In the Garden:
Lower South
June, 2008
Regional Report

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Mulch and drip irrigation provide a great setup for a beautiful, easy-care summer landscape.

Summer Sense

Summer can be a brutally hot season in the south. Temperatures in the triple digits and sparse rainfall can quickly turn our lush landscapes into a tawny, toasted wasteland, or sentence us to spending our days dragging hoses around the yard from dawn to dusk.

I refer to summer as the "second dormant season." We can garden year-round, but we do take somewhat of a pause in our rather mild winter season and then again in our hot summer season. These past weeks we have felt the effects of a lack of rainfall and high temperatures that came way too early for us.

I've learned a few things from personal experience and from friends who have gardened in the south for years. Whether you are a new arrival to the south or a long-time resident, here are a few tips to consider for making summer a more enjoyable and more productive season in the garden.

Miracle Mulch
It seems that sometimes we say it too often, but mulching is the single best thing you can do for your flowerbeds, vegetable gardens, and newly planted trees and shrubs. Mulch is simply nature's way of protecting plants. Dead organic materials on the soil surface keep the soil cooler, retain moisture, protect the soil surface from erosion and crusting, and deter weeds.

I am not fond of spending hot summer days combating weeds. My plants are not fond of being choked out by them, either. We've been out in the garden making sure that there is a thick mulch blanket of last year's leaves around our plants. Pine straw, dried grass clippings, wood chips, or any such material will work. Just get it down on the soil surface soon. If weeds are already present, you can hoe them prior to mulching or use several sheets of newspaper covered by some leaves to smother them out and recycle them back into soil again.

Wise Watering
When we water, it's best to water deeply and then allow the soil some time to partially dry out before watering again. This gives the most benefit from the water we use because less is lost to evaporation when compared to light, frequent watering. It means fewer disease problems, too, compared to frequent wetting of the foliage.

While drought can kill plants, overwatering can kill them faster. If you keep plant roots soggy wet, they can't get oxygen. In hot weather the plants are stressed already and will quickly wilt and start to die. This can be a bit tricky with newly planted shrubs and trees, which need frequent watering as their roots are still confined to a very small area.

Sun or Shade
There are a number of plants that love sun and can be planted in full sun in much of the country. However in our blistering heat some do better with a part-day sun exposure. Morning sun and late-day shade is best, but any break you can provide is welcomed. This cuts down on watering needs. Just make sure and give flowering plants enough sun to keep them blooming and productive. For roses and many other bloomers, about 6 hours of sun is adequate to keep them blooming well. My brugmansias prefer some bright dappled shade most of the day.

Southern Containers
Let's put it this way: Read what you will in national gardening literature about container gardening; then, when you move to the south, bump up your containers one size larger. Small containers are just too difficult to keep watered, and plants end up stressing even if watered twice a day. They also get pretty hot with the sun bearing down on them. The more rooting area you can provide, the happier they'll be. Locate the containers in morning sun and afternoon shade whenever possible.

Human Health
It is common sense, but if you'll allow me a little meddling I'd like to add one more comment. Take care of yourself and don't take chances with your health when it comes to summer gardening. Heat stroke sneaks up on you. Try to limit most gardening chores to the morning or very late in the day when it is a little cooler. Drink plenty of water, even if you are not thirsty. Our bodies aren't always honest with us!

Wear sunblock and a wide-brimmed hat. I like long-sleeved cotton shirts -- I swear they are cooler when working in the sun. Skin damage is cumulative. That is to say, you don't have to get a sunburn to develop problems over time. Take care of yourself as well as you take care of your garden.


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