Summertime, and the living is... tough. Writer Henry James said “... Summer afternoon ... the two most beautiful words in the English language.” He must have been in the Canadian north woods. He was definitely not around here.
We’re nearly a month out of the solstice. The temperature and humidity can hover around 100 degrees hereabouts. Sweat drools down into your eyes and drips onto your eyeglasses. Ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes gnaw at every place on your body that you can’t reach. The mulberry
weed is growing faster than you can pull it, and cruel drought is waiting in the wings.
I know that is the pessimistic view, but Clare Booth Luce said the only difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that the pessimist is always right.
Speaking of drought: It is just about the worst calamity that can befall your garden. Yes, if you have a tiny yard and a few plants, you can deal with it by hand watering. If, however, your plantation is more extensive the challenge of staying on top of a drought becomes more problematic with every additional square foot you cultivate.
We’re more fortunate in this area than some others because of the ever flowing Memphis aquifer deep underground that provides us with plenteous water from our Board of Public Utilities, which considerately caps our sewer charge in summer and actually encourages us to use all the water we want.
Nevertheless, if you don’t have a total irrigation system, there will be places where, in case of lengthy drought, you will be forced to carry water to outlying plants, particularly the young of the year, which are far more sensitive to water shortage than established specimens. This can be a horrendous ordeal if you have many plants to water far from the hose bib.
Where the hose can reach the best way to water is to turn on the faucet at a very low ebb and lay the hose outlet right at the base of a tree or shrub until the ground is mushy a considerable distance from the plant. Even in hot weather, watering should not be needed for a week or so.
However, an exception is with a young specimen of the year, which has not had time to get root purchase into the surrounding area. These things can go dry in two days even after thorough watering. If there are a lot of them, say in a planting of numerous shrubs and trees at a new dwelling, your work is cut out for you, and in torrid weather, you will be lucky if several plants are not lost.
Automatic irrigation systems are a boon. I don’t know how I made it without my system, which was installed some 20 years ago. However, even irrigation providing an inch of water is not a panacea. It does the job for grass, but for more substantial plants the system might have to be run every day or two, or even more than once a day in extreme conditions.
Some years ago, we went 79 days here in summer with less than a half inch of rain, true desert conditions. I lost nearly 100 shrubs and trees that year. More salt was added to the wound when more drought, albeit somewhat less severe, came on the next year. We were losing more plants than human effort could replace.
It is particularly heartbreaking to lose plants more than 10 years or so old and have to replace them with two- or three-year specimens. Years lost, like words and bullets, can’t be called back.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at 642-1162.