Carolyn Singer: Dig in, but keep it simple |

Carolyn Singer: Dig in, but keep it simple

Sunflowers attract pollinators.
Submitted photo by Carolyn Singer |

One late winter day, long before weeding became the focus of my gardening every day, I was chatting with a fellow gardener. We agreed that there is always something to learn. In that moment of reflection I realized that my eagerness to learn had kept me gardening, reading, and sharing with other gardeners for many years.

Oh yes, and weeding. I’ve been doing that since 1950, helping my parents with their rural garden in Sonoma County. But that is a subject for another column.

A few years ago I was asked to teach a class titled (simply) “Organic gardening 101.” Preparing for class, I had no problem outlining the subjects I would like to have been taught 50 years ago when I began my first large organic edible garden near Denver, Colorado.

Soil topped the list of subjects. Many beginning gardeners are discouraged when they face our native clay soil. But this soil is rich in nutrients. With the addition of compost, two parts native clay and one part compost, this soil that is hard and uninviting soon after spring rains stop, becomes a near- perfect growing medium. And each year gets better.

Gardening has its challenges, but the lessons and rewards are immeasurable.

It won’t be long before earthworms actively help you with cultivation and enrichment.

Our foothill soils are deficient in phosphorus, an essential nutrient for root growth and flowering. Adding a natural form (colloidal or soft rock) is best done when soil is prepared, incorporating it to the depth that the roots of the particular plant will reach. Twenty pounds per hundred square feet of surface is an effective application rate. It is not water soluble, but I add more each year.

Soil pH is a factor in the availability of nutrients. Typically foothill soils are acidic, requiring the addition of oyster shell to raise the pH. Five pounds per hundred square feet is a good annual application for the vegetable garden.

Use caution with the addition of nitrogen, an essential nutrient for leafy growth. Animal manure must be aged or it will burn crops. If you are ordering compost from a local vendor, the addition of air as the material is moved by the loader and dump truck may heat up the contents. Wet the pile and check its heat in a couple of days.

In the edible garden, focus on the crops you are most likely to eat. Learn the best planting time for each. Do not overplant. Some edibles, like lettuce, kale, green onions, carrots, and beets may be planted more than once in a growing season.

An informative guide that will assist you with your choices, and with soil preparation, is available through the Nevada County Master Gardener program. “Western Nevada County Gardening Guide” is available in local nurseries, bookstores, and at the UC Extension office in the Veterans’ Building on South Auburn Street in Grass Valley. The guide has a wealth of local information for beginning and experienced gardeners.

Invite pollinators to ensure a good harvest from your fruiting crops (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, squash, cucumbers, tomatillos). Members of the Asteraceae (Compositae) family, like daisies, are excellent attractors.

My garden includes sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos. I must confess that these are also among my favorite cut flowers for summer bouquets, so I plant enough for the bees and for me. Because the deer like them too, these summer-blooming annuals are safely inside the fenced edible garden.

Expect the unexpected. In my garden, this year, a hail storm shredded the leaves of the beans and squash, and the volunteer nasturtiums. Tomato and pepper leaves had some damage. Fortunately I had covered most of the greens with shadecloth, so they were protected from this sudden storm. The damaged plants are recovering. When I gardened in Colorado, the storms coming over the Rockies stripped my pepper and tomato plants until nothing but a stalk remained. They recovered too.

Gardening has its challenges, but the lessons and rewards are immeasurable.

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. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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