Tips for January Gardening in the Deep South

Don’t chuckle and laugh at the title…Gardening in January? Yes sir! Probably the best time to plant large shrubs and trees and for pruning evergreens and summer-flowering shrubs, but there is much more!

I have come to be so thankful for January. The stillness, serenity, and graceful beauty of winter took some maturity on my part to realize. A time for everything…To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…this Ecclesiastical axiom boasts so much truth…especially for gardening.

After the fullness of Christmas, the Halcyon Days of winter are just what the garden and gardener need. Study the branch structure of trees (pecans, birches, cherries, oaks, and beech to name a few) that are barren during this season. The harmony of gray bark and pale blue sky, sharpened with shards of green from rye, fescue, or moss are just marvelous. Take notes of these colors and then reflect on them later in the year…I’m always so amazed by the ever-changing seasonal palette.

Prune, clean, take inventory of tools, and plan your garden additions during this time. Learn the bones of your garden…you can see them very clearly now in the Deep South. Ask yourself… Does that tree need limbing up a bit? Should I move that clump of this or that? Would a hedge or border be a good definition for that bed? These and many more can be handled during this month.

Here’s a tip list of some gardening chores for January:

  • Prune Crepe Myrtles…DON’T CREPE MURDER!!!!!!!!! Notice the word PRUNE (to snip: cultivate, tend, and cut back the growth of; dress the plants in the garden). Snip off the spent seedpods…that’s about all you need to do. You can remove criss-crossing branches, inward growing branches and suckers, but DO NOT chain saw these trees in half or to the ground. If your tree is too large for the spot, you may have the wrong specimen or even plant choice. Just cut them back by a fourth at the very most. These trees are native throughout the Deep South and bloom perennially ever year in their habitats. Birds and wind naturally trim these trees in the wild so take a cue from nature and do the same.
  • Trim evergreens like boxwood and holly. Selectively sculpt and shape your shrubs – using their natural shape as your guide. American boxwoods are naturally egg shaped, so keep that shape in mind. Japanese and Korean box make good hedges but don’t scalp them. Hollies, like ‘Mary Nell’ and ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ are naturally pyramidal, so keep them that way. Unless you are bent and determined on shaping your shrubs into poodles, dolphins, and aircraft, Heaven forbid, follow the natural form of the plant.

  • Liriope can be cut back now as well…don’t wait too late or you’ll cut this year’s foliage off…let Valentine’s Day be your cutoff date for Winter pruning. (Evergreen Giant should NOT be touched…just fertilize in early spring.)
  • Stick to the May Rule…you’ll be quite successful with pruning if you stick to said rule! The May Rule…if you learn nothing else about pruning, remember the May Rule. If the shrub blooms BEFORE May, then prune the plant immediately after (or while it’s blooming to bring the blossoms inside for an arrangement) the shrub has bloomed. This bids well for azaleas, Spring blooming spireas, forsythia, camellias and sassanquas, quince, dogwood, red bud, Japanese magnolia, tea olive, winter daphne, English dogwood, and other “blooms before May” shrubs.

    If the shrub blooms AFTER May, prune the plant during dormancy or winter time. This goes for hydrangeas (except Oak Leaf – prune immediately after blooming or during for arrangements), crape myrtles, vitex, roses, althea, grapes (coldest day of the year), Confederate rose, pyrancantha, liriope and small fruit trees.

    For Evergreens (hollies, boxwood, conifers, ligustrum...etc), think Christmas decoration…cut them in December and use them for your Holiday décor! January and February and just fine as well. You want to shape the “bones” of your garden during winter so that the new flush of growth stems from your Winter pruning technique thus keeping your shape…top off any stray branches or “wild hairs” that may occur in spring and early summer.

    If you prune your garden correctly, it will reward you with bountiful blooms at appropriate times!

  • Plant bare root trees like fruit and nut trees as well as balled and burlapped shrubs. Winter is a great time to plant these specimens before the heat and stress of heat kick in.

  • Stone work…if you plan to lay some stone or stack some stone walls, this is a great time. Define your beds with cobbles or a stacked stone wall for added detail and crisp edges. Since you are “dry stacking” or not using mortar, the cold of January will not affect the mortar, cement, etc. Heavy pieces, like 2” thick material, can be lain in sand or crushed stone this time of year as well. Lay the pieces in a “butt joint” or side by side fashion for a crisp and clean look. Dwarf mondo and sod can be lain in the cracks to add a touch of green or texture to the stonework as well.

  • Last but not least, mulch your beds…put them to bed. Cover them with a neat blanket of straw, mulch, or leaf matter after cleaning and trimming. A neatly kept bed with fresh mulch can be just as delightful as a riot of color and blooms.