A recent dinner gathering of gardening friends was an opportunity to share what worked in 2013 and commiserate about what did not. Ground squirrels and voles topped the list of challenges, but we were all quick to laugh and move on to plans for next season. Gardeners are optimists.
You do not need to grow edibles to commit to healthy practices and sustainable agriculture. If you eat, you are engaging in food production at some level. For those who are not growing edibles, support of local gardeners and farmers is invaluable.
More than three decades ago, when I joined growers and nongrowers in our community to organize the first Nevada County Certified Growers’ Market, the shared enthusiasm brought the idea into fruition. Now we can shop at several farmers’ markets in our area; local agriculture has blossomed with new young energy.
If we could define the commitment to gardening in its simplest terms, soil and water would certainly define the essence. Good organic practices protect and build soil. Cover crops, organic amendments and the varied approaches to composting all contribute to the process. Each year builds on the previous years.
I have often written about mulching. This critical practice is frequently overlooked in both edible and ornamental gardens. Mulch may be applied at any time of the year. In winter it may conserve enough moisture in the soil to mitigate the effects of low rainfall. In periods of heavy rainfall, straw mulch prevents compaction.
If you do not have decomposed straw, resolve this year to have a plentiful supply in the future. After five years of stockpiling 12 bales every fall, I finally have an adequate supply. Bales that have been decomposing for two to three years are the best.
New bales may be left tied. If no rain is in sight, soak the bale. The goal is to sprout all the seeds so that when the material is spread you will not be adding to your weeding chores. The green sprouts also add to the composting process.
Resolve to utilize water as efficiently as possible for both edibles and ornamentals. A soil with a high organic content will hold moisture effectively for plant usage. Mulch slows evapotranspiration, the effects of sun and wind. Plants will be stronger, healthier and less demanding of irrigation.
In the herb garden, most perennial herbs may be grown with minimal irrigation. Close to the kitchen, I have rosemary, sage, thyme and lavender growing. In summer, I water three times.
A bay tree, which receives no irrigation, grows in the shade of firs and cedars. Growing there for 35 years, it had reached well over 40 feet when I recently had it topped to encourage wider branching so I could reach the coveted leaves.
It’s still impressive at 20 feet, and a recent Greek visitor was happy to go out with a flashlight after dinner to harvest.
Each year I try new seeds, as do many gardeners. This past season, a climbing summer squash from Renee’s Seeds was a delightful discovery. “Trombetta di Albenga” will be back on my fence again! I will also be creating small seed beds near edibles that self-sow: arugula, leeks, broccoli raab and dill.
Seed catalogs come at the perfect time. Winter has arrived. Last year’s challenges have almost faded from memory. Anything is possible as we plan the new season.
Carolyn Singer 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, visit www.carolynsingergardens.com.