Gardeners in Virginia Beach are blessed with the longest growing season in the state. They garden on an ancient, outer-coastal plain where native longleaf pine and oak forests surround freshwater cypress marshes and Atlantic White Cedar forests along the James River. A wide variety of plants are available for landscapes in this humid, semi-tropical climate.
Before planting the same old Bradford pears, azaleas and Pampas grass, take a few trips to reacquaint yourself with the area. Visit First Landing State Park to get ideas for woodland gardens. Southern sugar maples, Devil's walking sticks, Catawba-trees, persimmons, loblolly pines, sassafras, American holly and wild plums provide interesting shapes, blooms or foliage. Buttonwood, Eastern red cedar, Eastern hemlock and Southern live oak make good specimens. Trips along the James River and into the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the Dismal Swamp may provide samples of Bald cypress, Sweet Bay magnolia, river birch and blackgum for shady or wet areas. Visit the Norfolk Botanical Garden to choose azeleas--but also camellias, dogwoods, winter honeysuckle and paperbush for bloom from late winter through the year. Keep a list of interesting plants.
Do Your Research
You can plant all sorts of southern plants in Virginia Beach; they have palm trees along the beach downtown. They also wrap those trees in plastic during the coldest part of winter. Magnolia trees are spectacular and iconic but they make a mess, as do crab apples. Avoid exotic and "miracle" plants, too; in addition to being more expensive and more culturally demanding, they may also be invasive. Mimosas, a popular tree, are listed as an invasive by the University of Florida Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. Beach vitex and Johnson grass, both of them plants brought in to stabilize dunes, are such plants, too. Check with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation or the Virginia Cooperative Extension service before planting non-native plants. The Cooperative Service can also do a soil test at a reasonable price and tell you what kind of plants should flourish in your soil.
Get to Work
There are many landscape styles to choose from: southern, colonial, southern woodland, riverside or seashore, to name a few. Create a landscape theme that fits your style, the style of your house and the scale of your property. Start with a few specimen trees and fill in sunny spaces with flowering plants like dogwoods, crape myrtles or Japanese cherries. Work in fences and hedges to define perimeters and spaces. Set up a pergola for crossvine, butterfly pea or trumpet vines. Colonial gardens will require an herb garden for the kitchen and woodland gardens need plenty of coastal juneberry. Use indigo bush to attract butterflies around ponds or in boggy areas. Don't crowd plants; shrubs and perennials will fill in quickly. Finally, put benches and other seating in shade areas for summer and sunny areas for winter so that visitors can enjoy the garden all year long.