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Protect plants from hot, dry weather

Source: Cranberry Eagle - Written by: Paula Grubbs - Published: June 17, 2013

CRANBERRY TWP — When the unpredictable Western Pennsylvania weather turns hot and dry, there are steps gardeners can take to protect plants of all kinds. Peg Campbell, a Penn State Master Gardener and member of the Southern Butler County Garden Club, said nursery and greenhouse employees can help gardeners choose drought-tolerant perennials and trees. She said various annual flowers, such as marigolds, zinnias and geraniums, are able to better withstand hot, dry conditions than their more tender counterparts, like impatiens. A common mistake made by novice gardeners, Campbell said, is placing flowers, trees and perennials meant for shady areas in direct sun, and vice versa. Campbell said once plants are in the ground, an inch or two of mulch, straw, grass clippings or compost around the base will help all plants, including vegetables, to retain moisture after being watered.

Regarding watering, Campbell recommends completing the task early in the morning or, if not possible, an hour or so before dusk. Water applied in the heat of the day is more apt to evaporate, she said. Also, it is imperative that plants are watered regularly, Campbell said. In her vegetable garden, Campbell uses a soaker hose, which looks like a regular hose but contains many small holes to allow water to slowly leach onto the ground and into the plants' roots. Campbell's soaker hose is on a timer, so her vegetable plants are watered at the same time each day. Soaker hoses also allow plants to be watered at the root instead of from a sprinkling from above. “If you get the leaves wet frequently, a fungus can develop,” Campbell said, “especially in tomatoes.”

Campbell also recommends soaker hoses be used on newly planted trees, which require a lot of regular watering. Gardeners can simply stick their finger into the ground near the base of a plant to determine if it needs watering. If the finger comes up very dry, she recommends a dousing at the root level. She said for vegetable plants, no more than a gallon of water need be applied to the roots. “When a vegetable or fruit plant is producing, make sure it is watered regularly so the fruit will be nice and juicy,” she said. Plants grown in containers must be checked daily for signs of dryness, Campbell said. To retain moisture in flowers or vegetables in containers or planters, Campbell said silica beads can be added to the soil before planting. She said some topsoils and potting soils marketed as “moisture control” already contain the tiny, water-retaining beads.

Campbell recalls watering the plants and vegetables in her Cranberry Township garden quite a bit last summer. She also cares for the pollinator and herb gardens behind the Sample Schoolhouse on the property of the township municipal center on Rochester Road. “We watered quite a bit last year,” Campbell said of the schoolhouse duty, which she performs as a member of the garden club. She said the club covers the Sample Schoolhouse plant bases with bark mulch each year to hold in the water. Campbell said the biggest mistakes made by novice gardeners are buying the wrong plant for the wrong location and consistent watering at the plant's base only, including new shrubs and trees. “They do require an awful lot of water,” Campbell said of the latter two items. “They'll dry out over the summer without enough.” Campbell dug into gardening in earnest after her retirement as a teacher in the Fox Chapel School District following 35 years of service.