University City

Garden, yard hints for big payoffs next spring

November’s chill brings some benefits to gardens.

The collards taste sweeter after frost, and the bugs and the kudzu are finally in full-scale if temporary retreat.

In the old days, seductive seed catalogs would start to arrive in November, tempting us with visions of what might be, just as the leaves were dropping to reveal all the various holes, spaces and openings in our gardens.

Nowadays, you can just go online, any time you want, to feel totally inadequate about what’s growing in your yard. Such is progress.

Some seed catalogs are still worth getting in the paper edition. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,, is a relatively new but infectiously exuberant seed company. It prints a catalog that’s so attractive it stays all year on our living room coffee table, beside all the nice artsy books: great art and photography, exotic travel and unattainable landscaping.

That isn’t to say online doesn’t have some advantages of its own. Territorial Seed, for instance, offers a free one-month trial of an online garden planner. Check it out at

Unfortunately, gardeners can’t afford to sit around inside through November reading catalogs, online or off. There are plenty of tasks waiting, and if we take action now, there will be big payoffs next spring.

• Toward the end of this month and into December, apply sticky bands to control cankerworms, focusing on your large trees, especially oaks. Use techniques suggested by the Cooperative Extension and the city of Charlotte. Remember to make a note to remove traps in February.

• Make sure you are ready for the coming harvest of fall leaves. They’re perfect for making compost that’s pure black gold for all gardens, especially our red clay. Compost helps unlock the clay and transform it into highly productive garden soil.

Get your composting area ready now. In its most basic form, all you need to do is to pile up leaves in a corner of the yard. You don’t even need a compost bin. Learn from the woods; that’s how nature makes topsoil here in the Piedmont.

• If you want, though, you can wade much deeper into composting science. Check out one of the many websites about composting, or contact Mecklenburg’s master composter program, which offers classes and occasional bin sales. The black gold standard is Cornell University’s site:


The one thing that’s completely silly is to is bag leaves and treat them as trash. Fortunately, our county is on top of things: The leaves we leave in bags by the curb go to Mecklenburg County’s Compost Central, which is moving to a larger location, where we pay tax money to convert the leaves to compost on a massive scale with big equipment.

We can then buy back the compost, which is a very high-quality product and completely free from “biosolids” (sewage sludge). Still, it is obvious you can save money for yourself and for the community by composting at home.

• November is prime time to send in a soil test, since labs are less busy in the fall. Soil test boxes and instructions are available at the Cooperative Extension and Soil & Water Conservation District offices.

You have an added incentive this year: After decades of providing free soil tests, North Carolina is going to begin charging $4 each for tests sent in between December and March. Send your test in November, and it will still be free (you pay only postage to send the sample to Raleigh.)

• If you have any time and energy left after all the tree banding, composting and soil testing is done, try to get some vegetable beds prepared for spring planting.

Till or double-dig your area or growing beds, and add organic matter. Wait to apply high-nitrogen fertilizer – such as dried manure or such commercial organic blends as Espoma Plant-tone (5-3-3) – until planting time in the spring.

As the month ends, we traditionally celebrate the bounty from our gardens and give thanks for the living soil that sustains us.

This year the Jewish festival of Hanukkah occurs at the same time, offering a double reason to celebrate.

As a way to tangibly show thanks, include some fresh, local food on your holiday menu from your own garden or grown by a local farmer (or both). You might even think of it as a “mitzvah” (“sacred duty” in Hebrew).