“While every bird enjoyed his song,
Without one thought of harm or wrong,
I turned my head and saw the wind,
Not far from where I stood,
Dragging the corn by her golden hair,
Into a dark and lonely wood.”
— W.H. Davies, “The Villain,” 1920
Welsh poet William Henry Davies spent a good portion of his life as a drifter in England and North America, only settling down to a wife and full-time career as a writer after one of his legs was crushed as he attempted to jump on a freight train in Canada. Considered one of the most popular poets of the early 20th century, Davies wrote a lot about his adventures while living unsheltered from nature’s elements.
In “The Villain,” Davies conjures up images of the summer wind as a stealthy marauder and the corn as a damsel in distress. Indeed, our yellow-tasseled corn, as well as other garden plants, may suffer villainous effects of hot summer winds if left unprotected.
Beginning in May and continuing throughout the dry summer months, prevailing WNW winds in the Rogue Valley often strengthen in the afternoon when temperatures are at their highest. The daytime sun creates a lot of energy and air instability. Local wind speeds may climb from relatively calm in the morning to about 16 mph in the late afternoon, when gusts of 30-plus mph are not uncommon.
These winds are part of our Mediterranean climate, with low humidity and 10 to 15 days during the summer when temperatures surpass 100 degrees (there were 11 such days last year).
Hot winds can damage a garden plant by robbing moisture from its leaves faster than the plant is able to take up water from the soil through its roots. When moisture evaporates faster than a plant can replace it, leaves will dry out and wilt. Hot air injury causes foliage to brown at the tips and leaf edges, and tender new tip growth begins to wilt. Sunburn and leaf scorch may occur when under-watered plants face intense heat and hot wind.
In addition, plants may respond to hot wind by dropping their flowers or fruit (such as tomatoes and squash). Wind also tugs at plant roots, interfering with their ability to remain secure in the soil and to absorb water and nutrients effectively. Taller shallow-rooted plants may even topple over from the wind, and unprotected garden topsoil can be eroded. No wonder Davies called the summer wind a villain!
However, even villains are not all bad. Summer winds provide helpful air circulation in our gardens, and they assist plants in shedding dead leaves and stems. While summer winds can spread pathogens from disease-infected plants to healthy ones, they also aid in plant pollination and seed dispersal.
To address the potential harm of hot summer wind, gardeners should be prepared to water more often. Wind screens can be placed around the garden, even around individual plants, as needed. It may be prudent to grow a wind-block hedge with boxwood, lavender, cotton lavender or barberry. In larger spaces, taller hedges can be grown with wind-resistant trees and shrubs such as crepe myrtle, firethorn and hornbeam.
For ornamental gardens, choose native or other drought-tolerant plants that have adapted to dry winds by growing long root systems, which can absorb more moisture from the soil than the foliage loses. Wind-resistant plants are those with small or narrow leaves such as grasses, daylilies, daisies, coreopsis and zinnias. Low-growing plants, such as sedum and others cultivated for rock gardens, also tolerate summer winds well.
Like W.H. Davies, U.S. President Grover Cleveland was suspicious of hot air. He once said, “I would rather the man who presents something for my consideration subject me to a zephyr of truth and a gentle breeze of responsibility rather than blow me down with curtain of hot wind.”
Our summer garden plants couldn’t agree more.
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.