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Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer



Breaking ground:
Foothill soil is lean but promising

by Carolyn Singer
April 25, 2009

'soil builder' cover cropLast year I met with two eager landowners west of Grass Valley. We needed to pick a site for the future vegetable garden and prepare the soil before winter. And we were running out of time. The cover crop had to be seeded while the soil was still warm, ideally allowing the mix of annuals to grow enough to protect the soil from rain.

While the sunny north-facing slope was not where I would want to spend a summer afternoon, especially at that lower elevation, there were enough weeds growing to indicate that we could work with the meager soil on the hill. And the exposure was good.

Since we did not need a fence to keep out the deer at this stage, I defined the soil preparation. A backhoe was used to rough up the site, making quick work of the process of discovery: what's under those weeds and surface rocks so typical to the foothills?

Magically, we discovered some soil that could get us started. It was promising, and I was certain it would be far better to work with the existing soil than to build raised beds for vegetables. We could even be artistic with the garden layout, curving paths around flower, vegetable, and herb plantings.

The existing weeds were not very lush, so I knew I would need lots of composted poultry manure to supply "food" for a cover crop. The better the soil, the better the cover crop. The site has not only baked in the summer sun for as long as that hill has existed, it has also been vulnerable to winds. Both natural conditions have eroded most of the top soil that ever covered the slope. Only the weeds held some soil in place.

Adding rock powders before seeding the cover crop is important too. Rock phosphate (20 pounds per 100 square feet) and oyster shell (5 pounds per 100 square feet) are essential in our foothill soils.

The cover crop holds the recently disturbed soil in place and prevents compaction from rains. I recommend seeding "soil builder" from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, a mix of annuals that acts as "green manure magic".

row cover protecting winter cover cropAt my elevation (2600 feet), I have to cover the sown area with a row cover (Tufbell or Agribon) to prevent freeze damage to the more tender bell beans. The cover also encourages lusher growth of the vetch and oats. I place the row cover over the seeded bed in fall. This also keeps birds from eating the seed or seedlings! The cover can stay on top of the growing plants even during unexpectedly warm early spring days. I don't remove it until I'm ready to dig in the soil.

soil exposed to winter damageThis winter I left a small area exposed to storms in my garden. The ground is now compacted and even cracked on the surface. Nearby, the soil where the cover crop is still growing is loose and friable. Not only am I building soil in winter, I am also saving this precious resource.

The cover crop in my clients' new garden will soon be knocked down with a weedeater, and the foliage tilled into soil. A portion of the area will be utilized for this year's vegetable garden, while the remainder will be cover-cropped for the summer with the summer soil builder mix of buckwheat and cowpeas.

Permanent beds in this large garden will be defined over a two-year period, allowing plenty of time to build fertile soil and define the size of garden these two busy people can actually handle. For this summer, paths will allow access to new garden beds, but the remaining cover-cropped area will not be walked in, so the green manure can grow without any compaction.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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