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Recognizing heat wilt

Our plants will let us know when they're feeling the heat. We'll help you recognize the signs so you can take appropriate action.

Here in central Texas, it can get pretty hot in the summer. Beginning in late May and continuing well into September, we typically see air temperatures ranging from the mid-90s all the way into the upper 100s. Even the healthiest of living things can expect to show a little stress under such conditions! In this post, we'll talk about how to recognize the signs of heat wilt--a normal plant response to high temperatures--and offer some advice on what you can do when you notice it happening in your garden.

Don't panic!

As with many common gardening situations, heat wilt is something you want to be careful not to overreact to. We realize that it can seem distressing when our plants look like they're beginning to die so soon after planting--or when plants that we've been nurturing for years seem like they're suddenly struggling. But minor heat wilt is actually not nearly as scary as it might appear at first.

Basically, heat wilt occurs when atmospheric conditions cause plants to lose water from leaves and flowers at a rate faster than what the roots can resupply. Plants may droop and discolor a bit during the heat of the day, but many will perk right back up when temperatures begin to drop in the evening and moisture loss decreases. So long as the soil conditions are adequate for them to recover overnight, those droopy daytime plants may look much better in the morning.

In other words, heat wilt is normal and, most of the time, temporary. If what you're seeing doesn't seem to get noticeably worse over a short period of time, there's little reason to be too concerned, so long as you're following the other suggestions in this post.

Water conservatively

One of the biggest temptations in the face of heat wilt is to water liberally, and this can get customers in trouble because of overwatering. Ironic, isn't it? One of the misleading things about heat wilt is that it can happen under hot summer conditions even when there is plenty of moisture in the soil. When soil moisture isn't the problem, adding lots more water saturates the ground and leaves roots susceptible to fungus and disease--which is often even more fatal than the heat.

So before grabbing your hose, be sure to check the soil moisture around your wilted plants. Keep in mind that soil that feels dry to the touch at the surface may become significantly more moist further down. We recommend using a moisture meter to a depth of 6-8 inches to get a more accurate portrait of what you're dealing with. If you detect moisture in the soil, it's generally better to wait and see whether plants perk up overnight than to risk overwatering.

If the soil does seem dry and plant surfaces are becoming crinkly, you'll probably want to step up your watering game a bit. But resist the temptation to simply drench the soil at the surface, as this will encourage plants to develop shallower roots. If you find your soil wants to pool water too easily, try gently breaking it up with a garden aerator first. (Dry, compacted soil acts like a moisture barrier, and this could be part of your problem in the first place.) Gently increase your watering ration over the next 24 hours and wait and see how the plant responds. Repeat this cycle over several days if necessary, until it is obvious that the plant is improving. Then back off slightly to avoid overwatering.

Take extra precautions

In especially dry and hot summer conditions, there are a couple extra steps you can take to give your plants a little boost and increase the impact of your watering regimen:

  • Fertilize. As the spring planting season begins to give way to summertime heat, keep in mind that all that plant growth you've been seeing early in the season translates into depleted soil nutrients. Renewing access to those nutrients can help fortify your plants against stressors like heat and improve their ability to use limited moisture more efficiently. Consider gently adding a liquid fertilizer like Hasta Gro or a granular topical plant food, even if you already fertilized in the spring.

  • Mulch. When the temperatures are highest, a good layer of mulch (ideally 2-3 inches or more) can really help insulate the soil from baking in the midday sunlight. This helps the soil retain vital moisture for longer and helps protect more sensitive plants from heat-related root damage--which, in turn, enables them to gather moisture more efficiently in the first place. (Just remember to keep mulch about 3-6 inches away from the bases of trees and shrubs to avoid promoting disease and pest activity.)

Remember that most plants--especially hardy Texas natives--are well adapted to handle drought once they are established. Be careful not to make any hasty assumptions or take any drastic actions without talking to us first. Call or stop by anytime, and our knowledgeable staff will be happy to take care of you!


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