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Month-by-Month Gardening Guide: November/December

Annual Flowers and Vines:

Thinking of building a new flowerbed for annuals next year?  There are a few steps you can do now to give you success next year.  Begin by selecting a proper location that has good drainage.  Although you can select some perennials that like wet feet, the majority of annuals prefer well-drained soil.  You can test your drainage by digging several holes 8-12 inches deep in the planting area.  Fill the holes with water and allow the water to soak into the soil.  Fill the holes a second time and then start counting the minutes.  If the water drains in less than an hour, you have a well-drained soil.  If it takes longer than 3 hours you may want to choose a new location.

All planting beds benefit from organic amendments, and if you’ve been spending weekends raking leaves, you’ll know that unlike money, organic matter truly does grow on trees.  You can incorporate these leaves (or compost, grass clippings, manure) to improve soil texture, aeration, and drainage, by tilling 3-4 inches of the organic matter into the top 6-8 inches of soil.  Next spring, add an all-purpose fertilizer to the bed at a rate of 1-2 lbs per 100 sq. ft. and you are ready to plant.  Most annuals like a slightly acidic to neutral pH.  Soil test to see if any adjustments are necessary.

Bulbs, Corms, Roots and Rhizomes:

Amaryllis bulbs make great gifts during the holidays.  But to force one to bloom during the season will require some special steps. Using a 6 to 8 inch clay pot, fill around the bulb with growing media to within ½ inch of the pot’s edge. The bulb should at least ½ or 1/3 inch above the soil line.  Water to settle the soil and keep the plant around 65 degrees for two weeks to allow for rooting.  After this time move to a well-light area around 75 degrees until bloom.  Growth will take two to eight weeks. Once sprouted, keep the soil moist.  Remove the faded flowers, but allow the stalk to remain until it yellows.  Use a liquid fertilizer monthly to rebuild the bulb.  After danger of frost has past, the bulb can be set outdoors where you should continue watering and fertilizing.  Before the fall frost, bring the bulb back indoors and store in a cool, dark place for eight weeks without water.  After this period, remove any foliage and move the bulb into light and warm temperatures.  Keep the soil almost dry until new growth begins in 2 to 8 weeks to repeat the cycle.

Fruits and Nuts:

Young fruit trees should be protected this winter from the harsh effects of Southeast trunk injury. During cold winter days when sunlight strikes the lower trunk of the tree, the temperature of the cambium tissue raises upwards to 85 degrees.  When night falls and temperatures drop, so will the temperature of the bark resulting in injured or dead tissue.  Trunk guards may be used as protection provided they are loose fitting, light in color, and allow for ventilation.  However, latex paint may be a cheap and advantageous alternative.  White latex paint can be applied to trees 2 years or older in November and December.  Use a brush or sponge and apply from the ground to at least 18 inches above ground on all sides of the tree.

Strawberries benefit from mulch during winter.  Pine needles and wheat straw are great choices and should be applied after the plants have been exposed to several freezes and are dormant.  After growth resumes in the spring, rake mulch off the plants and into the isles to allow sunlight to reach the strawberries.

November through the early part of December is the optimum time for controlling weeds around your apples, peaches, and grapes.  You should concentrate your control efforts in two zones around these fruit crops.  The first zone is within the drip line of the plants and your objective should be to maintain a bare ground strip devoid of weeds, grass, or mulch.  For grapes, this strip needs to be 6 feet wide (3 feet on either side of the vines).  For apples and peaches the strip should be 12 feet (6 feet on either side of the trees).  Keeping this area maintained will reduce competition with weeds or injury caused by voles.  The second management area is between the vegetation-free strips.  These should be maintained in permanent grass sod, preferably tall fescue, and selective removal of broadleaf weeds is all that is needed in this zone.  Information, including herbicide rates, application requirements, use directions and precautions, can be found in several publications at your local extension office.

– For Apples, Integrated Orchard Management Guide for Commercial Apples in the Southeast
– For Peaches, Southeastern Peach, Nectarine and Plum Pest Management and Cultural Guide
– For Grapes, PB 1197 Commercial Small Fruit Spray Schedules and PB1475 Growing Grapes in Tennessee.

Young fruit trees should be protected this winter from the harsh effects of Southeast trunk injury. During cold winter days when sunlight strikes the lower trunk of the tree, the temperature of the cambium tissue raises upwards to 85 degrees.  When night falls and temperatures drop, so will the temperature of the bark resulting in injured or dead tissue.  Trunk guards may be used as protection provided they are loose fitting, light in color, and allow for ventilation.  However, latex paint may be a cheap and advantageous alternative.  White latex paint can be applied to trees 2 years or older in November and December.  Use a brush or sponge and apply from the ground to at least 18 inches above ground on all sides of the tree.

Groundcovers and Lawns:

Watch for Fusarium Patch developing in cool season grasses.  Symptoms include gray or light tan patches up to 6 inches in diameter increasing to 2 feet in diameter under snow cover.  This disease occurs most often when leaves are left on the ground during times of cold, wet weather.  It can spread rapidly when snow falls, especially on unfrozen ground, and remains as a cover over the infected area.  Activity may also occur when daytime temperatures do not reach 60 degrees, regardless of snowfall.  The solution, however, is simple.  Avoid Fusarium Patch by raking up leaves, avoiding late fertilizer applications and mowing grass until growth stops.

Don’t under-estimate the damaging effects of rock salt we use to de-ice walks and drives.  Termed the ‘white death’ by some, salt can cause damage to foliage of plants, reduce vigor and may accumulate in the soil.  Salt is also highly absorbent and can deprive plant roots of water.  These problems can occur not only in turf, but trees, shrubs and perennials as well.  Use alternatives to salt such as coarse sand, cat box litter or CMA (calcium magnesium acetate), an environmental friendly chemical that biodegrades quickly and does not harm plants.

Weeds like henbit, deadnettle, and common chickweed are called winter annuals.  Winter annuals germinate from seed in the fall, begin development but lay semi-dormant over the winter, and complete development in the spring.  They then set seed and die in the summer.  Most homeowners try to control this and other winter annual weeds when they first find them in March, but plants are often mature at this time, tougher to control, and may have already begun to set seed.  If your lawn has a history of winter annual weed problems treat in November.  During this time the weeds are in a young stage and much more susceptible to a post-emergence spray of 2, 4-D or Weed Be Gone. This late fall application will also help control wild garlic, another difficult broadleaf weed.

Perennial Flowers and Vines:

Dead plant debris on perennials and vines can be removed in November, however not all plants should be pruned the same way.  True herbaceous plants that die back to the ground each year like daylilies, hostas and peonies will turn brown or black after frost.  These can be pruned to the ground.  Semi-herbaceous perennials like black-eyed susans and coneflower can also be pruned after frost but you should plan to leave 2-3 inches of foliage near the ground that will remain green through the winter.  Lavender, sage and hardy rosemary are considered woody evergreen perennials and should not be pruned since they continue to grow during the winter.  Ornamental grasses provide a unique winter interest in the garden and are best left for pruning in the spring.

Plants in Pots:

Poinsettias and winter fit together like the beach and summer, but how do you get the most out of your poinsettia this year?  It starts with selection.  Avoid plants that are yellowed or are dropping leaves.  These may have been over-watered and may be inflicted with a root disease.  Bringing home your poinsettia requires special attention since even short exposure to cold temperatures can be damaging.  Once home, your plant will do best with 6 hours of indirect sunlight.  To keep the maximum color, avoid temperature extremes associated with cold drafts or heaters.  Keep the soil moderately moist by checking daily and watering until water comes through the drainage holes. Don’t allow poinsettias, or any of your houseplants, to sit in water since this may cause damaging root diseases.

Is it possible to celebrate the holidays without the poinsettia? These tropical plants have always helped us decorate mantles and table tops with their colorful bracts.  Even though they are very showy, there are many other festive plants available at florists and garden centers to help celebrate the season.

Amaryllis

Amaryllises explode with large red, white, pink, or orange lily-like flowers on a 1 to 2 foot stalk. They can act as a huge exclamation point in your decorations. You can purchase amaryllis as a bulb and then plant in a pot filled with well-drained soil leaving a 1/3 of the bulb above the soil line.  You can also purchase a pre-potted plant at various developed stages, including full bloom. Amaryllises need a sunny, warm location (temperatures above 60F).  High light intensity will strengthen the stalk and keep the plant from tipping over.  Remove the blossoms as they fade and keep the soil evenly moist.  If you’re giving a bulb as a gift, keep in mind the larger the bulb the more potential for flower buds.

Gloxinias

These low-growing potted plants produce velvety flowers of purple, pink, and white for up to 3 to 4 weeks on a 6 inch plant.  Like their African violet relative, gloxinias need specific care.  Primarily, avoid high-intensity sunlight and cold or hot drafts and avoid water on the leaves.  Water from the saucer with warm water instead of overhead irrigation.

Christmas Cactus

This easy to grow houseplant is a perfect choice for the holidays.  It’s even named for the season.  To encourage its brilliant flowers, place your Christmas Cactus in full sun during the winter and fertilize every two weeks.  Cacti are damaged most often by over-watering, so let the soil dry out between watering.  To induce flower bud formation during the fall as the days get shorter, reduce the amount of water and place your cactus in a cooler room (55-60 F night temperature).  This will encourage a healthy bloom-set.

Jerusalem Cherry

This colorful plant is noted not so much for blooms, but the bright round, orange-red berries that stay on the plants for months.  The berries are not really cherries nor are they edible, so use caution around children. They prefer bright, indirect light and cool temperatures (50-68F).  Let the soil dry out between watering and fertilize monthly to encourage a longer life span.  Jerusalem Cherry is somewhat difficult to over-winter, so consider these an annual purchase.

Other holiday possibilities could include Cyclamen, Christmas Peppers, and even Paperwhite Narcissus, potted and in full-bloom.

Trees and Shrubs:

Late fall and winter planting of dormant trees and shrubs will give you more success and require less maintenance next summer.  Temperatures are cooler and rain is more abundant during this time, which creates a less stressful environment for plants. In the spring, trees and shrubs will recover rapidly and become well established before summer heat and dryness increases the amount of watering and care required.

Keep in mind, some general guidelines when planting.  First measure the rootball and dig a hole that allows 2 to 3 inches of the rootball to extend above the soil surface.  A deeply planted tree creates a moist environment around the base of the trunk that can harbor insects and create disease problems.  Dig the diameter of the hole to twice the diameter of the rootball.  Backfill with existing soil or amend with a ratio of two parts existing soil to one part organic material.  Backfilling with only organic material will create a flowerpot effect where roots stay in the new soil rather than growing into the hard clay.  This reduces the plants ability to find water in times of drought and decreases the trees chances for survival.  Use water to settle the soil and remove any air pockets that are near the roots.  Apply 2 to 3 inches of mulch to the surface of the soil but not directly against the trunk to avoid vole problems.  Finally, inspect the tree or shrub a remove any broken or misshapen branches.

Trees are a valuable asset to our home landscape.  In addition to blooms, texture, and fall color, trees also help reduce energy bills by casting shade on our homes during summer.  People are often reluctant to plant large shade trees because they don’t want to wait 20 years to enjoy the benefit. Selecting a fast-growing tree therefore is a primary concern.  However, read about specific trees that are sold as “fast-growing” and any maintenance problems they may have before purchasing. Bradford Pear trees are an example of a fast-growing tree, but as most people are aware, they are very short lived, often breaking apart in storms after only 20 years of growth.

Selecting the right fast-growing tree for you starts with an analysis of your landscape.  Every tree has specific environmental conditions that are needed for optimum growth.  The closer your landscape meets these conditions, the better your tree will perform.  Some of the conditions to consider are: temperature, sunlight, soil texture, drainage and fertility.  Additionally, overhead and underground utility lines will impact the placement of a tree and it is best to avoid these structures in order to reduce future problems.  Large shade trees should be spaced one-half the distance of their spread from any structure or overhead obstruction and the full width of the mature tree from the trunk of any other large growing tree.  Western, southern and southeastern exposures of your home receive the most heat from the sun and are good locations to place your large shade trees.  Although there are many trees that produce shade, the ones listed below are considered fast-growing and very desirable and may be a good choice for your landscape.

  • Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum): H 60-100 ft/W 40-50 ft
  • Japanese Zelkova (Zelkova serrata): H 60-80 ft/W 30-40 ft
  • Lacebark Elm (Ulmus parvifolia): H 40-60 ft/W 30-40 ft
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum): H 40-60 ft/W 25-40 ft
  • River Birch (Betula nigra): H 50-60 ft/W 40-50 ft
  • Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima): H 50-60 ft/W 30-60 ft
  • Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera): H 80-100 ft/W 30-40 ft
  • Willow Oak (Quercus phellos): H 40-60 ft/W 30-60 ft

Around the Home:

Fall temperatures are a signal to most insects and animals to seek shelter for winter.  Often, your home may be a cozy and easy place to set up lodging.  Exclusionary tactics are your best defense. Check for openings in eaves, unscreened attic vents, knotholes, or openings around cables that may allow squirrels or chipmunks access to attics.  Even small holes are potential entrances since squirrels will gnaw to make them larger.  Cover these openings with ¼ inch mesh hardware cloth.

If you’re planning to use a fresh cut Christmas tree this holiday, follow these simple guidelines for a successful selection.

  • Feel the needles. The tree’s needles should be bendable.   If they snap or are easily crushed, they are too dry.
  • Lift the tree a few inches off the ground and bring down abruptly on the stump. It is natural for some inside needles to fall but outer needles should not drop off.
  • Make a fresh cut across the base of the trunk then immediately place in water.  If the base of the tree dries out, a seal will form and you will have to make a new cut.

Once you have your tree indoors and decorated, these guidelines will help keep your tree fresh and green for many weeks.

Water your tree heavily for the first week. The tree may require from 2 quarts to a gallon of water per day.  The warmth inside your house mimics spring, triggering the tree to begin growing. Without water, it will soon dry out. Sprinkling or misting the branches and needles will also help retain freshness.

Place the tree away from heat sources.  Cut Christmas trees need to be fresh to maintain their healthy appearance and to help reduce fire hazards.  Be sure the base of the tree is well supported and away from open flame or other heat sources.

Never use lighted candles on or near the tree, and don’t leave your home with the tree lights left on. The longer the time since the tree was cut, the drier and more combustible it becomes. Remember to check electrical light cords for fraying and worn spots that could easily lead to fires.

Don’t forget that many county recycling centers will accept your discarded tree and use it to make mulch. This certainly makes more sense than leaving it on the curb to go to the landfill.  If you like to attract birds to your lawn, setting the tree up outside will act as haven to birds until spring.

To avoid problems with ladybeetles, boxelder bugs and spiders invading your home this winter, do some pest-proofing today. Many of you may have experienced lady beetle invasions in the past. One of the best ways to prevent unwanted invasions by insects (also rodents, birds, etc.) in the home is to deny entry.  The following tips will give suggestions that not only block insects from seeking shelter in homes, but also conserve energy and increase the comfort level during summer and winter.

  1. Install door sweeps at the base of all exterior entry doors. One way to check the seal around your door is at night with the lights on inside. If you see gaps of light around the seal of 1/16 inch or more from outside the house, there is a possibility for entry of insects and spiders.
  2. Seal utility openings where pipes and wires enter the foundation and siding (i.e., outdoor faucets, gas meters, clothes dryer vents). Holes can be plugged with caulking, cement, steel wool or urethane expandable foam.
  3. Use a quality silicone or latex caulk around windows, doors, etc. Prior to sealing, cracks should be cleaned and any peeling caulk removed for adhesion.
  4. Repair gaps and tears in window and door screens to help reduce entry of flies or gnats in summer or cluster flies and lady beetles in early fall.
  5. Install 1/4 inch wire mesh (hardware cloth) over attic, roof, and crawl space vents in order to prevent entry of squirrels, birds and other wildlife.

One technique for finding entry points around your home is to turn on all your indoor lights at night and walk around your home checking for areas where light is escaping.  If light is getting out, chances are pests are getting in.

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