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'Tis the season for colorful stems

Add some color and pizzazz to your garden during the winter months. For some ideas, check this article! It's a quick read with spectacular photos. 


Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'; Photo: Kelly Nursery

December in the garden

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 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 and groundcovers
✳️ Take hardwood cuttings from deciduous trees and shrubs.
✳️ Mulch azalea, rhododendron, camellia 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.

See our complete list of December garden tasks.


Wise winter watering  

Are the trees and all of nature really sleeping through winter?

As trees lose their leaves and blossoms fade, deep down roots are still actively growing and working through the winter. During possible winter droughts, it's important to thoroughly water the trees, shrubs, and other perennials.

When your plants are thoroughly watered, their roots will be less likely to dry out if the soil around them freezes (depending on the growing zone you're in). Don’t soak the plants. About 20 minutes of slow watering should do. The roots need to stay hydrated so they do not become brittle over winter, leading to a shock for the plant when spring showers come and roots are not able to take up the needed water for new growth. Plants can become dry if there is no precipitation for 4 weeks. Check the soil by digging or probing the bed.

Mulching your plants will help hold moisture over the roots. Moist soil and mulch around the base of plants hold more heat from the day’s sun than does dry soil.  

Tall trees should be watered 3-6 feet from the trunk to be sure to hydrate as many of the roots as possible, especially the smaller auxiliary roots. 

Evergreens, of course, are still active and often need to be watered or their needles and leaves could dry out and die come spring. 

Before you drain and store your hoses, be sure you have prepared your magnificent trees and plantings for a successful winter. Deep down, they are still growing and active.

Think donuts and bagels!

Creating a mulch ring around a newly planted tree is the single best practice you can do. Tree mulching provides many benefits, most importantly increased growth. Research has shown that, over time, a mulch ring placed 3 to 6 feet around the tree can almost double the growth rate of the tree.

How not to mulch a tree

🌳 Mulching is not developing a volcanic cone of wood mulch a foot or more high right up against the trunk. No, no, no…

🌳 Mulch that touches the trunk is moist from rainfall and irrigation. Over time this moisture rots and decays the bark layer of the tree, which kills the cambium layer area of tree growth and eventually rots the heartwood of the tree.

🌳 Deep piles of mulch, over 4 to 6 inches deep also excludes oxygen from the soil. This results in root development up into the mulch layer, not down into the soil. These so-called surface or mulch roots do little to support the tree in the long term for robust growth.

The correct way to mulch trees

🌳 Think donuts and bagels! Proper tree mulching starts about 3 to 6 inches from the trunk and continues out in all directions at least 3 feet. Six feet would be even better for long-term establishment and increased growth.

🌳 The thickness of the mulch layer should be somewhere between 2 and 4 inches deep, or thick.

🌳 Over time the mulch will break down. As part of normal maintenance, the mulch ring should be replenished each year. Start by carefully pulling the mulch back from the trunk, and then add enough new mulch to the 4-inch depth.


Evergreen shrubs for your garden

Now that the leaves have fallen off most of our deciduous shrubs, you may be looking for something that keeps its leaves year-round. Here are three native plant options.

Ilex glabra (Inkberry Holly) is an upright, erect, rounded, much-branched shrub. Inkberries are dioecious, needing both male and female plants to produce fruits. They have significant wildlife value -- the flowers for butterflies and pollinators, and the berries for birds. Inkberry is excellent for shrub borders, foundation plantings or as a low hedge. This species is noted for its ability to perform well in wet sites and will grow in sun to part sun. More info...

Viburnum Obovatum ‘Mrs. Schiller’s Delight’ is a dwarf cultivar of Walter’s Viburnum. It was introduced for its compact, dense, dwarf habit. Mrs. Schiller’s grows to 3-4’ wide and 2-5’ tall. It is a tough, but beautiful plant that blooms abundantly with delicate, small white flowers in early spring. Red fruits follow the flowers; they’ll eventually turn black and are a favorite of birds. Mrs. Schiller’s is exceptionally drought tolerant. This plant grows best in full sun. Mrs. Schiller’s can be used as a low growing shrub for foundation plantings or in masses as the middle or foreground plant. More info...

Illicium parviflora ‘Florida Sunshine’ is prized for its yellow color, but it also comes in the original green leafed form. It likes moist soils and requires shade, but is more drought tolerant than its relative Illicium floridanum. It has large yellow leaves that can pack a punch in the dreary days of winter and can be used as a screening shrub. It needs shade. This plant also spreads by suckers but any unwanted ones can be trimmed. It grows 6-8' tall by 6-8' wide. More info...

Need ideas for evergreens that are good for screening? Check this out


Inkberry Holly; photo: pinelandsdirect


‘Mrs. Schiller’s Delight’; photo: nucar


‘Florida Sunshine’; photo: gardenersdirect

A magical garden in Charlotte

When you visit Lib Jones' and Tom Nunnenkamp’s place, you might see Gov. Mouton. There’s also the Dancing Peacock and several Brazen Hussies (oh my!). They’re some of the plants you’ll find at MapleWalk, their 2 1/4-acre garden in Charlotte.

According to Lib, in 1990, they bought a yard with potential that just happened to have a house to go with it. Tom and Lib eventually bought two more properties adjacent to theirs, including an overgrown empty lot and one with a house they later demolished.

Today you’ll find:

✳️ Over 90 different Japanese maples

✳️ 23 unique dogwoods, 50 conifers

✳️ 50 different varieties of (stunningly beautiful) camellias

✳️ Some blueberries, blackberries and raspberry plants

✳️ 1,600 feet of paths throughout the garden. Almost all plants are labeled. 

What you won’t find?

There’s not much turf. Lib and Tom decided on a no-mow approach for the property that surrounds the house and instead have dwarf mondo grass and different kinds of moss.

They both admit that tending the garden is a full-time job -- no real vacations, little outside help. But they love what they’ve created and the amazement it brings to others.

On almost any day of the year, you’ll find something in bloom. You’ll also see neighbors and visitors strolling through the garden. If Tom is out working, he may give you a tour.

If you’d like to visit, the garden is at 4255 Kingswood Rd., Charlotte. Park on the street (not on neighbors' lawns). Lib and Tom are both Master Gardeners Emeritus.​


That's Lib with one of her amazing 'Bartzella' Itoh Peonies.


Tom is giving a tour to Master Gardener Carol Koball.

Wildlife needs you! 

It’s easy for birds, deer and squirrels to find food in the summer when there are abundant fruits, veggies, and foliage out there. But when winter rolls around, wildlife has a bigger challenge finding food, water and cover.

By providing these you can help them survive the cold weather and remain healthy. Keep a journal of your observations. This is a good winter project for kids, as well as adults.

See our handout, “Creating winter habitat for wildlife,” for helpful tips of what you can do!

Don't go yet!

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Our thanks to all of you for subscribing to our newsletter and sending us questions and comments! It's been a busy year, even during COVID19! You can read about some of our work here

Most important, we wish y'all the very best for warm and happy holidays! And don't forget to buy some carrots... 


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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.

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