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New Year’s Resolutions for the Garden

At the end of each year I reflect on my gardening successes and disappointments and make a list of things to do differently next year. These comments reflect experiences from my second year of gardening in the Mother Lode.

Match Plant Preferences with Climate and Soil. In 2006 I discovered many native and Mediterranean plants that survived with little summer rain and temperatures over 100 degrees. But most of those plants required good drainage or their roots became water logged and rotted in the rainy season because of our heavy clay soils. My usual remedy for this situation is to add organic matter (manure, compost, leaves, sawdust, mulch, pine needles, etc) to enrich the soil and improve its texture. Imagine my surprise when discovering that many natives and Mediterranean plants prefer nutrient poor, unamended soils. How to get perfect drainage without “organics?” Sand mixed with clay produces bricks: gypsum, peat and other commercial products are expensive for larger areas. My current plan is to add limestone gravel to loosen the clay for a lavender bed while also providing a more alkaline pH which many Mediterranean plants prefer.

But there are some parts of my property where I´m determined to transform clay into fertile loam. I am spreading several inches of manure over the entire bed and waiting until next fall to plant. That should give time for earthworms to wiggle through and aerate the soil. For those areas, I look forward to selecting plants that prefer richer soil conditions.

I also learned that when planting trees, the soil should not be amended since the tree roots will never venture into the surrounding native soil. Loosening the soil and roughing the sides of the hole is all that is required. This means I should plant trees in the kind of soil and drainage conditions they prefer instead of putting them into situations that are doomed from the beginning.

Another discovery: different kinds of plants prefer different kinds of mulch. My adamant preference has always been organic matter because it adds nutrient to the soil. But some plants, especially natives and Mediterraneans, do better with stone rather than organic mulch, to reduce the possibility of crown rot. On my new lavender patch, I will use crushed rock or fine gravel for mulch.

Plant in the Rainy Season. Last summer´s temperatures over 100 degrees convinced me to do as little planting as possible in the spring. Nurturing new plants through the scorching heat required daily watering for several months. I also found it difficult to judge when native plants were getting too much water or not enough. When they turned brown were they going dormant or dying? Planting them in the fall will be easier both for them, as they put forth new root growth, and for me.

Constant Vigilance. Last year´s deer experiences convinced me that their nibbling wasn´t as destructive as their stripping and snapping in half the trunks of young saplings. They also pulled many newly planted perennials out of the ground to die. Fortunately I found long-lasting commercial products and home remedies to use if our additional fencing does not deter them next fall when they are likely to do most damage.

But just as bad as the deer were the gophers who tunneled into my garden to sample tasty roots. Fortunately I discovered their mounds before they reached their destination and I mounted an aggressive response. Although they seemed to have gone elsewhere, I know they are likely to return and only due diligence will keep them from doing serious damage since most of my plants are not in wire cages.

Take Pictures. Fortunately I took pictures at the beginning of Year One and find it helpful to review them when discouraged by my perceived lack of progress. It also helps document: what is doing well and what is not, pleasing combinations, and things that should be changed. Pictures are particularly helpful to highlight where a focal point or more structure is needed and to assess the overall shape and composition of the garden.

Fortunately, in addition to the advice of Master Gardeners, I have found helpful books. Some of my favorites are the newly published Master Gardener book, “Sharing the Knowledge” which can be purchased at the Cooperative Extension Office at 52 North Washington Street in Sonora, “California Native Plants for the Garden” by Carol Boronstein, et. al, “Beth Chatto´s Gravel Garden-Drought Resistant Planting Through the Year” and Nora Harlow´s “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region.” If you would like to get advice from a Master Gardener, call 533-5696.

Marlys Bell is a Tuolumne County Master Gardener who is also a garden writer and avid gardener.