Carolyn Singer: April gardening: soil and sun!
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.
An evergreen ornamental shrub is often a safe haven for quail. 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 eighteen feet wide, and about ten 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 received western sun following morning shade, 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 in the Sierra foothills. For a single shrub or tree, soil preparation may often focus on a small area. As the young plant grows, attention to the mulch at the base of the plant is a good garden practice. Over the years my leatherleaf viburnum has caught leaves and needles from the oaks and pines nearby, gradually building a vital mulch that amends soil over a larger area, while it preserves moisture through the hot dry summer.
If an edible garden is your goal, the entire area where the crops will grow must continue to be improved each year. 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 organic material (leaves, straw, compost) will hold the moisture in the soil. 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.
With rhubarb, be careful not to cover the crown of the plant with mulch.
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.
It’s time to enjoy the soil and some sun!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her website at carolynsingergardens.com.
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