When It’s Too Darned Hot: Keeping Your Cool

This article first appeared in The Colorado Gardener. Daintily edited and with a few additions, I post it here.

Sea Foam Artemisia, Salvia pachyphila, Marubium rotundifolia, Russian sage, Sempervivum, Miscanthus, globe blue spruce, and Echinacea Art’s Pride thriving through the heat.

Some like it hot. Some would rather endure the dentist’s drill than a heat-wave. At least the dentist’s office is air conditioned, right?

Wherever you fall on the heat-loving spectrum, high temperatures are a force to be reckoned with. Colorado’s heat is usually delivered without humidity, reducing discomfort for most of us. Even so, our personal humidity is rapidly wicked away, increasing our risk of dehydration, especially when working up a sweat in the garden.

Dehydration isn’t our only risk. It’s possible to experience heat exhaustion or even heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion comes about as blood goes out to our skin, away from our brains, muscles and other organs, interfering with physical strength and mental capacity. Everyone is at risk of heat exhaustion, and the risk increases for those taking antihistamines, chronic alcoholics, the very old and very young, the obese, and those with compromised immune systems.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion are many. Not everyone will experience the same ones. In broiling weather, be on the lookout for fatigue, nausea, headaches, excessive thirst, muscle aches and/or cramps, weakness, confusion, anxiety, drenching sweats with cold/clammy skin, slowed or weakened heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, and agitation.

Heat stroke, which is quite serious, can occur without prior heat exhaustion symptoms. You or a companion might experience nausea and vomiting; skin that is flushed, hot, and dry; rapid heart rate; decreased sweating and/or urination; shortness of breath; confusion, delirium, or loss of consciousness; and/or convulsions.

Fortunately, there are beaucoups strategies for avoiding these serious and frightening symptoms.

Tops: When possible, avoid the heat. Work outside in the early morning or with a headlamp after the sun has found a mountain to hide behind.

If the only time in your schedule for gardening falls between 9 and blistering 6, there is still a lot you can do.

Let’s start with clothing. Yes, wear some. Keeping the sun from directly hitting your skin is a good idea. Choose styles that are loose fitting and open at the neck. Even long sleeves and pants aren’t a bad idea. Find fabrics made of natural fibers, like cotton and linen, that are both lightweight and breathable. Forget black, no matter how slim you think it makes you look. Pick out lighter colors.

Wear a hat. Something broadly brimmed that shades your neck, ears, and face. Never fail.

Don’t make me come after you. Wear a hat!

You say you need to show skin? Then slather on sunscreen. There are controversies about the stuff, so go as natural as you can. Any way you can manage to keep your skin from burning has at least some merit, and will keep you feeling cooler.

Now, how about something to drink? The best thing, you might guess, is pure, cool water. Plenty of it. Drink it preventively. By the time you actually feel thirsty, you may already be verging on dehydration. Think you’re hungry? Drink first. Thirst can be mistaken as hunger. If you’re like W.C. Fields and won’t drink water because of what fish do in it, or you just need a little something different, try cooled herbal teas, salty lemonade, or lime squeezed into coconut water. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and overly sugared slurps… at least until later, when you’re celebrating how good you were to yourself outside in the heat.

So, now, you’re properly dressed and gulping down the good stuff, but you’d like some more relief. You can have some real fun with this. Run through the sprinkler. Hand someone a hose and tell them to take their best shot. Or, if one is handy, jump in a pool. Getting thoroughly wet can actually bring down your core temperature a bit and keep you cool for quite a while, especially while your clothes dry.

More demure choices: Carry a spray bottle and mist yourself. Pre-chilled wraps or wet bandanas on your neck or in your hat can help. What you want to do is target your pulse-points: your wrists, neck, temples, and the backs of your knees, and cool them with either evaporation or cold gel-packs.

Should you find yourself beat by the heat anyway, there’s no shame in retreating. Knock off early, and go to the movies.

Edward T. Handsome has chilling down to a science.

Cooling off at home can be quite delicious. Take a tepid shower or soak in an equally tepid tub and lace the water with baking soda. After lightly toweling off and forgetting the blow-drier, pull on a breezy outfit. Head for a cool spot with comfy furniture. Put your feet up to improve circulation. Turn on a fan – unless there’s a nice-looking and scantily clad someone to billow ostrich feathers over you. Down a lovely tumbler of some non-alcoholic beverage. Take a spoon to a big chunk of watermelon. Or crunch through a cucumber. When you’re done with your treat, put a cool washcloth over your eyes, and listen to some great music. There’s a reason it’s called “chilling”.

After an hour, if you’re still wiped out, seeking medical advice isn’t out of the question.

If you’re feeling refreshed and don’t want to kill the chill by cooking, here’s a delicious cold soup recipe.

Visualize Whirled Peas

  • 2 C fresh peas (1 pkg frozen, mostly thawed)
  • 1/2 C (loosely filled) chives
  • 1 C robust greens (arugula, mustard, etc)
  • a few leaflets each parsley, lovage, basil, &/or mint
  • 1 C yogurt
  • 2 C chilled veg broth

Place all ingredients in a blender and whirl til creamy. Then place in fridge to gaurantee chill.

Before serving, salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with something colorful — thin slices of red or yellow bell pepper, chopped radish, carrot curls, paprika…

Makes 2 meal-sized or 4 side servings.

When It’s Too Darned Hot: Tasty Soil, Tender Mulch, and Just Enough Water

Have you felt yourself wilting, lately?

A day in the nineties or triple digits, makes me glad I’m a mobile creature. I can retreat to the shade or the relative cool of an interior. But what happens to plants when the temperatures soar?

Plants, like people, differ in their responses to heat.

As you can imagine, plants which evolved in steamy tropical rain forests and searing deserts survive the heat without much apparent fuss. It’s the plants from temperate zones which stress and cause the gardener to stress even more.

Like afternoon naps for the gardener, one of plants’ heat survival strategies is dormancy. A great example is the natural response of bluegrass varieties. When the heat turns up, bluegrass turns brown and goes to sleep. The water we pour on it through the hottest months isn’t so much to keep it alive, but to keep it cool. As long as irrigation water is evaporating and cooling the lawn, it stays relatively green. According to University of Colorado Extension, a healthy bluegrass lawn can get by on twice weekly irrigation and can survive in dormancy for weeks or even months without irrigation. Once cooler temperatures return, begin regular watering, and the green will follow.

Many flowering annuals take a break in the heat. While they aren’t totally dormant, they save their energy for the opening and closing of stomata, a kind of pore on the undersides of leaves. Perennials that normally bloom in summer’s heat, such as lilies, may wrap up their season in a hurry. When a plant wants to rest from the heat, it’s important to refrain from fertilizing. This is especially true of roses.

The Golden Jubilee Agastache pictured above is in a serious heat wilt. It is also more sensitive to soil moisture than many of the plants around it. I call it a signal plant. When it droops, I watch it as the evening cools. If it perks up, soil moisture is not yet an issue. If it doesn’t, you’ll see a sprinkler out in the morning.

During a heatwave, the natural impulse of many a gardener is to turn on the tap. While it’s important to keep garden soils from drying completely, we often water more frequently than necessary. In sandy, porous soils, three times a week might suffice. In clay-based soils, twice a week could do it. The trick is to irrigate for longer periods during extreme heat, making sure moisture penetrates to a depth of 6-8 inches.

To muddy the waters a bit: All watering rules are relative. How quickly do the temperatures rise in the morning? How far did they go down overnight? What is the relative humidity? Has it been windy? Any of these factors can change your watering regimen.

Knowing when to water is told by the soil. Put a blade in to a depth of 3-4 inches and make an opening. Feel the soil at the bottom of the opening. If it is cool and damp, all is more or less well. If it is dry, it’s time to water. Relying on plants to tell you when to water can be misleading. While it’s true that plants droop when they need a drink, they also droop in heat. They can also droop from drowning.

The same principles apply to the vegetable garden. According to University of Colorado Extension, a properly prepared veg garden should be able to tolerate intervals of 2-7 days between watering.

These watering intervals might seem counterintuitive at best, preposterous at worse, but the key is to follow other practices as well.

The foundation to any lawn or garden survival through these conditions is living soil. Soils that are properly amended save on water and support stronger, more resistant plants.

In addition, the use of mulch is crucial, even in the veg garden. The goal should be no exposed soil surface. Even half an inch of humus, leaves, straw, or fine gravel will shade the soil, helping to keep it cool and reduce evaporation.

Timing and delivery methods of watering are also important. Most experts agree: water in the morning and deliver the water at the soil’s surface, under the mulch, if possible. This helps mitigate fungal and disease issues as well as conserve water.

Keeping up with watering is sometimes the only thing a hose-dragger like me can accomplish during the hottest weeks. The comfort is knowing that as the day’s grow shorter, longer nights and cooler overnight temperatures give both gardens and gardeners a much needed respite.