Long, hot Texas summer days often are hard on ornamental landscape plants and increase the demands on the gardener to keep them in a healthy, attractive condition. It is important for the gardener to prepare for hot, dry days of June, July and August during early summer, before summer heat and possible damage.

The first step in being prepared for summer in the landscape is to have chosen ornamental plants that will tolerate our local summer conditions. Plants that will harden themselves for possible drought and constant high temperatures will demand a minimum of summer maintenance and care. Our long, hot summers forbid success with more northern, cool, shorter summer plants such as White Birch, Northern Maples, Lilac and Peony.

During summer, water or soil moisture becomes extremely important and essential for good plant production. Because continual watering is oftentimes costly and time consuming, it pays to conserve the moisture around plants.

The best way to conserve garden moisture is by mulching. A good mulch will not only retain valuable moisture needed for plant growth but will ensure several other things as well to improve gardening success.

A mulch insulates the soil and protects it from drying and hard baking effects of the hot sun winds. Mulched soils are cooler than unmulched soils and generally show less fluctuation in soil temperature. Cooler, more even temperatures and less moisture evaporation from the soil surface causes plants to grow at a more constant rate.

Mulches also break the force of rain and irrigation and tend to prevent erosion, soil compaction and crusting. A mulch helps the soil absorb water more readily and helps prevent the splashing of soil and certain plant disease organisms onto plants and flowers during a rain or overhead irrigation.

The mulch covering also prevents germination of many weed seeds. Fewer weeds provide less competition for available moisture and nutrients. Using mulches to control weeds is much safer than using chemical weed controls or risking damage to tender, newly formed roots by cultivation.

Mulches are usually applied 2 to 6 inches deep, depending on the material used. In general, the more course the material, the deeper the mulch. For example, a 2-inch layer of cotton seed hulls will have the same mulching effect as 6 inches of oat straw or 4 inches of coastal Bermuda hay.

By far, the more common and better mulches are organic types. There are many of these, and selection will be determined by appearance desired and availability in your specific area.

A few of the more widely used mulches include the following: bard (pine and redwood), grass clippings, hay leafmold (oak), peanut hulls, pine needles, sawdust and woodchips.

Your choice of a mulch should be weed-free, clean and long lasting. Organic mulches improve the soil structure when they do break down and decompose in the soil, making for better aeration, drainage and water-holding ability.

— Randy Reeves is a Texas A&M AgriLife extension agent for Gregg County. Join him on his horticultural blog at www.news-journal.com.