August Heat Got You Beat? What to plant in the Southeast.

With August heat bearing down on us, one wonders what we would do without air conditioning. Gardening in the heat surely takes its toll on the human torso. If we couldn’t sweat (excuse me, perspire) to cool down, we wouldn’t last very long outdoors this time of year.Plants have a way of cooling themselves as well. They don’t perspire, they transpire. The evaporation of water from their leaves serves as natures “air conditioning” and usually keeps plants from overheating. Plants are truly amazing since this transpiration process also allows green plants to obtain atmospheric CO2 from which plant food is made for growth, flowering, etc.

This past week I was reminded that not everyone prizes AC like I do. As part of the annual Master Gardener conference we visited the home and garden of Eudora Welty, Mississippi’s great writer of short stories. Miss Welty lived most of her life in Jackson, Mississippi across the street from Belhaven College.

During the tour, one of Eudora’s nieces explained how Miss Welty loved the outdoors and that her home wasn’t air conditioned, by her choice. She would type away in her upstairs bedroom, windows open, apparently unhindered by sweltering Mississippi summers. She loved the sights and sounds of her garden. Our group of gardeners, well acquainted with our tropical climate, sighed in near disbelief.

I know there are hotter places to live, but it’s still amazing to hear of someone like Miss Welty foregoing such modern conveniences. Her stamina must have been remarkable. It’s also equally amazing to observe the many annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs that flourish in the pressure cooker of a Mississippi summer. We can grow an incredible number of plants that make us look like champion gardeners without a lot of extra effort.

This summer, I’ve been especially impressed by flowerbeds that looked really good in places where they weren’t getting much attention. Some outstanding performers include some old time favorites like Periwinkle, Zinnias, Marigolds, Daylily, Lantana, Salvia and Cosmos. Other super plants included the marvelous Angelonias, Cuphea (Firecracker), ginger, Melampodium, Black-eyed Susans, Pentas and new plants like Amazon Dianthus.

These are just some of the flowering annuals and perennials that have made my list. We could make an equally long list of colorful foliage plants for sunny sights like Sweet potato vine, multicolored Coleus and sturdy strap-leaved Caladium. Flowering trees and shrubs that made my hot list include crape myrtle, Vitex, Althaea and butterfly bush.

In her book, Losing Battles (1970) Miss Welty mentions a garden where “from the waterless earth some flowers bloomed in despite of it.” She wrote of Althaea, Cannas, Celosia, Lemon Lily (Daylily), Monbretia, Morning-glories, Salvia and Verbena as if she too was surprised to see such colorful display in quite harsh conditions. Have you made your list? Happy gardening.

Kerry Johnson PhD
Extension Horticulturalist

Credit MS Gardens Newsletter Archives