Keep Your Cool: Avoid Heat Stress

Learn to recognize the symptoms of heat stress, plus ways to stay cool as a cucumber while tackling garden tasks.

By Andrew Weidman


Fall 2016

Looking at garden

Gardeners should work smart to avoid heat stress. This includes avoiding hard physical labor during afternoon heat.

Photo by iStock/Peter Burnett

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For gardeners, the dog days of summer mean lots of garden work needs to be done. The label “lazy days of summer” doesn’t apply to us. We know that the last of the soup peas need to be picked, the string beans are coming in, and tomatoes and freezer corn are demanding all of our attention. Everything seems to be begging for water. And weeds never take a vacation. While a garden can quickly generate hours of work that needs to be done immediately, gardeners need to remember that this is also the hottest time of the season, and we must work smart to avoid heat stress.

Heat stress is a real concern for anyone working outside in the height of summer. If left untreated, heat stress can rapidly lead to heatstroke, which can be fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, severe heat killed more people in the United States between 1979 and 2003 than earthquakes, blizzards, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or lightning. Heat stress can do more than just ruin your time in the garden — it can ruin your whole day, or make it your last.

Symptoms of Heat Stress

The symptoms of heat stress include excessive sweating or not sweating at all; hot, dry skin; chills; throbbing headaches; confusion or dizziness; nausea; slurred speech; and, in extreme cases, hallucinations. Avoid a world of trouble: Catch the warning signs early and take action.

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? Have a 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? If you have any of these symptoms of heat stress, 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.

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

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’re sweating as you work. Working up a sweat is OK, but if the sweat is pouring out like rain, you’re too hot already. 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 shower with the garden hose to bring your core body temperature down fast. Regardless, your gardening work is done for the day. Period. No bowl of peas or bag of beans is worth risking a case of heatstroke.

Bathroom matters may not be fit for polite discussion, but paying attention to them can help you avoid dehydration. When you take a bathroom break, check the color of your urine. It should be clear or 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 brownish, that’s a sign that you’re severely dehydrated.

How to Avoid Heat Exhaustion/Heat Stress

Here are a few steps to avoid heat exhaustion while still getting your tomatoes picked on time:

Schedule your work for the cool of the day, in the late evening or early morning. This is a great way to stay cooler while enjoying the most peaceful hours your garden has to offer. Besides, you can get more done in those cooler times than in the afternoon heat, when you’re more likely to struggle.

Stay hydrated. Your body can’t work efficiently if it’s dehydrated, and dehydration can happen faster than you realize. This should be a no-brainer, but we all tend to forget to drink enough water. It’s amazing how much water you lose to sweating. On average, a person can sweat the equivalent of one to two 12-ounce bottles of water in an hour of moderate to heavy activity. 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 and juice are good choices, but avoid caffeine or alcohol because 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 recommend drinking pickle juice in moderation to help prevent muscle cramps. Four ounces of the stuff for every 16 ounces of water consumed is about right, and it tastes pretty darn good when your body is craving salts. Another option for gardeners is this thirst-quenching Haymaker’s Punch recipe.

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-weave 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. Staying cool and comfortable is more important that looking fashionable in the heat of summer.

So, what should you do if you think you might be suffering from heat stress? Get out of the sun. Cool off and relax. If your symptoms of heat stress 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’re completely recovered from a bad case.

Plan ahead and find ways to stay cool. Enjoy those lazy days of late summer. Fall and its cooler weather will be here before you know it.


Andrew Weidman avoids heat stress in the heat and humidity of southeastern Pennsylvania. He’s an avid seed saver, tree grafter, and plant propagator with an eye for heirloom varieties.