North Carolina’s “Fifth Season” And Time to Start Thinking About Fall Planting

ImageWhen I recruit companies to North Carolina in my “day job” as an economic developer, the state’s temperate, four-season climate is often a major selling point, particularly for folks who have just come through a long Michigan winter or a broiling Texas summer. I don’t usually mention our “Fifth Season” though; the one that starts around the first of August and runs through mid-September. Different people know this season by different names. My fishing buddy calls it “Nothing Biting” season. I call it “Brown-Out” season; the six week period when the Spring/Summer plants have lost their oomph (as my Mother used to say), but it’s too early yet for the Fall planting.

One sure sign of Brown-Out season is the color of my lawn. Like many in the Carolina Piedmont, I plant tall fescue, a type of grass that Winters well and pops brilliant green in the Spring. Alas, it tends to whither under the unrelenting Southern Summer sun and by the first of August, even irrigated, well-manicured fescue lawns look a bit worse for wear. Beyond a little sprinkling if it’s a REALLY dry period, I don’t irrigate, so by August my lawn is, to be charitable, looking a little ragged. This really concerned me the first couple of years down here: I was afraid I’d somehow killed my grass. But now, I take it all in stride, knowing that a little fertilizer, a good core aeration and a bit of overseeding will bring back the lush green carpet by the end of September. 

Unlike much of the country, the Charlotte area has had a relatively normal Summer in terms of precipitation. There have been a couple of three or four day periods without rain, but for the most part the typical Carolinas Summer pattern of hot, sunny afternoons giving way to evening thunderstorms has held sway. Even with the regular rains, however, my less heat tolerant bedding plants (I’m looking at you impatiens) are pretty much played out. They will be replaced by pansies in late September, but pansies wouldn’t last ten minutes in this heat, so for the time-being, I’ll just leave the not-entirely-healthy beds alone and hope for the best.

In the vegetable garden, Brown-Out season marks the peak and subsequent decline of my tomatoes and peppers, although I can generally nurse some production from those plants right up until the first frost. It is also time to start planting for the Fall. Over the past couple of weeks, I have put in my second planting of carrots, beets, lettuce, radishes and onions for October harvest. Johnny’s Selected seeds offers a really nifty Fall planting calculator which I use to time my planting for maximum productivity by simply entering the projected date of first frost (October 14th here) and following the recommended planting dates. You can download that calculator here.

Finally, I am trying something a little different this year; growing pansies from scratch. Pansies can be difficult to grow from seed because they require complete darkness to germinate and very cool damp conditions to grow. Typically, I find this to be too much trouble and just buy a couple of flats from Dearness Gardens in Huntersville. This year, though, I want to create some Fall/Winter hanging baskets for my front porch with trailing pansies, and those can be hard to find in the colors I need to create an effective floral basket. So, I decided to try growing my own. I bought a packet of assorted trailing pansy seeds from Swallowtail Garden and started them in peat pots under the bed in my guest room. After 14 days, I had about a 60% germination rate, which was about what I expected. As it turned out, the really delicate part of the process is the transition of the germinated seeds into the light. For whatever reasons, I lost several more, but now seem to have 10 more-or-less healthy, albeit tiny, plants. They have a long way to go before I can transplant them into the hanging baskets in September.

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