Newsletter March

Hot Gardens Newsletter March: Updating a neglected patio

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Patios 101.  It is time to update your patio and transform that concrete slab behind your home into a beautiful and useful outdoor room–one that feels comfortable even when midday temperatures soar into the triple digits.  Some elements to consider: 1) Shade and more shade; 2) Seating; and 3) techniques for potted plant survival in summer heat in hot climate gardens.

Start with the Shade.  If your garden patio area is covered with a roof or arbor you are already ahead of the game.  Not only will these architectural features shade your patio, they will keep direct sun off the side of your home and reduce air conditioning bills.  Custom-built arbors can be expensive, but there are arbor kits available at garden centers, home improvement stores and online that cost considerably less.

grape vine on arborOne of the lovely features of an arbor is that it allows you to plant cooling, climbing vines, such as Grapes (Vitis vinifera) or Trumpet Vine. Both are lush green in summer and lose their leaves in winter to allow in warming sun when you need it.

You can see an arbor with grapes on our Private Garden page. A photo of the Trumpet Vine in glorious bloom is on our Vines and Climbers page.

The Shady Tree. Strategically planted trees are an excellent alternative to an arbor — especially if you have a south-facing or west-facing patio. Be sure when you plant any tree to install it far enough from your home to allow for its mature size. As a rule of thumb, plant smaller trees, such as an ornamental plum, a minimum of 20 feet from the side of your house. Larger trees, such as a graceful, weeping Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), should be planted 30 feet or more away from your home.

Chinese elm Ulmus parvifoliaThis young Chinese elm can reach a height of 30 feet in five years and will be 60 feet at maturity.  Low water usage after it is established.

The Pistachio (Pistachio vera) is another tree that loves hot, dry weather and grows rapidly, too. It also produces delicious nuts.

You can also find photos and information about other fast-growing shade trees here.


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Take a Seat. The choice of patio furniture is enormous — from rustic to elegantly sophisticated. There is, however, one suggestion for seating that is suitable for every style: low wall seating. At the high end is a custom-designed masonry wall capped with flagstone or ceramic tile for you and your guests to sit on. It may be expensive but will look great and add considerable value to your home.

On the other hand, you can add a low wall using the cast concrete, interlocking wall systems now available in garden and home improvement stores. The wall is usually 15 to 18 inches in height and needs a concrete or tile cap on top. It will give a finished appearance to your patio and clearly define it as a separate room in your garden. Be sure to keep in mind the traffic patterns from your patio and allow for easy access to other areas of your garden when you add a low wall.

The Great Pot Wall.  Another way to define your patio room is by lining up large pots filled with gorgeous greenery and flowers along the edges. We strongly recommend that you use larger size pots for a couple of reasons. First, pots that are 14 inches high or higher will give you the same visual effect as a patio wall: clear definition of an outdoor room. Second, large pots hold moisture far better during the hot summer months, helping your plants survive. Place your smaller pots in the shade of larger ones.

Potted Plant Survival.  These recommendations are designed to avoid plant death-by-dehydration. One technique is to double-pot. Place a smaller pot inside a larger one, then stuff moss, wood bark mulch or other organic filler between the two. When you water the plants in the inner pot, be sure to lightly sprinkle the moss to help with cooling.

Next, there are plastic pots. Oh, how ugly they were in the beginning! But now some look exactly like beautiful, aged terra cotta and unlike real terra cotta pots, plastic ones do not permit evaporation through their sides and they are light weight.

Yet another way to keep your plants alive in the heat is to install a drip irrigation system in each pot. Be sure you have made a final decision on where each pots is going to be placed before you install the drip system — this is a permanent solution.

And, finally, add polymers to your potting soil mix. Polymers do an excellent job of holding moisture in the soil.

Hot Pots. We noticed this spring that many gardening magazines are advocating the use of metal containers, such as buckets, for patio plants. Do NOT do this! Metal containers will transfer heat into the potting soil so fast that your plants’ roots will fry on the first hot day. Your plants will turn into vegetable crisp!

A Final Touch.  Misting systems are very, very effective in cooling a patio — allowing you to dine comfortably outdoors even at lunch. Unfortunately, because of drought restrictions, they are now banned in some localities. Be sure to check local regulations.

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