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Rain in the forecast? Check your soil moisture

Use a handy meter, screwdriver or trowel to gauge your garden's needs

Frog moisture meter in a container plant
A moisture meter takes the guesswork out of
determining irrigation needs. (Photo courtesy
Regional Water Authority)

So far, 2021 has sure felt damp. After scant precipitation for so long, any real rain seems like a deluge.

But did your garden get enough water?

Probably not from this most recent storm – but more rain is on the way.

According to the National Weather Service, Sacramento received 0.21 inches on Monday, bringing our total for 2021 (a.k.a. since Friday) to 0.26. Normal for the first week of January – 0.46 – is almost double that amount.

We’re still way behind our “water year” total, which measures back to Oct 1. Since then, we received 2.34 inches, 4.4 inches below normal for Sacramento. It’s also far below our rain total for this same time period last year. During that very dry water year, we had already totaled 5.09 inches at this point.

What should be our three wettest months are still ahead of us, so there’s still hope that this will be a “wet” year. In Sacramento, rain is forecast for Wednesday, Friday and again next Monday.

In winter, most of our garden needs less water than during the heat of summer. With the sprinklers turned off, a half-inch of rain will keep plants well hydrated for a week.

But scattered showers may not deliver as much water as your thirstiest plants need. And those showers may not reach all of your garden, particularly plants under eaves or shielded by big trees.

The solution? Measure your moisture. If you take a few minutes to look, your soil will tell you if it needs more water.

The easiest option to do this: Get a moisture meter; it’s a simple tool with an instant read dial and the most effective way to judge how much water is actually getting to plant roots. Meters are available from some water service providers as well as local nurseries and big box stores.

Push the meter’s pointy end 6 inches into the ground and see if that soil is wet, dry or moist (just right). Check the soil for potted plants, too.

No meter? Use a long-handled screwdriver. If you can’t push it in at least 3 inches, irrigate that dry spot. But the screwdriver method can be misleading for containers or raised beds, where soil tends to be less compacted.

To really know, look at the soil. Take a trowel and dig down 6 inches and feel the dirt. Grab a handful of soil and squeeze. Can you easily make a ball out of that dirt? If so, the soil has enough moisture to keep plant roots happy. If it refuses to clump, it still needs more water.

For more water-saving and irrigation tips, see .


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of Sept. 24:

This week our weather will be just right for fall gardening. What are you waiting for?

* Now is the time to plant for fall. The warm soil will get these veggies off to a fast start.

* Keep harvesting tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons and eggplant. Tomatoes may ripen faster off the vine and sitting on the kitchen counter.

* Compost annuals and vegetable crops that have finished producing.

* Cultivate and add compost to the soil to replenish its nutrients for fall and winter vegetables and flowers.

* Fertilize deciduous fruit trees.

* Plant onions, lettuce, peas, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, bok choy, spinach and potatoes directly into the vegetable beds.

* Transplant cabbage, broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower as well as lettuce seedlings.

* Sow seeds of California poppies, clarkia and African daisies.

* Transplant cool-weather annuals such as pansies, violas, fairy primroses, calendulas, stocks and snapdragons.

* Divide and replant bulbs, rhizomes and perennials. That includes bearded iris; if they haven’t bloomed in three years, it’s time to dig them up and divide their rhizomes.

* Dig up and divide daylilies as they complete their bloom cycle.

* Divide and transplant peonies that have become overcrowded. Replant with “eyes” about an inch below the soil surface.

* Late September is ideal for sowing a new lawn or re-seeding bare spots.

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