How to Help Your Plants Survive Summer's Heat
In the heat of the summer, there is nothing I like better than relaxing on the deck, drinking a mojito and admiring my garden. However, the long, hot days of summer can make the plants in our landscape look straggly and tired. With a little bit of care, you can revitalize them, enjoy the scenery and some of those mojitos.
The most common stress on our plants is desiccation, or drying out. The dry winds and heat may cause plants to sag and wilt. Spraying or misting the leaves with water will revive most plants. The water will cool the leaves and increase the plant’s efficiency at drawing water up from the soil. If you are going to use your garden hose, be sure to let the water run on the lawn until the water cools so that you’re not spraying hot water on already heat-stressed plants.
After giving your plants their shower, check your irrigation system. Make sure your drippers, emitters and sprinklers are not clogged, and that there are no breaks in your lines. Pay close attention to your watering regime. Most plants in your landscape will benefit from less frequent, deeper watering. During the heat of summer, deeply water your plants about twice a week. Deeper soaking encourages deep root growth and allows plants to draw water from deeper in the soil.
You also want to reduce the amount of water lost from evaporation. Many people are surprised to learn that water can be wicked up and out of the soil through evaporation. To reduce soil evaporation, cover your soil with an organic mulch, such as wood chips, compost or straw. Put down at least 3 inches of mulch, taking care to pull it back from the plant bases. The mulch will help keep the soil cool and moist, as well as suppress weed growth.
Why is it that so many weeds seem to do just fine in the scorching heat, while our landscape plants struggle? You can try hand pulling weeds that aren’t too difficult to remove or abundant. You can also cut them to the ground and try smothering them with a thick layer of mulch. As a last resort, you can spot spray difficult or aggressive weeds with an appropriate herbicide. However, it is very important to use herbicides when temperatures are low and winds are still.
Never spray an herbicide in the heat of the day or when it is windy. Herbicides will volatilize, meaning they will go directly from a liquid to gas, in the presence of heat and sunlight. When an herbicide is a gas, it is less likely to make direct contact with plants and more likely to be inhaled by you. Remember to always read and follow the label directions and wear appropriate protective clothing.
These same precautions also apply to using insecticides. Spider mites flourish in hot, dry summer weather. We also often see aphids all season long on their favorite plants. Fortunately, it is not necessary to spray insecticides to control spider mites or aphids, as both are easily controlled with water. Simply spraying infested plants with water will remove many of the insects and raise the humidity, thus altering the habitat of the insects. Spraying with water also has the added benefit of cooling off your plants. If you have herbaceous (nonwoody) perennials that aphids seem to especially love, such as milkweed and columbine, you can install a few micro-jet sprayers directed at the plants to discourage pests. Remember, insecticides are nonselective. They will kill all insects, even the beneficial ones. You want a robust population of beneficial insects in your garden for natural pest control, so use insecticides only as a last resort.
Deadheading, or removing dry, spent flowers, will instantly make your plants look better. For most flowering plants, you can cut low on the stem, or to the nearest bud. This will encourage a second bloom.
Once you’ve deadheaded, weeded, sprayed off the insects, and improved your watering regime, you may be tempted to give your plants some fertilizer. Don’t. Fertilizing in the heat of the summer can stress plants by increasing the salt content of the soil, and encouraging rapid and unsustainable growth. Besides, most woody plants (trees and shrubs) don’t even need fertilizer. With regular applications of organic mulch, most perennials don’t need fertilizer either.
What you can do during these hot summer months is notice where you have bare spots in your yard, and create a plan for filling them. For a quick fix, you can temporarily fill them with heat-tolerant annuals, such as cosmos, salvia, lobelia, or alyssum. Herbs such as basil, parsley, and borage also fill in nicely and provide tasty additions to meals. For a long-term solution, consider planting some ornamental grasses when the weather cools down a bit. Ornamental grasses are especially nice because they increase the biodiversity of your garden, typically use less water, and are interesting to look at year-round. Taller varieties can also be used to shade more heat-sensitive perennials.
Providing good cultural care, such as proper planting, pruning, mulching and watering, is the best way to help your plants survive summers hot spells. Also, choosing plants that are native, drought-tolerant or adapted to southwestern Montana will reduce maintenance and water requirements.
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
If you’re like me and many other Americans, you’re growing vegetables this year. For those of us who live in suburbia and aren’t blessed with unlimited space, we have to get very creative when deciding where to grow our vegetables. If you have always planted your vegetables in neat and tidy rows, without much creative thought, try a new planting scheme this year – companion planting.
Companion planting is a method of arranging your plantings according to which types of plants are potentially beneficial to one another. Companion planting may reduce competition for water and nutrients, decrease pest and disease problems, and possibly increase vegetable production.
Companion planting is thought to work, in part, because it increases plant diversity. Imagine a hungry insect population finding its way into your garden. If it encounters an entire row of its preferred food, you can bet that the entire row will be decimated before you even notice. However, what if that insect population found one plant of its favorite food, only to be halted from moving onto the next one because there’s a plant it doesn’t like in its way? You would probably notice the damage and might be able to control the problem before losing your entire crop. And, the insects may move on to “greener pastures” if undesirable plants are mixed in with desirable ones.
In its simplest form, companion planting is alternating two types of vegetables in a single row. This is sometimes called intercropping, and alternating garlic or basil with tomato plants is a popular example. You can also intercrop more than two varieties. A classic multispecies intercropping example is growing onions, lettuce and carrots together. Each of these plants grows its roots at different levels in the soil, so they don’t compete with each other for nutrients. Aboveground, these plants have such distinct growth habits and foliage shapes that they don’t crowd each other for sunlight or space.
Bush beans and peas are popular vegetables to intercrop with plants that are heavy nitrogen feeders. This is because beans and peas are nitrogen fixers, meaning they can utilize atmospheric nitrogen for their growth and reproduction. They have symbiotic bacteria that live on their roots and form nodules rich in nitrogen. Plants growing near them will be able to intertwine their roots with the beans’ roots and utilize the nitrogen stored there.
An ancient and popular companion planting is the Three Sisters garden. I have grown a Three Sisters garden and loved it! The Three Sisters method is a unique Native American way of growing corn, pole beans, and squash. These three plants mutually benefit each other as they grow. The corn provides a living trellis for the pole beans, the pole beans provide nitrogen for use by the corn, and the squash provides living mulch. The three plants create a synergy that produces a greater yield, increased nutrition and more food calories than if only one of the crops was grown alone in the same space. The Three Sisters garden was developed by the Iroquois, and its cultivation was adopted by Native American tribes all across the country. The Anasazi added another sister, bee plant, Cleome serrulata, to the plant mix to improve pollination of the beans and squash and provide pollen to the bees. Here's a list of popular intercropping companion plants.
Companion planting has its roots in both science and folklore. Some people swear by planting basil with their tomatoes, and others won’t plant basil without garlic. Here are some suggestions for popular homegrown vegetables. If you would like to read more about companion planting, “Carrots Love Tomatoes,” by Louise Riotte, and “Gaia’s Garden,” by Toby Hemenway, are a couple of books that have comprehensive plant lists and design suggestions.
Companion plantings aren’t limited to vegetables. Flowering plants are also great additions to vegetable gardens, as many of them attract beneficial insects. For example, cosmos attract syrphid flies, lacewings and tiny parasitic wasps. All of these insects help control pests such as aphids, leafhoppers, spider mites and cutworms.
Growing a variety of flowers and vegetables around an apple tree is a common way to grow more food and provide benefit to the tree. Try planting a ring of perennial flowering bulbs, such as daffodils (don’t eat the daffodils, as they will make you sick) or edible chives, around the trunk of the tree. Next, plant a ring of edible herbs and flowers, such as borage and cilantro, which attract beneficial insects. Then, plant some larger-leafed vegetables, such as rhubarb and zucchini, or some smaller plants, such as strawberries and bush beans, to act as living mulch. Finally, plant another ring of bulbs, such as edible day lilies, or ornamental perennial flowers to attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Be sure to arrange your plants so that they don’t shade each other out.
All of these plants perform a specific function for the apple tree and each other. You can expand upon this idea by also planting beneficial perennial shrubs, such as currant or Siberian pea beyond the drip line of the tree. The drip line is the reach of the trees limbs. You could even add an annual vine, such as sweet pea or some nasturtium, to grow up the trunk of the tree. Both plants look pretty and attract pollinators. If you grow nasturtium, you can even eat the flowers!
Companion planting or intercropping can also be expanded into a polyculture. A polyculture is essentially a dynamic plant community composed of many species. Think of hiking through a beautiful meadow in the Bridger's at the height of wildflower season. You don’t see row upon row of one type of flower. Rather, you see a multicolored carpet of many different types of flowers. Many of the flowers bloom at different times and grow to different heights; and when they die, they open up new spaces for another plant species to grow. You can follow these same principles when designing a polyculture in your own yard.
Polycultures have long been popular with traditional or aboriginal societies. The advantage of a polyculture is that it provides a constant supply of food over the entire growing season, and begins to function dynamically – repelling pests, building the soil, attracting beneficial insects, etc. Polycultures are typically started in the early spring, before the last frost, with cool-season crops that are sown free-form into the garden in mixtures. For example, a mixture of mustard seeds, arugula and other leaf lettuces are sown together. This is followed with a planting mixture of radishes, carrots and other root crops. Next, an herb mixture, such as cilantro and parsley, is sown. Finally, cool-season peas and bush beans are pushed here and there into the soil, about 12 inches apart.
The plants can be thinned once they’ve germinated, and then harvested by either cutting or pulling entire plants. As summer approaches, many of these plants will reach their maturity and can be pulled and replaced with warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and squash. In the early fall, beneath the dappled shade of the warm-season crops, cool-season crops are sown into the soil a second time to provide a fall harvest. Finally, in late fall or winter, cover crops are sown to replenish the soil.
The trick to keeping a polyculture under control is to sow the seeds lightly and thin judiciously. The goal is to produce different varieties, not a lot of any single plant variety. If you sow too many seeds, your garden will quickly become overcrowded, and nothing will reach its full potential.
No matter your gardening style and plant preferences, you can use companion planting to benefit your garden by attracting pollinators, providing living mulch, building the soil, potentially decreasing pest and disease problems, and above all else, providing you and your family with bountiful homegrown abundance!
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.
Sheet Mulching - An easy way to prepare and create a new landscape.
One of the first things people notice when they start gardening in Montana is that our soil is, well, challenging. Our soil tends to be very low in organic matter, and is not generally well structured. Fortunately, there’s a simple and economical way to create fabulous soil – sheet mulching. In other parts of the world, sheet mulching is also called sheet composting, layered gardening, and even lasagna gardening!
Sheet mulching is essentially composting on-site, on the area that needs amending. It is a simple layering of slashed vegetation, cardboard or newspapers, and organic material, topped off with a nice layer of mulch. Over time, these layers decompose into rich fertile soil. Sheet mulching mimics the natural way of building soil, which is from the top down.
The alternating layers of cardboard, organic material and mulch provide the appropriate carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that is needed. If you don’t add nitrogen sources when incorporating carbon-rich materials into the soil, such as sawdust, wood shavings and newspaper, the carbon will temporarily deplete the soil of nitrogen, and it will be difficult to successfully grow anything. For successful sheet mulching, you need to provide appropriate amounts of both carbon and nitrogen. Here’s how to get it right.
Slash or closely mow all existing herbaceous (soft-tissued, nonwoody) vegetation, and leave it in place. This will provide a layer of nitrogen-rich material. However, it is best to remove tomato and squash plants from the area to avoid potential disease and pest problems.
Next comes the carbon layer. Flatten a bunch of cardboard boxes, and lay them down, overlapping them by 6 inches. You can also use a one-quarter- to one-half-inch layer of newspapers, torn up phone books, or old pieces of carpet. Soak everything with a hose. Wetting down this layer is important. Water is a catalyst to kick-start the decomposition of the materials. Once everything is thoroughly soaked, try not to walk on it, or you may tear it.
Next, it’s time to spread a layer of manure or compost. If you are doing this now, and plan to plant vegetables or annuals and perennials, you can use fresh manure if it is weed-free. Otherwise, use aged manure or compost. Then, wet the area again. The layer of manure or compost will entice earthworms and other soil organisms up into the sheet mulch and hasten its decomposition. Finally, top it all off with at least a 2-inch layer of mulch. Straw is a good choice because it is inexpensive, about $7 a bale. Just be sure that it is certified weed-free.
The beauty of sheet mulching is its versatility. It can be used to build rich garden soil, or it can be used to convert lawn into a low-water-use landscape. Since sheet mulching provides the ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio, you can plant directly into it! Just pull aside the mulch and organic material, cut an “X” into the bottom layer, dig your hole, and install your plant. Then, put the organic material and mulch back into place.
There you have it – a simple, inexpensive, and nontoxic way to kill your lawn and instantly install a new landscape! Sheet mulching kills weeds and lawns without herbicides, while building the soil without requiring tilling. It is a great way to begin creating a sustainable landscape, and it’s practiced all over the world.
Homegrown Paleo - Choosing Quality Plants at the Nursery
Spring is in full swing and we (hopefully) have had our last frost. It is finally time to buy plants. Before you spend any of your hard earned money on plants from the nursery or local plants sales, make sure you are purchasing plants that are vigorous and healthy. There is nothing more depressing than buying the perfect plant for the perfect spot only to have it fail because of something you could have easily detected. Don’t know what you need to detect? No worries, read on for tips on choosing high quality plants.
Above Ground Considerations
Select plants that have lots of buds, but hardly any flowers. This is difficult for many of us, as we are looking for instant bursts of color in the garden. However, all plants will go through transplant shock when they are removed from the artificial world of container living and placed into the harsh realities of Montana’s lean soil, intense sunlight and brutal winds. Most flowering plants will respond to this shock by immediately dropping blooms and redirecting energy elsewhere. Save yourself the heartache, buy plants in bud not bloom.
Avoid spindly, leggy plants, and plants with yellow leaves (unless that is their natural color). Those tall and leggy plants were grown in poor light and will struggle all summer in your garden. Plants with yellow or pale colored leaves can be an indicator of poor plant nutrition and it is asking too much of them to thrive in the infertile soil of your yard.
If you are considering woody plants (trees and shrubs) make sure the branches are free of scars, breaks, deadwood or crossing branches. The branches should be strongly attached with wide angles, and some branches should be growing low on the trunk. Also make sure tree trunks have taper, meaning that the trunk diameter increases as it nears the soil line.
The final above ground inspection should be for insects and disease. Do not choose plants that are infected or infested. Take a good look underneath the leaf, and where the leaf attaches. Also avoid plants that have insects present or have chewed, mottled or dry and crispy leaves. Woody plants should be inspected for insect exit holes on the trunk and branches. You do not want to import a problem into your backyard.
Below Ground Considerations
Most people never consider looking at the root ball when purchasing plants. However, you would never purchase a car without looking under the hood right? Apply the same logic here. First look to see if roots are growing out of the bottom of the pot. Next, set the container on its side, give it a good thwack on the bottom and gently ease the plant out of the pot. You will be able to clearly see if the plant is pot-bound. If it is not pot-bound make sure there are no crooked, kinked, crossing or girdling roots. These deformed roots will never be efficient at water and nutrient uptake. Also notice if there are any black and slimy roots; these are dead and indicate the plant has a disease, or has been over-watered.
With a little extra time and effort you can be sure to select the healthiest and vigorous plants for your yard. Remember to introduce your newly purchased plants to your back yard before planting them. Most plants have been grown in a greenhouse and need an adjustment period to toughen up for our growing conditions. Read my Homegrown Paleo post on hardening off plants.
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