Category Archives: soil

What’s in your Soil?

“The soil is made of butterfly wings, dinosaur teeth, pumpkin seeds, lizard skins, and fallen leaves.
  Put your hands in the soil and touch yesterday, and all that will be left of tomorrow shall return
  so that new life can celebrate this day.”  -Betty Peck

Soil makes all the difference to the plants you grow. The biggest issue we gardeners face is the ongoing battle with soil. If yours is difficult to manage or just plain unproductive you’ll be disappointed like me with the performance of many of the plants you put in the ground. Even tough plants like California natives have soil preferences and they are not always what’s in your garden.

phormium_acorus_lomandraLow water-use plant responding to fertile soil

We live on ancient sea cliffs.  Soils in Bonny Doon and Scotts Valley consist of shallow, excessively drained weathered sandstone and shale. Felton soils were formed from shale, sandstone or mica schist. Those in Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek had their beginnings from weathered sandstone or granite. Although these provide the necessary mineral component of our soil. organic matter or humus from decayed plant and animal material are necessary also for fertility.

Here’s why improving your soil will make a difference to the health of your plants.

Good soil-with both organic matter and minerals-helps plants grow by forming the food supply for soil bacteria that help make food available for plant growth. Most of a plants energy goes to producing substances that drip out through the roots to attract bacteria and fungi. These in turn attract good nematodes and protozoa to the root zone. The protozoa eat bacteria and the nematodes eat not only the bacteria but also fungi and other nematodes to get carbon. What they don’t need they expel and this feeds the roots much like earthworm castings.

Down in the soil, if a plant needs different foods it can change what is secretes. Different substances will attract different bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. This huge diversity of soil biota helps the good guys keep the bad guys in check.

A common way to destroy the microbiology of the soil is to add salts in the

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACollection of perennials one year after planting in amended soil.

form or non-organic fertilizers. The salts kill the bacteria and fungi by dehydrating them. Then the plant can’t feed itself and becomes dependent on its fertilizer fix. Without the good bacteria and fungi in the soil other parts of the food chain start dying off as well.

The soil food web is also responsible for soil structure. Bacteria create slime that glue soil particles together. Fungi weave threads to create larger soil particles. Worms and insects distribute bacteria and fungal spores throughout the soil and create pathways for air and water.

What can you do to bring your soil back to life?
• Mulch around perennials, shrubs and trees with 2-3” of compost, wood chips or other organic mulch.
• Apply mycorrhizal fungi, especially in a new garden that’s been rototilled or chemically fertilized. You can find this in most organic fertilizers and some organic potting soils.
• Try to avoid walking on the root zone of plants. This kills fungi in the soil. Install stepping stones to preserve soil structure.

Feed your soil- not your plants.

Growing Wine Grapes

Napa_Valley_vineyard.2048Prune orchards once reigned supreme in the Napa Valley. Pears, walnuts and fodder for grazing sheep were also grown where now 45,000 acres of premium wine grapes flourish. The crush is on in Napa County.  Mostly cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot are being harvested at night but back in 1928 the prune crop was worth twice as much as wine grapes.

We all have an insect or two that we have to deal with in our gardens.  I found out on a recent excursion to Napa Valley that all those acres of grape vines could possibly be lost if the European grape moth has its way. Believed to have been imported in vegetables from Europe it was first detected in Napa County in 2009. Back in 2011 Santa Cruz County was dealing with the same pest. With quarantine efforts and eradication of fruits and flowers near the area where they were first detected our county hasn't had much of a problem with them since.

Integrated pest management is the ecologically sound approach to pest control. In Napa County, I learned that the European grape moth is being well controlled in recent years by organic sprays such as spinosad and BT. Another very effective control method used is mating disruption with pheromones.

These techniques might not be as picturesque as planting roses around a grape orchard as an early cabernet_sauvignon_grapes.2048warning system for fungal diseases but they have worked for the grape moth. Roses are traditionally planted at the perimeter of vineyards as both they and grape vines are prone to powdery mildew and Downy mildew in our Mediterranean type climate. If powdery mildew appears on the roses, the vineyard can be sprayed with sulfur. Although sulfur does not cure powdery mildew, it will prevent it.

Downy mildew is another deadly mildew that attacks the green parts of the grape vine. Once Downy mildew is detected on the rose bushes, the grape vines can be immediately sprayed with a solution of copper sulphate and lime.

Many of the vineyards also plant lavender and rosemary to repel many harmful insects, provide habitat for beneficial insects preying on undesirable insects and add a pleasant flavor to the wine.

cabernet_grapes_ready_for_crush.2048Sitting outside on a tasting room patio planted with beautiful flowering shrubs and perennials it's hard to imagine the delicious wine in your glass doesn't come effortlessly on the part of the winery. Like our area that grows pinot noir grapes exceptionally well, the terroir of the Napa valley is expressed in the flavor of its wine. The qualities of the soil, geography and climate all contribute.

A vast array of soils of volcanic and marine origin coexist in Napa Valley. Half of the world's soil orders occur here with more than 100 soil variations all affecting the character of the grapes. Soils guide the grape grower as to which rootstock and grape varieties to plant.  Valley floor soils tend to be deeper and more fertile and produce vigorous growth so the crop must be tightly managed to produce concentrated grapes. On the hillsides the vine has to struggle to survive the spare, rocky soils and naturally sets a smaller crop, producing smaller grapes of highly concentrated color and flavors.

Walking among the vines, I noted drip irrigation in use. I found out that traditionally Old World wine regions consider natural rainfall the only source of water that will still allow the vineyard to maintain its terroir characteristics. Spain has recently loosened the regulations of the European Union Wine Laws and France has been reviewing the issue.

Grapes depend on a certain amount of water mainly in the spring and summer and so here in California as well as other summer dry regions of the world like Australia, the vines are irrigated starting in May or June. It's a fine line to determine how much and how often to irrigate to preserve the flavor of the grape and not just grow lush plants with high yields.

In our own gardens we can train a plant to put down deep roots decreasing the amount of watering it needs. So it is in grape growing where the vine receives sufficient water during budding and flowering but irrigation is then scaled back during the ripening period so that the vine funnels more of its limited resources into developing grape clusters.

I enjoyed the gardens of the Napa Valley as much as the wine tasting. White Japanese anemone, pink sasanqua camellia and oakleaf hydrangea are all blooming. The dogwood trees are budded for next year's show and the Japanese maples are starting to color.

It's interesting to know that one grape vine produces about 4-6 bottles of wine per year and in 1968 the nation's first Agriculture Preserve was established to protect open space and prevent future over development.

 

Camp Joy, Boulder Creek

Camp_Joy_sign2If you've ever eaten a Camp Joy cherry tomato you'll know why I was excited to be given a tour of the new seedlings in the greenhouse by Jim Nelson, the creator of this beautiful, organic family farm. Since 1971 this non-profit farm has been providing educational, creative programs for kids and adults. It is an example of and encourages others who wish to begin their own sustainable farm.

It was a warm, spring day when I visited and Jim was gently watering the herb, vegetable and flower seedlings by hand using water from a large can that had warmed to room temperature and given off any chlorine that was present. Camp Joy has a spring plant sale coming up April 27th and 28th and another on Mother's Day weekend and Jim was pleased with the progress of the seedlings. They grow proven varieties that do well in our area. Group paintings done by charter school children decorated the wall of the greenhouse.

Outside we were accompanied by Jim's two dogs, Ruby and Rownya, as we admired the garlic crop that will rotated90.kids_painting_in_greenhousebe braided after harvest and offered for sale in the fall along with dried flower wreaths and onion braids.

The farm offers a Camp Joy Cooperative weekly for 3-5 yr olds encouraging them to explore their surroundings through all their senses. Garden tours for school age children or a group of any age are also offered. Everyone at the farm is happy to share what they've learned about growing and preparing food, saving seed, bees and other insects, goats and garden crafts. And there is always something to be picked, harvested, weeded or just enjoyed while having lunch in the gazebo.

Walking along a path bordered by phlox, aster, oregano, iris and nigella we admired a blooming Buff Beauty rose covering an arbor. Jim planted this as well as his favorite Madame Alfred Carrier 42 years ago when he first came to the property. His friend at UCSC, Alan Chadwick introduced him to it. The soft fragrance blended with the blooming lilacs and wisteria.

To maintain fertile soil, a cover crop of fava beans was just starting to bloom in a several areas. Ladybugs were plentiful on the flowers. The beans will be cut down, Jim explained, in about a month. Members of the farm will eat some of the beans while young and sweet and let some mature so they can save the seed. The goats also enjoy fava beans at the flowering stage. There is a fund-raising art program, called Kids for Kids, offered in May, the proceeds going to help improve the goat barn and yard.

lilac_wisteria-arborNext we visited the Kid's Garden. Art, cooking and gardening projects are ongoing in this area. Wholesome, healthy food and beautiful flowers are all part of the farm. The plot of godetia was setting bud and will be offered as cut flowers during the upcoming sales.

Everything is grown with care at Camp Joy. Jim explained that compost is regularly added back to the soil and used to start seedlings in a special blend of "real soil" allowing them to transplant and continue to do well in the garden. He sometimes used kelp and fish emulsion as fertilizer but mostly it's the compost that makes the seedlings so strong.

Camp Joy offers lots of classes for kids and adults alike. Family members and interns are passionate about the farm and enjoy sharing. On this beautiful day, we were greeted with a smile by the person spreading compost.  It was clear that there is a respect for the cycles of the earth and the changing seasons at the farm.

Take advantage of the Spring Plant Sale at Camp Joy. Bring the family and walk through the garden. Visit their website for more information about their events and classes.  http://www.campjoygardens.org 

 

Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon

Enter the Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon with me as I preview several gardens that will be featured on the tour this coming weekend.  While some of our gardens have a few areas with a "wow factor" , the gardens I was privileged to visit have this element at every turn. I was amazed, impressed and truly honored to spend time in each of them.

First stop was a garden that took my breath away. Looking past the lush lawn, the view takes in all of Monterey Bay. It wasn't always this way, the owner explained. When she moved to the property in 1981, she didn't even know there was an ocean view. It was only after some judicious pruning that this stunning view was revealed.

We  ambled through the many paths that took us up close and personal with perennial beds overflowing with blooming iris, spirea, weigela, succulents, hardy geraniums, coprosma and coleonema to name just a few.

Rabbits are an ongoing problem in this garden. Seems they love her Angelina sedum, coprosma, and Rose Campion as much as she does. Little 12" tall fences surround several of the beds which looks comical but apparently works as the rabbits don't like to jump over them.

Stained urbanite has been stacked by the owner to make short retaining walls and the look is quite classy blending in the flagstone and gravel paths. She explained how easy it was to stain the broken concrete from the old driveway by slapping on some concrete stain. "Piece of cake", she told me.

Other flower beds she edged with Sonoma fieldstone, stacking them herself. At every turn you can see the personal touches that make a garden unique. An old rusty mailbox was tucked into one of the beds overflowing with blooming pansies and million bells calibrachoa.  I loved this garden.

Next stop was another garden 30 years in the making. You won't believe the "before" pictures when you see this garden now. I could barely see the potential in the old pictures but the owner could and started to build up the rock hard soil bed by bed. After many years she has created  an organic garden full of flowering rhododendron, roses, viburnum, herbs, vegetables, citrus, apples and a 5 year old  Staghorn fern that measures 4 ft across.

The owner explained that deer are not a problem because they won't jump the irregular picket fence. Seems the wide pickets confuse their eyesight. Unfortunately, the gophers have decided recently that after 14 years, her camellias are now on the menu and she has lost almost all of the original 40 in the past year. Instead of lamenting her loss, she sees it as an opportunity to add new plants. She has the optimism that all gardeners possess.

Chickadees nested in a box attached to the porch. Garter snakes and alligator lizards patrol the flower beds. A bathtub, sunk into the earth serves as "the poor man's hot tub". Old metal chairs are planted with flowers and ferns and other found garden art is sprinkled generously though out the garden. This is the garden of an artist whose studio is nestled back among the trees. At every turn you feel the peacefulness of this wonderful place. This is a garden to experience not just view.

The last garden I was lucky enough to preview, was an asphalt driveway just 6 short years ago. There are occasional unplanted spots that still show asphalt. What a transformation. With the help of lots of top soil and an auger this gardener has created a spectacular space.  "Everything grows like crazy here", she explained.

The front garden is open to deer and is planted with echium, leucospermum, arctotis, barberry, thyme, rosemary and New Zealand flax. One of her favorite plants is a huge variegated holly that buzzed so loudly with bees I thought the electrical line coming into the house was making all the racket.

In the back, a small orchard edged the fence. Blooming lilacs by the deck heavily scented the air. Succulents intermingle with peony, erysimum and gaura. This gardener explained she " she is one of those people who buys whatever she likes and then finds a place for it". Having had previous experience growing grapes and olives in Sonoma, she is a hands-on gardener who does it all herself. She's a self-described  "drip queen".

A ceramic artist, her sculptures are focal points though out the garden. There is a lot of other garden art in this garden, too.

Where do these gardeners find the garden art, water features and other items that give their gardens that personal touch? One explained, she is always on the lookout for estate sales as she drives around or sees advertised in the paper. "That's were you can really find the treasures", she explained. "Little old ladies have some great plants and other wonderful finds in the back of the garden".

The Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon Tour takes place Saturday and Sunday, May 19th and 20th. Don't miss it.
 

Zones for the Santa Cruz Mountains

Gardening is a tricky thing up here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Recently I got an inquiry from a new resident to the area. She moved up here last year from the west side of Santa Cruz. Not that far away on the map. A world of difference in soils and climate. She lamented, "I Can't believe the difference in the soil here. I lived a mile from the beach and now that I'm miles away, I have the sandiest soil ever."  Welcome to our wonderful world.

Our soils were formed from marine deposits and from molten rock emerging from the earth's crust. Areas underlayed with shale creep and slide during wet weather. Serpentine and granite soils crisscross the mountains.
What's a gardener to do?

It helps to know which zone you garden in. So here's a review. Sunset Western Gardening Guide is confusing as our area has many microclimates and their map is not detailed enough to reflect this. They even show Felton as being on a ridge top instead of on the valley floor. Hopefully, the new Sunset book out this month will be more accurate. Here are some tips to help you determine which zone you live in.

Zone 7  has the coldest winters in our area.  Very high ridge tops like the Summit area and the most northern portions of Bonny Doon lie in this zone.  My records show average winter lows ranging from 15-25 degrees based on 20 years of input from gardeners in these areas.  This does not apply to other areas of zone 7, just those around here.   Record lows have occurred during freezes in 1990, 1996 and 2007 but as gardeners we rely on average highs and lows to help guide our planting times.  Spring weather comes later in this zone with the growing season mainly from April – October.

Zone 15 – this zone encompasses most of our area.  Winter lows average 20-30 degrees. The valley floor of both San Lorenzo and Scotts Valley lie in this zone and are what I call "a cold 15".  Cold air sinks and is trapped in these areas. Often there is damage to the tips of oleanders and citrus while gardenias and tropical hibiscus need extra protection.There are warmer parts of this zone, though, where the growing season starts in March and ends in November.  These areas rarely get a freeze after March 15th or before Thanksgiving.

Zone 16 – those who live up off the valley floor but below ridge tops live in this "banana belt". Pasatiempo also falls in this thermal zone.  Light frost can occur during the winter but mostly the winter lows in this zone stay above freezing. Lucky you.

Beside the zone you also need to note how much sun or shade you get during the growing season- April through September. Most plants can survive without sun during the winter as they are either dormant or semi-dormant. It's those areas that get a blast of sun from about 11 am to 4 pm in the summer that you need to plan more carefully for.  

There may also be microclimates on your property. Areas in your garden that are several degrees warmer than other spots. Maybe a brick wall or the top of a slope from where cold air drains generates a few extra degrees.  Planting a citrus at the top of a slope that drains away the cold will make your tree much happier than if planted in a low open area.

If you have questions about which zone you are in, email me and I'd be happy to help.
 

Happy New Year 2012

Another year has passed in the garden and this is what I've learned.

  • Have a plan for how you want to use your garden. This is as important as selecting the right plants for each garden room. Allowing some empty places for new plants, transplants or garden art, makes your garden your own. Add whatever  makes you happy and your heart to soar when you're in your garden.
  • Pay attention to the size that a plant will attain. This will save lots of headaches later.
  • Pruning is free therapy. What better way is there to feel good than to improve the life of a plant?
  • Your garden journal chronicles your life as well as what happens in the garden. Making frequent entries, no matter how short, will make you smile when you read it again at the end of the year. Journal your successes and failures, making notes of plants that performed well and ideas to try next year.
  • Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will be there tomorrow.
  • Weed regularly. The 20 minutes you spend every week or so pulling or hoeing will save hours of back bending work later.
  • You, fellow gardeners, are unique. I can't imagine any group of people more diverse and feisty and independent than gardeners. Yet we have such a connection. We love and are fascinated with nature. We find our deepest satisfaction in coaxing plants from the earth, in nurturing their growth. We are enduring pragmatists.
  • Edible gardening offers more than just vegetables and fruit trees that feed the body. They are better than a whole medicine cabinet of pills.
  • Accept a few holes in a plant: Unless it is being devoured, share a little with other creatures.

Happy New Year 2012 from The Mountain Gardener