December To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) branch in early winter. (Image credit: Cathy Dewitt CC BY 4.0)

December is coming.

No!  Wait!  It’s here.

An amazing and wondrous

(And cold) time of year.

‘Tis the holiday month

Shared with family and friends.

Hanukkah, then Christmas,

Kwanzaa at month’s end.

No time for the garden.

“Blasphemy!!,” so you say.

Well, there’s naught to fertilize

And nothing to spray.

But here is a list

More meager than most.

You can finish in no time

Then with friends drink a toast.

LAWN CARE in December

Is really a breeze.

All you need do

Is remove fallen leaves.

Rake ‘em or blow ’em

Compost them in a hill.

Just don’t send them

To the landfill.

PRUNING is something

To get you outside.

Hand pruning not shearing

Should be your guide.

SPRAYING is over.

All done for this year.

Time to clean up

And hang up that gear.


Or so it would seem.

I strongly suggest

You ask our prop team.

Now sit back and chill

With your beverage of choice.

Sing a sweet song

Using your “indoor” voice.

Warm your toes by the fire

Gather family and friends.

Toast one another

Toast the year’s end.

This holiday season

(Choose your celebration.)

May you find time

For quiet cogitation.

Time to think and to ponder

Time for thanks giving

For all that is good,

For all that is living.

May all of our gardens

In the upcoming year

Be enough for us

With plenty to share.

Happy Hanukkah!  Merry Christmas! 

Joyous and thoughtful Kwanzaa!, Y’all.

Bring on 2023!

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Upcoming Program: “Plan(t) Your Year” with Bull City Gardener Live! 

(Image credit: M. Heigel)

The new year right around the corner brings with it beginnings, resolutions we make for adventure-seeking, learning, and healthier eating, and, of course seed catalogs, that show up in your mailbox and get you excited about spring! Growing plants, especially vegetables, from seeds offers so many advantages to the home gardener: a broader variety of vegetables to choose from, a cost-effective way to garden versus using more expensive plant starts, and the thrill of nursing seeds into seedlings and ultimately onto your plate.

Join the Bull City Gardener Live! program this January to learn how easy it is to grow veggies year round in the Piedmont region. The class will emphasize seed starting, garden bed planting, season extension, succession planting, and so much more.

Three Durham County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers will lead this exciting workshop. Sara Smith will focus on propagation, Bev Tisci will talk seed starting, and Kathryn Hamilton1 will explore succession gardening and season extension. Part of the presenters’ extensive veggie resumes includes work on the Durham County’s recent tomato grafting project, which won international acclaim and a first-place spot in the research category at the David Gibby International Master Gardener Search for Excellence in 2021. 2

While the class is geared toward beginners, rest assured, it will be chock full of advice from veteran vegetable growers and seed starters, so there is something for everyone, regardless of experience.

(Image credit: NC Cooperative Extenstion)

While the class is FREE, pre-registration is required to secure your spot through Eventbrite. Click here to register

Plan(t) Your Year

Two Sessions:

Monday, January 9, 2023 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. (FULL)

Saturday, January 14, 2023 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. (Register Here)

721 Foster Street, Durham, NC 27701

Bull City Gardener workshops like”Plan(t) Your Year” are part of the Extension Master Gardener℠ program of Durham County and are open to everyone. Read more at: and stay tuned for more 2023 programs.



1–Kathryn Hamilton gave our readers a little taste of her annual garden planning in her September 14, 2022 blog article “Garden Veggies Year Round: One Gardener’s Calendar.” Click here to revisit her article

2–Read more about Durham County’s EMGV award-winning tomato research at

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There’s Still Time to Plant Garlic…

By Ann Barnes, EMGV

No doubt if you are either cooking or enjoying a delicious Thanksgiving meal this week, garlic is on the ingredients list. Growing garlic isn’t hard, and thanks to our mild climate, you can still plant garlic for a late spring and summer harvest. It’s a great time to revisit Ann Barnes’s 2016 article on the topic. It’s a quick read during a busy holiday week, and it includes a comprehensive video showing you how to plant this tasty bulb. Plus, we’ve added some additional resources on the topic.


(Image credit: Virginia Cooperative Extension, Piedmont Master Gardeners)

I love garlic. Since it should be planted in fall (September – November), it is not too late to add it to your garden if you act quickly. Garlic is easy to plant, easy to grow, and can be stored for months after harvest. Choose a sunny spot with good drainage and add compost if your soil is heavy clay. Garlic doesn’t compete well with weeds, so you will need to take care of those winter weeds that can take over your garden!

Types of Garlic

“Seed garlic” (actual cloves of garlic) can be purchased online or in garden centers. Garlic from the grocery store may not be a variety best suited for growing in your area and also could be treated to reduce sprouting, so buying seed garlic may lead to a better crop. There are two classifications of garlic varieties – hardneck and softneck. Softneck varieties are most often recommended for southern gardens. Softneck garlic is the familiar type of garlic you see in supermarkets. It stores well and can be made into braids.  Hardneck varieties are also prized for their edible scapes that can be harvested in the spring. It does not store as well as softneck garlic. There are some varieties that grow well in the Piedmont, but most are more suited for areas with colder winters.

How to Plant and Harvest Garlic

NC Cooperative Extension video featuring a Durham County Master Gardener volunteers demonstrating best practices for planting, growing, harvesting, and curing garlic at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden in Durham, NC. (Filming and editing credit: Lisa Poser)

The video above details how to plant garlic. Make sure the pointed end of the clove faces up and the flat end faces down. Plant 1-3″ deep, 4-8″ apart. Mulch to retain moisture and reduce weeds. If a soil test indicates your soil pH is below 6.0, lime may be required. Garlic is also a “heavy feeder,” so an application of fertilizer at planting and again in early spring may be desired.

Garlic is ready for harvest in June or July, when leaves start to lose their green color. Use a garden fork to lift the bulbs from the ground. Remove soil without washing and leave the stem and roots on the harvested bulbs. Allow garlic to cure in a well ventilated, dry place for about two weeks. If you plan to braid your softneck garlic, do so while the stems are still flexible. See instructions for braiding garlic below in the University of Georgia Extension’s extensive site link.


Resources and Additional Information

For a thorough overview of growing garlic in your garden including varieties, plant development, irrigation requirements, pests, harvesting, and preserving, check out the extensive Cooperative Extensions’s online resources from University of Georgia, North Carolina State University, and Virginia.

Intrigued by garlic and curious about growing other species of the Allium genus like onions, leeks, and shallots? Clemson University’s Home and Garden Information Center has a fantastic online resources to whet your appetite for growing these related bulbs.

To learn more about the history of garlic–its ancient uses for medicinal purposes to its staring role in world cuisine–and some interesting trivia to share with friends and family over the Thanksgiving table, The University of Missouri’s Integrated Pest Management site offers a wealth of knowledge on garlic.

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Specimen Spotlight: Bloody Dock

By Melinda Heigel, EMGV

The high-contrast lanceolate to oblong leaf of bloody dock. (Image credit: M. Heigel)

It’s the time of year when we are all trying to inject color into the garden by planting snapdragons, pansies, and violas, those wonderful dogged plants that keep trucking through the winter and shine like diamonds again in the spring. Pansies are often my go-to choice, especially for containers, and I am always looking for interesting companion plants to add some visual interest with height, texture and color. I am also on the hunt for plants that are just as hardy and resilient as the unflappable pansy. One of my favorite companion plants that checks all the boxes is bloody dock (Rumex sanguineus).

Also commonly known as red-veined dock, bloodwort, wood dock, or more generically sorrel, this herb is readily available in nurseries and local garden centers alongside the basil and sage. Although I typically treat R. sanguineus as an annual, it’s technically a herbaceous perennial. Part of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) and native to Europe and northern Iran, there are more than 200 species of sorrel which vary–annuals to biennials to perennials, showy to less colorful. This tough plant is hardy in Zones 4-8 and in our central North Carolina climate is typically an evergreen. I prize this plant most for its ornamental foliage. Its got great bright-green color with a stunning deep-red venation which provides a perfect canvas on which to contrast cold-hardy annuals. Sorrel is a great “filler” in container gardening vernacular (as in thriller, filler, and spiller). I have included it with success in several fall-container planting projects along with pansies (Viola x wittrockiana), violas (Viola spp.), creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), cushion spurge (Euphorbia epithymoides), and underplanted tulips (Tulipa). And while it might look at little worn in the coldest depths of the winter, it perks up right on cue when spring’s warmer temps arrive.


(Left to right) Just home from the local nursery with a box of blotch pansies, violas, snapdragons, and bloody dock in October 2021. At home in the planter come spring of 2022, bloody dock provides volume, contrasting texture, and makes a planter full of pansies look complete. (Below left to right) Using bloody dock in a large container underplanted with tulips in spring of 2020. I am especially fond of pairing bloody dock with pink to red-toned leaves and flowers. Red tones echo the bloody dock’s venation and red and green are opposite colors on the color wheel. Using opposite color combinations on the color wheel makes for plantings with striking contrast that really pop. (Image credit: M. Heigel)


While I typically use bloody dock for container gardening, it has broader use cases. Its 12-18″ clumping habit makes it a perfect candidate for borders and edging in the garden. Bloody dock prefers full-sun, but anecdotally, I have had success in part-sun conditions too. It prefers moist, well-drained soil. If planted in your garden beds as a perennial, the plant sprouts a flower stalk in late spring that is more for self seeding than for its beauty. Pinch these inflorescences back to encourage a fuller, more dense plant. As I mentioned, this plant is readily available at your local nursery but can also be cultivated by sowing seeds in the spring or plant division. In addition to container and front-of-the border applications, I have always read that bloody dock is edible at certain times of its life-cycle. (It’s amazing what you learn when you take time to just read the little plant tags that come along with your nursery plants!) However, the ornamental version I use in containers is less-often consumed. Other species of Rumex are better-suited for use as garnishes and for adding a tart flavor in salads. Exercise caution, however; gardeners looking to eat Rumex spp. should do some additional research, only use young small leaves, and tread lightly as the plant is high in oxalic acid which can cause stomach upset if you eat too much or have other health conditions. 1 As for me, I think I’ll stick to enjoying this plant’s beauty with my eyes only in my fall-to-spring containers.



1– For a general look at docks and sorrels, including more information about eating certain types, see North Carolina State University’s Plant Toolbox site You can also google Rumex+NCSU to read about additional species of the plant.

Reading and Additional Information

North Carolina State University and University of Wisconsin extension sites listed below offer additional information on Rumex sanguineus.

For more information about planting containers, The University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension site offers a good overview that includes tips on the right soil mixture as well as plant and container choices.

Although the specimen spotlight focuses on bloody dock, check out Penn State Extension’s factsheet on using and caring for pansies for the fall and spring growing seasons. Bloody dock and pansies can be a great pairing, so why not keep them both in tip-top shape?

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The Budding Orchardist: Surviving a Harsh Summer

By Jeff Kanters, EMGV

The second installment of our series “The Budding Orchardist: To Everything there is a Season

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”


(Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

What a summer this has been. Southern Durham, NC suffered long periods of drought amid insufferable heat and humidity. The Briggs Garden Orchard Team was challenged on several fronts. All fruit trees were inspected weekly at the trunk base, along the trunk, and throughout the canopy for disease or damage.

(Left to right) Briggs Orchard Zone Team members Deb Parks, Jeff Kanters and Corey Parks. (Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

Given the heat and drought of most of the summer, our priority was to focus on manual biweekly watering of all the trees deeply at the root zone around tree wells for most weeks. Good news is the berms created a good-draining soil that is favored by most fruit trees. Bad news is the berms created a good-draining soil. Therefore, the need arose for the twice-weekly watering to prevent the new trees from suffering drought stress which could weaken the trees and make them more susceptible to other pests and diseases. The summer heat snuck up on us, and until we quickly adjusted the frequency of watering, a few of the trees showed drought stress. Once we increased the frequency of watering, the stressed trees all recovered quickly.

Early in the summer we removed all developing fruit on these one and two-year-old trees to allow them to put energy into root and top growth as they were establishing. If we allowed the fruit to develop too soon on a young tree, this would have stressed the tree which is too immature to support developing fruit and, again, make the tree more susceptible to pests and diseases. Some of the trees grew fruit so fast that we were caught off guard before removing them in late spring.

We removed any root stock suckers growing at the base of a tree below the graft line. If we allowed these suckers to grow from the root stock, the new growth would suck energy from the grafted upper portion or scion of the tree, weakening tree development.

We applied spreaders to early season’s new growth to encourage side or scaffold branch angles between 45 and 60 degrees from the trunk. We did this because branches too close together shade the center of the tree and prevent sunlight from reaching leaves in the middle of the tree. This reduces tree vigor and the quantity and size of fruit that may develop in the future. As limbs hardened in place, the spreaders were removed.

We survived the Japanese beetle (Popilla japonica) scourge in mid-summer, manually removing over 2,000 beetles from many trees throughout June into the first part of July. They met their maker in dish-soapy water. In September, we initiated the application of milky spore pellets to the open grass areas throughout the vegetable gardens and orchard. We did this to reduce the developing Japanese beetle grubs in the ground feeding on grass roots. Milky spore is a soil dwelling bacterium, Paenibacillus popilliae.

This is how it works. Resident spores in the soil are swallowed by grubs during their normal pattern of feeding on roots. The ingestion of the spore by the grub host activates the reproduction of the bacteria inside the grub. Within 7-21 days the grub will die and, as the grub decomposes, billions of new spores are released into the soil that will kill more grubs. Milky spore is not harmful to beneficial insects, birds, bees, pets or people. We plan to apply another round of milky spore next May when the soil temperature is above 65 degrees.

We were also surprised by the rapid proliferation of quack grass and broadleaf weeds over all the orchard berms.  We acted and covered the berms between the trees with cardboard and burlap and topped with 2 inches of shredded bark. This snuffed out weeds as well as helped moderate the soil temperatures around the trees, slow water loss, and protect beneficial soil microbes from temperature extremes. Plus the cardboard and burlap naturally decompose. We plan to keep fortifying the berms annually with shredded bark.

Throughout this fall and winter, we will begin the process of prepping the orchard for the coming cold months. Stay tuned as this ongoing saga continues.


Resources and Additional Reading

For more information on how to start your own small orchard, North Carolina State University has a through guide.

Interested in growing fruit in your home garden? The NC State Cooperative Extension’s gardener handbook offers an excellent introduction with details on site selection, fruit selection, planting, care, and harvest.

To learn about biological control of grubs, the larval stage of Japanese beetles, through the use of milky spore bacteria, read more from NC State Cooperative Extension.

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