Dog Days of Summer

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The dog days. The muggy part of the summer, supposed to occur during the period that Sirius, the Dog Star, rises at the same time as the sun: now often reckoned from July 3 to August 11. This time of year can zap our energy, leave us feeling lethargic and not wanting to do anything at all. The sun’s summer sizzle can take the fire out of our gardens too, fading brilliant colors and leaving lush, healthy foliage looking dull and listless.

If we are smart enough to work with nature instead of fighting against it, we see there are plenty of plants available that thrive in the heat, performing beautifully during the hottest season of the year. Just a few from my favorites list:

  • Celosia spicata (wheat celosia), Size: 2 to 4 feet, varies with cultivar. Color: Red, pink, purple. Notes: Good cut flower, fresh or dried. Can’t Tolerate: Cold soil; cold water.
  • Cosmos bipinnatus, size: 2 to 5 feet, varies with cultivar. Color: Crimson, pink, white.Notes: Easy to grow from seed; self-sows. Can’t Tolerate: Rich soil (yields few flowers).
  • Nicotiana (flowering tobacco), Size: 8 inches to 5 feet, varies with species. Color: Rose, pink, green, purple, white. Notes: Easy to grow from seed. Some types fragrant; some will self-sow. Can’t Tolerate: Wet stems and leaves (water from below).
  • Portulaca (rose moss), Size: 4 to 8 inches. Color: Red, magenta, pink, salmon, orange, yellow, white. Notes: Easy to grow from seed; rooted cuttings will overwinter. Can’t Tolerate: Humidity.
  • Lantana,  Size: 1 to 6 feet, varies with species. Color: Red, pink, orange, cream, lilac, purple, white, and bicolors. Notes: Buy transplants. Berries are toxic; look for nonfruiting varieties. Can’t Tolerate: Rich soil, night temps below 60 degrees.
  • Verbena peruviana (Peruvian verbena), Size: 3 to 6 inches. Color: Red, pink, white.Notes: Good as groundcover and on slopes; performs in partial shade. Can’t Tolerate: Wet soil.
  • Achillea varieties (Yarrow), Size: To 4 feet tall. yellow, orange, red, pink, and white. Notes:  Conditions: Full sun and well-drained soil. Rarely eaten by deer and rabbits.
  • Sedums, Size: Under 6 inches to 3 feet. Color: Blue/Green, Chartreuse/Gold, Gray/Silver, Purple/Burgundy. Flowers: Orange, Pink, Red, White. Notes:  Drought Tolerant, Groundcover, Slope/Erosion Control, Attracts Birds, Cut Flowers, Good for Containers, Low Maintenance

Along with the heat, drought is not uncommon during our season. Picking up a few sustainable and environmentally friendly practices in gardening will go a long way if we take a few precautions with watering.

  1.  Water with a drip system whenever possible — soak the bed slowly and thoroughly to a depth of 10 to 12 inches.
  2. Watering deeply every 3 to 5 days is preferable to a shallow daily watering.
  3. Water in the early morning, so foliage has time to dry.
  4. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch or similar material to aid in water retention and help keep the roots cool during hot weather.
  5. Plant in the spring and fall, giving plants a chance to get established and expand their root systems before the hottest weather and/or drought.
  6. Make large, valuable and historic trees your top priority. Large oaks are particularly vulnerable to drought. Do not water around the trunk of an established tree. Water trees at the drip line, which is the farthest extent of the branches. Do not spray water on the leaves of a tree; this can lead to leaf damage and disease problems.
  7. If you have expensive shallow-rooted ornamentals such as dogwoods, azaleas, and rhododendrons in your landscape, they should also be at the top of your list. (These ornamentals should (of course) be mulched.)
  8. Newly transplanted trees, shrubs and plants should be watered before well-established plants. A berm of soil in the shape of a ring around the base of newly planted trees and shrubs will direct water to the root system.
  9. Perennial flowers are also shallow rooted and should be watered if keeping them is important to you.
  10. Lawns and annuals should be last on your watering list. Annuals are not going to be around another year anyway. Large lawns require so much water that you might have to sacrifice plants that are more valuable in order to water them adequately. You can limit the amount of water you use for annuals but still enjoy color by growing annuals in containers rather than large beds. Remember containers dry out quickly.
  11. During extended periods of drought, plants are under stress, so avoid fertilizing and pruning them. Fertilizers can dehydrate plant roots when water is scarce. Pruning encourages new growth, which needs more water.
  12. Do not apply pesticides to wilted plants.
  13. Improving the quality of your soil will help improve the quality of your plants. Plants with deep roots have access to moisture after surface soil begins to dry out. A primary goal of Xeriscape is to encourage plants to develop deep root systems.
  14. Choose plants that are healthy and adapted to our area i.e. plants that can take hot, humid weather as well as hot, dry weather. Plant these plants in the right place and give careful attention to getting them well established.

Amanda Bratcher is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.