The Coxes’ tomato harvest has been vastly impacted by this summer’s heat. Photo by Leslie Cox

The Coxes’ tomato harvest has been vastly impacted by this summer’s heat. Photo by Leslie Cox

DUCHESS OF DIRT: Gardens suffering through a summer like no other

Leslie Cox

Special to The Record

Dry. Very dry. In July, not August as is usual.

And on the heels of a cool start to June to boot. First a heat dome phenomenon, now a heatwave without nary a drop of rain throughout.

Small wonder our plants are crying, “What the heck?”

Oops, I lied. There was one evening just after the first heat stretch when we received less than a millimeter of rain. It wasn’t even enough to rinse the dust off the plants from the haying activities happening on the farm behind us. But for all of that, the plants…and John…were happy with the moisture. (He set up a chair in the doorway to watch the rain, enjoying the simple pleasure.)

Never underestimate how much water you can collect off your roof. Three of our 170 litre (45 gallon) rain barrels were half-filled from just that one short burst of rainfall. Getting all six of the barrels completely filled would have been nice, but what we got was still a blessing, even if it did not stretch to all of the garden.

There have been some casualties, unfortunately. A newly transplanted piece of dwarf London Pride, Saxifraga x urbium ‘Primuloides’, quickly expired. It was not happy with the exposure to full sun even though the wee plant enjoyed half a day of shade. Saxifrages and sedums are supposed to be drought-tolerant but even these species suffered from the intensity of the higher temperatures.

So, it was small wonder the lettuce bolted, the arugula has gone to flower, the tomato plants in the greenhouse are wilting and the cucumber plants are limply clinging to their supports. Thankfully, the kale is hanging in, the zucchini plants are okay, the beets look amazing and the beans are going nuts.

I was quite worried about the tomatoes. While they like heat, the plants do not do well through stretches of high temperatures. The optimum for setting fruit is 18.5 to 26.5 Celsius. During the heat dome period, temperatures reached 41 degrees inside the greenhouse, even with the shade cover over the roof. At that temperature, there is reduced fruit set.

The ‘Tumbler’ tomatoes in their hanging pots outside of the greenhouse did not fare much better. While there was an abundance of tiny fruits all over the plants, they did not size up at all, even after the temperatures went down a bit at the end of the heat dome period.

But keeping them well watered throughout seemed to help. Duh. All plants benefit from regular watering obviously. However, the ‘Tumbler’ tomatoes did not skip any beats in setting new fruits when the temperatures returned to more summer-like normal. Harvesting has been at a premium.

As for the cucumber plants… surprisingly, they would prefer some relief from the heat of the afternoon sun as well. Their optimum temperature for producing fruit ranges from 18 to 23 C. Exposed to temperatures in the high 20s, low 30s without any shade cover will produce bitter fruits – if any fruits develop at all. Temperatures higher than their optimum range typically produce more male flowers than fruit-bearing female flowers.

Same goes for squash plants, even though they can thrive in mid-30 degree temperatures. The higher the temperature, the more male flowers tend to be produced.

Smart plants… cutting back on fruit production to conserve their energy. We should be conserving our energy as well.

And conserving water wherever we can. Not sure how many litres of dishwater we have bailed out to the garden but it has to be considerable given we have been recycling the water since early December. The effort gardeners make for their plants.

Leslie Cox co-owns Growing Concern Cottage Garden in Black Creek. Her website is at www.duchessofdirt.ca

ALSO: Everything is coming up cucurbits in the Cox garden

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