In the Garden:
Southern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
April, 2002
Regional Report

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Mulch in pathways between raised beds helps retain moisture, lessen evaporation, moderate soil temperatures, and prevent weeds from germinating.

Start Now for Great Summer Gardens

Most gardeners have been out in the garden for several weeks already, but any time this month is a great time to start incorporating soil amendments, sowing seeds, and putting in transplants. The soil is dry enough to be worked without compacting it, the air is warm enough to enjoy working outside, and the soil temperature is ideal for germinating all kinds of seeds and getting transplants growing well. In short, it’s garden time!

Our hot, dry summers require some preparation now to keep our gardens lush and bearing lots of veggies and posies -- without constant watering and fertilizing! Mix humus-rich compost into planting soil. Humus is the broken-down mixture of organic "debris" that makes walking in a forest so fresh and earthy-smelling. Like the sponginess it gives to forest paths, mixing it into garden soil will give plants a moist, rich place to thrive. Add up to 30% by volume of compost to soil to fluff it up for good water-absorption and plant root development. Dig large planting holes -- at least twice as wide as the rootball -- to allow sufficient space for roots to grow as the plant matures.

Form Raised Beds
To maintain this excellent growing area, separate growing-only from walking-only areas. Make beds about three feet across, so you can easily reach and work at their centers. Pathways can be 18" or wider -- the narrow ones for walking, and the wider ones for wheelbarrow loads.

Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
This refrain is almost getting boring -- because it works. A three- to six-inch layer of mulch (thinner if the pieces are small like sawdust, and thicker if they're bulky like bark or straw) on top of moist soil works best. Mulch reduces evaporation, keeps the root area cool and moist through hot spells, reduces weed competition, adds humus to the soil and provides nutrients to plant roots as it decomposes. Almost any organic matter can serve as mulch. Pine needles, oak leaf humus, and coffee grounds are great for acid-loving plants. Cocoa bean hulls make the garden smell like chocolate. Grass clippings are plentiful -- but, scatter them in layers no thicker than an inch, or they'll pack down into a smelly mat that's impervious to water. Peat moss is a less-than-ideal choice, since it has no nutrient value and is difficult to remoisten once dry. Keep mulch at least two inches away from trunks and stems to prevent rot where the plants enter the soil.

Fertilization
Fertilize plants with organic, slow-release fertilizers for steady, healthy growth. Most chemical fertilizer nutrients are in forms that are immediately available to plants. This spurs very green, too-rapid growth. Thin cell walls develop, making the plant susceptible to a wide variety of insects and diseases. When this "fast food meal" is used up, the plant starves, making it again susceptible to pests. Rapid growth also increases the plant's need for more irrigation, an obvious no-no in this time of continuing drought.

Watering
Water deeply but infrequently. Soaker hoses buried just under the soil level or several inches below a thick layer of mulch will force water to spread down to the root zones instead of evaporating into the air. Drip systems direct sprays/drips to root zones.

Form double berms like big donuts around trees and large shrubs to corral irrigation water directly down to root zones. Keep the inner berms several inches away from trunks to prevent rot. Make outer berms a foot or two beyond the dripline to accommodate far-reaching roots as the tree matures (some roots reach four times the radius of the canopy beyond the dripline). Fill the "moat" or "donut" in between the berms with water, and allow it to soak down directly to the root zone. An inch or two of mulch permanently in the moat will help conserve that water by reducing evaporation – it will float to the top when filled with water, and keep bare soil covered as it's being absorbed and afterward.


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