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Brian Minter: How to get your gardens through the heat

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Brian Minter shares tips on how to navigate your garden through the summer heat waves

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Brian Minter Liven up stressed hanging baskets with a little tidiness, some food and time.  Photo: Minter Country Garden. Liven up stressed hanging baskets with a little tidiness, some food and time. Photo: Minter Country Garden. Photo by Minter Country Garden /PNG

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The extreme heat we’ve experienced over the past week has certainly taken a toll on our gardens – scorched leaves, parched annuals and perennials, brown grass, stressed containers and hanging baskets, struggling hedges – and the list goes on.

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The task now is to get the damaged plants and containers back into shape as quickly as possible. A long summer is ahead of us and we all want to continue to enjoy our colored plants, ornamental trees and dining gardens.

Baskets and containers, especially those that stand in the hot sun, are really tough. The priority now is to pinch or trim back burnt leaves and withered flowers so the plants can grow back. In some cases it may be necessary to move them to a location that is less exposed to heat.

It is important not to overwater in such a way that the soil is constantly too wet. Give them a good drink, then let them dry out. With so much heavy watering in the past week, most of the nutrients have been washed out of the soil. So it’s important to feed your baskets and containers with both a fast acting, soluble fertilizer like 20-20-20 and a slow release fertilizer like 14-14-14 for continuous feeding.

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You should see signs of new growth after about seven to ten days, and with a little care, things should recover.

Burned leaves, such as this hydrangea, can be removed in a targeted manner.  New growth will come out fine and healthy. Burned leaves, such as this hydrangea, can be removed in a targeted manner. New growth will come out fine and healthy. Photo by Minter Country Garden /PNG

This weather taught us a lot about the sun and heat tolerance of all our plants. Mophead hydrangeas are perhaps the hardest hit. They need moisture deep around their roots to keep leaves and flowers from burning. They should be fine in the early morning sun, afternoon shade, or total shade, but it’s the hot 11am to 4pm sun that really increases the risk of burns.

Depending on the severity of the burned leaves and flowers, you can either pluck off the affected leaves and flowers or, in more severe cases, the best option is to prune back Mophead hydrangeas and allow new growth. However, the consequence of pruning most of the older strains is that you won’t get flowers until the next year. Newer varieties like the Everlasting and Endless Summer series will bloom again. Be sure to water your hydrangeas thoroughly and deeply.

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Broad-leaved plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, and camellias can also have burned leaves, especially if they are on a south or west wall. It’s not too late to cut them back. New leaves will come and in most cases there will be enough time to develop new buds for flowering next year. It’s also important to rehydrate the roots by thoroughly soaking the soil, especially around the drip lines – outer tips of the branches. Adding a six to ten centimeter layer of bark mulch goes a long way in helping to retain more moisture in the soil. Applying a slow release fertilizer, such as 14-14-14, around the drip line will encourage vigorous new growth.

At the end of each summer, many cedar hedges have a row of brown, dying trees. No matter how old our cedar hedges are, they all have very shallow roots. Long periods of drought or heat can really stress these trees. All hedges need deep watering, and it is important to water them as soon as possible. If you’re using a drip or soaking tube, make sure the water stays in the water long enough to go deep into the roots. Dig up and check the depth of moisture. Once hydrated, they too would benefit from slow release fertilizer application.

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Fully laden fruit trees can suffer from fruit fall in extreme heat.  Give them a good deep drink and don't forget to feed them too. Fully laden fruit trees can suffer from fruit fall in extreme heat. Give them a good deep drink and don’t forget to feed them too. Photo by Minter Country Garden /PNG

The unfortunate truth is that not all ornamental shrubs and shade trees have been planted with proper soil preparation. Far too many struggle to grow in shallow, poor quality soils. In addition to deep watering around their drip lines, be sure to carefully work this spot into some nutrient-rich soil, and a layer of mulch would also help. Here, too, the use of slow release fertilizers will promote their recovery.

Most perennials will do far better than we might expect. They can wither in very hot weather, but with a little mulching and deep watering, they’ll usually spring back well. Some may have finished flowering or just burned leaves, so hard pruning may be in order. They also need good feeding.

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Many vegetables have already been harvested. Once the extreme heat is over, it’s time to plant vegetables like pumpkin, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, and beets in late summer and fall. There is still time to transplant cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage. Asian vegetables, cilantro, and spinach will sprout or become seeds in the heat, so wait until the weather cools before planting. In kitchen gardens, water in the morning if you can and keep the water off the foliage by just soaking the root zones to help the vegetable roots grow deeper.

Hot weather puts a strain on practically all of our fruit trees and can lead to premature fruit fall. It is important that we water the drip lines around any small fruit and fruit trees to make sure we have a harvest. Applying nutrients around all of their drip lines will greatly improve the quality and size of the fruit.

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Even roses popped open pretty quickly in the heat. To keep them going, trim back the dead flowers to allow for new growth and new flowers. Mulching roses with sea soil or composted fertilizer and applying good quality rose forage is now essential. Thorough, deep watering is also fine.

We can’t prevent what just happened in the heat, but we can certainly take steps to repair damaged plants and take important preventative care measures to ensure our gardens continue to deliver the beauty and food we so enjoy. Nature can sometimes challenge us. It can also teach us valuable lessons, and we must learn from them.

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Robert Dunfee