Monday, August 17, 2015

A perfect August weekend or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the summer

Capitol columns
Capitol columns, United States National Arboretum

This past weekend was about as good as summer gets in Washington, DC: sunny with relatively low humidity, not too hot and cooling down nicely at night.  I spent Saturday morning touring the United States National Arboretum's gardens (more on that later), and on Sunday I spent the morning watering my garden, took an afternoon nap, and did a little light pruning and weeding in the afternoon.  I relaxed in the evening on my roof deck with a gin and tonic in my hand, enjoying a light breeze.  Rain is the only thing that would have made the weekend better, because my garden is getting awfully dry and many of my plants start to look stressed after just a few days without rain.

National Arboretum
Patio, National Arboretum

And yet, I've been having a little back-and-forth with the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang on Facebook.  Okay, so we've had 41 days above 90 degrees (32° C) but I have to take issue with their trumpeting what a hot, hot summer it's been.  First of all, did they just move here from Minnesota?  Anybody who's lived in Washington, DC for more than a year or two can tell you that our summers get hot.  But there's heat, and then there's heat.  July and August can be brutal but despite the number of days above 90 so far this year, we've had only a handful of days above 95 and lots of cool nights with temperatures in the low 70's or even 60's (ca. 19-23° C).  I can't remember any other summer when I've slept with the bedroom windows open on so many nights.  So I'd like to know how this year stacks up against the records for (a) most days in July and August with lows below 75 degrees, and (b) fewest days with highs above 95 degrees.  (That's a challenge, Capital Weather Gang!)

National Arboretum
Summer means tropical in Washington, DC (National Arboretum)

Does anybody remember that stretch, just a few years ago, when we had high 90's for an extended period, with several days near and even over 100 degrees (38° C)?  Now that's heat.  When we get another one like that, I'll complain with the rest of you but all in all, I don't think this summer has been all that bad.  In the 24 years since I moved to Washington, DC from upstate New York, I've learned a thing or two about summers here:

They're hot.  They're humid, too.  Get over it because mid-Atlantic summers are supposed to be hot and humid.  I remember this every time my family back in Buffalo complains about chilly summers.  Be thankful for any summer day it's not in the high 90's because we generally get at least a few of those every summer.

Savor those evening cooldowns when you get them.  We've been lucky this year; some years we get stretches where nights don't go below 80° and there's no relief from the heat and humidity.

Stay away from downtown.  Any part of the city that has a lot of buildings and pavement is going to be brutal.  Sure, you can head to the beaches but Washington, DC has an abundance of public parks and gardens where you can go to cool off a bit, and many of them are at their best during the summer.  Places with a lot of trees, like the National Arboretum, will be considerably cooler than the rest of the city because trees and other plants help cool the environment.

Kenilworth waterlily Fest July 11  
Loving summer at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens (photo: Kathy Jentz)

Get out of the sun.  Dress lightly, wear a hat, stay in the shade, get your outdoor chores done before noon.  But whatever it takes, stay out of the sun.  Sunburn makes everything worse (and it's really, really bad for you and your skin) but even with sunscreen, being out in the afternoon sun is no fun unless you're at the pool or the beach.  Better yet, take an afternoon nap under a ceiling fan.  (Seriously, why are siestas so underrated in this country?)

National Arboretum
Hats are good.  (National Arboretum gardener Bradley Evans with visitor Linda Hostetler)

National Arboretum
Shade is better. 

Do things you love doing.  For me, that's anything related to plants or gardening.  Whether I'm visiting other people's gardens or working in my own, I just don't notice the heat (sometimes to my detriment).  A couple of weeks ago, I spent one of the hottest and most humid days of the year touring Baltimore area gardens with fellow members of the Perennial Plant Association.  I came back to the hotel exhausted, drenched in sweat, and happier than I'd been in a very long time.

Cat nap
Cats love napping.  In the shade.

Cool showers.  Some people like scalding hot showers, year-round, which I have yet to figure out.  I prefer my showers in the lukewarm/tepid/cool range this time of year, especially when I've just come in from gardening.

Drink plenty of water.  Do I really have to point out the obvious?  I'm amazed at the number of people who simply don't drink water.  And I do mean water: forget the sweetened (or worse, diet) drinks.  How on earth have we forgotten how to drink plain old water in this country?  In my opinion, the only good use for sodas, juices, and other sweetened drinks is as mixers in cocktails.  Which brings me to:

Have a gin and tonic.  At some point--for me it's about 1:00 pm--you need to just sit down and relax.  Whether it's afternoon or evening, few drinks are as refreshing as a gin & tonic (although I'll never push away a mojito).  I sometimes fancy them up a bit, especially if we have guests.  Just don't make it too strong or you won't get anything else done the rest of the day.  But in the summer, is that such a bad thing?

Pink mojito
Pink mojito


  1. The last one has to be the of those bunch of good wisdom :)

  2. Yes, some sage and some humorous advice. I say skip the sunscreen and wear long-sleeve, lightweight shirts and pants while in the sun. They will protect you better and also keep the dirt and insects off while gardening.

  3. Great post John. As a native Washingtonian DC summers are hot but beautiful!

  4. We have had a similarly mild summer here in Norfolk, only with fewer days above 90. Until the last few weeks, the rain was been regular. No matter how hot or humid it gets, I still prefer it to winter's cold.

  5. Maybe they just think it's hot because they're in AC all day. It was 100 F every day when I was in Austria/Hungary while we were in the 80's. I think our weather's been mostly mighty fine. :o)