Extreme heat, dry conditions plagued gardeners in 2011

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Today’s column is my annual recap of the gardening year.

Last year, I said that 2010 was a year of extremes, one of those being how hot the summer was. Well, as most of you know, 2011 beat 2010. We had the hottest summer ever – going way back to 138 years of recordkeeping. Temperatures hit triple digits 11 times, and set or tied heat records four of those days.

Augusta’s city average mean temperature of 83.7 degrees in August was 4.5 degrees above average, eclipsing a previous record of 83.4 degrees set in August 1993. In June, July and August, the city’s average high temperature of 97.1 was 6.5 degrees above average and broke the previous record from 1993, when it was 96.5 degrees. We only had four days from May 20 to Aug. 28 where the high during the day was only in the 80s.

HOW DOES THE heat affect gardening? It affects both us and the plants. When it comes to us, we don’t want to go outside and garden because it is so hot. That makes us not pay as much attention to the needs of our plants, and problems that can arise because of insects or diseases go unchecked.

The heat during spring and summer causes some of the same problems every year.

The heat began in earnest May 20, when it reached 90 degrees. Be­cause of this, chinch bugs were already causing damage to St. Augustine lawns, which was the subject of my May 27 column. They continued to be so bad all during the summer that it prompted me to write about them again.

One of our favorite trees, dogwoods, was affected by the heat. Dogwood scorch caused browning of the tips of the margins of the leaves, indicating that leaves are losing water faster than it can be obtained from soil.

We saw numerous trees dying in landscapes and in particular along roadways and in the woods where they are not watered.

Many pine trees died because of pine beetle attacks. Pine beetles are notorious for killing trees when they are drought stressed.

When it is hot, it’s hard to keep weeds under control in the lawn, whether by manually pulling them up or using herbicides. Herbicides can cause more damage to our lawns when it is hot, so we wind up doing less than we would normally.

No plant likes high 90- and 100-degree weather. Herbaceous plants such as annual and perennial flowers and vegetables lose more water than they can take up, even though there is enough in the ground. It seemed at times that we couldn’t give our lawns enough water to keep them looking nice.

The other extreme has been the drought, although it has not been quite the drought the official records show, depending on where you live.

By early September, it had been the 11th driest summer on record, with just 7.22 inches of rain, 5.52 inches below average. For August, 1.19 inches of rain was recorded at Bush Field, a 3.13-inch deficit.

According to our “official” rainfall total, the whole year has been much drier than normal.

As of Friday, we had gotten 28.41 inches for the year, a 14.13-inch deficit. Our average yearly rainfall total is about 43.5 inches.

Some people have been much more fortunate, though. My rainfall total as of Friday was 41.6 inches, just barely below normal. I was running a surplus until October. I have gotten very little since, only about 5 inches in three months.

It seems as thought we get very little rain out of every weather front that moves through the area. Last week was a good example. We were supposed to have four days of rain; it rained for two, and I only got a total of 0.4 inches.

EVEN THOUGH MOST of the area was short on rainfall during the summer, if you remember, we had three pretty bad thunderstorms with high wind during just one week beginning June 15. After spending much of the following Saturday cleaning up my yard, it looked like I had not touched it.

A pine tree went down from the neighboring woods into my yard and fell just short of my deck. There is no way to completely protect trees from all storm damage, but steps can be taken when they are young to minimize potential damage when they get older.

We think pollen is bad every spring, but this year it seemed to be worse than ever on certain days.

According to Dr. Ter­rance Cook at Drs. Cook and Dunnigan Allergy Clinic in Augusta, the pollen count March 23 was 11.2, the highest level he had ever seen. If you are an allergy sufferer, you might remember that day.

So far, December has been warmer than normal. Compare it to last year when we had, I think, our second coldest December on record. Based on statistics from the Georgia Auto­mated Environmental Moni­toring Network in Dearing, from Dec.1 to 23 last year, we had 371 chill hours (chill hours are the number of hours below 45 degrees).

This year, through Dec.22, we’ve only had 142 hours. For the amount of hours below 32 degrees, last year we had 139. This year, only nine. Yes, you read that right – 130 hours difference!

The warm December is why so many gardeners – myself included – are still harvesting warm-season vegetables such as bell and jalapeño peppers from the garden.

According to news I have read, the rest of the winter is supposed to be warmer and drier than normal because of La Niña.

If we keep up this warm winter, our fruit trees might not produce well because of the lack of chill hours. If it stays dry, we won’t replenish our ground water.

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