By Kim Davis
This past week brought temperatures close to 100 degrees with high humidity. Clearly, we have entered the “dog days of summer.” So, what’s a gardener to do during the hottest, most humid time of the year?
It’s key this time of year to protect your investment in garden plantings. As we’ve already noted, the sun is at its longest and strongest at this time of year which can create havoc for the health and wellbeing of plants. A very important aspect of protecting your garden is one of the most basic: water. Understanding when and how much to water your garden will help your plantings survive the dog days of summer.
Just like us and our pets, our plants are particularly susceptible to drought in high temperatures, creating stress that can lead to loss. Wilting leaves and flowers are one sign, but gardening experts suggest it is also helpful to assess ground moisture or lack thereof during times of excessive heat.
If the soil is damp an inch or so below the surface, plantings likely do not need any additional water at that time. One inch of water weekly, on average, should keep your grass green and growing during the summer months, according to Virginia Tech’s director of golf maintenance on the university’s website. If you’re not sure how much your garden is receiving, he suggests placing a container on the ground to assess how much water your sprinkler provides. All the pros recommend watering early in the morning while it’s cool and evaporation is slow. A deep soaking every few days is better than a daily sprinkle on the surface.
A caveat, however, is not to water more than necessary. The Environmental Protection Agency has some good tips on how to keep your garden healthy without overwatering at https://www.epa.gov/watersense/when-its-hot. Add one to two inches of mulch with organic material, such as compost, leaves or grass clippings, to shade the soil, keep the root zone cooler and reduce evaporation.
It is also important to keep a close eye on outdoor container plants, as they dry out quicker and may need generous watering more than once a day.
If you have a small vegetable garden, the Farmer’s Almanac, a trusted resource for vegetable gardening, suggests harvesting fruits such as tomatoes and finish ripening them in the kitchen. This helps plants redirect their energy toward new blooms.
Going on vacation this summer? With a little preparation, you can leave your garden for a week or two without worry. If you have a watering system, double check with the company to ensure your sprinklers are set to water your garden as needed while you are away. If you don’t have one, there are several good options you can try.
Most garden centers sell an array of helpful watering tools. Timers can be purchased to attach to lawn sprinklers, or you can use drip hoses on plants that are not drought resistant. Water spikes or glass water globes can be filled with water that seep into the soil. Any longneck bottle can be filled with water, turned upside down and pushed into the soil where it will slowly leak water. Self-watering pots provide a consistent level of moisture directly to the roots. It’s a good idea to try out these options the week before you leave to see if the water lasts as long as needed.
Trees, the cornerstones of our gardens, are also critically important. Merrifield Garden Center’s website suggests Gator bags are a great way to keep trees watered during hot and dry months. These bags, which can hold up to 20 gallons of water, are secured to the trunk of the tree, where they release the water slowly to the root ball over the course of 15 to 20 hours.
As a last resort, to ensure you don’t come home to a disaster, you can always lean on a good friend or hire a garden sitter to provide a consistent level of moisture for your plants. However, it is always good to provide specific instructions about each plant’s needs.
Summer is also a time of gardening don’ts. Fertilizing might seem like a good option, offering plants more protection, but in fact this puts them under more stress in hot weather. Also, don’t aggressively prune in summer. Most pruning should wait until plants are dormant in winter. Improper pruning will stress plants and may cut off valuable buds for spring blooming. Don’t plant seeds, trees, shrubs, perennials or vegetables in summer.
With a little help from us gardeners, our plants and gardens can survive the next couple of months. Wishing you luck during these doggone days in the Mid-Atlantic.
The writer is a member of the Hunting Creek Garden Club and formerly served as both president and vice president of the club.