How To Keep Your Garden Growing All Summer Long

No patience for a wilting garden? Follow these beat-the-heat growing tips

Canyon Kitchen Garden Beds
Photo: Roger Foley

Summer is baking the South with extremely hot temperatures right now, and the forecast doesn't show the heat letting up anytime soon. When you planted your garden earlier this year, you were charmed by the temperate climate of springtime; charmed and fooled, because it was easy to forget, as you happily mulched and raked on a mild 80° day, that very soon that warm sun would turn unbearably hot and the humidity become so thick it would prevent proper breathing patterns while pulling a weed. So now, as the mercury in the thermometer inches higher and higher every day, it's not just the tomato plants that are wilting, but also your desire to perform those necessary gardening chores that, just a few weeks ago, you described as FUN. Do not give up on your garden, however, because the solution to keeping a garden going is the same thing that keeps you going in the heat: proper hydration. While every gardener understands that water is the life source of a vibrant garden, at this juncture in the gardening season, it is when you water, and how you enable the plants to retain the water, that is important. Follow these tips (and drink lots of water yourself) and you can keep your garden, and your spirits, from wilting.

Water Wisely
If you are not an early morning person, prepare to become one, as this is the best time of day to water your garden. Many plants will wilt under a hot sun, even if the soil is moist. Examine your plants first thing in the morning when it's cooler. If they are wilted, go ahead and water, and water deeply, as this encourages roots to grow deeper and get away from the hot soil surface.

Avoid wetting plant leaves when possible, as wet leaves encourage disease. Using a sprinkler system will obviously wet the leaves, so do this in the early morning when leaves may already be wet with dew; the foliage will dry early and reduce the risk of disease.

Watch your garden for an "indicator" plant, which is the first plant to wilt as the soil becomes dry. You will know to water when that particular plant has droopy leaves. The first to wilt is usually a cucumber or squash, because the big leaves quickly lose lots of moisture. On a very hot and sunny day, however, these big-leafed plants will wilt a little in mid-day no matter what, but a healthy plant will recover quickly in the cooler evening.

Weed Often
Any gardener who has fought a battle with weeds knows how strong and overbearing they can quickly become. Just like vegetables, weeds get thirsty, and they will compete with domestic plants for valuable water. While you are watering in the early morning hours, make a habit of checking the rows for weeds. Throw them out of you garden before they become troublesome.

Mulching around your garden plants with grass cuttings, straw, or shredded leaves provides a barrier between the hot sun and the soil, keeping the soil cooler and preventing it from drying out too quickly. Be careful to keep the mulch loose; don't lay it on too thick or allow it to become compacted, as that will prevent precious water from reaching soil underneath.

Pick Ripe Fruit
That's kind of the whole point of gardening, right? Gardeners do this anyway, but it is especially important in extremely hot weather. Ripe fruit demands a lot of water from plants—think juicy tomatoes and watermelons—so reduce the stress on a plant and harvest produce on a regular basis. Remember to also remove damaged fruit; they will not recover but will continue to drain water from the mother plant.

Additional tips from Garden Editor Steve Bender (a.k.a. the Grumpy Gardener):

  1. Water your lawn after fertilizing it. Fertilizer granules left on the grass in hot weather will draw water out of the blades.
  2. Only use oil sprays in early morning when it's cool. Spraying them when it's hot could burn the plant's foliage.
  3. Mow your lawn no shorter than two inches in hot weather. It will need less water and stay green longer.
  4. Keep an eye on your containers. Plants in containers need more frequent watering than those in the ground. In hot weather, they may need watering twice a day.
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