That’s the tune we sing in East Tennessee in the summer. Man! I can stand still and wilt. But I can get out of the sun. My garden plants can’t. Squash and melon leaves often hang like closing umbrellas. The excessive heat from the rays of the sun can dry out the soil, roots, and plant tissues pretty quickly. Extended times of heat will cause certain plants to bolt (go to seed) before you have a chance to harvest. What things can be done to give them a better chance of survival and successful production?

The first thing is mulch well. Since we do no-till, my garden has a layer of something on the surface of the soil always, but in the late winter/early spring I like to do more. Newspaper, cardboard, and all kinds of junk mail and scrap paper find their way into the garden. This is helpful to smother any plant that’s too aggressive or abundant. I put compost or shredded wood chips and leaves or the waste from the goat and chicken houses. Winter precipitation settles the cover close to the soil and the earthworms and their buddies get busy making the paper part of the garden, until time to plant.

When I’m ready, I cut through any existing paper and plant. If it’s seeds, I cut a trench as deep as I need, and plant. Then mulch is scratched back over or up to the stem. I’ve got old hay which I use all summer to continue the protection thru the hottest part of the year. Grass clippings that haven’t gone to seed may be used as well. If you have containers you can do the same thing on a smaller scale.

Do I get plants growing that I don’t want? Yes. I cut them to the ground and let them become part of the mulch, if they’ve not gone to seed. You get the idea. The main thing is keep the surface of the soil covered.

Shade-cloth works well to protect long rows and it can be left for several days without doing harm to the plants. This is a good solution for really tender or young plants when we have a sudden hot spell.

If you have containers, you might move them to a shadier location. Just be sure they get good sun for the right amount of time for the plant you’re growing. If you can’t move the pot, get some large pieces of cardboard and create a tent during the heat of the day, usually 11 a.m.–3 p.m., and remove when it’s cooler.

Watering at the right time will go a long way toward success, but when is the right time? Some say the earlier the better, so the plants have time to dry well before dark. This makes a lot of sense when you think about diseases, as they do best in hot, moist environments. Some say water in the evening to avoid so much evaporation and possible scalding of leaves. The worst time is in the middle of the day when so much moisture will be lost to evaporation.

I prefer to water early but will water late if it’s my only option that day. No matter what time of day, I water at ground level, never overhead (see last week’s column). Soaker hoses are great tools for efficient use and placement of water.

I make good use of any “gray” water we have, such as old pet-bowl water, the de-humidifier catchings, the duck troughs and chicken waterers. It also takes a long time for our bathroom water to get warm so I have a big bucket that I catch that pre-water that used to go down the drain. How about a dirty kiddie-pool? Even dirty dishwater or foot-soak water works! You’ll find that a good layer of mulch will help keep the water from running off and the soil temps will be more moderate.

Harvest early in the day to keep plant stress to a minimum, and flavor or potency at a maximum during this heat. Don’t fertilize during these stressful events; fertilizer encourages new growth and right now that’s not important. There will be plants which will succumb regardless of what you try but you’ll be successful most of the time.

Now … where’s a cold drink and some shade for you?

Sherrie “The Dirt Girl” Ottinger is a dedicated ecologist, speaker, writer and lifetime Tennessean. All comments and questions should be emailed to

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