would be more difficult to deal with my garden during the rampant growing season.  I’m documenting that journey and the joy in it during winter on my Instagram account @marianne.willburn  The #Whywintergarden challenge is all about finding beauty in the season that surrounds us now, and not wishing it away.

Indoors, January is definitely the month for planning that glorious spring garden, but if you’re having a hard time visualizing what ‘glorious’ could possibly mean to that space you’ve got outside the front door – I encourage you to pick up a copy of Big Dreams, Small Garden for a bit of winter inspiration.



“I should have planted that!” for January’s garden:

Whether you live in the Mid-Atlantic of the United States or New Zealand, look around each month for plants that turn you on and make you think “I should have planted that!”  Snap a picture to ID later at a garden center, or simply ask your neighbor what they’re growing and make their day. 

Carefully observing other gardens month-to-month and putting in some of the wonderful things you see during the next planting season allows you to successfully increase your garden’s display season without having to experiment too much with timing.

For the month of January in the Mid-Atlantic, let’s explore the garden underdog, Rohdea japonica (sacred lily).

Rhodea japonica

An unnamed variegated cultivar of R. japonica in the Harper Garden, Seaford, VA, possibly ‘Go Dai Takane’

Evergreen moments in the winter garden don’t have to be coniferous, nor do they need to be trees.  Rohdea japonica (sacred lily) is a small (to 12-18”) strappy clump-forming perennial that stands out well in the winter garden. I find myself admiring them often from my windows and on my walks through the garden.  In the winter there are berries, in the spring and summer, there is strong, healthy, shiny foliage.  Rohdea is a slow grower, but a steady grower, and is a bit of an surprise to find in gardens – not unusual exactly, but not necessarily common. You can usually find the straight species in good nurseries, but variegated cultivars are most often found through mail order, plant-nerd plant swaps, or from a great nursery if you have one nearby.

How to grow Rohdea japonica

Rohdea works hard in difficult dry shade areas, but it really takes off given good moisture (well-draining soil) and a dappled-shade to shade position in rich soil. It is rhizomatic with thick but fibrous roots that will slowly form a clump up to two feet wide.

I grow three types of rohdea – the straight species with wide strappy dark green leaves, two small variegated cultivars ‘Chiramen Boshi’ and  ‘Shiro Botan’ and two taller variegated cultivars that were given to me by the garden writer Pamela Harper and whose names are, as she said, “lost in the midst of time.”  The variegated species are usually more expensive, and I have therefore been ruthless in my divisions for the last three years to increase my stock.

I do this by digging up clumps that are forming new leaves attached to a burgeoning rhizome with undeveloped root buds, and cut with a very sharp knife close to the mother plant, immediately replanting the division in rich, happy soil. If you haven’t divided them for awhile you may find the new plants just ease apart.

variegated rohdea

My many-times-divided variegated rohdea. ‘Shiro Botan’ (slightly splotched) is directly in front, ‘Chirimen Boshi’ (marginated) behind.

You can also take a piece of that rhizome (if it is big enough – perhaps the size of your first two knuckles) and plant that 2 inches deep to create another plant – no leaves needed.

I’ve given my poor, expensive, variegated plants a bit of a break for a year or two, as I would like them to clump up, fill the space, and feel strong enough to flower and fruit as my straight species does.  The flowers are insignificant, borne on a short stalk and come in late summer – but the berries are beautiful, red and plump and nestled deep within the clumps.

Evergreen leaves, by their very nature, can look ratty after a few years, or a few hard seasons.  I do a lot of trimming early in the spring, much like I do with my hellebore foliage.  Unlike hellebore foliage however, it is quite slow growing, so don’t go hog wild.

Rohdeas, particularly the variegated cultivars, can sometimes be plagued by viruses that show up as rusty blotches on the leaves.  Some people clip off the leaves, but you can quickly denude your entire plant this way – if you’ve got it, the virus just keeps coming. I prefer to spray plants every two to three weeks or so during the humid summer months in a targeted application the second I see a blotch.  I remove that leaf completely and spray with Infuse Systemic Disease Control, which I find works very well indeed.  Growing them in deeper shade can also have an ameliorating effect on disease, and certainly last year I noticed a big difference between those growing in full shade and those with more exposure.

A great source of further information, and the plants themselves is Plants Delight Nursery in Raleigh, NC.


Outside Tasks for the January Garden:

Bearing in mind that January has as many don’t do’s as to-dos….

At the top of the list of DON’T’s should be pruning the branches (and buds) of spring flowering shrubs like quince, lilac, rhododendron, daphne, edgeworthia, forsythia, deutzia, and spirea. Wait until after they have flowered or you will lose those flowers.  If you want to bring a few branches in to force (a fine idea), mark the branches you know you need to remove anyway, and cut them in a few weeks when they’ve had a chance to experience a period of winter cold (vernalization).

With the fluctuating temperatures we have been experiencing now and in recent Januarys, it’s best to leave the pruning of summer bloomers till late next month or early March.  Sometimes I’ll cheat and do a little ‘trunk clear up’ to remove tiny, (often dead) unnecessary branches I didn’t get to last year (particularly from crepe myrtles and chaste tree), but this type of thing isn’t tip cutting, and doesn’t happen very often.

Use that time and energy instead to clear weed saplings, vines and brush from areas you have forgotten and areas you have ignored.  The dormant winter season is simply the best time to undertake this job.  1) You can clearly see them. 2) The foliage doesn’t get in the way of getting them out.

If you can pull them up by digging your fingers or a tool under the crown of the plant and under those roots, try to. Brace your back by squatting or lunging with one knee on the ground. Small multiflora roses, wine berry and bittersweet respond well if the soil is not frozen.

Often a light levering with a shovel will allow you to dislodge larger saplings. Otherwise, cut them at the base and be prepared to deal with them again in the spring – either with loppers or herbicide. Very few of my weed saplings give my loppers the final word.

Warmish winter weather makes us want to tidy, but there are ways of satisfying that impulse without causing damage.  Tidying hellebores is a good example of this and something I was doing just this weekend, removing old foliage and dead leaves that were smothering the crowns so that the new fat buds (many of which are about to extend and bloom) will be even lovelier – especially against the new foliage that has begun to unfurl for many of the orientalis hybrids. However, I did not completely remove the leaves etc.. around the base of the plant (the ‘blanket’) as it will soon get very cold again.

winter hellebore

Planting and walking on soupy freeze/thawed soil can cause damage to soil structure it took years to achieve. You damage the roots of plants, tick off the worms and generally do terrible things. Patience is called for.

Instead, use that time to amend your soil with light dressings of compost or leaf mold.  Place planks on top of the soil to create pathways so your weight is better distributed as you work into the back of beds.

When ice storms turn your plants into popsicles, it’s best to leave them be until the ice has melted, as hitting or shaking them will ensure broken branches.  Dry snow can be gently released with a soft touch and a broom.

Cut back the foliage of large grasses that have sprawled beyond your comfort level.  Some will stay upright for months, but a hard storm can flatten them.  If they’re no longer adding value to the landscape, and you have the time, you can shear them now and take a job off your March calendar. (TIP: Tie them into a bundle with a bungie cord and then cut under the ligature cleanly with shears or a hedge trimmer.)

It’s time to make a second pruning of wisteria, after a summer pruning of long laterals in July or August.  Prune the stems back to 3-5 buds.


Check overwintering tropical plants such as cannas or bananas in garages or basements.  If they have started to throw leaves in any major way, adjust the temperature down and give them a little water to balance the that growth (which takes energy and resources).  With colder temps they will probably cut it out.  A little growth is fine – don’t panic.

Check any outside pots that are in a rain shadow under a roof eave.  Make sure they have a bit of moisture – especially the evergreen plants that are very susceptible to the burning of cold winds.

Fun, creative things to do – Get a bird feeder going. Make a dried arrangement entirely with what you can find outside (tell anyone who asks that it’s ‘Winter Art’). Sprout some alfalfa seeds inside for sandwiches. If you’ve still got a Christmas tree up, turn it into a Wildlife Tree. Peruse a seed catalog with a Sharpie.  Keep a record of high low temps in your journal.  Start looking for emerging hellebore blooms. Take this time for a bit of winter reading of garden books, blogs and magazines. Join the American Horticultural Association  – not just cause it’s the right thing to do as an American gardener (and I’m a columnist), but because it’s a wonderful organization with an excellent, informative magazine and many other member benefits.


Inside Tasks for The January Garden:

A few more don’ts ‘cause I’m loving this theme:

DON’T start clearing out refugees. If you took a division from a friend back in the fall and brought it inside to coddle then forgot about it, you may be seeing new growth now. Whether or not you’ve got room for something ungainly that belongs in the garden, you are now stuck with it. DON’T under any circumstances put it outside with the overwintering perennials or the shock will kill it.  Even a cold garage may be too cold. Spring has come for your little division. It’ll be spring before you can off-load it.

DON’T excessively water plants over-wintering in cold barns and garages, particularly succulents. Cold wet soil is deadly. Better too dry than to die.

DON’T (or at least try not to) succumb to windowsill grow kits.  Invest in a small grow light for the purpose or re-purpose a shop light instead. Windowsills very rarely provide enough light to grow strong seedlings. Unless of course you have genuine, large, true south facing windows – then you’ll have to provide them with sunglasses.

DON’T ignore scale, mealy bug and aphids on your houseplants, hoping it will get better.  It won’t.  Horticultural oil (neem) is one of your best defenses – especially against scale.  If the infestation is very great on specific leaves, remove them completely.

DO treat yourself to a bunch of flowers.  I adore Oriental lilies and love how long they last in a vase.

bouquet of lilies

DO have patience with your indoor plants.  April will be here sooner than you think.


“Then came old January wrappéd well
In many weeds to keep the cold away.
Yet did he quake and quiver like to quell
And Blewe his nayles to warm them if he may;

– Edmund Spenser
– From “Faerie Queen”