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Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

December in the garden
Winter details lift spirits

December 3, 2011
by Carolyn Singer

feather reed grassDecember is a transitional month in the foothill landscape, and each year is different. This year fall color continues to excite: the reds and oranges of many barberries (photo, below right) are reaching their peak, and the gold of many of the grasses is exquisite in the soft sunlight that plays through the leaves. The rose hips on the wild rose (photo, below left) are ready for harvest for tea.

While we have been treated to many days that allow us to continue gardening and landscaping, the anticipated rains have not added the moisture many plants need. Established plants, especially those that have been mulched with leaves, straw, or chips may not need irrigation. However, any plants that were added this year should be watered twice a week until rains soak the soil to a depth of two feet. Dry soils adjacent to the planting hole will wick the moisture from the root system.

'Crimson Velvet' barberryDecember is the time to plan and prepare for next year's garden. With this focus, the season becomes an opportunity for thinking creatively and positively, not lapsing into thoughts of winter as a negative experience.

Because the soil is not wet, now is a good time to prepare for bareroot planting. Holes for fruit trees may be dug easily, adding compost, soft rock phosphate and oyster shell. A ratio of one part amendments to two parts native soil is usually a good mix. Backfill the hole with the amended soil and mulch with oat or wheat straw to one foot depth. Rice straw may be used to protect soil, but it is slow to decompose.

If storms delay bareroot planting, a tarp spread over the prepared area will allow you to go ahead and plant in soil that is prepared and not too wet.

Bringing in a small tractor to prepare a new vegetable garden is efficient. The soil preparation is far more effective than rototilling. This December the low moisture content of foothill soils is allowing deep soil preparation. As long as a handful of clay soil crumbles when it is squeezed into a ball, digging or even using a tractor is appropriate.

In one new garden I am overseeing, terracing on a slope was easily accomplished by tractor. Permanent beds were created, the backhoe incorporating amendments to a depth that any edible crop would love. A winter soil builder cover crop has been sown to increase fertility and protect the soil from compacting rains. This will be a no-till garden, building fertility and tilth each year with cover crops and a few amendments.

With all the leaves now falling from deciduous trees, large areas of the garden may be protected by spreading this precious natural material under shrubs, around perennials, or covering otherwise bare areas of soil. To keep the leaves from blowing and hasten their decomposition, cover with a light layer of compost.

Leaves may also be used for sheet composting to build new garden areas for vegetables, flowers, or even a cover crop. Alternate layers of leaves, compost, and good garden soil with twenty pounds of colloidal or soft rock phosphate and five pounds of oyster shell per one hundred square feet. One year I prepared a new perennial garden with this method, planting young divisions in midwinter in the top layer of compost. The perennial flowers have thrived in this no-till bed.

December will soon feel more like winter. Berries, seed pods, cones, bark, and even swelling buds for late winter bloom become details that brighten our days. The form of each deciduous tree is heightened in the winter landscape. Just as we are finishing planting the last of the spring bulbs for this year, the bulbs added in past years may be showing. In my garden, hellebores are already forming buds for late winter bloom.

CA wild roseIt seems that there is never really a lull in the beauty of our natural and created landscapes in the foothills. We need only to notice, to slow down and pay attention to the details.

©2011 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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