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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

Late winter (spring?) harvest and summer planting
Green garlic & 'Carolyn's mix'
By Carolyn Singer
May 21, 2011

crimson cloverThe uneven grasses of spring are one of my favorite foothill signs of spring. Meadows and open fields, and even roadsides in the county are rich in shades of green. I find myself dreamily gazing on this reawakening of the land, reminded of the childhood pleasure of lying in the lush green field on my parents' Sebastopol CA land, certain that no one could find me.

Cover crops have a similar effect on me, but I also envision their roots building soil, making it fertile for food crops. And cover crops can be quite beautiful. Crimson clover (photo, right) in bloom is striking.

A recent visit to a new small Nevada County farm, Sweet Roots Farm, was inspiring to me. Deena Miller and Robbie Martin bring a wealth of horticultural education plus a love of the land to the farm they have created and are tending south of Grass Valley. Cover cropping is an essential component of enriching the native soil on a gentle slope that once supported dairy cows.

Sweet Roots Farm garlic in MaySelling their produce at the nearby Growers' Market on Saturday, Deena and Robbie share both their enthusiasm and beautiful organic produce with our community. Look for them this weekend with a spring (winter?) crop many cooks and gardeners overlook: green garlic. This may be garlic that is pulled early, before the bulbs have matured. Or it may be from clumps left in place from year to year, removing just a few for harvest in late winter. And this year we are having lots of "late winter"!

Sweet Roots FarmWhile late-winter vegetables are being harvested from local farms and gardens, continual seeding of other crops is managed in flats. At Sweet Roots Farm (photos, right and below, left), there were flats of many vegetable starts, allowing protection from "unseasonable" cold spells. These plugs will soon be transplanted into the field with little or no shock.

I sow many seeds of vegetables, flowers and herbs, keeping them in the cold frame as long as the soil in the garden is too cold for good nutrient absorption. Covering trays and flats with a row cover such as Agribon also works well for early spring starts.

While I sometimes use a more complex seed starter mix offered in bags, I most often mix my own. I begin with a mix dubbed 'Carolyn's mix' at Rare Earth Landscape Materials. It is two parts mushroom compost to one part rice hulls, plus organic phosphorus and oyster shell. I usually add vermiculite for my seed starting mix. This is a mineral of the mica family, providing air- and water-holding capacity. This also a perfect mix for most containers of annuals and even for house plants.

Sweet Roots Farm"Carolyn's mix" is the perfect amendment for landscaping in clay foothill soils, and added as a mulch on top of the soil it maintains tilth. I have often used it over cover crops that have been cut down (not tilled!), creating a seed bed for direct seeding, or a light medium for transplanting. If I have decomposed poultry manure, I often add some of this to enrich the mix, especially for the "heavy feeders", summer and winter squash, cucumbers and pumpkins.

Many gardeners prefer to garden in raised beds. While my advice is always to work with the native soil, gardeners with serious gopher problems are quick to point out that this may be the only way to grow vegetables free from damage. Perhaps, but beginning with cover crops in native soil is still a more fertile base for the compost you will be adding. Build the soil first, then add your own mix of real soil and compost to the raised bed.

Maintaining fertile soil is a complex process. Think about that while you are lying in a field of spring grasses!

©2011 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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