Welcome to Garden Zone, the monthly newsletter produced by Extension Master Gardeners of Mecklenburg County. ​​We encourage you to share Garden Zone with friends and neighbors! They can subscribe here.  

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Fall is for planting

Fall is the best time to plant trees and shrubs in the south. Cooler air and soil temperatures reduce stress on plants and encourage root growth. Larger root systems help fall-planted trees and shrubs perform better next summer than those that are planted in the spring. Make sure you plant the right way:

  • Planting too deep is a common mistake. When digging a hole to plant any type of woody plant, make sure to dig no deeper than the depth of the root ball. Dig the hole wide enough to place the plant in and still have plenty of room to fill the soil back in around the root ball.
  • Gently settle the soil around new plants instead of packing it in.
  • Thoroughly water newly planted trees and shrubs and mulch the root zone.
  • Check new plantings every few days by feeling the root ball and surrounding soil. Water plants when the root ball feels dry. Apply water slowly to allow it time to soak in and moisten the root ball and surrounding soil.

Here are more tips for planting and establishing trees and shrubs.


Tree planting diagram by NCSU Extension

October in the garden

It’s time for spring-flowering bulbs to go in, trees and shrubs to be planted, perennials divided, and mulch applied to beds to protect and build soil. October is also a month to take pause. Soak up the fall colors and the changing sunlight! Tasks for your garden:

✳️ Plant onion sets, garlic, cabbage, collards, swiss chard and kale.
✳️ Watch for green worms on broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and collards.

Perennials & annuals
✳️ Continue to dig and divide spring and early summer-blooming perennials before the foliage dies back. Daylilies, hostas and shasta daisies are some examples.
✳️ Leave seed-bearing perennials -- ornamental grasses, coneflower, sunflowers, black-eyed Susan -- to feed the birds and provide cover for beneficial insects over the winter.

Trees & shrubs
✳️ It’s the best time to plant new trees and shrubs.
✳️ Start that fall leaf pile!
✳️ Watch for lace bugs on azalea and pyracantha.

✳️ Aerate your lawn.
✳️ Coring lawns can help to minimize compaction and improve rooting.
✳️ Plant cool-season grasses like tall fescue.

Remember: DO NOT PRUNE shrubs or trees in late summer or early autumn. Pruning stimulates new growth which may not have time to harden off before frost. You can remove any deadwood from shrubs or trees.

Houseplants that spent the summer outdoors should be cleaned up and brought indoors when night temperatures fall below 50 degrees.

See our complete list of garden tasks for October.


When should you plant bulbs? NOW!

Plant your daffodil, hyacinth, crocus and tulip bulbs in October and November. Wait until soil temperatures have cooled to below 60°F.

And if you haven’t been able to get those peonies, iris, daylilies, and other hardy perennials planted because of our extreme heat this year (or maybe just a little too much procrastination), don’t fret.  Plant them now and they’ll do just fine.

  • Bulbs grow best in well-drained soil; incorporate compost or peat moss into the top 12 to 18 inches of soil to improve drainage.
  • Generally, you want to plant bulbs at a depth two to three times the width of the bulb.
  • For optimal color and impact in the spring, plant bulbs close together. You can even layer smaller bulbs on top of larger ones, then finish with cool-season annuals on top.
  • After planting bulbs, it’s a good idea to apply slow-release fertilizer and apply mulch. Follow your soil test report for the best fertilizer option.

Do you know eight of the most popular summer and fall flowering bulbs? They're caladiums, cannas, dahlias, daylilies, gladiolus, lilies, rhizomatous iris, and tuberous begonias. See this handout for their cultural and storage requirements.


Photo: Iowa State U

Dear Pot Mums: I'm just not that into you

The pot mum -- chrysanthemums grown in containers by the millions and sold in front of grocery stores every fall -- have been a mainstay of the fall garden world for decades. They’re short-lived. As they’re top heavy, they’re prone to split after a heavy rain. They rarely survive the winter.

Why not look at alternatives?

Fall-blooming aster: There are many varieties. They love the sun. Most will come back year after year and reward you with loads of color. One of our favorites is Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium), a native perennial wildflower that also attracts butterflies and other pollinators.

Garden mums: While similar to the pot mum, garden mums provide more year-round performance. They produce huge masses of blooms in the fall, and they’ll return next year and the next. They’re low maintenance gems for the sun and tolerate light shade. One of our favorites is ‘Hillside Sheffield Pink' (Dendranthema). It’s fragrant, dependable and great for attracting pollinators.

In this crazy year of pandemic gardening, why not stroll by those potted mums on the shelf and try a beautiful perennial?


Black swallowtail on Aromatic aster. Photo by EMG Jean Wilson


'Hillside Sheffield Pink' at MapleWalk garden. Photo by EMG Anne Sheffield

Put down the rake! 

Leaves are starting to change color and beginning to fall to the ground. There are several reasons to "leave the leaves." 

Frogs, turtles and salamanders rely on fallen leaves to provide cover and hibernation places. Many moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in the spring.

And then there's yard debris. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris take up 13% of the solid waste of the entire country, about 33 million tons per year. What if there was another way to manage fall leaves so they didn’t take up landfill space, creating methane?

The National Wildlife Federation offers these tips: 

🏡 For the lawn: some leaves are fine on the lawn, especially if they have been run over with the lawn mower to chop the leaves into small pieces. They will decompose and add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, to improve lawn growing conditions.

🏡 If having a perfect lawn is a priority: The leaves can be raked off the lawn and into flower and shrub beds. Again, for a finer mulch that will break down more quickly, run over the leaves first with the lawn mower to chop them up.

🏡 Leaves can also be composted: In a compost pile, fall leaves represent the “brown” (carbon), versus “green” (nitrogen) matter, such as grass clippings and kitchen waste. The brown to green ratio in the compost pile should be approximately 25:1 in order for the pile to create adequate heat and break down properly.

🏡 Make a brush shelter for wildlife: In an out of the way place in your yard, combine leaves with branches, sticks and stems. Pile them together to create a shelter. In the spring it will break down and go back to the earth.

As the leaves begin to fall this year, consider the benefits of letting them stay on the ground.

Master Gardeners in the Community

There are only a handful of people who can say their garden has been featured in the Charlotte Observer. Master Gardener Carol Koball is one of them! It was a full-page spread in the Living section. Carol had converted her lawn into a xeriscape garden with drought-tolerant grasses. That was 2000. Since then, her garden has undergone another major transformation. Today, you’ll find a beautiful flower garden. Carol says it’s a work in progress, “a perpetual project.”

Why the change? Good friends and neighbors Lindie Wilson, Kelly Stevens and Betsy Hill started giving Carol plants from their gardens. If you know these folks, you know they’re expert gardeners. Lindie’s and Kelly’s gardens have been featured in magazines and books. Carol credits 80 percent of the plants in her garden coming from those good friends.

It was another good friend who encouraged Carol to go through the Master Gardener training program, which she did in 2017.

After receiving her certification, she became editor of Share The Buzz, a monthly newsletter that’s sent to all Mecklenburg EMGs. “It’s a monthly project with a beginning, a middle and an end. I love projects like that.”

She also served on the EMG Facebook team and currently serves on the planning committee for the monthly EMG meetings.

Carol’s background is a producer/production manager in the film commercial business for almost 20 years. “I applied those organizational skills to gardening. I love lists and I actually keep a garden journal, albeit a sloppy, incomplete one. Just the highlights, but it’s a great resource.”

Since the EMG training, Carol now views her landscape as a whole. “When I first moved into my current neighborhood, I approached my yard in stages due to a lack of time. I’m still guilty of buying or accepting a plant without a clue as to where it will go.”

Carol’s advice to other gardeners:

✳️ Never give up, never surrender! You are going to make mistakes. Try not to make expensive ones. Buy that $200 tree only after you’re comfortable with your own knowledge.

✳️ Use the internet and add “edu” after your query to bring up researched-based material.

✳️ Even when buying plants from a nursery, look up the plant online first. There are tons of good information out there. Take advantage of that.


Carol Koball in her garden


2000 Charlotte Observer article, Splendor in the Grass

Take note...

  • Nature's Best Hope: Sign up for the free, online event to hear Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of Nature's Best Hope. It's Tues., Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. Guaranteed to be awesome! Sponsor: HAWK, Matthews chapter of NC Wildlife Federation.  For details
  • Wing Haven's Fall Plant Sale: Oct. 13-14 for members; Oct. 15-17 for others. Limited and timed admission due to COVID19. See the website for details. You'll find quality plants, including a lot of native plants!  
  • Take a road trip: NC Arboretum (south of Asheville). Lots of plants and nature trails, a bonsai exhibit and a cool exhibit of 16 life-size LEGO sculptures (until Nov. 1). For details including parking fees and discounts. 
  • Take another road trip: NC Botanical Garden (Chapel Hill). Its 32nd annual Sculpture in the Garden runs until Dec. 6. It's 61 installations by 41 NC artists. Free; donations appreciated. See details

Violet Pansy made of 29,314 LEGO Bricks. Size 40x35x55 inches. NC Arboretum

Gardening series selected for excellence award! 

Our gardening series at the Matthews Library was recently selected for a 2020 Search for Excellence Award in the workshop/presentation category. The award recognizes outstanding Master Gardener volunteer projects across North Carolina that result in significant learning.

In 2019, eight programs covering diverse gardening topics were presented at the library with nearly 180 people attending. EMGs Emeritus Hallie Walker, Margaret Genkins and Sandy Fussell led the project from start to finish.

“We received tremendous support and assistance from the library," said Hallie. "The partnership with the Matthews Library can be a model we offer to other branches." 


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The Mecklenburg Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (EMGV) program operates under the Mecklenburg Center of the NC Cooperative Extension Service (NCCES), a part of NC State University and NC A&T State University. 

NCCES is a part of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.

NC State University and N.C. A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity and prohibit discrimination and harassment regardless of age, color, disability, family and marital status, gender identify, genetic information, national origin, political beliefs, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation and veteran status. NC State, N.C. A&T, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.