Wilted plants? Try these 3 tips to keep your garden looking fresh in the summer heat

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

“Anybody can have a great-looking garden in May. Talk to me in July!”

That admonition is from a good garden friend back when I first moved to Kentucky more than 25 years ago. And how right she was — and still is.

Just think about it. In the fabulous garden month of May, everything looks good. Herbaceous perennials are pushing up mounds of fresh, green foliage and piles of blooms. The trees look as green as they will all year long. Even the weeds look good in May. And in May, even those with the design sensibility of a concrete curb can get a few things right in the garden.

How often should you water your garden?

This may seem like a no brainer but sometimes we have a hard time gauging the scale of water needs of garden plants and how those needs change from one spot to another. The first thing to consider is how your watering compares to naturally occurring rain.

Sometimes in July or August we get a brief, 15-minute shower and as gardeners we shrug it off as not worth much. But if you compare that to watering with a hose, how many times have you stood and watered one spot for 15 minutes? Sure, it’s not much of a shower but it’s gotta be better than that 30 second waive with the water wand.

Then there’s the omnipresent oscillating fan sprinkler. If you run it in one spot for the 15 minute span of our mythical rain shower, keep in mind that the sprinkler is not hitting every spot for that entire 15 minute stretch. It’s swinging back and forth and only hitting one spot for about one tenth of the total run time. You might have to run that sprinkler for 2-plus hours to match that 15-minute shower.

Deep, penetrating irrigation is always best whether it comes from a drip irrigation system a soaker hose or, the gold standard, an actual day-long rain.

What type of fertilizer should I use in my garden? 

We’re all so diligent and earnest about garden chores in spring. We amend, mulch, plant and primp. We celebrate each and every new leaf. But now a few months into the garden calendar, we’ve lost a bit of our enthusiasm and the soil’s lost a bit of its oomph as well. All the spring fertilizer has either done its thing or been lost to spring rains. Even the slow-release fertilizer has probably run its course by now.

The bottom line is, it’s time to give your annuals, hanging baskets and perennial borders a little shot of fertilizer. You don’t want to overdo it this time of year. The generally drier soil combined with too much of a good thing can cause root burn. But about a half strength shot of soluble fertilizer in July and again in August can help your garden cruise into fall looking like something you did on purpose rather than something you forgot about when you went on vacation.

When should I prune my plants in the summer?

When it comes to annuals in the ground or in containers, this is one of the least known but best tricks in the summer gardener’s tool kit. Whether you are growing coleus, petunias, begonias or even garden mums, they can all get a little long in the tooth by this time of the season. When they grow a little too tall, they can get top heavy and become susceptible to breakage due to wind or rain. Sometimes they can just flop even if there’s no rain. And if you’re still trying to keep that 10-inch hanging basket of annuals looking like something other than the dog’s breakfast, the midsummer cutback might be just the trick.

When you cut back your annuals they will branch and regrow in a heartbeat. The new growth will be happier, healthier and given the reduced leaf area, will use less water. And of course, the best part is that they’ll be far less prone to the midsummer flop.

Does all this take a little work? Absolutely. Is it worth the effort? Give it a shot and let me know.

This article was originally published in the Courier Journal on July 15, 2022.

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