Don’t Let the Dog Days Get You Down: Survival Tips for Austin Gardeners
by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden
For better and usually much, much worse, August is one of the signal months on the Austin gardening calendar. If March is the apex, our soaring season of joy, then August is the skulking nadir, the trough from which we must climb if we are to claim the mantle of Austin garden survivors. Every time August cranks up its freakish blast furnace, I find myself wondering if this will be the year that I finally pass the torch test. Have I prepared my garden, and myself, for the coming days of dread? Will this be the year that I can finally say that I laughed in the face of the dog days and didn’t get bitten in the ass?
Of course, I try not to do anything as strenuous as laughing, at least outdoors, during the month of August. But overtime, I have learned a few tricks that have helped my garden limp through the month intact if not unscathed. What follows is a short compendium of tips that can help you (and your garden) weather the worst days of the year.
Tip #1: Put a lid over it; invest in a good hat. I consider a good hat to be one of the top Texas garden tools. Several years ago I took a funky old wide-brimmed straw hat out of storage and discovered why field hands from the tropics are always depicted wearing funky old straw hats – they can save your brain from frying! Admittedly, anyone who is gardening in August probably already has scrambled brains, but there is no reason to go sunny side up.
Tip #2: Put a lid under it; use saucers under thirsty containers. This one is so simple and so overlooked… Most Austin area gardeners have lots of container plants that require almost daily watering during the worst of the summer. Simply adding a saucer underneath of the containers allows the plant to soak up excess water that otherwise just evaporates on the patio or runs off the deck. This one simple step can often cut the water needs of your containers by half.
Tip #3: Mulch; but do it some other time of the year. This one feels a bit like cheating since it involves lots of heavy lifting, which you’d have to be crazy to do now. However, mark you garden calendar for some cooler month, February perhaps, and lay down a nice thick layer of shredded hard wood mulch around your shrubs and on your perennial beds. You’ll be surprised by how much water and labor you’ll save in August if you put a good five or six inch layer of mulch down every spring. I like to do this in early spring after I’ve cleaned up the winter die back and while the weather is still cool.
Tip #4: Susie sells seaweed by the seashore. OK, so I got lost in “escaping to the seashore” metaphors… what I am really trying to say here is use liquid seaweed on your plants to help get them in the condition where they can face the heat. Liquid seaweed is rich in trace elements and hormones that promote healthy, drought resistant plants that are better able to survive the extremes of the Texas summer. I like to foliar feed my plants with seaweed every two or three weeks throughout the year. It is tempting to skip the summer months when it is just so damned hot, but this is when the benefits of liquid seaweed are most needed. The one thing that makes this chore bearable now is that you should do it either late in the evening or very early in the morning, which leads to…
Tip #5: Garden at night. Actually, what I really mean by gardening at night is watering at night, or, to be more specific, in the very early morning. I recommend setting automatic sprinklers to start cycling around five or six o’clock in the morning. Watering early in the morning takes advantage of the relatively cool temperatures and prevents major evaporative loss. Another advantage of early morning watering is that the foliage will dry off shortly after sunrise which helps prevent fungal diseases. For those without sprinkler systems, early morning is the only time when it is actually bearable outside; so don’t get caught out in the mid-day sun.
Tip #6: Let the sun help you with your weeding. Weeding is something that cannot be put off, even in the worst of weather. The weeds in your garden never take August vacations, they just keep on doing what they do – trying to fill every available nook and cranny with their God-awful weediness. What to do then, when just the thought of squatting out in the heat and hand weeding is enough to make you book tickets for the Artic? How about letting the brutal Texas sun lend a helping hand? For those with vast weed patches, I recommend solarization. This polite, almost friendly sounding term is actually a euphemism for condemning the weeds to a horrible toasty death. It is a simple technique which involves spreading a clear sheet of heavy plastic over the weeds, weighing it down, and letting the sun cook them till their wretched little roots turn a crispy brown.
Those of us with smaller-scale weed problems need not miss out on the fun. My main garden enemy is an odious little weed called spurge. On the hottest afternoons, I don my hat and a persona I like to call the “Scourge of Spurge,” and fill my pump sprayer with undiluted pickling vinegar (about twice the strength of regular vinegar.) The combo of searing sun and pickling vinegar is enough to fry any spurge that crosses my garden path.
Scourge of Spurge… has the sun gone to my head? Well, perhaps, but that is the fate of an Austin gardener in August.
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