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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The leaves, they are a changin'? But why?

Trees often look like they're completely in sync as they simultaneously change to shades of yellow, orange and red, but each tree is operating independently and using everything from its genetics to the weather to its home state to tell it when to turn. 

That's according to a must-read article by the North Carolina Climate Office that covers (in plain English) the science surrounding leaf color, including the biology and weather influences from temperature and precipitation.

Also, Appalachian State University biologist Howard Neufeld -- also known as the Fall Color Guy -- says that thanks to the recent cool weather and sunny skies we've had, Charlotte's most vibrant fall colors should arrive in early to mid-November.  


Should you band your trees? 

Charlotte has a history of severe infestations of cankerworms. If you're not familiar with them, the female insects emerge from November through January from the soil and crawl to twigs of hardwood trees to lay eggs. The eggs hatch in spring about the time the buds break. The tiny caterpillars skeletonize the leaves as they feed.

In the last three years cankerworm populations have crashed. Local arborists believe this is because of an extended frost that killed the newly hatched caterpillars effectively stopping the insect's life cycle, resulting in fewer moths the next season.

City of Charlotte's advice

If you had cankerworms last year, go ahead and band the trees that had high numbers of the insect. If you did not see any caterpillars, it's still wise to band the large trees (especially oaks) close to your house. This will help keep population numbers lower in the coming years.

It's easy to band your own trees. There's "how to" information online or you can hire a company to do this for you. Also, many neighborhoods sponsor tree banding programs. 

For the best results, band between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Why? It's important to wait until most leaves have fallen from the trees so they don't get stuck to the tree bands.

See the city's website for more information.

November in the garden 

A Frost Advisory is in effect for Mecklenburg County early Saturday morning (Nov. 2). See these tips for ways to protect your plants.

Even with cold weather headed our way, the gardening season is far from over!

  • November is an ideal time to plant or transplant trees, shrubs and fruit crops. Be sure to water thoroughly, then mulch the new plants with a good 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch.
  • Newly planted evergreens should be checked regularly during the winter to ensure they are getting enough water.
  • Mulch existing trees and shrubs to reduce weeds, provide insulation from freezing temperatures and conserve moisture.
  • Cut back peonies after the first frost. It’s also a good time to plant asparagus crowns and strawberry plants. Finish planting onion sets and garlic.
  • Cut cannas right above ground level and remove the debris to avoid over-wintering leaf rollers.
  • Don’t forget to remove all dead foliage and clean up vegetable and flower beds after the first killing frost. Apply new mulch or plant a cover crop, if desired.

See our complete list of garden tasks for November.  


Leave the leaves!

Did you know that leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13 percent of the nation’s solid waste -- a whopping 33 million tons a year (U.S. EPA). Without enough oxygen to decompose, this organic matter releases the greenhouse gas methane. In fact, solid-waste landfills are the largest U.S. source of man-made methane.

Removing leaves also eliminates vital wildlife habitat. Many moth and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.

What should you do with all those fallen leaves you're not sending to the landfill? The National Wildlife Federation suggests these steps:

  • Let leaves stay where they fall. They won't hurt your lawn if you chop them with a mulching mower.
  • Rake leaves off the lawn to use as mulch in garden beds. For finer-textured mulch, shred them first.
  • Let leaf piles decompose; the resulting leaf mold can be used as a soil amendment to improve structure and water retention.
  • Make compost: Combine fallen leaves (“brown material”) with grass clippings and other “green material” and keep moist and well-mixed. You’ll have nutrient-rich compost to add to your garden next spring.
  • Still too many leaves? Share them with neighbors. Some communities will even pick up leaves and make compost to sell or give away.
  • Build a brush shelter. Along with branches, sticks and stems, leaves can be used to make brush piles that shelter native wildlife.

Help the environment and wildlife -- Leave the Leaves!

Pest of the Month: Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta)​

Red Imported Fire Ants (from Brazil) have reached many areas of North Carolina leaving only the western section unscathed. These ants are tiny, nasty creatures that can put a hurtin’ on you with their sting. Spread through sod, nursery stock, soil, straw and movement of water (sewers, flooding), they now inhabit 11 southern states.

Always check your plants for fire ants before purchasing, especially with large landscaping projects. They are reddish to brown in color and of several types: workers, winged (mistaken as termites), males and queens. The larvae are called “brood” and have a rice-type appearance. Fire ants like greasy foods so they will forage around trash cans, dumpsters and the like. Mounds can appear small but go deep and wide containing over 100,000 little buggers and can include more than one queen.

In the spring, the winged males and females mate in the air and then the queen drops her wings and burrows into the ground to lay eggs. The colonies appear in late fall.

Sustained freezing temperatures will usually kill the colonies but mild winters like we have in the south will not.

How can home gardeners control these pests?   

  • Treat the mound with an insecticide or treat the entire yard. 
  • Take a conservative approach and treat the mound (broad spectrum will kill more than just fire ants).
  • NC State provides a list of Pesticides for Use Against Fire Ants. Always follow the label directions precisely when applying any chemicals. 
  • The best approach starts with a bait around the mound followed a few days later with a mound drench. The bait will be more pervasive as it is carried back and shared with the colony.  The drench will finish it off.

You must kill the queen(s) in order for the colony to perish. BTW, sprinkling grits over a mound will not kill fire ants. They must eat their food after it has been liquified by the “brood.”  

Master Gardeners in the Community

Lindie Wilson bought her house in 2008, and one of the first things she did was to get rid of the Bermuda grass!

"With our climate in the south, it's hard to grow many types of grasses without wasting water, using fertilizers and treating with pesticides. I believe in no-mow gardening. It's better for our environment including the pollinators that depend on us."

Lindie's approach is to fill an area with a variety of plants. 

  • The majority of plants are perennials. There are some annuals, including ones that seed over the winter.
  • She uses evergreens to add structure.
  • You'll find blooms in her garden throughout the year.
  • Many plants were brought with her from the Elizabeth Lawrence garden where she lived before moving to her current home.
  • She does not use insecticides or pesticides.

Her yard is a pollinator paradise! Check the before and after photos.

Lindie is a Master Gardener Emeritus in Mecklenburg County. She's also the previous owner of the Elizabeth Lawrence House and Garden in Charlotte, having sold that property to the Wing Haven Foundation in 2008. 


Expanding our outreach with your help

As Master Gardener volunteers, we provide a community service. It’s also about making a difference.

In 2019, we helped over 30 groups interested in establishing a community or school garden. We provided hands-on assistance to an additional 10 gardens. We responded to over 600 phone calls and emails asking for help on plants and pest issues. Our demonstration vegetable garden generated over 200 pounds of produce that was donated to a local nonprofit’s soup kitchen.

There are many ways you can help support and expand our programs in 2020, and one is through a financial donation. We hope you’ll consider!

Any amount will help. For example, $5 can buy gloves for a child at a school garden; $25 can buy an educational insect display to use with school and community programs; $60 can buy fruit trees for gardens we’re creating in areas without adequate food resources.

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

Some upcoming events! 

  • Feel the Fall -- Citywide TreeStore. 400 free trees. Sat., Nov. 9, 9-11 a.m. TreesCharlotte, 701 Tuckaseegee Rd. Get in line early! See details. 
  • Gardening begins with good soil!  Free presentation by Margaret Genkins, Master Gardener Emeritus. Sat., Nov. 16; 11 a.m.-noon. Matthews Library. 230 Matthews Station St., Matthews. Registration encouraged.  
  • Gardening basics -- succulents. $15. Sat., Nov. 16, 10 a.m.-noon. Latta Nature Preserve,  6211 Sample Rd., Huntersville. To register.
  • Creek ReLeaf 2019​! A fun, rewarding project! 300 volunteers needed to help with tree maintainence at two locations (one in Charlotte, the other in Huntersville). Sat., Nov. 23, 9 a.m.-noon. See details.
  • Nov. 28, when you've had enough turkey and/or football, take a tour of MapleWalk, the private garden of Tom Nunnenkamp and Lib Jones, Mecklenburg Master Gardeners Emeritus. The garden covers over two acres. 4255 Kingswood Dr.; park on the street (avoiding neighbors' yards). It's beautiful! 

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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.