As I write this, here in the Carolina Piedmont we are experiencing a hellish summer — and it’s only early July. We’re on our fourth week of temperatures in the high 90s with no respite in sight. After two hours of morning gardening, I escape to my air-conditioned house, something that plants are unable to do. There is no letup in the garden, but there are a few simple rules the gardener can follow to ensure that time in the garden is well spent.
Garden in the early morning. This is a no-brainer. I try to be out the door by 7 a.m. — and even then our temperature can be a muggy 77 degrees. This type of gardening is a matter of survival and is not what I would describe as fun gardening. As I keep saying, and it bears repeating: Gardens are unnatural creations. Mother Nature is not working with us but frequently seems to be working against us. Consequently there is always work to be done if we are to maintain our gardens.
Inspect your plants. Are any pests present? My pest du jour is inevitably the mealybug, the bug that looks like a piece of cotton clinging to new tender growth. Over the years I have learned what plants my mealybugs enjoy: Inevitably they start off on Amsonia hubrichtii, moving on to the roses and Phlox paniculata “John Fanick,” “Robert Poore” and “Delta Snow.” I spray the mealybugs with insecticidal soap, as I do aphids, who come in a variety of colors and leave a telltale honeydew on the leaves. In the heat of summer, plants are using all their resources to stay alive so are more vulnerable to pests.
Look for signs of water stress. If a plant is drooping in the afternoon, this is a sign that the roots are unable to keep up with the leaves’ water requirement. Generally this demand is met once the sun goes down. A plant with drooping leaves in the morning is a plant crying out for serious and immediate help. In this case, I immediately water the roots, but I will keep an eye on this plant because the drooping leaves might be an indication of dieback: The plant has simply given up on one extremity. If the situation persists, I will cut back that part in an attempt to save the plant.
Water newly planted plants and those plants that demand a regular supply of water. I will water all the new plants — if the plant is experiencing its first growing season in my garden, it’s a new plant. Their roots haven’t had time to spread out, so these young plants need help throughout their first growing season. I also water a group of plants that give me great pleasure, namely my roses. Species roses, such as Lady Banks rose and the chestnut rose (Rosa roxbughii), are strong enough to withstand the onslaught of summer heat, but all my shrub roses need a regular dousing of their feet.
Forego the sprinkler and hand water the roots. If you water your grass, then use the sprinkler, but do not use it on your plants. The roots need the water, which they will push up the stem to the leaves. Through photosynthesis, the leaves produce the food needed by the roots. Yes, this is a gross oversimplification but bear with me: The stomata on the leaves take in very little water — and the water on the leaves can invite fungal diseases such as black spot. Hand water the roots. It helps to fill a bucket with water, counting slowly while doing so. That way you will know how much water your plant is getting by counting to a particular number.
Water in the morning. There is less evaporation if you water in the morning. And should the leaves get wet, they have a good chance of drying within eight hours, the amount of time it takes blackspot to appear on the rose leaves. Soaker hoses are only good if you have one of those ubiquitous rose gardens. If you’re like me and have spread your rose shrubs throughout the garden, a soaker hose isn’t going to do you much good.
Drought-tolerant plants are only drought tolerant once they are established. Echinacea is a perfect example of a drought-tolerant plant that does not need much water after its first growing season. However, in that first growing season you must water it during dry periods, as the plant needs both time and encouragement to spread out its roots. “Drought tolerant” does not mean that the plant is a cactus.
Put away the fertilizer. The plants are working overtime to survive the summer heat. Until the nights get cooler there might not be much growth. Additional fertilizer merely puts more stress on the plant. The only plants I will lightly fertilize are the roses. Roses are heavy feeders and need some additional feeding throughout the summer. Many plants, such as camellias and hellebores, go into a semi-dormant period in the intense heat and cannot utilize the fertilizer.
Evaluate your plants. It’s okay to give up on some plants. I sometimes ask myself why I planted a particular plant: What possessed me? It’s your garden: If you dislike a particular plant, you may get rid of it. If the Iris tectorum — the Japanese roof iris — is taking over the world, pull some of them out.
Identify your plants with plant markers. OK, this is difficult. I’ve tried every plant marker ever made and now have settled on metal tags along with a special garden marker — Sharpies do not work, alas. A lot of perennials go underground in the winter, and in the frenzy of spring planting it is easy to plant on top of a daylily or a hosta. This spring I planted a charming array of Rohdea japonica along with some Heuchera villosa, interspersed with a couple of ferns of nameless heritage. It looked great for four weeks — and then the hostas erupted, thereby destroying the design. More than once a daylily has surprised me. As gardeners we think we’ll remember what plants go where — but we won’t.
No one ever said gardening was fun in the height of summer. Remember, our gardens are creatures of our imagination and creativity, not of Mother Nature’s. The good news is that fall will inevitably arrive, bringing cooler weather in its wake.