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Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

Protecting plants and soil from winter's weather

by Carolyn Singer
December 4th, 2010

English walnutThe blast of winter we just experienced is a reminder that living in the Sierra foothills, for all its beauty in fall and winter, offers a landscape with challenges. In my own garden, a bit of history of the Sonntag homestead is now gone: a 115-year-old English walnut tree (photo left) came to rest across my driveway.

While I could not have protected this majestic tree, there were others I shook the first snow off in hopes of minimizing damage with the second storm. It helped. But I did not think to protect a 40-foot native fir, and it did suffer damage to the lower branches.

paperbark mapleAll over our county, deciduous trees that hold their leaves, and often color into late fall (birch, apples, walnut, flowering pear, and many maples) have broken leaders and large branches. Whether they were planted this fall or decades ago, all were vulnerable in a heavy, wet snow. And yet we will plant again. As will generations after us.

With the arrival of winter, we have a perfect opportunity to plant while trees, shrubs, and perennials are dormant. From now through February, any plant may be moved from an existing location, planted from a container, and even handled bareroot with no soil or compost protecting the root system. Following guidelines for good planting techniques, with the addition of aged compost, rock phosphate, and oyster shell, plants easily adjust to a new location. Just be careful not to let the roots dry out in the transition, and always deep soak after planting. Do not rely on the rain for that first irrigation.

Soil, too, needs winter protection. Soils exposed by construction are especially vulnerable because of compaction from heavy equipment. Many products are available to assist the landowner. The simplest approach is to spread oat or wheat straw. Rice straw may also be used, and will not introduce seed, but it decomposes slowly. Jute netting will hold the straw in place, allowing you to have a thicker cover of straw.

Cover crop seed may still be sown. I add compost on top of the straw to create a seedbed. Germination and subsequent growth will depend on weather and microclimates. Some higher elevation sites above 3000 feet are warmer than my garden site, and winter growth is stronger. In my cold microclimates at 2650-foot elevation, I compensate by covering the seeded areas with a row cover whenever possible.

Grasses are the first group of plants to consider in protecting and restoring soil. If I am planning to grow fruits or vegetables in a new area, the grass I sow in late fall and winter is annual rye. It grows well even in cool weather and its extensive root system does much more below the soil than you can imagine from studying its growth above ground. Before it sets seed the following year, I cut it down.

Muhlenbergia rigensNear a parking area, I have sown a native grass that is low in fire risk, basket grass (Muhlenbergia rigens, photo left). Other suitable grasses for low fire risk native restoration include some fine fescues. These are all clumping or bunch grasses, and even when they are spaced apart to allow easy movement of lizards and quail, the bunch grasses add substantial root systems and decomposing leaves to protect and rebuild soil.

asparagusThroughout the garden, berries add color from the asparagus to the pyracantha and holly. A subtle color echo caught my eye in the early morning sun today. Orange pyracantha berries mingled with the fall orange of the semi-evergreen jasmine at my garden entry. The recent snow did nothing to diminish this December beauty.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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