Food gardening in summer heat

“Hot enough for you?”

That used to be a summer joke, right? I haven’t heard it in a while. We all know it’s way too hot out there. This time of year, with the heat and humidity and bugs and weeds, it’s a challenge even to step into the garden and do what needs to be done. But if we ignore our garden tasks they just get more overwhelming. I’m overwhelmed myself, but let me try to give you a few hints on making summer in the vegetable garden more bearable.

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Even plants like eggplant that like the heat can fail to form flowers or fruits when it gets really hot. A little afternoon shade helps.

Help your garden by helping yourself first.

The last thing you and your garden need is for you to be felled by heatstroke! Here’s what to do to stay cool and safe:

  • Drink LOTS of water.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Start your day in the garden! Rise early and get your work done before the heat gets too bad. If your schedule doesn’t allow this, evening is the next best time, or anytime that your garden is shaded.
  • Don’t forget the insect repellent, which you will need more in these cooler periods of the day. Benefit: less sunscreen needed.
  • Divide the work up so you do a little every day instead of having to spend hours on one day.

The heat is tough on plants too.

Here are some plant problems that can arise in the summer, with links.

And more, I’m sorry to say. Heat-stressed plants are also more prone to insect damage and some diseases. To help your plants deal with summer:

  • Water deeply and regularly.
  • Mulch well to keep soil moist and cool.
  • Harvest regularly, especially if fruits look undersized or the plant looks stressed.
  • Fertilize as needed but don’t overfertilize.
  • If you’re growing in containers, try moving them to a spot that gets afternoon shade.
  • Try some shade cloth over plants that are suffering from the sun.
  • Keep the weeds down so your plants have less competition for water.
  • Make sure your plants are well-supported so they won’t be brought down by thunderstorms and hurricanes. Harvest ahead of storms.

I wrote in my last post about some of the challenges involved in getting fall crops started in the summer heat. (I am trying direct-sown rutabagas under shade cloth and lightweight insect netting. Fingers crossed.)

Plan ahead for next year.

Even if this year’s garden is a stressed-out weedy mess, please don’t give up! We’ve all been there. Here are some things to think about for next year’s garden that will make summer easier:

  • Get more done in the spring while it’s still cool out. Tasks like mulching and putting up plant supports should be done ahead of hot weather. Getting ahead of the weeds is probably the most labor-saving task you can accomplish. Put a thick layer of mulch down early and it will also help against drought and many plant diseases.
  • If feasible, consider putting in a drip irrigation system that you can adjust to give your plants as much water as they need at different times of the year, without you having to stand there in the sun with a hose or a watering can.
  • Add compost to your soil and get it tested to see if any nutrients are lacking. Healthy plants grow from healthy soil; healthy plants do better in stressful situations.
  • Note which cultivars do well in your garden this year, and plan to grow those again. Look at the seed catalogs for plants that claim to do well in the heat.
  • If you have an area of the garden that gets some afternoon shade, consider putting plants there that are stressed this year.
  • If you’re growing in containers, make sure they are large enough for the plants you want to grow. (Larger than you think, almost always.) More space around the roots will mean less stress and less frequent watering.
  • Make plans, fix what you can, and don’t worry about what goes wrong. You will make every mistake at least once. Just try to learn from those mistakes!

And finally, to make you feel cooler, here’s some interesting information about the phrase “cool as a cucumber.” And I heard a great podcast episode the other day about watermelons. Enjoy!

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By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener

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