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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A month of holiday celebrations! 

Few months present as many multicultural celebrations than December. 

It's a chance to step outside one's comfort zone and traditions and learn and appreciate different traditions around the world.

Just like plants, trees, insects and wildlife, holiday traditions can help us understand the world on a more diverse level.

Whatever holiday tradition you might celebrate this month, our wish is that you enjoy this special time of year with family and friends!


Say "no" to volcano mulching! 

Just like crepe murder, volcano mulching is something we need to stop doing! This recent photo on our Facebook page resonated with many folks. It received 118 "likes" and was shared 411 times. That's a lot!

As you survey your garden & landscape for maintenance, consider the rehabilitation of an over-mulched oak tree.

Go OUT with mulch. Do NOT go UP with mulch.

The tree will thank you!

See this fact sheet for more guidance.


December in the garden 

In many areas of the country, winter is a time to stay inside and catch up on indoor tasks. Fortunately, this is not true in the southeast. In fact, mild winter days can be one of the nicest times of the year to work outside in our region. There is plenty to be done to prepare for the growing season.

Perennials, annuals & 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 chrysanthemum 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 & groundcovers

  • Take hardwood cuttings from deciduous trees and shrubs.
  • Mulch azalea, rhododendron, camellia and laurel after the ground freezes.
  • 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.

Lawn irrigation

  • It's not necessary to irrigate your lawn daily or weekly during the winter. However, if there has been an extended dry period (say 3 weeks or more), adding 1 inch of water to the landscape during a warm winter day may help prevent cold injury to the lawn. Read this guidance

Cold or rainy days are a good time to observe the bones of your garden and begin to plan for next year. See our complete list of December garden tasks.


Where do insects go in winter?​

Have you noticed that your backyard is getting quiet? No more insects buzzing about, fewer birds foraging and hummingbirds whirring about. It’s getting cold and the days are shorter. Where did everybody go?

  • Most birds, butterflies and hummingbirds have headed to warmer climates but what about insects? Some migrate, many die, but most do what is called diapause, which means they hunker down in leaf litter, tree holes, perennial flower stalks and under logs and rocks for the long winter. Some are able to biologically replace the liquid in their bodies with glycerol (cryoprotectants) which freezes at a much lower temperature. That’s pretty cool!
  • Some grubs have a cycle where they go deeper into the soil as the temperatures drop (making them difficult to treat unless you know their habit). Some insects lay eggs that can survive the winter.
  • Some insects overwinter in the pupal stage and emerge as adults in the spring. Some may overwinter as immature larvae.
  • Large wasps may seek shelter in attics and crevices in your roof.
  • Honey bees huddle around their queen in hives to stay warm and feed on their stored honey. Unfortunately, despite this practice, hives can be substantially reduced in number by spring due to the amount of available food and environmental factors.
  • Termites and some ants stay active through the winter (darn!). Insects in all forms find food in their immediate surroundings.

If you’ve followed our advice on leaving the leaves or mulching leaves and placing them in your beds, now is the time to back off and let the insects take over until temperatures start to heat up again in the spring. Keep in mind a large percentage (~90%) of insects in your yard are the good guys, so let’s do our part to help them along.


What's in your Christmas tree?

If you have wondered whether buying a cut Christmas tree is good for the environment, you are not alone. As you are pondering your tree selection this year, here are a few things to consider.

Artificial trees were first developed in Germany in the 1800s. Today, the majority of U.S. households that display a holiday tree use an artificial one, and they're typically used for five to 10 years. Eighty percent of artificial trees are manufactured in China, and are made of PVC plastics and steel. Unfortunately, there is no recycling process for artificial trees, so when they reach the end of their useful life they typically end up in the landfill. On the plus side, artificial trees are fire resistant, convenient and create less mess than a real tree.

Cut Christmas trees are a popular option, especially in North Carolina. Our state is the second highest in tree production, after Oregon. North Carolina has approximately 1,500 local growers (mostly small family farms), providing $250 million of annual economic value. A live tree will take six to 10 years to grow, but during that time it will help clean the air and provide habitat to wildlife. Since live trees are grown for the purpose of cutting, and will be replaced by new seedlings when cut, they are considered to be a sustainable agricultural product.

Live trees are typically recycled into mulch or put into lakes as fish habitat. If you are inside Charlotte city limits, your tree will be picked up at the curb for recycling. For Mecklenburg county residents, trees can be dropped off at one of the full-service recycling centers.

Of course, the best choice of all might be a live tree that you enjoy in your home and then plant in your yard. It will provide beauty during the holiday, and then improve the environment for many years to come.

Master Gardeners in the Community

It’s been a whirlwind year for Barry Pettinato. In December 2018, he retired as a federal immigration judge after serving nine years on the bench in Charlotte. A week later, he joined 14 others to begin classes for the Master Gardener program. In August, after completing 70 hours of classroom training and 40 hours of volunteer requirements, Barry became a certified Master Gardener volunteer in Mecklenburg County.

If you visit his house in Plaza Midwood, the landscape reflects his garden philosophy: no tilling, no pesticides and no turf. He’s also an advocate for using native plants and shrubs. He even transformed the planting bed between the sidewalk and street into an area with drought-resistant plants and stone work that complements his main garden.

So why become a Master Gardener?

“What I had learned previously, I learned on my own. The Master Gardener program gives me research-based information that helps me personally but also helps me advise others on best practices,” he said. “That’s an important aspect of the program.”

Recently, Barry and two other Master Gardeners volunteered to strengthen the educational component at our Indy Demonstration Garden. Over the winter, the team will draw up plans to redo the four beds (two sunny beds, an annual bed, a shade garden); reduce the number of plants; get the plants properly labelled; and, install educational displays for visitors. It's no small task!

Barry’s advice to those interested in changing up their landscape or garden: “Start slow; work on one project at a time. Spend time doing research before you buy a plant. Add paths/walkways to divide the garden using materials that are visually interesting. And have fun.” 


Expanding our outreach with your help

If you like what we do as Master Gardener volunteers in Mecklenburg County, we hope you’ll consider making a donation to support and expand our programs in 2020. Any amount will help. For example, $5 will buy gloves for a child at a school garden; $20 will buy a truckload of mulch for a demonstration garden; $60 will buy plants for gardens we’re creating in areas without adequate food resources.

There are many needs and our funds are limited. Thank you for considering a donation. Here’s how to make a tax-deductible donation.

What does a Master Gardener do anyway?

We're glad you asked! In January 2019, we identified ways to punch-up the effectiveness of our existing programs and honed-in on new ways that could make a difference in how we help the public.

We've made good progress! See these highlights, which will give you a feel for the diversity of services we provide. 

As we begin to wrap up the year, we extend our thanks to you for your support -- whether it's reading this newsletter, sharing it with friends or emailing us questions and comments. Thank you! 

Some upcoming events! 

  • Planting with Purpose. Free event. Tues., Dec. 3. 6-8 p.m. Sponsored by Concord Wildlife Alliance. Session is at McGill Baptist Church, 5300 Poplar Tent Rd, Concord. See Facebook details
  • Backyard Gardening: Craft a Holiday Wreath. $4. Sat., Dec. 7, 2-3:30 p.m. Latta Nature Preserve, 6211 Sample Road, Huntersville. To register
  • Third Thursdays: Imbibe + Inspire Tour: Winter Gems. Tour Elizabeth Lawrence garden with Garden Curator Andrea Sprott. $15 members/$20 non-members. Thurs., Dec. 19, 4-5:30 p.m. 348 Ridgewood Avenue, Charlotte. To register.
  • Dec. 22 is the winter solstice. It's the shortest day and longest night of the year. And we're one step closer to spring! Learn about practices of centuries past -- and the role of trees and plants in celebrations.

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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.