Paws to enjoy dog days' stellar nights
by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp
August is known as the "dog days," the Midwestern summer's hottest period. It's the time of year we enjoy the harvest of our vegetable garden, attend state fairs, appreciate shade trees and watch the night sky. Indeed, it is the season of sky.
Dog days refer to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky this time of year and part of the constellation Canis Major, or the Big Dog. Sometimes called Dog Star, sky watchers have observed Sirius at dawn and connected its late summer appearance with the hottest days of the season.
Aristotle first used the term dog days, and the Greeks feared the sparkle of Sirius aroused star-struck men and women and drained their energy. Some cultures offered sacrifices in the hopes of coaxing cooling winds from the skies. The Romans sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of this period to fend off heat-induced wheat rust on their crops.
On a clear night, grab a blanket and lie back on the grass, the beach, deck or balcony and look at the northeast sky. Urban dwellers may have to find light-free areas out of the city. It's worth a look, though, as more than 60 meteors an hour fall through the sky.
"Your best bet is to get in the car and drive as far away from the city as you can," says Tom Burns, director of the Perkins Observatory at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. "Take a rural exit and set up your lawn chair by the side of the road and watch the night away."
When it comes to viewing the Perseids meteor shower, Gerald Newsom, professor emeritus of astronomy at The Ohio State University in Columbus, says you just can't beat the naked eye.
A teacher for 41 years, he recommends finding a broad expanse of sky for the best show because a telescope or binoculars narrows the view. He also warns that a full moon can wash out the meteor light show.
The dog days have certain smells and sounds, too. Heat-drenched days stoke the first fragrances of fall. Ornamental grass plumes reach for the sky as they take on autumn hues. Late-summer asters, sedums and goldenrods add more color while August-blooming hostas perfume the air.
Locusts and cicadas sing during the day, bees buzz and butterflies flitter, bulking up for the migration or hibernation. Crickets and katydids harmonize at night.
In the vegetable garden, as we pull green beans and other plants that have slowed or stopped producing, we replace them with a fall crop of lettuces, broccoli or peas. It's important to continue harvesting vegetables, such as tomatoes and squash, to keep the plants producing through these dog days.
Sometimes known as the Hoosier Gardener, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp lives in Indianapolis, where she manages perennials and woody plants for a large, independent garden center. A freelance writer, her work appears in many publications, including The American Gardener and Garden Gate. Sharp also speaks about gardening throughout the Midwest and is a director of the Garden Writers Association.