University City

In September, think ahead to spring

It makes sense that we University City gardeners want to do something now about our pooped-looking plants and lawns after weeks of summer heat.

With the exception of the Sisyphean task of controlling weeds, however, we need to think twice before taking drastic action. Patience and looking ahead to spring are key guidelines in the September garden.

Lose the loppers

For instance, don't take aggressive action now with saws, loppers or pruners. Shearing fall and spring bloomers such as azaleas and camellias will wipe out your spring flowers.

Even worse, aggressive September pruning may stimulate fresh growth, leaving valuable plants vulnerable to being killed by cold weather. Your shrubs and trees need to begin the process of hardening this month.

If you have Zen-like self-control, you can still remove dead wood or do a tiny bit of shaping. But if you're like me, the best idea is to lock up your pruning tools. Rechannel your energy into chopping firewood or sawing boards for a bookshelf.

Feed the soil, not the plants

"Feed the soil, not the plants," the organic gardener's first law, takes on a very literal meaning now.

A dose of fertilizer now, especially one that's rich in quick-release nitrogen, stimulates trees and shrubs in a way similar to pruning. Wait until plants have entered dormancy later this fall to fertilize.

On the other hand, now is the ideal time to prepare your soil to receive any new trees or shrubs you'll be adding this fall, including sure-winner fruit crops such as rabbiteye blueberries and figs.

Researchers report that simply loosening the soil to about 12 inches deep is more important than anything you add. An inch of good compost, however, and other soil amendments as recommended by the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service can bring important additional benefits.

Lawn care

Someday - maybe sooner than anybody thinks - public opinion will view vast, chemically dependent lawns as out of touch, like driving a Hummer or living on fast-food giga-burgers. Why?

It's simple: Lawns demand the same amount of water and fertilizer per acre as a food-producing farm, but you can't eat fescue or Bermuda grass.

But until that day comes, September is the time for lawn renovation. Begin by cutting a one-foot "trap door" in your turf, peeling it back and counting the grubs. Those are the baby versions of Japanese beetles and their kin. If you count more than about five, it's time to intervene with milky spore, a biological control.

You can also aerate lawns this month. If you have a fescue lawn, fertilizing begins in September, since fescue grows best in cool weather. Three split fertilizer applications, around Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, are best for the lawn and the environment.

It goes without saying that if you want to save money and help the planet, shrink your lawn to the size you need, and no larger.

Edible landscaping

You can still plant fall vegetables in September, but the clock is ticking.

The safest September choices are quick growers, such as leaf lettuce, radishes, turnips and mustard greens. Some greens, such as Red Bor kale, Charlotte Swiss chard and Red Giant mustard, are so attractive that they'll fit right into your fall flower beds.

If you dream of starting a home vegetable garden next spring, pick a spot now, dig it up, add an inch of compost and then sow a winter cover crop of crimson clover. You can find the seed at just about any old-fashioned hardware store, such as Faulk Brothers on North Tryon or Davis General Store on Old Statesville Road, both in University City.

Crimson clover protects and enriches the soil over the winter, then blooms beautifully in the spring. After enjoying the flowers, you can till it in or mow it, then plant your spring garden.

There's the true essence of September in the garden: thinking ahead.