Roots and Shoots: It’s High Summer. How Are Your Plants?

By Pamela Doan

Once again, the planet is on a course to break global heat records. June was the hottest month ever recorded in the U.S., and every state will most likely hit record highs this year. How are your plants handling the heat?

Wilting, covered in blooms and new growth, spreading, turning yellow, dying, being eaten by bugs?

Many factors influence plant survival under extreme conditions. Heat and sporadic rainfall are the two biggest challenges this summer after a mild winter and a late spring snowfall that damaged some crops and early-bloomers.

A gardener’s life follows the whims of weather and other forces that can’t be controlled. Taking responsibility for keeping something alive and thriving, whether it’s a human, a pet or a plant, absorbs a lot of time.

You prep the soil carefully. You make sure the plant is in the right location with enough, but not too much sunlight. You water it, then water it again, then water it every day. You feed it and attend to its particular habits — pinch the first buds, deadhead, nick off new leaves from the stalk to prevent overgrowth of leaves, etc.

Yet even with all that care and attention, some plants won’t do well on these hot days. Here are some steps that can help:

Shade the plants during the hottest part of the day. Plant leaves can be scorched and dry out. If your plants are showing signs of being burnt, use a shade cloth on a frame to protect them. Better yet, when you’re planning next year’s garden, place the most sensitive plants where they’ll get shade, perhaps next to taller plants or near a tree where the sun won’t hit them all day long. Containers can be moved around easily and are a good bet for famous wilters.

Sedums tolerate hot, dry conditions well. (Photo by P. Doan)

Sedums tolerate hot, dry conditions well. (Photo by P. Doan)

Mulch like your plant’s life depended on it. Plants draw moisture from the soil and release it through their leaves. Keeping water in the soil makes it available when it’s needed. Straw, shredded leaves, wood chips or dried grass clippings can be reused in the landscape as mulch. This layer protects the soil and the plant’s roots, holding moisture rather than letting it all evaporate.

Water your plants in the morning or evening, not at midday when it’s hottest. I like morning watering; my plants start the day with fortifications. Leaves that are left damp overnight when it’s cooler can leave a plant  vulnerable to some pathogens. I also don’t like that combination of wet and chilly. If that’s the only time you can get to watering, focus the stream at the base near the roots. Or use a drip irrigation hose to water only at the base. It must be said, don’t overwater. Established plantings need an inch of water a week. Trees, shrubs, lawns and landscaped flowerbeds will be fine with one good watering of an inch each week. The exception is newly planted trees and shrubs. They need daily watering under normal conditions for the first season until their roots get established.

Choose plants that can survive drought. As temperatures soar and rainfall is unpredictable, it’s time to give up on certain plants that take too many resources to maintain. For the past two summers, I’ve been landscaping an area of my yard that bakes in the sun. The soil is rocky and acidic. I’ve found that sedums thrive there and been delighted by the many varieties available. Native plants are inherently more reliable, too. They are adapted to our growing conditions and use fewer resources. There’s nothing wrong with keeping some heavy feeders or needier varieties, but mix it up so that your entire selection isn’t on the high-resource list.

Finally, use a rain barrel. I’ve had one for four years and it’s been a wise investment. Last year during the drought, I interviewed a business owner who had been digging a record number of residential wells as they ran dry, which just confirmed to me that being conscious about water use is a good practice. A 50-gallon rain barrel attached to a downspout can offset a lot of your garden’s demands.

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