Play it cool


It may not feel like fall in southeastern North Carolina as warm temperatures persist through September, but the time is ripe to start planning for a successful crop of fall vegetables.

Evan Folds, president of Progressive Gardens, said many of the gardeners he talks with in the store cite fall as the best time to garden. Cool weather crops, especially lettuce and greens, are easier to grow, plus dropping temperatures relieve stress on both plants and gardeners, making afternoons spent pulling weeds and watering less strenuous. 

The change in temperature also ushers in the beginning of the end for pests and diseases that afflict summer gardens. Folds said the life cycle of many common garden pests and diseases slows down in cooler weather.

While the end of August is considered the last window of opportunity to get plants in the ground for gardens in zone 8, Folds, said he sees mid-September as the deadline for the Wilmington region. 

“We have a microclimate relative to somewhere as close as Raleigh. Southeastern North Carolina used to be called the breadbasket of the South because it has such a warmer climate, being by the water. We’re kind of like an 8.5 zone instead of a zone 8, which is what we’re typically told we are,” Folds said.

Another cold winter is forecasted for the area, so Folds recommended having fall vegetables planted no later than September to maximize yields through the end of the year. 

Typically cooler weather marks the transition from tomatoes, squash, beans and berries to broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, root vegetables, herbs, lettuces and greens like chard, kale and spinach. While warm weather crops can be harvested, tilled up and replaced with new plants, Folds said many of the crops will produce fruit through the early fall months.

“That’s the art of gardening. You’re not going to plant tomatoes now but you don’t have to harvest because it’s time to stop, either. It’s not unrealistic for tomatoes or peppers to continue to grow into the fall. But things like broccoli, for example, can grow leaves in the summer but won’t grow the head, the broccoli that we eat, until the temperature’s cold,” Folds said. “It’s just a situation of tending your garden to get the most out of it until you can’t anymore.”

Shorter days may be a consideration when selecting a new plot to ensure plants get the appropriate access to a dwindling supply of sunlight. Folds said while some plants are affected by less exposure to light, or photoperiod, temperature is the biggest variable affecting growth.

Whether repurposing the same plot or starting anew, Folds said adding a fresh layer of compost or biologically diverse fertilizer is often a necessary task in an area with notoriously bad soil.

“The best time to do that is yesterday. Any time of the year, it’s a prerequisite to garden here because it’s a beach otherwise,” Folds said.

Many fall plants can be directly seeded, as warm soil helps the seeds germinate quickly. Seeds may be planted a little deeper than usual to retain more water. 

Folds said fall gardens yield through the end of December. Crops tend to stop producing when the coldest temperatures set in during the first months of the new year. 

During warm winters, Folds said local gardeners historically grew throughout the season by protecting plots from freezing temperatures with a sheet and a heavy watering. Adding extra water to the plants seems counterintuitive, but Folds said it works because water changes temperature slower than air. 



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