(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 9, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

My newspaper lady told me this morning that I should work in the yard only in early morning and late evening, and that I needed to carry a bottle of water and a little portable fan with me. A bottle of water and a portable fan won't leave much room for my garden trowel, my clippers, my garden scissors, my camera, and a bag to put the weeds and clippings in. Pockets?? Well, goodness, all these tools weigh as much as I do and I would end up flat on the ground for the whole world to see. Anyway, why do we call them the Dog Days of Summer when my cats are suffering, too?

When I was growing up and August rolled around, I noticed that things seemed to slow down. We did not go on our mountain hikes looking for medicinal plants as often as we had earlier, and by the end of the month, most of the produce from the gardens had been put up for the winter. I took a blanket and climbed the mountain to my favorite cliff overlooking the creek that ran beside my house. With a peanut butter sandwich. a fruit jar full of cold well water and a book in my hand, I could stay up there in the shade all day long in the late summer heat, as long as there was a breeze blowing up the hollow. Things really changed in late summer, the critters became sluggish, the bright green leaves on the trees dulled to a grayish green. Cicadias sang louder than the birds chirped and the hummingbirds and butterflies were the only things that moved, except for the black wooly worms and the green caterpillars. Even my dogs and my cats took very long naps. My great Aunt Bett said: "It's them Dog Days of Summer that we just have to muck our way though, chile. We'll survive just lak we allus do."Image

I asked her what caused the "dog" days of summer because I thought the cats and the people were suffering with it as well. She told me a story that had been handed down from her Native American grandmother. I will share that with you, but it seems my Native American great, great, great grandmother had information that is much older than even her ancestors. She said the ancients believed that when Sirius, the dog star, rose at the same time as the sun, they should sacrifice a brown dog to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the very bright star was causing the hot, sultry weather. I did not like that idea very much because I had a brown dog, too.

When I checked my sources I found that the grandmother was very close to being right. The ancient Romans and Greeks also called this time the Dog Days. They thought it was an evil time, "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies." {1} According to different sources, the dates for dog days can range from July 1 through August 17 and beyond. More accurately, the range is 20 days before and 20 days after the dog star and the sun rise together.

Of course they are never the same time in every area, because truthfully the conjunction of Sirius with the sun varies with latitude. The constellations today are not in exactly the same place in the sky as they were during the time of the ancients. And although it is certainly the warmest period of the summer in my area, it is only the direct result of the earth's tilt, and not the wrath of the dog star. {2}

So I sit here on most of these draining days, and I think of things that could be done, according to the memories of my childhood. My weather is hotter and more humid than it was there and then, but I hope my memories will pull me out of my doldrums. Image

My mother taught me to take cuttings of geraniums and begonias during those hot days. I would cut them about 3 or 4 inches long just below a leaf joint, then I removed the bottom set of leaves. We put the cuttings in jars of water, but of course today, I could use rooting hormones. We cut the hydrangeas and some of the straw flowers, and hung them to dry for fall and winter arrangements. Aunt Bett said it was a good time to prune the shrubs, so that any new growth would have time to harden off before winter. Maybe I will cut back my butterfly bush, and give it a nice dose of water. I have a few roses, and they need to be deadheaded, so that they too can harden off before winter. On the otherhand, I still have butterflies who flit from the butterfly bush to the roses, so maybe that chore can wait.

One of my jobs then included cutting herbs to dry so that we would have seasoning throughout the winter months. I loved to cut herbs, just the smell of sage on my fingers brought thoughts of Thanksgiving and Christmas dressing. By the middle of August we began to collect seeds from the flowers and we stored them in old envelopes that Mom let me label. I helped gather apples and pears from the old fruit trees that grew on the hill behind our house. They were wiped clean and stored in bushel baskets then placed in the cellar. Well, maybe I will cut the herbs, wash them, dry them, and freeze them. But I have no fruit trees, so that is not going to be on my to do list. I guess I could start collecting seeds.

But it isn't the 50's and I am not in the mountains. In my area August is a good time to plant late crops, but young plants need to be kept from sunburn until they are established. It is an excellent time to plant for a late crop of cucumbers, watermelons, and kale. They should be planted in the late afternoon or early morning and again, they need to be protected from the sun. It is also a good time to cut mint back to the ground and add compost, so that a new crop of mint will grow before the first frost. Image

Those are all the things I should be doing. But here we are, my cats and I in our air conditioned home, looking out at the 99 degree weather in all its 60% humidity, and all I really have done is assure my cats that they would never have been sacrificed because they were sacred animals in ancient Egypt. Maybe this evening when it is cooler we will go outside and gather seeds and watch butterflies and hummingbirds, discover caterpillars, and remember that some things never change.

{1} http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_Days

{2} http://wilstar.com/dogdays.htm

The hydrangea photo was taken by bootandall and can be found in Plant Files. The butterfly photo is by Dinu and is also from Plant Files. The drawing and the photo of Daisy and Jazz, my cats, are my own.