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Healthy soil helps the garden, helps the earth

Tips from California's Healthy Soils Week

So ... where's the soil? The good stuff is under
organic mulch (the straw). The raised bed and the steps
help prevent compaction. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

California is celebrating Healthy Soils Week through Saturday, a seemingly odd time of year for such a celebration. Many farms are fallow and many gardeners are less active because of colder weather and the press of holiday demands, even during a pandemic.

But that same lack of activity means it's easier to focus on what's underground, rather than what's growing. (Also, this Saturday, Dec. 5, is World Soil Day, a nice pairing.)

Why are healthy soils important? Here's the CDFA's short answer:

-- Improved plant health and yields
-- Increased water infiltration and retention
-- Sequestered carbon and reduced greenhouse gases (GHGs)
-- Reduced sediment erosion and dust
-- Improved water and air quality
-- Improved biological diversity and wildlife habitat

For home gardeners, the single best offering during the week's events is the presentation of "Tips to Keep Your Garden Soil Healthy." It was presented live this morning but was recorded and is on YouTube here . The 1-hour talk is an easy listen with Dustin Blakey, the Inyo/Mono counties' farm adviser and master gardener program coordinator.

Blakey notes that some gardeners don't add much to their soils, but a huge percentage load up their soils with excess amendments and nutrients, trying to find the perfect "recipe" for, say, their tomatoes or their cucumbers.

"Focus on improving garden soil, and don't fuss about a single crop," he advises. And know your soil: learn its texture, smell, pH and its "interesting characteristics" such as rocks or hardpan, he says. Every soil has some defects, the trick is learning what they are and how to work around them.

A cool research tool for gardeners is the SoilWeb , an interactive map hosted by the UC Davis website. Using this tool and my address, I learned that most of my neighborhood is soil #229, or Urban Land-Xerarents-Fiddyment Complex. Urban land is easy to figure -- lots of roads and homes here. Xerarents, I discovered, form in fill material mixed by grading and excavation activities, including agricultural activities.  These two components make up 70 percent of the land around me, so the soil was pretty chewed up when my neighborhood was built 50 years ago. All the more reason to work on its health.

Blake offers these general tips on aiding soil's health. Do check out his presentation for more details, and the question-and-answer session at the end.

1) Designate permanent paths in the garden. This limits the soil compaction. Raised beds especially help this, since the gardener and other humans are less tempted to walk or stand in them.

2) Treat the garden bed like an actual bed! No walking (or jumping) on it. Keep it tidy (by pulling weeds). Keep it "made up" by covering it with organic mulch.

3) Add organic materials to the soil. Amendments, compost and cover crops all do this. The benefits: Sandy oil will hold onto nutrients. Clay soil will loosen up. It will improve the "soil web" for beneficial microbes. And generally the soil will be more "resilient," requiring less micromanagement, Blakey says.

4) Practice crop rotation, including cover crops. A concise explanation of crop rotation can be found here ; also see a chart of all the plant families . Cover crops can be legumes, such as bell beans or red clover, or grasses, such as rye, or a combination. Blakey says he grows sweet potatoes as a kind of cover crop to keep weeds down.

5) If you must till the soil (you don't have to!), do it gently. The soil structure and soil life still will be disturbed,  but using just a shovel, for instance, instead of a gas-powered rototiller will be much less harmful. Don't till the soil when it's wet. And do incorporate some organic matter to help mitigate the disturbance.


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Jan. 29

Bundle up and get work done!

* Prune, prune, prune. Now is the time to cut back most deciduous trees and shrubs. The exceptions are spring-flowering shrubs such as lilacs.

* Now is the time to prune fruit trees, except apricot and cherry trees. Clean up leaves and debris around the trees to prevent the spread of disease.

* Prune roses, even if they’re still trying to bloom or sprouting new growth. Strip off any remaining leaves, so the bush will be able to put out new growth in early spring.

* Prune Christmas camellias (Camellia sasanqua), the early-flowering varieties, after their bloom. They don’t need much, but selective pruning can promote bushiness, upright growth and more bloom next winter. Feed with an acid-type fertilizer. But don’t feed your Japonica camellias until after they finish blooming next month. Feeding while camellias are in bloom may cause them to drop unopened buds.

* Clean up leaves and debris around your newly pruned roses and shrubs. Put down fresh mulch or bark to keep roots cozy.

* Apply horticultural oil to fruit trees to control scale, mites and aphids. Oils need 24 hours of dry weather after application to be effective.

* This is also the time to spray a copper-based oil to peach and nectarine trees to fight leaf curl. Avoid spraying on windy days.

* Divide daylilies, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

* Cut back and divide chrysanthemums.

* Plant bare-root roses, trees and shrubs.

* Transplant pansies, violas, calendulas, English daisies, snapdragons and fairy primroses.

* In the vegetable garden, plant fava beans, head lettuce, mustard, onion sets, radicchio and radishes.

* Plant bare-root asparagus and root divisions of rhubarb.

* In the bulb department, plant callas, anemones, ranunculus and gladiolus for bloom from late spring into summer.

* Plant blooming azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. If you’re shopping for these beautiful landscape plants, you can now find them in full flower at local nurseries.

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