The Summer Blahs: Beating the Heat in the Garden (By Katie Walter, San Joaquin Master Gardener)

Even the most passionate gardener gets tired at this time of year. This summer has been a doozy and the heat can feel relentless. Blue skies are lovely, but wouldn’t a few days of gray, drizzly London weather be a pleasant change? August in the Central Valley seldom offers a break from the heat, however. So what’s a gardener to do?

When you work in the yard, it’s always a good idea to wear a hat and sunscreen. Drink plenty of water and take lots of breaks. Take a tip from your dog and find a shady spot to take a snooze when temperatures peak in the afternoon. On the hottest days, skip the heavy tasks, such as turning compost or rototilling. Save them for another, cooler day.

When temperatures top 100, give your lawn mower a rest. Mowing the grass exposes newly clipped, tender tips to searing heat. The trim greensward you had in mind may instead end up looking like a blotchy tan patch. Wait until temperatures drop to mow again. In the summer it’s a good idea to set the mower blade higher. Leaving the grass longer helps to keep the soil cool and reduces water needs.

Most plants in your garden—flowers, shrubs and vegetables—shut down when temperatures exceed about 95 degrees. For example, tomatoes no longer set fruit. Even heat-loving plants may start to look wilted. Keep in mind that the wilted look isn’t necessarily a plea for water. Most plants will perk up and return to their normal appearance when temperatures cool in the afternoon or by the next morning. If they don’t, then it’s time to water.

Minimize planting when temperatures are high. I seldom plant anything between May and September. Many plants from the nursery or big box store have spent their lives coddled in temperature- and humidity-controlled greenhouses, or at least in a shaded environment. Setting them out in the sun in our dry heat is a shock to their fragile systems. If it’s essential that something get in the ground, improvise some shade cover for the first several days. In general, save yourself some money and don’t buy plants when it’s hot.

There are a few other garden tasks to avoid in the heat. Stressed plants cannot absorb fertilizer, and pruning can encourage plants to send out new tender growth that may be damaged in the heat. So you can skip fertilizing and pruning, but you can’t pass on weeding! That’s a job that always needs doing. Weeds compete with your veggies and flowers for water and soil nutrients. When it’s really hot, do your weeding in the early morning or evening.

Maintain your normal watering schedule. It’s tempting to drown plants when temperatures peak, but you aren’t doing them any favors. Water in the morning when temperatures are cooler, which reduces water lost to evaporation. Water deeply and infrequently. Mulch your plants to cool the soil and reduce evaporation. Your garden will also benefit as the mulch decomposes, adding nutrients to the soil.

When you are watering, pay special attention to plants in containers, which lose more water to evaporation and need more frequent watering than plants in the ground.  Your containers may benefit from being moved out of the sun and into a cooler, shady area during the hottest days of summer.

Regardless of the weather, always take the long view with your garden. Monitor your plants not just from day to day but also from month to month. Do you have a hydrangea that looks fried no matter how much you water it?  Is your Japanese maple not thriving where it is now? These are shade-loving plants, and it’s possible they are getting too much sun. You may also have heat-loving plants that look lanky because they are reaching through shade for the sun they crave. Consider moving any unhappy plants to a friendlier location, but wait a few months. Thanks to our temperate climate, fall is the perfect time to move plants. Temperatures are cooler, and your transplanted shrub or tree has all winter to settle in to its new home.

The news indicates that heat waves will become more frequent in the coming years, and drought is bound to return.  Shifting your garden away from fussy, high-maintenance plants to tougher, drought-tolerant ones might be a good idea. Dozens of books have been written on that subject, so I won’t belabor it here. But it’s a strategy to keep in mind, especially when you’re out gardening in the heat.

For gardening related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or use our websitehttp://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/.

 

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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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