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Surviving summer

  • Published Saturday, August 6, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Saturday, August 6, 2011, at 6:26 a.m.

We got some welcome rain this week, and it seemed to knock the heat dome that had encased us at least a little askew. Not to mention that it pulled us back from the brink of despair.

"I had an interesting survival event happen this week," Donna Manda e-mailed me Thursday. "I had just watered my containers (and) came back in the house where it is COOL. Looked out the window at the containers and watched two squirrels digging in two of them. They dug the plantings out and buried themselves in the wet soil. I did not try to stop them because they were trying to survive. (Of course, I sacrificed my plants.)

"What an extreme summer."

That pretty much sums it up.

I can only imagine that the squirrels were as thrilled as we humans were to see the rain Wednesday night.

But the pounding shower came fast onto our parched streets and gardens — and the result was that it didn't soak in as much as we might have thought.

"People ask me, 'How long do I need to put my sprinkler on?' " extension agent Bob Neier said. The answer is as long as it takes to let the water slowly sink in.

"If it rained really slow, more of it would have soaked in," he said.

Bob measured 1 1/2 inches of rain at the Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road, and then got out the soil probe to see what impact that had on the dormant buffalo grass. He found that the rain had soaked in 1/2 inch on a steep slope, 3 inches on level areas, and 6 inches in slightly depressed areas.

"So I turned on the drip system to the trees in the arboretum," Bob noted on his Facebook page.

We still have a lot of catching up to do on watering. And the summer damage that can be seen in the landscape hasn't been due only to lack of rain. The long string of 100-plus-degree days has left its own mark.

I noticed that the geranium leaves in some hanging baskets this week turned an odd pale lemon or lime color — I had never seen them quite like that. Then I saw that Megan Kennelly, plant pathologist with Kansas State University Research and Extension, identified it as a bleaching out from the heat.

"I've seen this in greenhouses where there were heater issues," Kennelly wrote. "I've never seen it in the field. (Then again, I've never experienced 100+ temps on 11 of 14 consecutive days.)"

The good news: "The plants should recover and be just fine."

We can only hope as much for the rest of the landscape.

Neier said he's seeing some plant problems that are "flat-out heat injury. It is not drought injury."

Among the victims: spruces, especially on west and south sides of houses.

"Adding extra water is not going to bring them back," he said.

"I'm seeing lots of damage to dwarf Alberta spruce — that is a Canadian plant, and here they'll do well in partial shade if they're watered. In a year like this they really need some shade in the afternoons."

Cathy Brady of Brady Nursery sees many Japanese maples are similarly suffering. One of hers that gets watered twice a week —"we nursery people don't run our sprinklers every day" — has seen 80 percent of its foliage turn brown.

Cathy has a particularly good reason to remember 1980 — the hottest-year benchmark for many of us. She passed out from heat stroke that summer, saved only, the doctor said, by the backflow of the hose she was watering with. Now she follows the young members of her staff around like a mother hen, clucking at them to drink water, drink water, drink water.

Our plants, of course, need water — even the old trees that have been established for decades. They have their limits.

Brady recommends watering them deeply three times in the next six weeks if the amount of rain doesn't pick up.

"People are worried about trees," Neier said. Trees that are going dormant lose their leaves, and that's fine, he said. Better for a tree to lose its leaves than have the leaves turn brown and hold on. That seems to weaken the tree more.

"Water what you can," he said. "What you can't, a lot of that goes dormant and comes back out. Others may weaken to the extent that they have borers in later years." Younger trees that don't get water can get sunscald and borers.

Perennials that are 2 to 3 years old should have enough of a root system to survive the heat, Cathy said, though their leaves may look terrible and they will go dormant early. Between nibbling grasshoppers and the heat, her astilbes, coral bells and hostas look awful, she said.

"People are coming in wanting to fertilize. Don't do that now. Wait till October. October to mid-November is a good time to fertilize trees, shrubs and the lawn."

Part of the no-shows of the summer is the produce that usually gets donated to Plant a Row for the Hungry through her nursery, Cathy said. Where the food bank might have picked up 20 times by this point last year, there have been only three, she said.

As far as vegetable gardens go, she said, "I would try to keep them alive, put down extra mulch and water, and once it starts to cool down they'll start to get blooms again."

If you're thinking of planting a fall garden, extension agent Rebecca McMahon recommends holding off a bit more in hopes of lower temperatures, because it would be very hard to keep emerging seedlings watered enough in this weather.

Things like spinach, lettuce and radishes that grow quickly can wait for another couple of weeks, even until early September, to be planted, she said.

Try to hold off a little longer on such slower-growing vegetables such as beets and carrots, though after mid-August it's going to be harder to get a good crop going in time to produce this year. (Assuming the rest of the year is more normal temperature-wise.)

Brady's mom has been bringing in Popsicles a few times a week for the Brady Nursery crews, and they've been cutting up cold watermelon and cantaloupe in the afternoon, too. "Eating cold things helps you a lot," Brady said.

That reminds me that the worst of what summer throws at me is always better than the best of what winter has to offer.

Watermelon proves it.

Reach Annie Calovich at 316-268-6596 or acalovich@wichitaeagle.com.

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