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THE SOUTHERN GARDENER

Summertime … and the gardening is NOT easy

Spring has been a dilly. We have had two or three April nights in the 30s as well as days in the mid- to high 80s. The flowers and the gardener were both confused at times.

The summer solstice, the longest day of the year, June 20, is just ahead. Summer usually arrives before its actual calendar date.

Summer’s gardening issues can be particularly challenging. We should devise a plan to either outsmart or work in harmony with the weather.

Gardeners have melted in 100-degree heat; watched insignificant weeds become small bushes; endured periods of nonstop rainy days when we (plants and gardeners) molded. And then there’s the dreaded “d” word — drought.

I can remember episodes of drought when we were restricted to watering on certain days and times — or not at all. We saved buckets of water from cooking or the bath and inspected our landscapes daily to see which plant looked the most needy.

Through experience, gardeners have learned to handle whatever nature tosses our way. Surviving a variety of climatic situations comes from being proactive:

 

WHERE TO PLANT

Location is very important in our battle with summer. Choose where you will place plants that require a lot of water, a moderate amount, and those that can survive with less water.

While you are selecting plants, choose only about 10 percent of those that require a lot of water (or are more difficult to water). Choose about 30 percent for moderate use. Low water use plants should occupy as much of your garden as possible — at least 60 percent.

Save the high water use plants for special places or as focal points.

It goes without saying to “plant the right plant in the right place.” Match the tree, shrub or flower bed to the best place for both you and the plant. Sun plants need sun, shades plants need shade. Plants in the wrong place require much more care, including water.

Inspect your gardening spot carefully, making sure there are no problems with standing water, slopes or your ability to provide water, care and maintenance, which become more important in the summer.

Make sure the plants have the soil in which they will grow best; check the drainage to make certain water is not running off, robbing them of this essential part of the summer equation.

This may be a hard one: If a planting place is crowded, remove some of the plants to lessen competition for water.

Weeds are a definite competition for water and nutrients; keep your areas as weed-free as possible. Banish weeds close to your plants and trees to prevent the weeds (“plants out of place”) from sneaking into your beds.

 

CHECK YOUR DIRT

Improve the soil where you intend to plant. This is especially important for mass planting of flowers and vegetable gardens. Copious amounts of organic material encourages a plant to develop deep, strong roots and improves its ability to survive the heat. Well-amended soil also increases the soil’s ability to drain, preventing soggy or rotten roots.

Prepare the soil before planting time (perhaps a season or so) to allow the amendments to work their magic.

 

WHEN TO PLANT

The best time of the year to plant for the health of your plant is in the fall, starting in mid-November. The second best time is early winter through Valentine’s Day. The closer we get to spring’s warmer days, the more attention those newly planted items will need.

Planting in fall and early winter allows the gardener to take advantage of a plant’s growth patterns. Most plants tend to be dormant in the winter, allowing the plant to use its energy to produce strong healthy roots instead of growing leaves and flowers. Planting in the winter also allows winter rains to irrigate a new planting.

 

yucca

Colorguard yucca

PLANT, DON’T BURY

Planting a plant correctly in the ground also improves its resilience. Plants prefer to be planted rather than buried. 

The best practice is to place a plant so that at least an inch of root ball is above ground, then draw the surrounding soil to the root ball.

Install a plant into a planting spot that has been dug at least two to three times the size of the root ball. Score the hole to make it easier for the plant’s roots to penetrate native soils. Return the native soil to the hole to make it easier for the tree or shrubs to adapt.

 

MULCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Use mulch to prepare a plant and yourself for any kind of weather. This may be more important in the summer when it is hot and dry, as the mulch will help to hold in moisture and reduce pesky weeds that “grow like weeds” during the hot months.

Mulch moderates soil temperature all year. It prevents the soil from cracking, a summer problem when the ground tends to dry out more easily.

A ring of mulch protects the plant or tree from a close call with a string trimmer or a lawnmower, two tools that get a lot of use in the summer months.

About two to three inches of mulch is good; however, do not pile the mulch on the trunk or stem. Think doughnut instead of volcano.

Mulching should happen before summer’s arrival. I even mulch my containers.

 

camellia

Camellia

KEEP ON WATERIN’

Plants will continue to need regular moisture until they are established. Even drought-tolerant plants are not drought-tolerant until they have settled in. At that point, they may still need supplemental water during times of severe drought.

A word on drought-tolerant: that statement can depend on the plant, its place, how well it has established roots, climatic conditions, etc. Sometimes it is hard to save even the toughest plant. When that happens, as master plantsman Hayes Jackson said to me, “It is an opportunity to try something else.”

 

CONSERVING ENERGY

When it is hot, avoid heavy pruning. Save that chore for the correct time, usually when the shrub is dormant, following proper pruning guidelines. Tip pruning is fine. Azaleas and mophead hydrangeas should have an annual pruning by the first week or so of July.

Remove spent flowers before they form seeds, which requires our plants to use a lot of energy. This energy is better put to ensure a good root system.

Be stingy with fertilizer, which only makes a plant grow more and faster, thus needing more water.

 

DON’T SPRAY IN SUMMER

As for herbicides, stop or cut back. Extreme heat may allow the weeds to absorb the chemical less efficiently; high temperatures may allow weeds to become resistant to herbicides and the chemical to drift with unwanted consequences.

Be wary about applying pesticides to plant foliage during times of high heat and drought. The combination of these two can possibly allow the chemical to damage the leaves of plants if it is sprayed directly on them.

 

BEST WATERING PRACTICES

Water wisely. Summer is hot, Plants require much more water to survive. And gardeners have to expend vast amounts of personal energy watering. Thus, it is essential to make the best use of our water resources and our time.

Always group plants with similar water requirements together; high users should not be mixed with low users.

The proper watering method is to water less frequently and more deeply. Plants receiving shallow water develop shallow roots, not in the best interests of their overall health.

Water should be delivered slowly to the roots to stop runoff and to penetrate the soil.

Often, traditional overhead spray irrigation systems work beautifully on lawns and small plants but not on large trees (unless these systems are run for very long periods, which is not a cost-efficient way to water a tree).

Instead, most experts recommend drip irrigation systems. It is possible to add a drip feature to your existing system. Another option is to turn on the hose and let it water slowly enough to permeate the soil but not run off.

When watering, it is a good practice to see how wet the ground is before you begin. A finger pushed into the soil works well. One cannot decide if a plant needs moisture by looking at the top of the soil.

The most efficient time to water is between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. Watering at this early hour allows foliage to dry before nighttime, preventing disease. In the heat of the day, water can evaporate quickly, and nothing really gets watered.

Take note of how much water each item in your landscape actually needs. Lawns are the biggest water hogs; they require at least an inch per week. Annuals and perennials, by nature, need regular water. There are many available to the trade that are more drought-tolerant.

 

HOW TO WATER A TREE

Often, homeowners water items that can easily be replaced, such as ground covers, lawns and bedding plants. Lawns may get brown and crunchy and go dormant, but they will green up quickly with rain.

Mature trees cannot be replaced easily. Even newly planted large trees require monitoring in hot and dry conditions to make sure they are given ample moisture.

Garden catalogs sell neat equipment to assist in keeping our trees watered. The homeowner can purchase tree bags, which hold water, or tree rings. Both drip water to the tree.

Placing planting beds around the base of a mature tree results in an amazing competition between the water consumers.

Trees, especially older ones, need moisture. Trees should be watered to a depth of 10 to 12 inches and to the extent of the tree’s canopy. Trees enclosed by sidewalks, however, may need more water.

 

Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com. Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star.