Beating the heat is a gardening feat

July 3, 2013

It has been a long time since we chatted about the weather and gardening but, with the dog days of summer imminent, now seems like as good as any.

There is no denying that up to this point the growing season has been a winner with moderate temperatures and abundant moisture. The past  month in particular has laid in a great surplus of moisture around the immediate D.C. area but you may be surprised to see some deficits just to the southwest.


Percent of normal precipitation (June 19 to July 2) (High Plains Regional Climate Center)

As some hotter, drier weather is around the corner, let’s look at some of the ways to keep those gardens looking great.

The first thing to consider is using native plants whenever possible. They are already proven by Mother Nature to be up to the test of the vagaries of our summers and will hold up best. Trees like dogwoods, hollies, oaks, beech and cottonwood are just a few that come to mind. Shrubs include our beloved azaleas and rhododendrons, mountain laurel, sumac, pepperbush and viburnums.


One of my favorite viburnums!

Vines that you may not even have to plant that often arrive on their own are Virginia creeper and honeysuckle. Perennials are innumerable with some of my favorites being asters, goldenrod, butterfly milkweed, Joe Pye weed, rose mallow, lobelia, a multitude of ferns, and of course Maryland’s Black-Eyed Susan and Virginia’s Bluebells.


A hillside of native perennials.

Low water requiring plants like sedums, yucca, prickly pear cactus, thistle and ice plant are also a good choice to keep watering needs low. However, if you need to resort to the sprinklers, try to do it as early in the day as possible to cut down on evaporative loss. Early morning humidity is usually at its highest making the best use of your water. In addition, the morning sun will then evaporate off the wetness to cut down on mold and mildew problems and hopefully hold down the slug population, although that last one may be wishful thinking. If you have a slug problem scattering ash is a good natural deterrent.

If you have a lawn, a substantial weekly watering is better than an everyday shower. However, if you are like me and had sod laid over the awful clay landfill, years of aerating and spreading a light coating of compost may be required. In fact, for the dead of summer a quick mid-afternoon sprinkling is required just to keep the roots from being parboiled by the clay beneath. That reminds me of a “suburban myth” I would like to dispel. Getting water on vegetation during the day does not magnify the sun and burn the leaves. Studies at Purdue helped to put my mind at ease on that one.

Of course, mulching beds is a must as it slows the evaporative loss from the soil and also keeps weeds from siphoning off moisture as well. Fertilizers like Osmocote, that are slow-release, do not impose the salt strain on the plants that quick-release additives can. And the nice thing is you only have to apply these fertilizers once every four months.

Keep an eye out for pests, which can also put stress on plants. I am patiently waiting on the Japanese beetle horde to strike. I have long gotten over the squeamishness of bare handing squashing of those terrorists. Better yet, the use of milky spore in the lawn has greatly and naturally cut down on their numbers.

Most importantly, take it easy on yourself this time of year in the garden. Drink plenty of fluids, take frequent breaks and, as Camden would admonish, get that sunscreen slathered on. For me a liberal dousing of a bug spray is a must too! Please share your tips on beating the summer here and stay cool.

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Dan Stillman · July 3, 2013