“96 degrees in the shade… real hot!” Where are my Third World reggae fans at? Even if you aren’t familiar with the song, I think you all know what a heat wave is. Unseasonably warm weather and extreme temperature swings can cause a lot of stress and potential damage to your garden. Even plants that prefer warm weather aren’t big fans of sudden and drastic change. However, plants are far more resilient than we often give them credit for! With a few preventative and protective measures, you can easily help your garden survive a heat wave with minimal impact.
Read along to learn six ways to protect plants during a heat wave. We’ll talk about steps to take when you see unusually hot temperatures in the weather forecast, along with best practices to proactively employ in your garden year-round – to make plants more tolerant to heat stress and drought in general.
What temperature is “too hot” for plants?
Various types of plants respond differently to a range of heat. Vegetables such as lettuce, radishes, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, and other leafy greens or members of the brassica family generally prefer cooler soil temperatures (in the 50 and 60s). These cool-season crops may temporarily wilt or begin to bolt in temperatures over 75°F. When a plant bolts, it prematurely forms a flower spike and then goes to seed. When temperatures hit over 90°F, these guys will likely fry and die. Learn how to prevent cool-season crops from bolting here.
Meanwhile, summer garden crops like tomatoes, peppers, and beans will thrive in that 75 to 90°F range! That’s their jam. Yet even heat-loving crops may become cranky, less productive, or damaged in excessively hot temperatures. For example, tomatoes may experience flower drop and issues with fruit development when daytime temperatures are regularly over 95°F, especially combined with high humidity and sustained warm temperatures overnight. Similarly, zucchini and squash plants may slow production when it’s over 85°F for an extended period of time.
No matter the variety, young plants are more prone to heat stress and damage than mature ones. Their tender nature and small, shallow root systems makes them far less heat-hardy, so keep a close eye on seedlings! Move any seedlings that are still in containers indoors or into the shade during heat waves if possible. Also, avoid transplanting new plants outdoors right before or during a heat wave.
Quick fixes versus long-term adaptations to heat
Thankfully, the issues with pollination, production, or wilting that some plants experience during short-lived heat waves usually results in only a temporary setback. They simply slow down a bit, like we all do when it’s uncomfortably warm. Use the tips below to protect your garden during a heat wave, and the plants should bounce back once the weather cools off and returns to normal.
On the other hand, gardeners in areas with expected and prolonged excessive high temperatures may need to implement longer-term solutions to combat the heat. For instance, folks living in Arizona, the deep South, Las Vegas, or Hawaii may adjust their garden seasons and avoid growing tomatoes or squash during the hottest summer months altogether, and grow them during the spring and fall seasons instead. Other long-term adaptations include careful selection of plant varieties, planting certain crops in partial shade, using in-ground beds rather than containers (which more easily dry out and succumb to temperature swings) or erecting shade structures that will stay up for several months.
6 Ways to Protect Plants During a Heat Wave
The following six tips can help your garden survive during a heat wave. Wondering when to act? A good rule of thumb is that if it’s suddenly going to be 10 to 15+ degrees warmer than it has been and usually is, or if the weather networks issue an “excessive heat warning” for your area, implement a few of the steps below to help your garden survive the heat wave. It may not be reasonable or necessary to apply every single protective measure listed, so feel free to pick and choose as you see fit!
1) Water deeply and routinely (all season long)
Start now! This is a tip to preemptively protect your garden from heat waves, and to develop healthy, strong root systems – which is alway a good thing! When you routinely water your garden throughout the growing season, provide plants with long and slow water that will saturate deep within the soil. That is better than watering for quick bouts and more often, or only wetting the top few inches of soil.
The more moist the soil is deep within your garden bed, the more it encourages roots to grow deeply too. Did you know most plants can grow roots underground equally as long as the plant is tall above ground? That means a tomato plant can grow roots over 4 feet deep, peppers and eggplant around 2 feet deep, squash over 1 foot deep, and so on.
Having deep roots enables plants to access more nutrients and water, and makes them more resilient to drought and varying soil temperatures. Plus, deeply damp soil maintains more steady temperatures and is less likely to dry out. So, set your plants up for success with routine deep watering from the start!
Given all the unique variables in every garden or climate, it’s hard to say exactly how much to water and how often. However, all plants benefit from a consistent watering schedule, be it twice per week or four days per week. A good goal is frequently enough to maintain the soil modestly damp at all times, but not soggy and never fully dried out. When you water deep, you can water less often.
2) Water before a heat wave – but resist the urge to overwater
Give your garden a good deep drink of water either the evening or morning before a heat wave is due to hit. Providing water well before the peak heat of the day will give them ample time to soak up the water, and also keep you out of the sun too!
However, resist the urge to continue to pour water onto your plants all day long. Plants may wilt under high heat and strong sun, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they need more water. Even here where temperatures rarely reach the 80s, our summer zucchini and collard greens can look pretty sad and limp in the middle of an average warm afternoon – but they always perk back up that night! Yet if they look droopy in the morning? Then they may be thirsty.
Before offering more water, check the moisture content of your soil by probing an inch or two below the soil surface. If it feels moist or if you just watered in the last day or two, it probably doesn’t need more water yet.
3) Avoid wetting plant leaves
Avoid overhead watering and wetting your plant leaves during hot sunny conditions. You know how humans can still get a decent sunburn (if not worse) in foggy conditions? Moisture amplifies the sun like a magnifying glass! Similarly, lingering water droplets on plant leaves in direct sunlight can magnify the intensity and heat of the sun, and increase the chance of sunburn or scorching the leaves. As a best practice, we always try to water the soil around the base of the plant rather than the plant itself, but especially so during heat waves.
4) Don’t skip the mulch!
Did you know that plants are more irked and influenced by temperature swings in their root zone and soil than they are by ambient air temperatures? For instance, a plant can usually survive and rebound after getting a bit frosty or fried above ground, but are far less forgiving if their roots are distressed. So, be sure to mulch your garden to offer a protective layer for the soil and roots!
Mulching is always a fantastic idea (a must, if you ask me!) and especially important to protect plants in heat waves. Mulch is a layer of material that goes on top of exposed soil, which helps to buffer against temperature extremes and promotes more steady soil temperatures overall. It also reduces evaporation and runoff, protects the living soil food web, prevents soil from drying out, and reduces your need for water!
Apply about 2 inches of organic mulch material (even more for light mulch like straw) on the soil surface around the base of plants or over the whole garden bed. Examples of organic mulch include straw, small bark or wood chips, shredded leaves, pine needles, and aged compost (our favorite). Some gardeners use a layer of newspaper, cardboard, or plastic sheeting. Pop over to this article to read more about the pros and cons of 8 different types of garden mulch, or this guide on mulching best practices.
5) Provide shade
Shade is an incredibly effective tool to keep things cool and protect plants during a heat wave. By reducing the intensity of the sunlight and heat beating down on plants, the soil stays cooler, retains moisture, and generally reduces the impact of excessive heat. Even more, shade can prevent sun scalding or sunburning of fruit, commonly seen as whitish yellow patches on tomatoes or peppers. The damage caused to the skin often causes the fruit to prematurely rot. Blocking the hottest afternoon sun is particularly important.
There are a number of ways to create shade in the garden: by draping bed sheets or specialized shade cloth over hoops, stakes, or other supports, using large patio or beach umbrellas, or even erecting large shade canopies over an entire garden area rather than individual beds or plants. Really, anything that will block the sun but still allow good air flow will work! If the shade structure will be up for an extended period of time, it’s best to get shade material that allows some sunlight through (partial UV protection). For a shorter period of time (a day or two), you could completely block the sun using a solid pop-up canopy. Or, make use of shade that already exists in your space – like by moving potted plants into shadier locations.
6) Promote overall good plant health
The final way to help your garden survive a heat wave is to grow the healthiest plants possible! Like the first tip regarding routine deep water, this is something you can work on all season long. Stressed or compromised plants are more sensitive to the heat, just as some older people or those with health issues may be (no judgement – I get sick in the heat too!). Also just like humans, plants have immune systems that help them respond and rebound to various environmental stressors, including pests, disease, drought, frost, heat, toxicity, and more.
In our garden, we encourage the most robust and hardy plants possible with organic inputs such as worm castings, mycorrhizae, homemade aloe vera fertilizer, well-aged compost and/or compost tea. All of these goodies feed the living soil food web, enable plants to better utilize nutrients, and improves their resilience to pest pressure, heat, and more. That’s not to say our plants don’t still struggle with miscellaneous ailments from time to time… but these things sure do help!
And that is how to protect plants during a heat wave.
Alright friends, I hope this leaves you with plenty of ideas and methods to help your garden survive the next heat wave that rolls in! As you can see, there are several things you can do now and always in preparation – and a few tools or materials you may want to keep on hand too. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. Or, if there are any great ideas that I forgot to mention. Stay cool and comfortable out there!
Don’t miss these related articles:
- Using Hoops and Row Covers: Pest Control, Frost Protection & Shade
- 7 Ways to Protect Plants from Frost Damage
- Garden Mulch 101: When, Why and How to Mulch Your Garden
- What is Bolting? How to Prevent Plants from Bolting or Going to Seed
- The Benefits of Using Mycorrhizae in the Garden