Protecting You And Your Garden During A Heatwave

Hello summer! Today marks the official first day of summer and it is hot out there! The last thing you may be thinking about are your plants in the garden but this week of temperatures over 100° can be stressful on our landscapes. The sizzling heat not only affects your ability to enjoy the outdoors, it also causes you to fear for the survival of your garden. While many plants can thrive in the normal summer heat, lengthy doses of daytime temperatures in the 100’s along with warm nighttime temperatures are enough to push even the hardiest gardeners and plants to the edge.  During conditions of extreme heat, some simple tips can help keep both you and your garden healthy.

Go into the garden prepared

With some simple precautions, you can safely garden in the heat.

  • Don’t try to do anything significant when it’s this hot. That means, no weeding or planting.
  • Limit your outdoor activity to morning and evening hours.
  • If you’re outside in hot weather you’ll need to make an effort to drink more fluids. Drink plenty of cool (not icy cold) fluids; water is best. Avoid drinking liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar.
  • Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (also keeps you cooler) and sunglasses and by putting on sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher (the most effective products say “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection” on their labels)
  • Take breaks often. Try to rest in shaded areas so that your body’s thermostat will have a chance to recover.
  • Pay attention to signs of heat-related illness, including extremely high body temperature, headache, rapid pulse, dizziness, nausea, confusion, or unconsciousness. Stop working if you experience any of these symptoms.

Plants lose water through leaves and must take up water from the soil to replenish what was lost. If there isn’t enough moisture in the soil, or if it is hot enough that the plant can’t replace lost water fast enough, the plant will wilt. Often, plants wilt during the heat of the day but recover when temperatures cool in the evening. If a plant looks peaked and wilted early in the morning, it needs water. If a plant looks fine in the morning, but droopy in the afternoon, check it the next morning. Here are some more tips on keeping your plants alive during this extreme heat.

Water wisely

  • Early morning between is the best time to water. This decreases evaporative water loss and conserves water.
  • Avoid brief, frequent watering which leads to shallow roots systems that are more susceptible to drought and temperature extremes.
  • Irrigate the soil deeply and infrequently. Apply enough water each week to wet a sandy soil 12” deep and a clay soil 6-8” deep.
  • Avoid watering foliage; water the soil at plant base. Sun heats the water on leaves resulting in scorch or burn and increasing the possibility of fungal diseases.
  • Make sure your soil drains properly. Poorly drained, soggy soil conditions combined with hot weather can wipe out a plant in a matter of days.
  • Plants in containers, new plants, and those in particularly hot, sunny places may require more water. Move containers to shady areas and closer to the house so they are easier to water.

Don’t forget the fruits and veggies! Ripe fruit (tomatoes, melons, peppers, etc) require large amounts of water from your plants. To reduce heat and water stress on your heavily-producing plants, harvest your ripe fruit frequently and thoroughly (including damaged fruits).Harvest during the cooler hours of the day is not just easier on the gardener but also on the produce. Strong midday sun can wilt or dry out your crops, so move them out of the sunlight and bring them to a cooler location as soon as possible.

Provide shade if needed. You can create temporary shade structures by hanging shade “sails” or shade cloth that is available at most hardware and garden centers. Burlap or other cloth types work just as well as long as there is airflow. Use plant stakes or tomato cages to support the temporary structures. You can also repurpose your rarely-used umbrellas to provide some shade.

What about the lawn? If you must go out and mow your lawn there are a few things to keep in mind. Mow turf at a taller height; never cut more than 1/3 of the blade. Taller grass height results in deeper root systems which helps turf in heat and drought. You can leave clippings on lawn to reduce evaporative water loss from soil and to provide moisture and nutrients to turf as they decompose.

Everything else can wait. There are other things that can be done out in the garden to help conserve water, but not during the extreme heat we are having this week. When it cools down go out and pull the weeds that are competing not only for nutrients but water as well. Adding 2-4 inches of mulch around your plants can help retain moisture, keep the soil cool and help reduce weeds. Compost can help soil to retain more water. In addition, a healthy soil full of beneficial soil organisms, such as mycorrhizal fungi, helps plants to better tolerate drought. Wait until the heat wave is over for any heavy pruning and fertilizing of ornamentals, shrubs and trees.

Take it easy. This is not the time for hardcore gardening or planting anything new. Do the basics early in the day or in the evening and then head indoors or to the pool.

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website: sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu.

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  • Blog Author

    Marcy Sousa

    Marcy Sousa is the San Joaquin County UC Master Gardener Program Coordinator. She is a Stockton native and enjoys teaching others about gardening. She has her bachelors from Stanislaus State in Permaculture. She has been with the program since 2007. Read Full
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