Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
July, 2012
Regional Report

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To enjoy summer at its fullest, water wisely, be careful in the heat, and avoid pests.

The Perils of Summer

Starting in childhood with being out of school during summer, we come to believe that summer is a wondrous thing, filled with playful days. Yet any gardener will testify that summer can readily rival winter as a cruel season. The recent heat wave and concurrent drought has been a challenge, to put it mildly. All those plants that once held out such hopes and dreams of beautiful blooms or abundant harvests for us now may be mere shadows of their former selves.

If you've been watering during this period, you're waiting in dread for the bill as well as feeling guilty for the environmental costs. And if you've actually tried to garden during high temperatures, you may have adversely affected your own health. To say nothing of the potential health problems caused by insects like ticks and mosquitoes.

Even with the heat wave abating, at least for the moment, there are still many days of summer before us. It pays to think ahead for ways to deal with the perils of summer, both to our gardens and ourselves.

Water Well and Wisely
The big-picture, long-term way to use less water when gardening is to choose plants that are the most drought tolerant. The second line of defense is to work in plenty of compost before planting and mulch heavily every year. This improves the moisture-holding capacity of the soil.

But what if you have plants already in the garden that you want to keep alive? First of all, actually check the soil moisture before you start watering. Push your finger into the top 2 or 3 inches of soil. If the soil below this level is still moist, don't water. An alternative method is to see if a 6-inch screwdriver can be easily inserted into the soil; if so, don't water.

Be aware of the local weather forecast. When rain is imminent, don't water. Also educate yourself on how different plants grow. For example, azaleas are more shallow-rooted, so will need watering more often than plants that root deeply into the soil. Remember that new plantings will need more watering than established ones. With trees, the roots extend out to three to five times the height, so this entire area needs to be soaked when watering.

The most efficient method of watering is with a soaker hose. With this tool, all of the water goes directly where it is needed. If this isn't possible, choose an oscillating sprinkler that can be adjusted. The goal is to water plants, not the driveway.

Usually, expert gardeners consider early morning to be the best time to water. Don't panic if plants wilt during the heat of the day, as this is often a natural reaction to conserve water. If plants are still wilted in the evening, then go ahead and water then. Evening watering is more likely to lead to plant diseases, but it's better to water then rather than wait.

One of the great garden myths is that watering plants in bright sun, especially if water gets on the leaves, will lead to leaf damage, aka plant sunburn. This is a fallacy. If you feel that plants need water midday, then go ahead and water.

Another key element in watering wisely is to water deeply and infrequently. Sometimes I see people blithely spraying a bit of water on plants. The goal is to have the soil moist 5 to 6 inches deep after watering.

Avoid Overheating
Overheating is a serious danger to our health, especially for children and older adults. But it can happen to anyone -- and quickly. Pulling that last batch of weeds or planting that last tray of impatiens is not worth the risk. Take it from someone who has been there. Several years ago, I made a health condition much worse by continuing to weed sitting down after observing that I was dizzy when standing up.

The keys to surviving high temperatures are to only be outside in the early mornings and evenings; stay hydrated, preferably with plain cold water; apply sunscreen frequently; and wear a wide-brimmed hat.

Stay Safe From Bugs
We gardeners may first worry about insects on our plants, but we also need to be concerned about insects and other creatures that feed on us as well, especially the ones that can cause health problems beyond an itch. Mosquitoes and ticks are the most widespread offenders (leaving out bees and wasps for those who are highly allergic), and, if you garden, you will encounter them, no matter how much you attempt to limit conditions for them.

So, given that they are a fact of life, how best to avoid them and their effects? DEET (N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide) is one of the most effective mosquito repellents available, but there are legitimate questions about its safety, both to people and the environment. The following alternatives have been found to be effective ingredients in insect-repellent products: picaridin, geraniol, and oil of lemon eucalyptus. If you choose to use a product that contains DEET, look for one with less than a 50 percent concentration.

Clothing is the ultimate chemical-free pest control. Whenever possible, opt for long sleeves and pants, tucking the pant legs into your socks.

Although Lyme disease is the best known of the possible consequences of a tick bite, there are a number of other illnesses spread by ticks. To avoid these possibilities, it's best to take a shower within two hours of being outside and check your body, especially in areas where ticks like to hide, including armpits, bra and panty lines, and the groin. If you find a tick attached to your skin, use a set of fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin surface as possible and pull upward with steady pressure. If mouth parts break off and remain in the skin, use the tweezers to remove them. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the area with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.

If we lift our heads from the chores and pitfalls of summer long enough to look again with a child's eyes, we can still find the beauty and fun in this wonderful season, especially if we wisely avoid the perils.

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