Air Conditioning is a wonderful invention, but it can't go outdoors where your garden is. What do you do? Take it from someone with Syringomyelia (issues with body temperature regulation is one symptom) there are ways to work around life's limitations. You simply need to look at disabilities as opportunities for creativity. So, here are my tips for helping you and your plants keep your cool.
Heat Stress in Humans:
It’s one thing to keep your plants from dying, but if you kill yourself in the process, who will take care of your plants when you’re gone?
Be self-aware. Know your limits and listen to your better judgement. There are plenty of things you can do to keep yourself cooler and conserve your energy. You don’t want to be so exhausted that you have to rest up for several days because you did too much.
• Clothing Logistics: Hats with wide brims and neck shades, loose lightweight clothing, wet neck ties with cooling beads inside. In fact, you can get most pieces of your clothing wet and that will help to cool you. (Don't try this with socks unless you want blisters.)
• Wind Logistics: I’ve seen construction crews set up powerful contractor fans outside to blow on them while they work. I tried it and I must say, wow! What a difference. Not exactly fiscally or energy efficient, but on those rare occasions when there is only one small window of opportunity to get a job done, and it will mean the difference between success and a heat stroke, it’s worth it.
• Location Logistics: Plan your gardening time so you can be in the shade as it moves. Set up a beach umbrella or canopy if you have to.
• Timing Logistics: There’s a reason farmers get up with the roosters. That’s when it’s coolest, at least in the summer. Okay, in the winter too, but the subject isn’t dairy farming. Not being a morning person myself, this is a tough one. I’ve been known to stay up until my normal 2 AM, then go out and garden after my “middle of the night” potty break around 6, until it gets too hot out, and then I’ll go back to bed for whatever sleep I can get. I’ve also gardened after dark.
Heat Stress in Plants:
This is much more complex, because some plants are so adaptable that what we see as stress may in fact be the plant’s own built-in protection working quite well. For instance, there are those who claim that plants that wilt in the middle of the day but perk up at night are showing signs of stress. But others say that the mid-day wilt you see is actually the plant protecting itself. The plants will stop sending water into the leaves to evaporate as usual until the temperature cools to healthier levels. That keeps the water conserved in the roots where it’s needed most.
Many plants will curl their leaves, or even drop some leaves and most will drop blooms to protect the more vital parts of the plant. All of these are normal protection mechanisms that won’t damage the plants. In fact, some plants produce “heat shock” proteins that repair cell damage.
So, don’t be so quick to judge! If the plant shows more or continued signs of stress several days in a row and especially on a cool or cloudy day, then the heat was probably too much. But, don’t despair. We all know that as long as the roots stay alive, the plant stands a chance. See “weeds.” Grin.
One important thing to keep in mind: Plants grow stronger roots by going through times of drought. If you never allow your plants to suffer, they won’t develop deep and thoroughly developed roots. Plants that are watered regularly and frequently have no need to send their roots down deep or to develop more roots. (Think of the implications! Yes, your precious children need to learn life's lessons through personal experience and personal victories over adversity to prepare them for adulthood.) Even as adults, we need to keep on learning the same way. I know your plants are your babies, but don’t baby them too much!
Plant damage such as sunburn or sunscald can occur from extreme heat, and those signs indicate a need for protection, because actual damage can invite pests and disease. Some leaf damage and blossom drop are unsightly but won’t harm the plant long-term.
Protecting Plants from Heat Stress:
Prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. There are plenty of things you can do to protect your plants from heat stress:
• Water slowly and deeply when you do water. Watering for too short a period may be worse than not watering at all, and especially if done repeatedly. Every plant has an ideal amount of water needed. This is where planning your beds makes sense. Not only should you put plants together that need the same amount of sunlight, but also ones that need similar amounts of water.
• Mulch and bedding plants keep the ground damp by providing shade for the roots and a layer of insulation.
• Shade can be provided by planning for the placement of your plants and also by temporary coverings if needed during extreme heat. One of my neighbors who is a master gardener successfully grows lettuces even in the hottest part of summer by placing plastic trellises so that they are resting on a framework suspended several inches above the plants. Anything will do, even an umbrella or canopy set up for a while. Shade cloth, window screen, mosquito netting, anything that will filter the sun. A bedsheet. You get the idea.
• Keep weeding! Yes, it’s much easier to pull weeds when the ground is damp, but this is no time to let the weeds do what weeds do best, which is to use up all the moisture and nutrients. If you have to, cut the weeds with a trimmer and dig them out after the heat wave.
• Stop fertilizing! This is not the time. You don’t want to encourage new growth; you want to encourage rest at times of stress.
• Don’t plant or transplant. Both cause a good deal of stress. Hold off until the temperatures are cooler.
• Don’t prune. Pruning exposes areas of the plant that were previously shaded. That can cause sunburn and the resulting damage will attract insects and disease.
• Hold off on treating insects and disease with chemicals. Many, if not most, plants will suffer from treatments applied when the temperatures are high.