December 2009: Your Garden

December 2009: Your Garden

Tropical Storm Ida and her Nor’easter spawn gouged away chunks of Atlantic beaches, but that’s what those Outer Banks are for, isn’t it? (What would New Orleans give for some barrier islands?) Here in the foothills and Piedmont, though, that soaking was the best gift to gardeners in a long time. Succeeding days of steady rain slaked our groundwater’s thirsty gullet at just the right time of year to set up a boffo run for root growth.

Winterberry feeds the birds and delights the eye.

Shooting up everything with nitrogen next spring is a losing proposition. (See previous harangues on toxic runoff, algae blooms, and dead zones in the Bay.) Now’s the time to grow perennial and woody plants the way nature intended: Throw rotted stuff on everything and stand back.

As you set about your holiday chores, don’t forget the plucking of the boxwoods. There’s nothing Buxus sempervirens likes better than to be nice and clean inside, with no dead twigs or leaves and lots of little air holes plucked in the greenery. You must never shear them. The glossy trimmings that result from hand pruning are classic Virginia for adorning mantels and white table cloths or poking into round foam for kissing balls.

Outside, berried shrubs and trees decorate the landscape with seasonal offerings to migrating flocks, bright colors signaling ripe nutrition to eyes high in the sky. Some, like Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), hold their fruit through winter as a last source of energy for returning birds and so make a longer display in the garden.

This native deciduous holly loves swampy areas—perfect for that poorly-drained low spot—and sports showy bright orange-red fruits. Plant in odd numbered drifts, always including one scruffy but necessary male for good fruit set (you can tuck him away anywhere on the property as the bees will do the pollinating).

There’s a beautiful display at the Dell across from Mem Gym on Emmet Street (look for the blue heron in amongst the pickerel weed and cattails at the water’s edge) and Rte. 53 toward Monticello boasts showy clumps reflecting on themselves Narcissus-like above a retention pond. Branches can be cut for indoors.

Gifts from nature are fickle, but all good gardeners should be able to count on a thoughtful offering from loved ones this time of year. So, as a service to those who might be grasping for just the right purchase for the resident green thumb, here are:



— Pluck boxwoods.
— Look into Winterberry.
— Gift the gardener.

1. Nothing I’ve read this year has impressed me more than Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Anyone who wants to understand sustainability needs to get this one under his or her belt.

2. Gift certificates from garden centers and nurseries will take the guilt out of spring buying binges.

3. Gear: row covers, grow lights, portable shelves. Check out local hardware stores.

4. As you cruise the aisles, look for that special tool: soil knife, leaf rake, folding saw, dirt rake, hand clippers or new blades.

5. Bamboo stakes, twine, plant labels and markers.

6. Re-barb for tomato cages—a fun winter project.

7. Manure, compost, leaf mold. Nothing says love like organics.

8. Or make your own with a compost bin. These can be ready-made plastic with a turn handle (best for small gardens and a way to recycle kitchen scraps) or go whole hog and build an outdoor enclosure using wooden palettes, straw bales, post and wire, stone, or cinder blocks.

9. Working sink for the potting shed (my own personal favorite).

10. And the always proper, never unwelcome: free labor.—Cathy Clary

Give it away

Come on, Scrooges—throw open those closets. The deadline’s looming for tax-deductible donations and a few good deeds can clear up both clutter and conscience. Of course, it’s not really about ditching your junk—it’s equally important to think about what’s needed before handing off bags of moldy, unwanted sweaters. Some things to consider:

1. Is it useful? The words “gently used” are employed by most charities, but think of it this way—chances are, if you wouldn’t want it, they won’t either.
2. Is it local? Sure, do-gooding is great no matter where it’s done, but you can maximize the impact of your donation if the charity can avoid costly shipping fees. Similarly, consider selling off items and donating cash instead to save charities time and energy —this also makes reporting the donation for tax purposes more straightforward.

3. There are plenty of options outside of old clothes: cars, computers, glasses, time, cell phones, and appliances, for starters. Check out for more ideas.—Lucy Zhou 


Fresh air in Bellair

This mid-century, split-level home on 3.4 acres in a prestigious Western Albemarle neighborhood reminds us (well, not us, but anyone in the $1 million-plus mortgage range) that wealth can have a low profile. Funky awnings and a carport keep it real.—Katherine Ludwig