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How to save your plants during a heat wave

Soil moisture is key to survival in triple-digit temperatures

Wet tomato on vine with blue cage
Spraying tomato plants with water early in the
morning helps fight spider mites and aphids while
refreshing the leaves and raising the humidity
around the plants. The runoff helps the plants, too.
(Photos: Kathy Morrison)

As the weather forecasters like to say: We’re having a heat wave!

Triple-digit days dominate our Sacramento forecast at least through Saturday. In its Excessive Heat advisory, the National Weather Service warns, “Drink plenty of water; don’t wait until you’re thirsty.”

That same advice applies to your garden. Plants with roots in soil that stays evenly moist – not soggy – have the best chance of surviving, even thriving during this heat wave.

The secret is to keep the soil from completely drying out – not on top, but down 4 to 6 inches in the root zone. Use a moisture meter to check. Or use a long-handled screwdriver; if you can’t shove it in 6 inches, you need to irrigate.

Potted plants in containers are especially at risk. The rootball contracts as it dries out, leaving gaps around the sides of the pot. When you pour water on a severely dry potted plant, the water tends to run out the sides without ever penetrating the rootball. In such cases, you may need to submerge the pot in water, let soak for a few minutes, then drain. Don’t let the roots sit in standing water; they’ll suffocate.

Wilting in the heat of the afternoon is normal for many plants, especially those with big thin leaves such as hydrangeas or squash. But if plants are wilted in the morning, water immediately.

Burlap or shade cloth can help prevent sunburn
on tomatoes or other summer vegetables.

Are there brown spots on your peppers or bleached-out areas on tomatoes? For plants showing signs of sunburn, erect temporary shade. This can be as simple as draping some cloth (burlap, sheeting, etc.) over a trellis or tomato cage.

Spider mites in particular are loving this heat; this itty-bitty arachnid thrives in hot and dusty conditions. If you see wispy webs covering leaves and stems of shrubs and other plants, knock them down with a strong stream of water from the hose.

This summer shower destroys their webs and washes the mites and dirt off the plants. It also disrupts what attracted the mites in the first place – dry, dusty leaves.

Wash mites off plants early in the morning, so the plant’s foliage has all day to dry. Fungal diseases usually aren’t a problem right now; powdery mildew can’t stand anything above 90 degrees.

This same approach also works against aphids. Showering plants is not wasting water; the runoff will go to the plant’s roots. Most plants also absorb moisture via their foliage.

Avoid spraying neem oil or other treatments (often recommended for pest control). The oil coats the plant’s foliage and increases its sensitivity to extreme heat. Instead of helping the plant, the oil “cooks” its tender leaves.

And put off any fertilization until weather cools back to normal. Feeding increases a plant’s water needs. During this heat, it just adds to plant stress.

For more on heat stress and plants, check out this advice from the UC Integrated Pest Management Program: http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/GARDEN/ENVIRON/thermal.html .

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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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