It’s hot. Bloody hot. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s King Richard III, “Now is the summer of our discontent”.
You would think we Houstonians would be used to it by now, but when the dog days of summer begin in early May, that’s even too much for we natives. Record heat started early this season and it’s taking a toll on our grid, our wallets and our gardens.
Despite December 2021 being the warmest on record, according to SpaceCity Weather, we got an uncharacteristically late freeze in February 2022. It was nothing like the freeze of February 2021 when we were in single digits in the Bayou City, but it still meant a late spring planting of vegetables and flowers for most of us. And timing is everything when it comes to edibles.
Those who garden in Houston know that vegetables must get planted pretty early in the spring in order to reap a harvest before the summer temps wipe out the plants for good. Tomatoes love a little heat for ripening but they won’t set fruit when daytime temperatures are consistently above 90 degrees. We vegetable gardeners have watched helplessly as the little yellow blossoms fall unpollinated.
To top it off, we’re in bit of a drought, too. I am getting Popeye arms from hauling water and moving potted plants out of the searing sun. I was thrilled to see numerous blooms on my hydrangeas and gladioli, only to watch them fizzle in the 100 degree heat.
And I have tried to do everything right this year. I have given my flowers and vegetables a regular feeding of organic fertilizer. I added soil to potted plants or transferred them to bigger pots. I even mulched my front garden, something I neglect to do usually. Yet, no amount of mulch can combat this drought and record heat.
And the Houston meteorologists have no good news for us. They give us the forecast with a screen of hot and sunny behind them while also warning of a busy hurricane season. What’s a gardener to do?
Well, there are some things. We can water the hell out of our yards and plants but that gets expensive and is not particularly good for water conservation. However, when our eyes scan over wilting flowers and brown grass, our eco-conscious sensibilities fly out the window and we are desperately trying to save the investments we have made, financially and physically, in the landscape.
That means we have to be judicious with our water use. Hand-watering can target plants that really need it and can be done at the base of the plants rather than overhead, which prevents evaporation. It also helps to prevent disease, especially in our humid climate. However, it requires a good deal of time, which is difficult for working folks who are out the door early and home late during the week.
While some people are fortunate to have timed sprinkler systems, many of us have to rely on our own physical labor to get it done. And sprinkler systems don’t always reach every part of the yard. My neighbor’s sprinklers miss a big chunk of their lawn, so I try to water it when I do my own.
It’s best to focus on deep watering rather than a shallow sprinkle that won’t do much good. A good layer of mulch in flower beds can help cool things down. Many potted plants need to be watered nearly every day, which can leach out nutrients and soil. That means a regular feeding schedule and a replenishment of soil is necessary.
Of course, all of this requires manual labor from the gardener, which is a difficult thing to do in this heat. We wilt just like the plants and it can be dangerous to overdo it. My vegetable garden begins to look like a jungle of weeds in July when I just can’t make myself battle the mosquitoes and the humidity. And precious weekends feel wasted when yardwork becomes a soul-sucking chore.
I have more plants now than I have ever had in my life and I promised my spouse that I was done for the season. That lasted until I saw some particularly healthy bougainvillea plants at the grocery store the other day. But, we have to know when to stop. And right now, it’s probably best to slow down on adding flowers and plants that will require a lot of coddling through the Houston summer. Gardeners should focus on keeping their current vegetation alive rather than increasing the botanical collection.
While some veggie lovers will still want to plant heat-loving edibles like okra, peppers, basil and black-eyed peas this month, I am done planting new veggies for the summer. I am putting my focus on keeping the remaining peppers, herbs and sweet potatoes alive.
Though my current harvest was not what I dreamed of back in February, I got a boatload of green beans and a few peaches from a tree I half-killed. My tomatoes, though, have been a bit of a disappointment, along with dead squash plants and pathetic cucumbers. The one stellar stand-out has been a yellow pear tomato. That variety was great for me last year and did well this year, too. If I can keep it going through this summer, I may get more tomatoes in the fall.
The overloaded blackberry plants also suffered in the heat with sunscald and dried-out fruit. The birds were going to town on the berries, probably out of thirst. I did manage to get some tasty ones that were hidden in the foliage. Figs are growing well on the pot-bound tree and there are still some peppers, tomatoes and berries ripening. I also picked a perfectly bulbed white onion from a crop that I planted last year. It’s the little surprises that make gardening worthwhile
My ornamental flowers did well early on but the lack of rain meant thrips thrived on the New Dawn rose bush, destroying nearly every one of the hundred or so blooms, which then opened ugly and brown. Bugs have never been as bad for me as they have been this year. I didn’t plant eggplant this year because of the flea beetles so they took their revenge instead on the zinnias, cucumbers and melons.
For the first time ever, I had to spray for bugs. Since I try to be as organic as possible, I used Neem oil. It worked but it has to be done in the very early morning or toward sunset. Still, some of the leaves were burnt by the spray. It did, however, get the infestation under control.
I am still making plans for the garden, albeit in the air-conditioning of my home. I let one of my leeks go to seed and plan on sowing the seeds in the late summer. I am also saving seeds from my zinnias and larkspur. And, I am fantasizing about the fall vegetable garden which oftentimes does better in Houston than the spring version.
All of this work can feel as if it is for naught but there are still little thrills such as making a tomato salad for dinner from the garden or eating a peach so juicy that the grocery store versions taste terrible by comparison. Picking zinnias for a bouquet or watching a monarch caterpillar happily munching away on milkweed gives us a sense of oneness with nature.
While the cooler temperatures of fall are still months away, a little maintenance and sweat equity can keep our gardens going until we can once again take a breather and actually enjoy our efforts.