Dry Weather, but Be Ready When It Does Rain

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This is the third consecutive fall in Caldwell County that has been marked by dry conditions. Currently, I’d describe our situation as bone dry. The NC Drought Management Advisory Council classifies the conditions we are experiencing in Caldwell County as D1, with Southwestern Caldwell as D2. They define D1 as a moderate drought and D2 as a severe drought.

Unlike the past two years, when we escaped drought despite the typically drier La Niña pattern. Now we’re transitioning into an El Niño this winter, which typically brings hope for more sustained wetter weather. However, any substantial relief from the drought is forecasted to be in the long-term outlook. In the short term, little precipitation is expected through the end of November.

Of course, it will rain again; we just don’t know when. Nonetheless, there are measures you can take to maximize the benefits of the rain when it arrives. First, avoid mowing or grazing your fescue too short. Ideally, leaving 4 inches tall is best. When the grass reaches this height, it’s advisable to wait for rain. The fescue will recover much quicker if it’s not overgrazed or mowed too close.

To achieve maximum growth during the fall and early spring, fall is typically the season to fertilize fescue lawns, pastures, and hayfields. However, due to the current dry conditions, I would not recommend fertilizing at this time. Lime, however, can be applied if needed.

Our soils naturally become more acidic over time, which is why lime application is often necessary. Here are a few key points about lime:

  • Lime is a soil amendment, not a fertilizer. Dolomitic lime contains calcium and magnesium, while calcitic lime only supplies calcium.
  • Lime is available in powdered or pelletized form for easy application, and while liquid lime is an option, it typically represents a more costly method.
  • Lime raises soil pH. Soils in our area tend to be clay-based and become more acidic over time. A pH of 7 is neutral; anything below 7 is acidic, and above 7 is alkaline.
  • Though lime can be applied any time of the year, fall is the traditional season for its application.
  • Most plants, including fescue and many garden vegetables, thrive in slightly acidic soils with a pH between 6.0 to 6.5.
  • Certain plants, such as azaleas, rhododendrons, blueberries, and broomsedge, prefer even more acidic soils with a pH below 6.0.
  • Both low and high soil pH levels can prevent plants from absorbing nutrients effectively.

Soil testing is the most reliable method to determine soil nutrient content and pH levels. It is a misconception that “you can’t put down too much lime” – indeed, excessive lime can be applied. I have seen several instances over the years where too much lime was causing a problem with plant growth in Caldwell County.

Applying lime or any other nutrient without soil testing can be harmful to plant health. Soil tests are conducted by the NC Department of Agriculture. Kits are available at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Center at 120 Hospital Ave, Lenoir, along with soil probes for sampling. Soil testing is essential for the correct application of lime and fertilizer. This service is free until the end of November, after which there is a $4 charge per sample.

A proper soil sample should be taken at a depth of 4 inches, which may be difficult in dry conditions. This depth corresponds to the effective rooting zone of grass and is the appropriate level for altering soil nutrient composition in lawns, pastures, and hayfields. For plowed gardens and fields, samples should match the depth of the plowed layer.

If you have questions about soil testing or any other agricultural concerns, please contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Caldwell County Center at (828) 757-1290 or visit us online.

drought map

Weekly North Carolina Drought Update created by the NC State Climate Office.

Special thanks to Darrell Blackwelder for collaboration on this article. Darrell is retired from North Carolina Cooperative Extension where he served as a horticulture agent and the Director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension,Rowan County Center.