Welcome to Garden Zone, a monthly newsletter for anyone interested in gardening. ​​It's produced by Extension Master Gardener volunteers in Mecklenburg County.

View in your browser

December Garden Tasks

The winter solstice on Dec. 21 is considered the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day of the year. Our mild winter days in central North Carolina can be one of the nicest times of the year to work outside. Here are some tasks to prepare for the growing season.

Perennials, annuals and bulbs
✳️ Bare-root season begins late this month. Plant cane berries, grapes and roots of perennials, like artichoke, asparagus, rhubarb, astilbe and peonies.
✳️ Cut back chrysanthemums to about six inches. Remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.
✳️ Plant spring-flowering bulbs, trees and shrubs. Continue to monitor water levels.

Trees, shrubs and groundcovers
✳️ Take hardwood cuttings from deciduous trees and shrubs.
✳️ Mulch azaleas, rhododendron, camellias and laurel after the ground freezes. They prefer acidic materials, like oak leaves and pine needles.
✳️ Start pruning dormant fruit trees and shrubs.

Edible gardens
✳️ Fall-planted greens – such as lettuce, mesclun mix, kale, mustard, arugula, mache and spinach – love the cooler temperatures and will produce throughout the winter and even into spring.

Time to catch up and plan
✳️ It’s a good time to observe the bones of your garden and begin to plan for next year.


Go Native!

If you are considering adding some new plants into your landscape, why not consider natives?  Natives help add a diversity of plants and that diversity is the key to a healthy, resilient landscape.  They attract a variety of beneficial insects and wildlife to your yard, aiding in pollination, pest control, dispersing of seeds, and providing habitat. Natives also require less maintenance than non-native plants because they are suited to our climate (less watering, drought tolerant).  Here are some of our recommendations. Whatever you choose, make sure you select the right plant for the site conditions. 

Link to pdf Native Plants to Consider


Explore more options from our NC State Plant Toolbox or click on the link below to find additional information on Natives from our North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook. Native Plants

Photos courtesy of NC State

  1. Dogwood, Cornus florida,                
  2. Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera

  3. Coral honeysuckle, Lonicera sempervirens


Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Winter Wildlife in your Garden

During winter months, wildlife can thrive in our gardens.  With some planning, we can help the well-being of birds, insects, opossum, raccoons, squirrels, and even white-tail deer.

Bird houses, ground cover such as leaves and brush piles, shrubs, tree canopy, stacks of split wood, and spent flower stalks provide protection from predators, wind, and freezing temperatures.

Bird feeders should be located near sheltered areas. Black Oil sunflower seeds attract a wide variety of birds.  Research the birds you have observed or want in your yard and provide their favorites. Postpone deadheading plants until spring to leave seeds for birds to forage. Beneficial insects can harbor in spent flower stems and mulch. 

Squirrels and chipmunks will emerge from shelters on a warm day, so saucers of nuts, corn, or seeds will help them find quick food.

Deer naturally forage in the winter on twigs, bark, and lichen.  It is best not to feed them or draw them close to humans.  Providing cover is a better choice than feeding them.  If you are compelled to feed them, plant native vegetation for them to eat, such as grasses. 

Water is a very important resource for all wildlife, so keep birdbaths, saucers, and ponds thawed and fresh.  

Enjoy observing the variety of winter wildlife that will congregate in your yard.


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Time to Take Stock

Thanksgiving leftovers are finally gone, holiday decorating is complete, baking and shopping are in full swing.  But as you sip a cup of coffee or glass of wine, take a moment to stroll through your sleeping garden.  What do you see?  Perhaps great success with a new shrub border or raised bed.  Maybe an area that really needs improvement or an unfinished project.  Year-end is a great time to take stock and make decisions now before the flurry of early spring work begins. Grab your I-Pad or cell phone to take notes and photos as you brainstorm ideas. 

Should the vegetable garden be relocated to a sunnier spot or maybe closer to the house for easier care?  Would you like to create a habitat for pollinators or a bird sanctuary and need to investigate what’s involved?  Is there a spot that needs screening for privacy?  How about adding flowering trees for a WOW factor?  Have you always wanted to create a spot for a themed garden: English cottage, Asian, wildflower, pond, herbs, etc.?  Would adding a path, fence, or wall make your property more usable? Do you really need or want that much grass?

So many questions!  But these will guide you to the answers; the how-tos; the when’s and where’s; the realization that this is too large a project to handle yourself or if it’s a DIY.  Just a little observation and preseason decision-making will make next year’s gardening easier, more successful, and so very satisfying.  Who said gardeners have nothing to do during the winter?  

Holiday House Plants

What can be done with those beautiful house plants after the holidays? If you are like me, you can’t bear to throw out a living plant. Although the literature on Amaryllis says that they don’t tolerate freezing temperatures and need to come in for the winter, I’ve had several in my front garden that have wintered just fine. They are at the top of a slope with good drainage and morning sun. I left the tops of the bulbs out of the ground as directed, and in May I get a wonderful display!

I’ve not been as lucky with poinsettias, however. When I try to keep them alive after the holidays they get stragglier and stragglier and I eventually put them in the compost and plan on getting new ones for the next year! If you want to try, though, here are some suggestions from NCSU.

Tips for a healthy poinsettia:

Outside of their native climate, poinsettias are primarily grown indoors. A few tips will help you keep your plant healthy year round.

1.      Place plant where it receives sun for at least six hours each day but shade during hot afternoons and evenings.

2.      Avoid temperatures below 55°F and above 75°F and hot or cold drafts which may cause leaves to drop.

3.      Keep soil moist, watering when the surface feels dry or the pot feels light when picked up. Discard excess water from the drainage tray so that the plant does not sit in water.

4.      Once flowering is finished, fertilizing occasionally with an all-purpose fertilizer will help keep your poinsettia healthy and promote new growth throughout the year.

(The amaryllis photos are mine and the poinsettia photo is from pixabay.)


Fall is a great time to start composting at home. With all the leaves falling from the trees the natural “brown” material is literally at one’s feet and it’s an easy and economical way to supplement your garden soil and enhance plant growth.

Materials rich in carbon are referred to as “brown” and are the energy source and the basic building blocks within the compost.

Examples of Brown:

  • Nut shells
  • Unused paper towels
  • Shredded black and white newspaper

When composting one also needs to add “green” to the mix.  “Green” is the nitrogen-rich material necessary for cell growth within the compost.

Examples of Green:

  • Fruit and vegetable scraps
  • Coffee grounds
  • Crushed eggshells

There are some items that must be given special attention because they could introduce a fungus, odors or welcome unwanted animals. One may want to consider the absence of these items:

  • Smashed Jack-o-lanterns
  • Meats, cooking oils, dairy
  • Weeds, animal waste

Putting it together is as easy as making a small pile of green and brown materials in the corner of the yard. Toss it once a week or so and continue to add kitchen scraps and yard waste as available.  One can also purchase compost bins at a hardware store or make a small pen out of chicken mesh. Putting the compost pile in the sun and remembering to turn it will help break the materials down into a rich soil that your plants will be grateful for.


Like our content? Share it with friends and neighbors! They can subscribe here.  

Follow us on Social media


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.