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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

October in the garden
From garden to canning jar, the harvest is plentiful this year

by Carolyn Singer
October 8, 2011

Bartlett pears from 100 yr. old treeOnce again, careful attention to the vitality of my soil has brought a harvest that is more than enough to share and to preserve. Years of building good soil using a no-till approach has rewarded me each year, and this year with a cold start to the summer garden has been no exception.

Just as soon as a frost occurs and the tender crops are finished, I will be attending to the beds in which they grew. Each bed is cleared of coarse plant material, which is tossed on the fall compost pile. Most of the summer straw mulch, now partially decomposed, will remain, incorporated along with rock phosphate and oyster shell, into the top layer of soil with one of my favorite tools, a 4-tine cultivator.

These permanent garden beds (remember, "no till") will have a "winter soil builder" cover crop sown. Seed is inoculated to maximize the nitrogen-fixing benefit of the legumes in the seed mix. A light covering of the seeds with compost finishes the sowing.

With soils staying warm this fall, the cover crop seed will germinate quickly. Since my vegetable garden is in a cold microclimate, I usually cover the beds with a row cover. This also protects the seeds from birds. The row cover stays on through the entire winter, protecting the more tender fava beans and edible peas from hard frost. At lower elevations, gardeners may be harvesting food for themselves in early spring from the peas and beans in this cover crop.

English hawthornWarm fall soils and early rains are a perfect condition for sowing wildflower seeds. This seed is often very fine and dependent on light for germination. Unlike the cover crop seed, the wildflower seed should not be covered. It's still best to provide a loose compost seed bed.

Erosion control is a primary concern where soils are now exposed from summer construction projects. Seeding, including hydroseeding, is not as critical as protecting the soil, since there will be very little growth this fall and winter. The first step in erosion control should be protecting the soil with straw. While oat and wheat straw decompose more quickly than rice straw, if the straw is new, seeds may introduce unwelcome grasses. I bring in several bales of straw each fall, stacking them until they have sprouted and decomposition has begun before I break the bales apart.

The rice straw is the cleanest alternative if no decomposed oat or wheat straw is available. Additonally, slopes will need jute netting or cocomesh to prevent the straw and soil from slipping with heavy rains. If the goal on slopes is to grow wildflowers or other plants, and the quality of the soil supports this goal, a layer of compost and rock powders may even be added before any straw or netting.

It's critically important to attend to the protection of the soil before considering seeding. If seeding must be postponed for weeks or even as much as a year, this will not be a problem. Rebuild the soil first.

basket grassOne of my favorite native grasses for slopes is the basket or deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens, photo left). I prefer to begin with liners, young plants that have been grown in narrow deep containers, or 1-gallon plants. This 3-4 foot wide grass may be planted on five-foot centers in drifts, allowing for open space in which wildflowers may be sown. While it is often recommended that slopes be hydroseeded with varying mixes, foothill property owners are usually left with a high maintenance zone for fire safety in subsequent years. The deer grass is low fire risk through the fire season, and actually reduces weeds with its coverage.

Fall is an opportunity to build a more fertile and productive garden. Remember that the fall leaves should not be burned, but may be composted or used to protect soil from heavy rains. This fall commit to protecting and building the soil on your land. Attention to soil in fall pays dividends for years.

©2011 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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