Monday, August 22, 2011

Beat the Heat: Umbrella Gardening

It’s August in Texas and it’s hot. Like, melt your flip-flops to the pavement hot.

Dorris - the temperature is so high in Texas in August her flip flops melt to the pavement.

I’ve lived in Texas most of my life, so you think I’d be use to it, but oh no, as we creep from June into July each year, I find myself disturbed by the ability to water small plants by just hovering over them as sweat drips off the end of my nose. I think the heat actually kills the brain cells responsible for remembering how hot it gets here. Seriously.

We beat the heat by staying indoors and wearing out the down arrow on our thermostats. We try to keep our plants alive by drowning them each morning, but weeks of hundred degree temperatures make them brown and crispy, no matter how much water we waste.

So, how do you keep your plants alive during the hottest part of the year in Texas? Plant umbrellas. Yes, really. Umbrellas are gardening magic – think of them as cheap, instant trees. Look, we all know that trees provide the best kind of shade, but we don’t always have room to plant a tree and if we do plant one, we still have to wait years for it to get big enough to do anything. Take my back yard, for example. I have trees and I still have shade shortage issues.

I have one Big Tree:

Dorris - has on large shade tree.

And one Little Tree:

Dorris - has one small tree (no shade yet).

Little Tree doesn’t shade anything yet. Big Tree does a great job shading the porch, but most of my annuals and herbs are subject to the Evil Sun of Doom from noon until sunset. The solution? I planted umbrellas instead of trees. Not only is this a great way to recycle a beat-up patio umbrella, it works for everything from a vegetable garden to a balcony pot.

How exactly do you ‘plant’ umbrellas? There are many options. You can purchase an umbrella stand, but they can be pricey. A better (cheaper) option is to fasten lengths of PVC to any stable structure in your yard or on your patio (fence, deck railing, raised herb bed, etc. ) using some fence brackets.

Fasten umbrellas to raised beds or fences using a fence bracket and some PVC.

If you live in an apartment with a balcony rail, try using those beach or golf umbrellas that have built in clamps used to anchor them to chairs. I have to credit Mom for this idea. Her entire garden is in containers on the west-facing deck of her townhome. She fastened three foot lengths of PVC pipe at regular intervals along her deck railing and went dumpster diving for old patio umbrellas.

Another option is to make your own umbrella pot out of quick set concrete mix, an old fiberglass pot and PVC. These umbrella pots are pretty simple to make – take a gander at the illustration below and you should get the general idea. It’s important to note that my example is an umbrella pot that contains plants that do well in standing water (e.g. water iris and other pond and bog plants).

Make a stand to hold your umbrella using and old flower pot, PVC, and quick set concrete.

If you want to plant annuals or other greenery that requires good drainage, stick a few wooden dowels (or stakes, or anything that will leave a hole) in the concrete, being sure to remove them after it firms up a little – don’t leave them in! Another option is to skip the planting part altogether and use a bag of decorative rock or other interesting bits of nature (lava rock, sea glass, shells, etc.) to make the top of the pot look pretty. I have also been known to spray paint my PVC.

You can always go the tree route, but here’s a little cost comparison for you:

Solution                                             Cost     Time
1’ (shade area) tree sapling                $100    years
9’ (shade area) tree sapling                $600    days
9’ patio umbrella + materials             $50      hours

I have umbrellas over more than ½ my garden from June through August. So buy a much smaller sapling and go with a cheaper, faster solution to our hot Texas summers while you’re waiting on that little guy to grow.

Oh, one other great thing about umbrellas – they make handy shade for people, too.

Dorris - sitting under an umbrella on her flagstone porch, enjoying a tasty beverage.

Tricky Details:
  • Make sure the PVC you use is big enough for the umbrella pole to fit inside (it’s an easy mistake to make)
  • High winds a problem? Drill a hole through both the PVC and the umbrella pole and slip a large nail in to keep the umbrella from blowing away.
  • Can you just dig a hole and put the PVC in the ground? Of course! But be sure you have the area surveyed by Texas811 (http://www.texas811.org/) for underground utilities before you dig down more than a few inches.

5 comments:

  1. This is perfectly funny! love the tips, works out here in middle of nowhere cali!

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  2. how about providing a canopy at your backyard. it should help you a lot in your gardening/landscaping project.

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  3. It is a informative post , thanks for sharing

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  4. Just what I was looking for. Do you think it would hold an offset umbrella?

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  5. Hilarious. Love, love. I'm off to get an umbrella.

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