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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

But no rain means plants need deep irrigation

by Carolyn Singer
October 25, 2008

oakleaf hydrangeaSpectacular fall colors in the local landscape inspire foothill dwellers to add to their own gardens. How appropriate that this dynamic seasonal change occurs at the perfect planting time!

This year, as in many, warm "Indian summer" temperatures will extend the fall planting season at least into mid November. Many gardens, including mine, have had a killing frost end the tomato harvest. But there have been very few chilly nights and lots of warm days this fall. Clay soil retains heat with sunny fall weather, allowing absorbing roots to grow as long as there is moisture in the soil.

Take advantage of the warmth in the soil these next few weeks. If you live at a higher elevation, on a north slope, or in a cool canyon your soil may cool sooner, but this is still a good time to plant. Plants are heading into winter dormancy, and will transplant and establish more easily as their top growth slows. The reverse is true in the spring. Clay soil retains cold from winter, and plants are beginning their strongest season of growth.

Unfortunately, the recent rain did little to replenish the available moisture necessary for good plant growth. Sunny days and winds have a drying effect even when day and night temperatures have decreased.

The significance of dry soil during fall planting is essential to understand. Irrigation of each plant and the soil surrounding its root system will be necessary until rains are regular and temperatures cooler. When you dig a hole for a new plant, water it deeply and allow the water to replenish the available moisture in the dry soil adjacent to your planting hole.

How often should you water right now? This depends on your site, the needs of the particular plant, and the variables of the weather. Get to know your leaves. Leaves of each plant have a distinct feel to them when they are hydrated. Similarly, there is a distinct change when the plant is lacking water.

Once you start paying attention to each plant in your landscape, you may be able to ascertain its irrigation needs without touching leaves. Just before the recent rain I noticed that my leatherleaf viburnum had gone too long without irrigation. In fact, I had not watered it at all this year, so the last winter rain was the end of its moisture. This is a mature plant, and probably would have survived the stress of a 7-month long dry season, but I gave it a deep soaking. Within two days it rained, but not enough to replenish the moisture to the depth of the viburnum's roots.

Do not rely on a drip irrigation system to deliver sufficient water to a new landscape. Each plant's entire root ball and the adjacent soil should be watered every two to three days. This includes newly planted natives. Plants in shade may not need water quite so often, but watch them closely. At this time of the year there should be no wilting of leaves. Mulches of leaves, decomposing straw, or compost, or (better yet!) a combination of all three will help retain moisture in the soil, and may reduce how often the plant will need fall irrigation.

I have been browsing in local nurseries this week. Each one has something uniquely special to offer. If you are dreaming about adding to your landscape, now is the time for action. Don't wait until spring!

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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