Keep Your Cool in the Garden

I spent the better part of yesterday morning picking gooseberries. I thought I’d beat the heat of the afternoon. Before long, I knew that was nothing more than wishful thinking. It also gave me a not-so-subtle reminder that heat exhaustion in a serious matter; it also reminded me of the following piece:

The Dog Days of Summer are upon us, and that means lots of garden work to be done. The label “ days of summer” may apply for other people, but not for us. We know that the last of the peas need to be picked, the string beans are already coming in, and tomatoes and corn will soon be demanding our attention. Everything seems to be begging for water. And weeds never take a vacation, do they? While a garden can quickly generate hours of work that need to be done right now, we need to remember that this is also the hottest time of the season, and work smart to avoid heat stress.

Don’t let your garden get you ‘hot under the collar.’

Heat stress is a very real concern for anyone working outside in the height of summer. If left untreated, heat stress can rapidly lead to heat stroke – which can easily become fatal. According to the Center for Disease Control, severe heat killed more people in America between 1979 and 2003 than earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and lightning combined. Heat stress can do more than just ruin your time in the garden, it can ruin your whole day – or make it your last.

Know the symptoms of heat stress so you can keep your cool in the garden. They can include excessive sweating or no sweating at all, hot dry skin, chills, throbbing headaches, confusion or dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, or even hallucinations. You can avoid a world of trouble if you catch the warning signs early, and take action.

Know when to head for a shady spot.

Pay attention to your state of mind. Are you feeling dizzy or confused? Are simple tasks frustrating you? Do you suddenly feel exhausted or weak? How’s that headache? Do you feel like you just can’t take a decent breath? Is your heart racing? Do you feel nauseous, or worse, are you already throwing up? Your body is telling you it’s time to quit. It doesn’t matter if you ‘just have a few more weeds to pull.’ You need to quit working outside for the day.

Forget it. They aren’t worth heat exhaustion.

Monitoring your own mental condition can be difficult, so enlist some help from family members or neighbors. I don’t mean asking them to help pick beans, although if they’re willing to help, take advantage of the offer. What I do mean is asking someone to check in on you every now and then.

I once visited a blacksmith’s shop at a living history museum. As the smith gave us an iron working demonstration, passing museum staff members would wave to him or ask him how he was doing. He explained to us that they were checking on him so he wouldn’t suffer from heat stress while working the smithy. As long as he answered them, they knew he was OK.

Perspiration is your body’s most effective cooling system. While sweat may not be fit for polite conversation, it can be your best friend in the garden. Pay attention to how much you are sweating as you work. Working up a sweat is OK, but if the sweat is pouring out like rain, you’re getting too hot already.

It’s amazing how much water you lose to sweating. On average, a person can sweat the equivalent of one to two 12-ounce ‘spring water’ bottles of water in an hour of moderate to heavy activity. Take a water break.

If you stop sweating and feel hot and flushed, your body needs more than just a drink, it needs you to stop and cool down. Now. Grab that drink and get in the shade, the air conditioning, or even the pool. At the very least, take a garden hose shower to bring your core body temperature down fast. Regardless, your gardening work is done for the day. Period. No bowl of berries or bag of beans is worth risking a case of heat stroke.

Sunrise and sunset are some of the best times in the garden.

You can do a few things to avoid getting to the point of heat exhaustion and get your tomatoes picked on time. Schedule your work for the cool of the day, in the late evening and especially early morning. You’ll stay cooler while enjoying the most peaceful hours your garden has to offer. Besides, you can get more done in those cooler times than when you struggle to work through the heat of the afternoon. (By the way, I did quit picking berries by the forenoon, and finished them in the evening.)

Stay hydrated. Your body can’t work efficiently if it’s dehydrated, and dehydration can happen faster than you may realize. This should be a no-brainer, but we all tend to forget to drink enough water. Just ask my wife if I drink enough while I’m gardening. She always has to remind me to take a break.

If you don’t have a water bottle or canteen to carry with you, take water breaks every 15 minutes. Don’t depend on your thirst to remind you; drink 8 ounces of water every break. Cool water, juice and sports drinks are good choices, but avoid caffeine or alcohol. They can dry you out even faster than not drinking at all! Save the margaritas for a reward after your work is finished.

Some sports trainers even recommend drinking pickle juice in moderation, to help replace salts and electrolytes lost to sweat. Four ounces of the stuff for every 16 ounces of water consumed is about right, and it tastes pretty darn good when your body craves salts.

Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

Bathroom matters are another topic not fit for polite discussion that can help you avoid dehydration. When you take a bathroom break, be sure to check the color of your urine. It should be clear or barely yellow. When dehydration begins to set in, your body will try to cut back on water loss through your kidneys. Your urine will begin to darken, signaling you to increase your water intake. If your urine begins to look orange or brownish, that’s a sign that you are severely dehydrated.

LEFT: Jessie hates this hat – but it keeps me shaded.

Finally, dress to stay cool. Choose light-colored cottons or other breathable materials that wick sweat away from your skin. Accessorize with a wide brimmed sun hat or Stetson made of an open-woven material to keep the sun out of your face. Soak a bandana or light scarf in cool water and drape it across your neck for an extra cooling effect. Don’t be afraid to soak your shirt down with the hose now and then, either! You can choose to be fashionably cool, or you can be like me and focus purely on function. After all, it’s your garden.

So what do you do if you think you might be suffering from heat stress? Get in out of the sun. Cool off and relax. If your symptoms persist after half an hour, call the doctor or get to an emergency room as soon as possible. And be patient – it may take several days before you are completely recovered from a bad case of heat stress.

Be smart and stay cool. Enjoy those ‘ days of summer.’ Fall will be here before you know it!

  • Published on Jul 8, 2015
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