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July 2020 Master Gardener website column
Cool-season lawns (fescue and perennial rye) go fully dormant in summer, producing no new blades so that the lawn grasses thin out and lose some of their green color. Roses are among the hardiest of perennial flowering bushes but even roses set few new buds in mid-summer and the few flowers that bloom tend to have paper-thin petals and far less fragrance. Vegetable flowers drop in the heat before they set fruit and many plants seem stunted.
When temperatures are above 96 degrees, as they are nearly every day in mid-summer here, plants try to conserve energy and reduce transpiration or loss of precious moisture through their leaves by closing up their breathing pores (stoma). In other planting zones, plants get some relief from the heat at night, but in our extremely dry, hot climate night time temperatures seldom fall below 70 breeze less degrees. It’s our hot summer nights that stimulate semi-dormancy.
When trees, bushes, flowering annuals and vegetables, and lawn grasses are in a state of summertime dormancy, they will still require watering to maintain consistently moist soil, but they will require little or no fertilization. In fact, fertilizing semi-dormant plants and trees to try to force new growth can actually stress them further. If plants seem unhealthy, try applying homemade fresh compost to each plant instead of a commercial fertilizer. Homemade compost contains lower levels of nutrients and higher amounts of beneficial micro-organisms and fungi than commercial foods. The beneficial micro organisms and fungi attach to plants’ roots and increase the plants’ ability to draw up water and nutrients.
We can resume feeding the plants in our gardens as night hours lengthen and night temperatures begin to drop below 70 degrees, usually in the third or fourth week of August. Although daytime temperatures may remain in the high 90’s with a few late season really hot spells, the cooler, longer nights in late August allow plants to recover from heat stress overnight so that they once again begin to produce new growth and new buds.
Fertilization during this transition period should be lighter at first. Feed at half the recommended rate for the first feeding in August and increase rates as temperatures cool. Because granular-type fertilizers take longer to dissolve and be absorbed by plants’ roots than liquid fertilizers, they remain available to the roots for a longer period of time. They are a better choice for feeding plants that are coming out of dormancy. Avoid feeding with high nitrogen fertilizers (above 6 per cent) that will force rapid new green growth. (Lawn foods are an exception).
Slow and steady new growth is best for our plants in late summer and early fall.