In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
November, 2008
Regional Report

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Some plants, such as the hardy nasturtium, are forgiving and will thrive just about anywhere.

Little Choices, Big Problems

We are so lucky to live in California where earthquakes and droughts are our only major natural problems. I have never heard of anybody whose garden was damaged by an earthquake. Imagine living where hurricanes wipe out your greenhouse or where tornadoes sweep through your living room. Flooding occurs here, but usually only in a really wet winter, something we haven't seen for quite a while.

Most of the problems that California gardeners have to contend with can be traced back to two basic things; improper plant selection and soil.

Plant Selection
Improper plant selection is probably the most common problem made by gardeners, and the most frustrating, because we cause it ourselves. Sometimes, when we select a plant at the nursery it's an emotional purchase. "Oh gosh, my granny grew this fuchsia and I want one in my garden too!" Or, it may have been a recommendation from a friend; "I had fabulous luck with this tomato, you should try it!" Perhaps the friend lives in Sacramento and you live in Daly City. That tomato plant will not perform the same way in both climates. This doesn't mean that you can't grow tomatoes in Daly City; you just need to select varieties that produce fruit earlier and will withstand cooler weather such as Early Girl or San Francisco Fog. The deep, sandy soil in Daly City is ideal for growing many kinds of perennials, including artichokes. Try growing those in Sacramento.

I guarantee that you will be disappointed if you only grab eye-appealing plants in the nursery. Take for example the Kangaroo's Paw (Anigozanthos) which requires full sun and fast-draining soil. Take away one, or both, of those requirements and you will be throwing your money away. Most nurseries have some kind of reference book for customers. Before you hand over your credit card, I recommend doing a little basic research on the basic growing requirements -- how much sun, how much water, what kind of soil -- that, if met, will produce stunning results most of the time. Success also depends on the individual gardener and planting techniques.

Soil
Most of the native soils in the west are alkaline, with the exception of Alaska, Oregon and Washington, western states that receive summer rain. Many of the ornamental plants that we like to grow require acidic soil. That's because beautiful flowering plants such as camellia, hydrangea, rhododendron, azalea, and gardenia are native to areas that receive ample annual rainfall. Places that receive summer rain usually have acidic soil. Plants such as arctostaphylos, melaleuca or leucophyllum that grow in arid climates such as Australia, Northern Mexico, and the Mediterranean require a slightly alkaline soil to mimic their natural environment.

Sulfur or Lime?
Sulfur is used to lower the pH in an alkaline soil to make it more acidic. Calcium carbonate (agricultural lime) is used to raise pH in acid soils to make them more alkaline, or neutral. Too much of either element will bind up the availability of essential nutrients. A pH of 7 is considered neutral. A soil test is the only way to tell which elements are missing from a particular location.

Think of the soil in your garden as if it were a bank, where you make regular deposits and withdrawals. Ideally, when you change crops, you amend the soil with organic material to improve the texture and increase the nutrient value. What you add to the soil depends on what you want to grow. You can never go wrong by adding compost to the existing soil, even if you are growing cactus or succulents. Organic compost improves drainage and texture and adds valuable microbes and bacteria that help the roots of plants 'grab and hold' nutrients.

I hope this column isn't too "preachy". I just want to save you a little money and a lot of heartbreak. After all, successful gardening comes down to making the right choices, just like in real life.


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