University City

In December, rest, read up after a few chores are done

December is one of my favorite gardening months, not because of what’s going on in the garden but because of what isn’t.

After a year of doing chores, pulling weeds and making decisions, we finally get the gift of a few weeks of repose in December and January.

That’s especially true in the food garden. After sunshine drops below 10 hours a day, plants essentially stop growing. Elliot Coleman calls this period “The Persephone Days.” Row covers help keep mature crops in better shape (especially true for lettuce), but growth comes to a halt, at least above ground.

Anna Hess, who blogs engagingly about homesteading and growing at, puts it this way: “You’re not extending the growing season; just the harvest season.”

Since nothing is growing, it’s very tempting to curl up by the fire with a big pile of gardening books, gift lists for friends and wish lists for myself. But – sigh – there are still a few December chores to take care of first.

At the top of the Charlotte gardener’s December list is banding trees against cankerworms.

The city has a program to finance fancy kits, but you can create a simpler and cheaper do-it-yourself version using Gorilla tape and Tanglefoot, a gooey material that catches cankerworm adults as they climb up trees. Try to protect your vulnerable trees, such as oaks and maples, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, just as soon as most autumn leaves have fallen.

Jack McNeary, a veteran local arborist who probably knows as much about cankerworms as anybody, has already put up his first bands. He suggests using old tweezers to remove leaves. His website,, is an excellent place to begin gathering information. Know your enemy.

You also can plant a few things outdoors this month in the home landscape, including trees, shrubs and woody herbs. December is a good time to plant spring-blooming bulbs, too, especially tulips, which like cooler soil conditions.

The trick is finding good-quality bulbs now, if you haven’t already ordered or purchased some. You can also sow poppies.

Indoors, you can start onions this month, and any cool-season crops such as collards or cabbage you want to set out in February, after Persephone brings sunlight back to awaken the darkened world.

I sometimes wait until after the holidays to start seedlings, though, since family travel plans often mean baby plants with nobody to water them for a week or more at a time. Won’t work.

If you plan to plant a vegetable garden in the spring and you haven’t yet prepared spring beds for snap peas, onions, potatoes, spinach and other early-planted crops, wait until conditions are dry enough and get that chore done.

The good folks at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply suggest a helpful list of winter tasks at They remind gardeners to drain and turn off hoses and irrigation systems, store any liquid fertilizers and pest control products indoors, protect new fruit trees from sun and critter damage with tree guards on the trunks, clean up spent crops and compost everything that is not diseased.

Then spread an inch of good compost everywhere you can, topped with a mulch to protect soil. Once all that’s done, or when weather is bad, clean and repair tools and oil wooden handles.

They also recommend spending some quality time shopping for seeds, reading good books and reviewing your garden or farm journal from the past year, as you dream about 2015.

Can’t beat that advice. Just think of it as planting spiritual seeds.


December is, on average, a relatively chilly month for Charlotte, although we aren’t talking Buffalo here. Scientific data is very uncertain about what the month may bring.

Day length drops from just under 10 hours on Dec. 1 (beginning the Persephone Days) to 9 hours 50 minutes on the 31st. The Winter Solstice is on Dec. 21, the shortest day of the year at 9 hours 47 minutes.

Sunrise at the beginning of the month is about 7:25 a.m., and sundown about 5:15 p.m. By the end of the month, sunrise is about 7:30 a.m., and sundown is shortly after 5:20 p.m.

The average high is about 53 degrees F, and average lows are just below freezing, 32 degrees.

Normally, we get about 3 1/4 inches of rain, and light snow sometimes falls after Dec. 15.

The moon was full on Dec. 6 and will be new on Dec. 21.