Coveys of quail cross the open area behind my house, a view I enjoy from the kitchen windows.
If I step on to the porch, they scurry under the ground-hugging branches of a huge shrub nearby for temporary safety.
If I step in their direction, the whirring sound of 30 pairs of wings fills the spring air as they take flight into the manzanita yards away.
It isn’t long before they return. Perhaps it is awareness of my patterns.
I am much more likely to sit quietly on the porch or even head in the direction of the edible garden.
The evergreen ornamental shrub is their safe haven. They can roost there before venturing onto the open ground again.
In April, this handsome leatherleaf viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum) is in full bloom, large umbels of creamy-white flowers glowing long after the sun sets.
Certainly it has been a perfect habitat for the quail I treasure.
This tough plant, which needs no summer irrigation now that it has established, is more than 18 feet wide, and about 10 feet tall.
It grew quickly from a one-gallon container, with no damage from the deer. Heavily veined large leaves are attractive all year.
Leatherleaf viburnum is a perfect example of a non-native still suitable for foothill gardens.
I sited the viburnum where it had some western sun, a challenging exposure for any plant.
Mulched with straw when it was young, irrigation requirements were reduced but not eliminated.
The first three years I irrigated it during the heat of the summer.
While compost and rock powders were added at planting time, I certainly did not improve the soil for the large area the plant now covers.
Rocky clay soil is a frequent challenge. If an edible garden is your goal, the entire area where the crops will grow must continue to be improved.
Cover crops, even in small areas or containers, are the most cost-effective soil amendment.
They do not need to be rototilled into the soil.
A few weeks before planting, cut the cover crop down and cover the area with compost. Let this sheet composting improve the soil.
I have even planted tomatoes into the roots of the cover crop, pulling aside the cut material.
It will later be used as mulch, but mulching the tomatoes while the soil is still cold will slow their early growth.
This is a good time to remind you that it is too early in most foothill locations to plant the most tender edible crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, and even beans.
Frost in early May is not uncommon.
Wind is an April challenge.
Pay attention to the mulch around all your landscape plants and perennial edibles.
A thick layer of decomposing straw will hold the moisture in the soil as the sun and wind not only reduce the moisture in the top few inches of clay loan, but also dehydrate the leaves.
Mulching is too often a neglected garden practice, one that is important for healthier plants.
If you do not like the appearance of straw, cover it with compost.
The combination of straw and compost will improve the soil surface, hold the moisture rains and irrigation provide, and attract earthworms.
The straw I use has been in bales all winter, and is already a darker color as it decomposes.
The best straw is the material I have had waiting for me for a couple of years.
There’s never enough of that!
Gardening in the foothills has its challenges, but good garden practices pay off.
Clay soil that is difficult to dig is also rich in minerals and holds water.
Compost and rock powders (rock phosphate and oyster shell) magically change foothill clay into fertile garden soil.
The right plant choices for each exposure will result in a rewarding landscape.
Next Saturday, I will be at The Union’s Home & Garden Show on Saturday to present ideas and answer questions.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, now available locally. For more information, visit www.carolynsingergardens.com.