Maybe this is the last heat wave of summer, but then again, maybe not. I’m getting a little tired of hiding in the house while heat indexes are the triple digits. As it is, I have the summer version of cabin fever.
Were I a better person, I might have done something about the mess my garden has become. No lie, I intended to get out there as soon as it stopped raining. But when it’s 97 degrees and feels like 114, I admit my resolve just melts away. Even brief forays out to do essential chores have left me feeling drained and limp.
(As a brief aside, let’s all raise a cold glass of something to Willis Carrier of Buffalo, N.Y. who invented the first modern electrical air conditioning unit in 1902. Willis, baby, we love you!)
Pity the poor plants, which can’t escape to a cool retreat and had to wait out the heat wave. In the blistering temperatures, your plants were probably much like mine – parched, wilting and lonely. I’ve watered in brief, kamikaze forays, let the weeding go and never even considered such time-consuming chores as staking and trimming back.
Even in minimalist mode, I’ve kept after the shrubs and little trees that I’ve been tending on my patio. The hanging baskets I couldn’t seem to water quite enough and now they are a tangle of yellowing stems and crispy leaves. The weeds have taken over the half of the garden that never got mulched and some pernicious vines are now clambering up the downspouts and fastening themselves to the screens of my back porch.
It’s a jungle out there. I hate feeling everything is such a bug-infested, weed-choked fright that the only real solution is… winter. I begin to think I should have developed an easier and more lucrative hobby like trading in gold futures or running the bingo games in some deeply air conditioned church basement.
Still, with normal, human temperatures at hand (please?), there are things you can do to make yourself and your garden feel better.
For annual flowers, the best strategy is to cut back severely, fertilize heavily and water faithfully. That half-dead petunia, that miserable zinnia, that pathetic excuse of a snapdragon may well rally with this treatment and perk back up. These plants don’t quit until hard frost, and can make surprising growth between here and there. Besides — you have nothing to lose.
I’m going to whack back the perennials sharply, too, removing and discarding any foliage that offends mine eye. The plants should recover and if they bloom late (or not at all) so what? They’ll hopefully live to fight another day.
Out in the vegetable patch, heat also takes a toll. Tomatoes and beans will drop blossoms when temperatures exceed 95, and no blossoms means no harvest. Temperatures above 100 actually kill some corn tassels, which in turn prevents development of kernels in the ear. In a wide range of plants, pollination falls off dramatically in extreme heat, resulting in deformed fruit or no fruit at all.
Squash, cucumbers and pumpkins rely for pollination on bees, which become inactive on ridiculously hot days. Here, you can step in with an artist’s paintbrush and pick up the slack. Transfer pollen to the center of the female flowers, which will have an embryonic fruit at their bases, from the male flowers, which lack such a swelling. This is a process that gives tedious a bad name and you may want to mutter the pumpkin pollinator’s prayer: “God, give me patience and give it to me NOW!”
One strategy to consider for next year is canting the plant selection toward species that can take the heat, since our summers are trending toward hot and hotter. The “warm weather crops” — tomatoes, peppers, eggplants — mostly laugh at sweltering temperatures, providing they get water.
Flowers? Some like it hot. Coneflowers, sunflowers, roses and phlox don’t seem to mind when the weatherman says it will “feel like” 107. Lavender, coreopsis, strawflower and gallardia also do well. Plants with succulent leaves, such as sedum, Montauk daisies and euphorbia, get by on very little more than rain, however haphazard it may be. And tropical plants including canna, hibiscus, brugmansia and mandevilla feel right at home.
There’s precious little we can do about the weather, other than complain. Maybe the moral of the story is that when that rare thing comes along – a spell of terrific summer weather, clear and warm but not brutal – we must rejoice and seize the day. It’s the right thing to do.