Every Southerner knows the day is coming, but it seems to take us by surprise every single year. We were happily trotting around in the cool mornings and evenings of late spring — ducking inside around lunchtime to get away from the afternoon heat. We even thought to ourselves, “Maybe we are in for a cool summer this year.”
And then BAM! It’s hot as blazes, and there ain't nothing nobody can do about it. We clutch our pearls in the shock and horror of it all, but we know that we should have known all along.
We lament the loss of cooler days and repent binging on Netflix instead of enjoying the balmy evenings that we considered to be too hot at the time. It was only yesterday, for crying out loud, but it seems like a faraway time now. There’s no turning back, and summer has come to stay.
This is the time of year when the Southern gardener goes from DEFCON 5 to 1 in an afternoon. What was once the genteel pastime of hosing potted plants and raised beds in long and leisurely swishes with a garden sprayer set on SHOWER immediately transforms into a rescue mission with settings on JET or FULL.
I’ve never really mastered the art of matching a plant to the proper pot. Drainage or no drainage? Clay or ceramic? I pick pots based on the size of the plant and how its spirit converges with the aesthetic of the container. I know that as a former scientist that I should be more into that kind of knowledge, but gardening, for me, is a creative outlet where I celebrate my successes and mostly ignore my failures. As much as I consider my gardening pastime a retreat from the outside world, there is no escaping the gardening calculus that every Southern gardener must master in order to survive the summer. It involves calculations that would make a true mathematician tremble in her shoes.
Do I add to the water bill or can these plants wait for rain? Are these plants just a little wilty or is it heat stress? Clay pots dry out faster than plastic ones. Pots with drainage holes dry out faster than ones without, but if the pot is in the shade most of the day, then it won’t dry out as fast as it would in the sun. Ferns in giant pots don’t need watering as often as ferns in smaller pots, but all ferns need moist soil. Pots with soil lines that go all the way up to the rim of the pot fare better in rainy stretches and hold more moisture during the dry times. But pots without drainage holes and soil lines that fall several inches below the rim line have an instant reservoir for plants that are in direct sunlight and need constant watering. But if the plant is easily overwatered and needs shade, then the potential for root rot is always lurking around the corner even on the hottest of days. Which means you need to find a different pot and repot it or lose it. Or worse, have a straggly, mangy looking plant that stands in silent rebuke of your gardening skills.
But nothing equals the thrill of finding a half dead plant and bringing it back to life. The excitement of dragging the hose halfway across the yard, pulling random empty pots and a sawhorse along with it as the hose’s U-shaped formation drags everything on the ground. Gingerly turning the blistering hot sprayer head to wide open and bracing yourself for the hot, sun baked grip as you blast water into the soil of your dying plant. As the handle of the sprayer head cools with the fresh water running through it, you thank your lucky stars that you got there just in time. As the day ends and the water does its work, you feel a deep sense of satisfaction as the plant is revived to its former glory, not unlike a heart surgeon who has rescued a dying patient when everyone else had given up hope.
And as summer has reached its zenith and your ferns are lush and long and your zinnias are gaily dancing in the breeze, you feel your ancestors smiling down upon you, and you know that all is right with the world.