Dry years and rich years | TheUnion.com

Dry years and rich years

Carolyn Singer
Special to The Union

"I have spoken of the rich years when the rainfall was plentiful. But there were dry years too, and they put a terror on the valley. And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way." John Steinbeck, "East of Eden", 1952.

The year Steinbeck wrote those words as he began this story of the Salinas Valley, my family was settling into a rural landscape in Sonoma County, south of Sebastopol. The well was marginal. Water was precious. A very good consciousness developed as I began lifelong lessons about gardening.

While summer temperatures in Sebastopol were usually moderated by morning fog, a vegetable garden required water. Soils were very sandy on their 3-acre parcel. Easy to dig but quick to dry out.

Twenty-five years later, I arrived in Grass Valley during a severe drought. Like my parents in the 1950s, I had visions of a large edible garden for my rural property near Peardale. Water conservation was already second nature, part of my upbringing.

My parents used compost to hold moisture and enrich fertility in the fast-draining sandy soils on their land. The clay soil here in Nevada County is entirely different in structure. Compost is essential to build soil fertility and improve root development.

Sometimes when I am challenged by digging in clay soil, I find myself daydreaming about the ease of cultivation in my parents' sandy loam. But then when summer heat hits, I am grateful for the water-holding capability of the clay. A little moisture goes a long way, especially under mulch.

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Now that I have had 36 winters on my Nevada County land, Steinbeck's words truly resonate. When I examine the most effective gardening practices, composting and adding compost to the native soil are still at the top of the list. This is what I did when I first arrived, and it is what I am still doing today.

The lessons that have been more challenging were learned as I tried various plants. How much water did they really need? How much soil improvement to maximize root development? What mulch was most effective for each plant? What plants were deep-rooted and which were shallow-rooted?

With landscape plants varying considerably in their water requirements, and the land itself changing from one area to another on the same property, I had a lot to learn. Where trees were already established, there was the additional challenge of root competition for moisture and nutrients.

Not all plants are compatible growing in proximity to one another even when their needs are similar.

Dry winter years remind us to be vigilant in all our decisions about land use. In the home landscape, selecting those plants requiring the least amount of irrigation may still provide you with a pleasing outdoor space.

In my own garden, I have perennials and bulbs that have survived and thrived with only natural rainfall to date. I am always testing plants. It will be interesting (to me, at least) if the current weather patterns will affect this year's performance. Natives and non-natives are being tested.

My first winter here (1978) marked the return of the "rich years," with rain and snow. Subsequent years brought normal, close to normal, and occasionally above normal rainfall. I could test the most water-efficient plants with no summer irrigation, but the drought pattern we have been experiencing is a true test. How little water can each plant receive in winter and still do well?

In the early '80s I took my Sierra College orchard management class to the Talley orchard near Foresthill. My students found it difficult to believe that the apples thriving there in deep clay loam received no irrigation. When one student asked the orchardist if he had not at least supplied water when the trees were young, Sam Talley replied emphatically: "No. I didn't want to teach them any bad habits!"

Carolyn Singer will be teaching a class on growing raspberries at Peaceful Valley (272-4769 X 106) Feb. 15. Carolyn has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom", and two volumes of "Deer in My Garden" (deer-resistant plants), available locally. For more information and class details, visit http://www.carolynsingergardens.com.

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