Farmers, gardeners hope for rain

Posted July 10, 2010 11:22 a.m. EDT
Updated July 10, 2010 6:13 p.m. EDT

— Gardeners and farmers are eyeing the chances for showers and storms this weekend, hoping for rain that will make up for water-sapping and drought-creating heat during the hottest June ever recorded in the Triangle.

Moderate drought conditions – the least severe of four categories – took hold in 18 counties, including Edgecombe, Franklin, Granville, Halifax, Nash, Northampton, Vance and Warren, according to a weekly update from the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday.

"A lack of rainfall and higher sustained temperatures are beginning to impact croplands in North Carolina," Candice Craig, statistician for National Agricultural Statistics Service, said Thursday. "Pastures and hay fields have been depleted of soil moisture. Corn conditions are deteriorating, and some corn crops are showing drought stress."

In June, Raleigh-Durham International Airport saw an average temperature of 81.5 degrees, breaking the record set in June 2008 – when the worst drought in North Carolina's history was in full swing. Temperatures were above 90 degrees for 22 days and once reached 101 degrees.

The National Weather Service says that through the end of May, rainfall at RDU was 2.12 inches below normal. Since June 1, that number has doubled to 4.14 inches.

Friday night saw the first significant rainfall – 0.40 inches – in Raleigh this July, and more rain could fall this weekend.

"Last night, some concentrated areas got some storms that were putting some locally heavy rainfall. Other areas kind of missed out during the night," WRAL meteorologist Mike Moss said.

"Hopefully, overall, we'll see some more areas see rain this afternoon."

Moss said chances are "fairly high for hit-and-miss storms" in central and eastern counties Saturday evening. Isolated severe storms could also produce gusty winds.

On Sunday, drier, less humid air will push into North Carolina. There will be a slight chance of showers and storms in the coastal plain.

Saturday will see a high temperature around 89 degrees, and Sunday around 93 degrees.

So far, heat and a lack of rain have done sporadic damage to crops, such as corn, tobacco and soybeans, said Colby Lambert, with the Cumberland County Cooperative Extension Office.

Stress is being seen on the bottom leaves of tobacco plants, which are typically harvested from the end of July through September.

The intense heat in June was a particular problem because many crops, such as soybeans, are still tender, Lambert said. Plants can can better withstand the intense heat later in the growing season, because by then, they are stronger and more mature.

North Carolina farmers are also more dependent than those elsewhere on consistent rainfall, because most growers in the state do not use irrigation.

The rainfall shortage can be a good opportunity for gardeners to make their creations more drought resistant, said Dr. Carl Matyac, with North Carolina State University's Cooperative Extension Office.

"It's always an opportunity in the garden to evaluate the plant material you have," Matyac said. "Do a little research on some plants that are actually able to survive low-water conditions.

He suggested flowering plants like gomphrena, melampodium, sedum, butterfly weed and verbena and shrubs and small trees such as crepe myrtle, hollies, spirea and gardenias.

"There's also a lot of ornamental grasses out there that are just as tough as nails," Matyac said.

Gardeners should also take care how they put their plants into the soil, he said. Soil should be tilled before planting, and organic matter, such as compost or mulch, mixed in. After planting, the plant should be watered and mulched.

"That's going to ensure that it's going to be able to adapt and adjust to that environment and grow and develop a root system and be successful," Matyac.