Gardening During the Height of the Summer

Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

The garden tends to make me crabby in July and August. First, it’s so hot and humid that I can only stand being out there for a little over an hour. In the second place, there is an incessant demand to quench the eternal thirst of the plants during these two months. As I write this, we’ve gone through a stretch of weather where other communities receive the rain we so richly deserve in Chapel Hill.

Just as there are marathoners who favor running in this heat, there are gardeners who will spend the vast portion of these days in the garden. I am not one of them. When younger, I had a greater fortitude – accompanied by a great desire to fill up the garden – but now, being of a certain age, I respect the demands our summer conditions place on my body.

Getting out early in the garden is one rule I maintain. This gives me time to inspect the plants, observing if I’m harboring aphids or mealybugs. If nighttime temperatures remain high, out of necessity the roots must continue to send up water to the leaves. As a result, if plants droop, this indicates exhaustion – and they need watering immediately.

Careful observation is necessary because different plants react to our summer temperatures differently. The other day I noticed that the rose ‘Gabrielle Privat’ had shed all her leaves. Most of my roses maintain their leaf structure throughout the summer months, but Gabrielle insists on losing her leaves when she goes dormant. Consequently, I know she will return when temperatures are more favorable.

Many plants shut down during the summer. This dormancy is a protective measure that hopefully will sustain them until cooler nights prevail. For many plants, the nighttime temperatures are essential as they need cooler nights to refresh themselves. Some roses will follow Gabrielle’s pattern, while others will valiantly put out single blooms. It’s important to know how your roses react as there are so many variations of rose hybridization that roses can follow many differencing patterns.

One of my Itoh peonies, hybrids of tree and herbaceous peonies, has an urge to disappear at the beginning of August. Initially, I thought it had died, only to be delighted when it returned the following spring. Now I know it is merely doing its own thing, so I need not worry.

I observe which phlox has developed the unsightly powdery mildew, and which phlox is free of this scourge. ‘John Fanick’ and ‘Robert Poore’ are poor candidates in my book while the superior ‘Delta Snow’ and ‘Jeana’ are miraculously free of it. Note to myself: Refrain from planting more ‘Robert Poore’, no matter how much I enjoy its magenta color in the garden.

What I end up savoring are the small details in the garden. The Korean Sweetheart Tree, Euscaphis japonica, prepares its heart-shaped seedpods to burst, exposing large, gorgeous black seeds (that rarely sprout as they have to undergo a detailed schedule of chilling and heat before germination). I admire the alliums that are beginning to bloom. Allium millenium (its registered name, not a typo) is a fabulous filler plant now doing its own thing.

As I write this column, we’re not in the middle of one of our fearsome summer droughts, although it feels like we are, due to the 100° heat index days. This is one of the reasons mulching is so important, as it not only deters weed growth, it also slows down the evaporation of the soil’s moisture.

Above all, don’t hold out high expectations during the months of July and August. Don’t push the plants with doses of fertilizer. We give the roses their last dose in early July to prepare them for a second blush of blooms in September when the nights get cooler. Otherwise, the fertilizer stays where it belongs at this time of year, on the shelf unused.

I have pretty much given up watering – except for an occasional hand watering – in the garden for several reasons. OWASA’s rates are not inexpensive; I also worry about its ability to maintain its water supply satisfactorily, given the number of new housing facilities that have surfaced throughout Chapel Hill. It’s important to recognize that Chapel Hill does not have the large water resources of Durham. Consequently, I put myself in a conservation mode.

Because I have worked to limit runoff, the rain we’ve received this summer so far has been efficient. Yes, my Zoysia grass is not as green as I’d like it to be, perhaps the roses go into dormancy a bit early and many of the plants have stopped growing for a while.

Nevertheless, just as I am muddling my way through the hot weather, coping the best I can, I realize that the plants are doing the same. As Joyce Vance says in her blog, “We’re in this together.”

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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