July 15, 2016 by Jean
Mid-summer is prime time for working on garden projects, but it is also the hottest part of the Maine summer. Saying that it is the hottest part of the summer does not necessarily mean that it is hot by the standards of most parts of the country; this is a place where a temperature of 90F three days in a row constitutes an official heat wave and a major news event.
Nevertheless, like many people who choose to live in Maine, I’m a lot more comfortable with cold weather than with hot. One year, shortly after I returned to Gettysburg, PA for the start of school in January, Pennsylvania had an unusual cold snap, with overnight lows well below 0F and daytime temperatures barely getting above 0. At the time, I was head of Gettysburg College’s Women’s Studies Program and we were scheduled to have a meeting of the Women’s Studies committee on the second day of the cold snap. Throughout the day, I kept getting phone calls from committee members, asking, “You’re going to cancel this afternoon’s meeting aren’t you?” “Why cancel?” I would ask. “Because of the cold” would come the answer. “But we are not planning to meet outdoors,” I would reason; “we’re meeting in a heated building.” My colleagues were not reassured. People seemed to think it would be dangerous to walk across campus in the cold or that they might freeze to death in their cars if they had to drive home in sub-zero temperatures. I confess that I did not adopt a “when in Rome, do as the Romans” attitude; instead, with each call, I became more proudly and defiantly a Mainer and more scornful of what wimps my colleagues were, refusing to cancel the meeting. In the end, I was preempted by the Governor. Worried about the strain on the state’s energy grid from high heating demand, he declared a state of emergency, ordered people to go home and stay there, and ordered all non-essential public places closed and public events cancelled (and that thermostats be turned down in those spaces).
When it comes to heat, though, I’m the wimp; once it gets above 80F, I begin to wilt. But if I’m going to keep on track with my big multi-year front garden landscaping project, I have to keep working through the hot days. This week, we’ve been having one of those mid-summer heat waves. I’ve adjusted to the heat by switching my garden work time from late afternoon to morning. On my garden work days (every other day), I get up early and go out for a two-mile walk. When I get back from my walk, I stretch out, do my morning tour of the garden, eat breakfast, and then put on my work clothes and head out to dig in the dirt and haul around heavy soil additives. My goal is to be out at work shortly after 9 a.m. Typically, I’ll put in about 2 1/2 hours of work, with a 10-15 minute break in the middle. By the time I get in from working in the garden, it is about noon; and I shower and dress and then have lunch. A disadvantage of doing this heavy garden work early in the day is that it leaves me feeling pretty tired and without much energy for other kinds of work in the afternoon. An advantage is that, after working up a sweat out in the garden all morning, my house feels wonderfully cool.
Like most Mainers, I don’t use an air conditioner at home. Instead, I rely on “Maine air conditioning,” which involves opening every window wide overnight to get the house as cool as possible and then closing them all up in the morning. My house is all on one story, is well-insulated, and has double- and triple-glazed windows; so this system works surprisingly well. The house gets slowly warmer as the day wears on and may get up over 80 by late afternoon. In the evening, though, the outside temperature falls. When the indoor and outdoor temperatures meet, it’s time to open all the windows and start all over again. If the heat wave only lasts three or four days and if the overnight low temperatures get down into the sixties, this process keeps the house comfortable. With each day, though, the house starts off a little warmer than it did the day before. With luck, just about the time I’m considering going out to a movie, any movie, just to spend some time in air conditioning, the heat will break, the overnight temperatures will go down into the fifties, and I’ll find myself needing multiple blankets and comforters to sleep with all the windows open!