Monday, April 17, 2017

Tips for Golden Age Gardening

   As we age, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weaker...when it comes to gardening. The good news is: we have the experience and wisdom to garden smarter as we get older.

     Our enjoyment of growing fruit, flowers and vegetables seems to increase as the years fly by. Maybe it's because we've come to better appreciate how nature works. Maybe it's because we enjoy doing things closer to home. Or, maybe it's because plants don't talk back. 

     Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: we don't bend down into a flower bed, lift bags of fertilizer and pull weeds as easily as we used to. As a result, we know that a few hours working briskly in the yard may result in an evening of moving slower.
   
    Still, there's no reason why you can't enjoy the good exercise of gardening (burning up to 7 calories a minute!). Just get rid of those tasks that are monotonous or excruciatingly difficult. Here are some tips for implementing an easy-care garden for the Golden Years, advice that can be summed up in four words: automate, elevate, eliminate, delegate.

Automate. Provide your garden with an automatic watering system. The efficiency of an automated sprinkler or drip irrigation system protects your plants from the summertime heat when you're away from home. And, a good drip system reduces water usage, unwanted weed growth and plant diseases. Replace your old irrigation control system with a model that can control more valves with more flexibility. For example, the Hunter line of irrigation control systems automatically adjust water run times based on the season and the weather. And it will automatically turn off your sprinklers if it senses rain. 

Consider installing battery operated water timers at distant faucets to control the watering of garden beds. The better ones not only turn the water on and off, but offer extended run times (perfect for drip irrigation) as well as multiple cycles per day (perfect for watering container plants on hot summer days).

Install low-voltage night lighting, equipped with sensors, to automatically come on at sunset throughout the yard.



Elevate. Build raised planters for your flowering plants and vegetables. Not only do raised beds reduce the amount of stooping and kneeling that are a necessary part of gardening, raised beds provide better drainage for plants that don't like "wet feet". Built of wood, concrete or brick, a raised bed, 18-24 inches high, gives you a place to sit while weeding, pruning or harvesting. Make the raised beds any length you desire; but keep the width less than four feet across for ease of reaching into the middle of the bed. And lining the bottom of these beds with quarter-inch mesh hardware cloth will keep gophers from sampling the fruits of your labor.

Eliminate. Life is too short to put up with a problem plant. Why waste time fretting over a habitually under-performing perennial, shrub or tree? Why tolerate tree litter or plant roots that are upheaving concrete? If it is growing awkwardly or is consistently pest infested despite your best efforts, get rid of it. Purchase another plant that will do better.


Although the attempt to totally eradicate weeds is an exercise in futility, adding three or four inches of mulch, such as a walk-on bark, can dramatically reduce the amount of time you spend pulling weeds.

If you really want to cut down on a monotonous garden chore, save money and time...get rid of the lawn! Mowing, edging, weeding a lawn can average an hour a week. Replace that ongoing chore with a garden area that is beautiful, uses much less water (with the right plants), and eliminates most weeding (thanks to several inches of mulch).

The area you see above was 1200 square feet of a bermudagrass lawn in nearly full sun. It was an area that was a lot of work to maintain and keep irrigated, and offered none of the benefits of a real garden. 


We replaced that lawn with what you see here: a fountain (that attracts birds and beneficial insects), dwarf fruit trees (such as the Garden Gold peach) and blueberries in containers, as well as native plants such as California buckwheat that attracts beneficials and pollinators. The best part? That area now uses 88% less water than the former lawn. And although it may sound heretical coming from me, there's nothing wrong with ripping out an underperforming turf area and replacing it with...an artificial turf putting green (top picture).

• Delegate. Somewhere in your neighborhood, there is the teenager looking to pick up some spending money doing yard chores (I know, that's like searching for the Holy Grail!); but there may also be the guy or gal who has that tractor, front loader, chipper-shredder, backhoe or whatever that could accomplish in a fraction of the time what you are attempting to do with a shovel, small mower or saw. Ask your neighbors for recommendations for professional landscapers and arborists. Check your home owner's insurance for coverage...and then seek them out. Parceling out yard work to others is tough for gardeners; but grit your teeth, open your wallet...and save your back.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

How Can I Improve My (Expletive Deleted) Clay Soil?

From the garden e-mail bag, Gordon of Lodi writes: "I've about had it with clay/hard pan soil. The soil map for Lodi/Stockton says we are supposed to have sandy loam.  Give me a break!  I bought a 30 lb. bag of gypsum pellets and I'm willing to dig it in everywhere. But, how much do I use? I found an article online. It says to add 20-30 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft. of garden area. I'm not going to work up 1000 sq. ft.!  How about a cup full in 10-20 sq. ft. every three years?"

Gordon, how about getting a soil test done first? California's Central Valley is made up of many different soil types, so yours may not be representative of what you researched. 

Gypsum is effective on soils high in salts; it does nothing to improve the permeability of our clay soils, most of which do not have a salt issue. Still, only a soil test can determine that. By the way, gypsum is very slow to work. It needs to be added (for that salinity problem) on a regular annual basis, not once every three years.

Usually, the reasons for the expletives used against clay soil include symptoms such as slow draining soil, difficult to dig soil, or hardpan layers.


This time of year, especially after a rainy winter, compaction of clay soil is not uncommon (quit walking on wet clay soil!).
  


Don't want to be a scientist? Then, build a raised bed and plant in that, using a high quality commercial soil mix. To improve water penetration, be sure to mix in some of the new soil into the existing soil base at the bottom of the raised bed.
Raised Beds, Fair Oaks Horticulture Center

If you want to improve the soil drainage and permeability of your existing clay soil, add quality compost, top the soil with several inches of mulch, and grow a cover crop. 

The Yolo County Master Gardeners put together an easy-to-understand chart of soil symptoms and possible solutions. More info is available in their online publication, "Using Soil Amendments in Yolo County Gardens."


A word of warning about one of those suggestions: adding sand, perlite or vermiculite to your soil may be counterproductive. According to retired college horticulture professor Debbie Flower, "I would not add those to my field soil: Too little sand added to clay = cement. Perlite is ugly (and it tends to rise to the surface). Vermiculite just compresses when soil is worked or walked on."

Elsewhere in that publication, they explode some of the myths about certain soil amendments: 

Myth #1. Gypsum softens clay or loosens compacted soil. 
Gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate) is effective in counteracting the effects of sodium, which in excess (in soil or in irrigation water) causes soil aggregates to disperse, sealing the soil surface and reducing water infiltration. The calcium in the gypsum replaces the sodium, making for more stable soil aggregates, which do not disperse and form a seal so readily. This process is the basis for the misleading claim that gypsum “loosens” the soil. Gypsum does not reduce or prevent soil compaction, dissolve hardpan, soften clay soils, or convert clay to loam. 

Myth #2. Gypsum lowers the pH of alkaline soils. 
In very high pH soils (pH > 8.5, characteristic of high- sodium soils), gypsum will lower the pH, but only slightly. At lower, though still alkaline, soil pH values, gypsum has little or no effect on pH. Chemically, calcium sulfate is a “neutral salt”, i.e., when it dissolves in water, it does not change the pH of the solution. If the objective is to lower soil pH, elemental sulfur, iron sulfate, or aluminum sulfate should be used.

Myth #3. Inoculating soil with microbes or microbial preparations, will improve “dead” or infertile soil. 
A wide variety of “microbial” products that contain (or claim to contain) microorganisms are commercially available for farm and garden use. A review of the claims made for such products is beyond the scope of this bulletin. Keep in mind that most soils, including soils that have been fertilized only with synthetic fertilizers, or have suffered years of abuse (compaction, erosion, loss of organic matter) still contain a great diversity of microbial species. To establish or re-establish a healthy soil food web, all that is needed is to apply a variety of organic amendments and ensure that pH and nutrient levels are adequate for plant growth.

More information about: 
The benefits of adding compost to the soil.
The benefits of topping garden soil with mulch.
The benefits of cover cropping.