Thrivers, Survivors, and Barely Alivers!

Thrivers, Survivors, and Barely Alivers!


How many "Rest in Peace" banners have you hung out this summer?  Daily, customers and co-workers retell tales of death and destruction and scorched earth.  What, you say; war in Afghanistan?  Riots in Libya?  Memories of 9-11?  No, just Summer, Oklahoma 2011.  So the evidence is in: this isn't a state, it's HELL WITH A ZIPCODE!

You come home and you seek a place of respite from the stresses of the workday world.  Even if you toil in an air-conditioned office, the heat makes it impossible to enjoy an outdoor retreat.  And if you work at Calverts greenhouse, the brain-fogging heat is relentless.  Just imagine for a minute how all those poor plants feel!  After the temperatures reach 90 degrees, many plants are not able to take in enough water to make up for all that is lost from their normal respiration.  Add to that the intensely burning sunlight and you have fried plants. 

If you want an outdoor retreat with interesting or colorful plants to come home to, especially in containers, you'll have to experiment to find out what can take the heat and blinding sun.  Many tropicals can take the heat as long as they are protected from the sun.  From my deck, I'm going to share with you what has made it seemingly unscathed, with a few battle scars, and those that have gone to plant heaven.

Luckily, I'm a succulent collector, and they are very good at adapting to heat extremes.  But even they can burn in the sun!  I thought I would do them a favor this year when I took them outside in late April by putting them on the east side of the house to acclimate, before going to the "oven",  the west-facing deck.  Who knew we would get 90 degree days and dry winds that early?  That was not the fresh air and sunshine they were hoping for.  Then when the sun comes over the house to my deck on the west, POW!  They looked like someone had taken a blowtorch to them.  Despite all that, they fall into the category of the thrivers for all they are willing to put up with.  By placing some in such a way that upper shelves or other plants do some shading, they have come through the summer unperturbed.  These guys all get a good drink once a week as long as it's in the 100's.

Who would have thought by looking at a totally defoliated bougainvillea in May that it would end up looking like this? The secret turned out to be (besides feeding it) setting the pot inside a saucer to catch the water after I gave it a drink.  That extra reserve gets it through the hot days, as long as I water it every day.  The same thing holds true for one of my favorites, this russellia.  I love its exuberance.  "Give me heat!  Give me sun!  Just give me lots of water!  This "sticks of fire" pencil cactus sits in a corner with reflected heat from two walls.  "Ha!" it says as it laughs at the weather.  By the way, it will turn red and orange again in the fall, when the temperatures cool off.  Thrivers!

My maxillaria orchids hang where they get some full sun, but mostly dappled shade from a tree.  They got so stressed they started to drop leaves.  But I noticed they are growing a little bit, and should survive ok. Hot temperatures can keep some plants from blooming, and these have been bloomless all summer.  (Last summer they bloomed twice.)  This anthurium called "Marie" has leaves that turn burgundy in the fall if they get alittle sun.  But this year they just turned burnt.  I can cut off the damaged leaves and she should be fine.  This new croton called "Zanzibar"  gets a drink every day and about an hour of noon sun.  He's bleached somewhat but otherwise seems ok.  This epidendrum orchid needs some sun to bloom, but not the kind we had this year I guess.  In fact, the only time I got it to rebloom was last winter indoors under a plant light.  Fried fried fried.  I could maybe cut it back and repot it, getting it to grow back when it cools off.  Survivor?  He's not making the winter cut.  Don't tell him. 

Ficus trees and shrubs grow in mostly sun in warmer climes.  But this once really cool pair of ficus triangularis defoliated in the hot east sun, started to grow back, then changed their mind.  I hear taps wafting in the breeze.  I can only assume that sometimes plants are driven to madness.  This only 3 year old agave called niziandensis  (spineless!)  decided to throw in the towel and bloom already.  "I've had enough--come pollinate me and get it over with!  I'm going out with a bang!"

Switching from tropicals, there are lots of plants that do fine in hell, I mean Oklahoma.  These babies all got a thorough soaking every week or so, either by running the sprinkler for hours or laying a mist nozzle by the base of the plant so they could get a deep drink.  There will still be some fried leaves, but overall the plants will stay gorgeous.  Or not....My favorite threadleaf arborvitae was seemingly hanging in there one night, and dead the next.  And his brother in the pot, out of decency or depression, went to plant heaven the same night. 

So what can you do to help your container plants through such a hellish summer?  Let me tell you what has worked for me.  Mulch mulch mulch! is the first thing.  Especially for perennials or tropical flowering trees, I like to do pecan mulch in my containers.  It really helps cut down on water loss.  If your deck faces south or west and is freestanding, you might consider having a way to shade the side or top of the pots that face that way.  I put up a long trellis and used a light-colored shade cloth to just create a low "shade fence".  It worked wonderfully--before that I couldn't grow a thing on that deck.  If you have a deck with railings or low walls of some sort, you wouldn't need the weirdness I had to go through.  Another thing that works well is to "stage" your plant in its grow pot inside another heavier decorative pot.  With my bougainvilleas, I placed bricks inside the tall pots to reach the desired level, then put the plant on those bricks.  The thick walls of the pot and airspace around the growpot act as insulation to keep the sun from beating down on your plant pot and cooking the roots. Containers made out of heavy clay or concrete seem to do a better job of protecting plant roots than plastic pots if they are in direct sun.  Even the succulents get a layer of mulch.  I like to use a nice coating of chicken grit (crushed white granite) or pea gravel.  It definitely helps in moisture retention, keeps soil from washing out in the rain, and looks neat and spiffy. 

Gardening is an extreme sport in Oklahoma.  Do it anyway!


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