1. With the exception of cold-hardy winter annuals like pansies, violas, and ornamental kale, annual flower gardens are spent by now, having experienced a frost or two. Consider mulching the beds of these stalwarts to prevent “frost heaving” caused by freezing and thawing of the soil. In coastal gardens, flower beds can benefit from routine watering and fertilizing with liquid products.
2. Spring flowering bulbs should be planted by now, however, daffodils can still be planted for late blooms. Paperwhite bulbs, amaryllis, and lily-of the-valley pips can also be potted for forcing indoors. Enjoy the sweet fragrance and eye candy found in a pot of colorful bulbs.
3. Many vegetable gardeners save seed of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties. Dried seeds should be stored in a cool location; place them in envelopes in an airtight container. Label envelopes using a permanent marker and record the proper name on each variety.
Garden mums can be cutback and mulched after their flowers are spoiled by frosts.
4. Cold frames and row tunnels (metal hoops covered with polyethylene sheets) can extend the planting season for cool-season vegetables. Vegetables like lettuce, mesclun, mustard, turnips, onions, spinach, and carrots can be started by seed. Garlic bulbs and shallots can be planted now in Zone 8 gardens. It is best to buy organic cloves or sets at a garden center to avoid growth-inhibitor chemicals that may be used with grocery store variety garlic. When planting, space sets four or more inches apart and mulch the planting with straw or compost.
5. Fresh herbs are a welcome addition to holiday dishes. Rosemary, parsley, chives, and cilantro are often available from local market gardeners, if these plants are not found in your own garden.
6. The perfect December houseplant is a colorful poinsettia. They are easy to care for and provide weeks of Christmas cheer. Place poinsettias in a location where they receive six hours of bright, indirect light. Plants wrapped in foil can have root rot problems unless the bottom side is pierced with a pencil to provide several drainage holes. Add a plastic saucer under the pot to protect your furniture or floor. Water the plants weekly over kitchen sink.
7. Other than hand-pulling weeds or spot-spraying undesirable broadleaf weeds, like chickweed, bittercress and henbit, cool-season and warm-season lawns need very little care this time of year.
8. Consider using some of your downtime away from lawn care to service your mowers and other maintenance equipment. Some appropriate tasks include cleaning both the air filter and the mowing deck, changing the oil, adding stabilizer to the gas tank, checking the spark plug. Your equipment’s service manual can provide the specifications for home maintenance work. (Note: Manufacturers of two-cycle engines recommend adding stabilizer to gasoline stored for more than one month. Some gardeners prefer running gas tanks dry before storing small equipment for the winter; others prefer keeping gas in tanks to prevent gaskets from drying out.)
9. In Piedmont and coastal gardens, herbaceous perennial beds can be groomed and established perennials transplanted to new locations. Do not fertilize perennial beds with a nitrogen source at this time. Mountain gardens can be mulched as needed before the ground freezes.
"Yuletide Camellias" (Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide') bloom during the cool days of fall. Prune and fertilize them in late winter, if needed.
10. Witherspoon Rose Culture of Durham offers the following suggestions for timely rose care. Use the winter months to prepare new beds that will receive roses in spring; this includes soil testing both old and new beds. Cut back established roses to waist-high (about 3 feet). Place mulch six inches high over graft unions for winter protection. Order new rose plants. Flush irrigation lines. Regardless of your hardiness planting zones, there are rose varieties that are both cold and heat tolerant.
11. The J.C. Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State University evaluates pansy selections annually. The winners in the 2011 trials were the Sorbet XP series – “Purple Ice Improved” took first place – and the Plentifall series. The latter group is a trailing pansy variety and is a good choice for containers or hanging baskets.
12. Established garden mums can be cut back drastically and mulched to overwinter them. Container mums should either be planted in the ground or nestled together in a cold frame to protect their roots from freezing. An unheated crawl space or garage is a great storage space for overwintering tender bulbs, geraniums, or tropical plants that need winter protection.
13. Continue planting trees and other deciduous, woody ornamentals as the season allows. The list of suitable candidates includes perennial flowering vines, fruit trees, brambles, grapes, shrub borders, and peonies.
Remove fruit mummies (dead, decaying fruit) and prune out diseased branches from fruit trees.
14. Prune out dead wood on fruit trees, and remove decayed fruit “mummies” to lessened fungal fruit rots next season. Give the ground under and around fruit bearing plants a thorough raking to eliminate diseased foliage and other sources of pathogens. A good cure for cabin fever in the winter is to use an unseasonably warm afternoon to begin pruning mature apple trees. Newly planted fruit trees, brambles, and vines should not be trained or pruned severely until late winter. Telltale signs for the right time to prune is when buds begin to swell and forsythia are blooming.
15. Don’t allow leaves to build up on your tall fescue lawn. A heavy coating of leaves will block sunlight and weaken lawn grasses. Rake and compost tree leaves, or use a mulching mower to shred the leaves right in place. Mulching leaves and grass clippings is a recommended management practice for organic lawn care in established cool-season lawns.
16. December is a month for celebration. Southern tradition calls for wreaths, swags, and table arrangements filled with fragrant, evergreen foliage and seasonal fruits. Seedpods, berries, dried flowers, and cones can be added for a special accent. This is a good time to make thinning cuts on a mature boxwood, magnolia, or holly trees.
17. The gardening catalogs find their way to your home about now. Begin organizing them and prepare orders for the spring season.
18. Buy your live Christmas tree as soon as possible. Remove 2 inches from the trunk and place the tree in a bucket of water, in shade outside until you are ready to decorate.
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For more than 30 years, Toby Bost has been a resource to North Carolina gardeners and growers as an agricultural extension agent, a trainer for master gardeners, and an author. His books include The Successful Gardener Guide: North Carolina, North Carolina Gardener’s Guide, and The Carolina Gardener’s Guide. He can be reached through Our State magazine at firstname.lastname@example.org