>Gardening in the Heat of Summer – NOT!

>Here in Central Texas, summers are our most stressful season of the year unlike our northern neighbors who declare winter to be their season of distress for gardeners. Temperatures from June through October can easily exceed 100 for long durations which added to the strong sunlight intensity can make gardening activities stressful not only to the gardener, but to the plants in the garden. Here are some survival tips:

1. STOP FERTILIZING: With the exception of potted plant which lose nutrients every time they are watered (which is frequently in summer), most garden plants go into protective dormancy to survive the heat and drought of summer conditions in Central Texas. Oh yes, there are some that thrive on the high heat, but they are in the minority. Fertilizing during these stressful conditions encourages new growth which is the opposite of what the plant is trying to do during dormant periods. Most plants produce new growth in spring when temperatures are more moderate. If you have an organically enriched soil, there is sufficient nutrient to sustain all garden plants through summer.

2. STOP PRUNING: Like fertilizing, pruning encourages new growth when plants are struggling to grow. New growth wilts easily and draws energy away from root development. Fungus grow during hot and humid conditions and pruning opens wounds for them to enter. Prune spring flowering shrubs after blooming in late spring and summer flowering shrubs in fall.

3. STOP PLANTING: Oh, the garden looks so nice during spring thru fall, the temptation is always there to add new plants during summer. But, the reality is that the survival rate of new plantings drops significantly in high heat. The additional transpiration that occurs in heat adds stress to the plants and if roots are not watered more frequently, insufficient water is available for transpiration – bottom line, stresses on the plant that make it susceptible to disease and fungus. Plantings should be done in spring for evergreen and fall for deciduous plants when temperatures are moderate and there is sufficient rainfall to help a new plant get established. Any new planting requires almost a year to become fully established so you want to give them a good head start by planting during non-stressful periods.

4. STOP OVERWATERING: Yes, this sounds odd. One would think you could never provide enough water to outdoor plants during high heat summer periods. You can easily overwater plants in summer creating waterlogged soil that will squeeze out available oxygen in the soil and cause immediate harm to your plants. It depends on your soils composition. You need to water but in average organic well drained soils,frequency is more important than quantity and in xeriscape environments, a deep watering focused in the immediate area of the plants roots less frequently works best. If some plants are persistently wilting , try pinching off some of the foliage to reduce transpiration stress. This is a good argument for use of xeriphytic native plants as garden choices.

5. CUT BACK ON MOWING: If you are struggling to maintain a lawn in hot dry conditions, cut back on mowing allowing your grass to remain taller than might be aesthetically pleasing. Raise cutting height to 3” or more. This protects roots from drying and conserves water.

6. CUT BACK ON GARDENING CHORES: This suggestion is to help save the gardener as well as the plants. Have your garden construction work done before the heat hits, mulch heavily to prevent weed infestation, and follow the previous advice so that as plants go dormant during extremely hot summers, the gardener can go dormant as well. Oh yes, there are always a few things to do – weeds somehow find a way to defy all attempts to discourage them, etc, but good planning can minimize your need to stress yourself during summer.

In Central Texas, we really have two dormant periods in the garden, winter and summer, the latter being the most extreme. Even in shady areas, plants feel the stress of heat and take protective measures to survive. The gardener needs to do the same. Protect your health as well as your plants. Drink plenty of water, take frequent breaks when working outdoors, then hibernate indoors after 10AM to Noon depending on weather conditions.

>Survival of the Fittest

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It’s tough gardening in Central Texas, between severe drought, extreme heat, low humidity, shallow soils with alkaline limestone substructure not conducive to moisture retention, weed seed proliferation, did I mention hail and severe storms, etc, etc. I’m sure that newcomers to Austin trade one set of gardening problems for another but Central Texas requires plants that can endure all of the above.

Using native and adaptive plants, going to more xeriphytic landscapes are two widely mentioned and smart approaches, but there is nothing like trial and error to find out which specific plants are tough enough to meet the gardening challenges Central Texas provides.

I have begun a program to eliminate plants that can’t handle it in our gardens, taking into account microclimate areas that might allow a particular plant to grow well in one specific location.

Being a plant collector by nature, I need to be careful to separate desire for an attractive plant from the reality of being able to grow it well in our challenging environment. If I feel it stands a chance based on research, I will give it a test run and if it doesn’t do well after two years, it’s outta here!

My best advice to fellow gardeners in Central Texas is to plant an “intentional” garden, knowing in advance based on research and local experience and advice of other gardeners, which plants you will place in your garden, then seek them out specifically by botanical name to make sure you have the right plant. Too many people go to a nursery and let their eyes and emotions govern what they buy, only to be disappointed. Impulse buying can waste money and disappoint the gardener. Unfortunately, too many nurseries stock according to the consumers visual reaction to a plant, not what is best for local gardens. So, buyer beware!

Remember on these hot, dry days, the plants in your garden can’t sit in air conditioned comfort like you but must endure the extremes of the Central Texas environment. Plant well and sit back in your air conditioned home and enjoy seeing a garden that takes care of itself, endures, needs little attention from you to grow well and look good even in the toughest of conditions.