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Healthy soils for healthy plants

Join in as California celebrates Healthy Soils Week

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 March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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