“Hot weather opens the skull of a city, exposing its white brain, and its heart of nerves, which sizzle like the wires inside a light bulb.”
— Truman Capote, “Summer Crossing,” 2005
Truman Capote was just 19 when he sat in a sweltering Brooklyn apartment and wrote his first novel, “Summer Crossing.” The setting he described was all too familiar: a heat wave in New York during the summer of 1945. In Capote’s story, a 17-year-old debutante refuses to accompany her parents on a vacation to France. Instead, she starts up a romance with a parking lot attendant and, by summer’s end, finds herself crossing over to a life she did not anticipate.
All of which is to suggest that the heat of summer can make people do things they may later regret. Yet, gardeners, when it comes to gardening during a heat wave, there are three things you’ll be glad you did.
Did you mulch? I know I have extolled the virtues of mulching before. Yet it bears repeating that it is during times of intense and prolonged heat that mulching really pays off by helping to keep the soil moist so plants can replenish the extra water they’re losing from the heat. Straw and dried grass clippings make great mulch.
If you are sowing succession or fall crops, be aware that seedlings and recent transplants are particularly vulnerable during a heat wave. Completely surround young plants with mulch for now, and then uncover when temperatures cool down. Hold off on sowing anything new until the heat wave passes.
Potted plants should be mulched, too. Their limited root space in a hot container makes them particularly susceptible to heat damage. If possible, move potted plants to a temporary, shady location or bring indoors.
Did you provide temporary shade? For those garden plants that can’t be moved, you’ll need to bring some shade to them. I keep wood-framed shade cloth, umbrellas and lightweight floating row cover handy to provide shade when temperatures soar past 95 degrees. It’s important to allow room for air to circulate under the shade cover. If possible, allow exposure to morning sun and cover plants in the afternoon.
Did you adjust watering? Even with mulch, plants may need to be watered more during a heat wave. It’s best to water during the morning and increase the amount of time so the water soaks deeply into the soil. More frequent light watering is not as effective because the intense heat quickly evaporates surface moisture.
Of course, the best strategy for gardeners during a heat wave is not to garden. Stay indoors, and read “Summer Crossing” or one of Capote’s more familiar novels, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958) or “In Cold Blood" (1966).
In fact, 10 years after starting “Summer Crossing,” Capote still was not satisfied with it. He threw the manuscript into the trash, where it was recovered by his house-sitter and kept hidden for 50 years. After the house-sitter died, his nephew found the papers, and “Summer Crossing” was finally published in 2005, more than 20 years after Capote’s death.
I wonder whether Capote would be glad the story was rescued from obscurity, or if he would regret the exposure of his thoughts “sizzling like the wires inside a light bulb” during a summer heat wave in the city.
— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.