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Healthy soils for healthy plants

Join in as California celebrates Healthy Soils Week

worms
These red wigglers are working hard, creating the best soil amendment. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

If your soil isn't healthy, your plants will have a hard, perhaps even impossible growing life.  The California Department of Food and Agriculture , along with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources , are using this week, through Friday, Dec. 10, to point out the importance of healthy soil to our ecosystem.

"Soil is alive with organisms that slowly grow or change depending on what is added, how the soil is used, and environmental conditions," notes Melissa Womack, communications specialist for the statewide UCCE Master Gardener Program. "Soil health, much like our own, is best improved gradually over time so focusing on regular or constant improvement helps achieve and sustain soil health. Adding certain practices into your gardening routine, such as incorporating organic matter, can be a great place to start."

Myriad resources on healthy soil are linked off the UCANR page where Womack's quote appears, including the topics covered throughout Healthy Soils Week.

I think this page, Healthy Soils - Basics , has lots of great information, including a quick quiz to test how much you know about soils. (Master gardener candidates study this intensely, and I still have to look up some of this information.)

Clicking on the For Homes & Gardens tab on that page brings up more specific and very useful information for the home gardeners, covering topics such as:

-- Common home soil problems

-- Practices to improve home soil

-- Soil pH and how to test it

-- Soil texture

-- Amendments

That last topic brings us to composting, which is one of the easiest ways to gradually improve your soil Compost add nutrients and beneficial microbes, holds water and improves plant growth. In fact, by using compost and organic matter, gardeners can reduce plant water needs by as much as 30 percent.

The Sacramento County master gardeners have written an excellent, very clear guide to composting, which you can find here .  They also have information, including photos, on this page .

Worm castings, in particular, are almost magical soil amendment. Just spreading it over the surface of your soil, and letting the nutrients percolate down via rainfall or irrigation, will improve the health of your soil in ground or in raised beds -- I can vouch for that. Here's a concise guide to worm composting .

And now I must go feed my hard-working worms.

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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Nov. 27

Before the rain comes later in the week, take advantage of sunny, calm days:

* This may be your last chance this season for the first application of copper fungicide spray to peach and nectarine trees. Leaf curl, which shows up in the spring, is caused by a fungus that winters as spores on the limbs and around the tree in fallen leaves. Sprays are most effective now, but they need a few days of dry weather after application to really “stick.” If you haven’t yet, spray now.

* Rake and compost leaves, but dispose of any diseased plant material. For example, if peach and nectarine trees showed signs of leaf curl this year, clean up under trees and dispose of those leaves instead of composting.

* Make sure storm drains are clear of any debris.

* Give your azaleas, gardenias and camellias a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim chrysanthemums to 6 to 8 inches above the ground after they’re done blooming. Keep potted mums in their containers until next spring. Then, they can be planted in the ground, if desired, or repotted.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while dormant.

* Plant bulbs for spring bloom. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Other suggestions: daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas.

* Seed wildflowers including California poppies.

* Also from seed, plant sweet pea, sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons and other spring flowers.

* Plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from winter rains.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cool-season greens can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* If you decide to use a living Christmas tree this year, keep it outside in a sunny location until Christmas week. This reduces stress on the young tree.

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