As the rain subsides and the weather warms, spring finally becomes visible on the horizon. That means our time to get into the garden is drawing near.
Many of us, however, are looking at our winter-ravaged gardens and wondering where to start. If you have been braving the elements to tend your garden, you will probably be thrilled to begin spring garden duties. For the rest of us, however, spring garden prep can be daunting.
Where to begin? In our little garden, my wife and I will start with cleaning up leaves and other debris. This will not only improve the aesthetics, but it will also have a dramatic effect on the garden’s health and on pest management. While a thick layer of leaves can act as compost, it also provides a cozy living space for snails and slugs, rodents, insects and fungus. During cleanup, we can also look for any problem areas or damaged plants that need attention.
Next up is everyone’s favorite chore: weeding. Don’t put this off. It is important to pull weeds before they go to seed and become an even bigger problem.
Then it is time to plan any new plantings. Planting in wet soil is not recommended, so check now for areas that may have drainage issues. Overly saturated soil will look black and have a rotten odor. If you find such a spot in your garden, leave it bare and let the sun evaporate some of the excess moisture. During any upcoming rainy periods, cover the area with plastic sheeting to prevent the problem from worsening. Remove the plastic on sunny days to let the water continue to evaporate.
Should your soil feel dry (unlikely given the amount of rain we’ve had) or at an acceptable hydration level, cover with a layer of compost or mulch. This material will improve moisture retention through the summer and improve soil tilth and biotic health. Good mulching practices can make a world of difference when it comes time to dig that tough Napa soil.
If you are planning to plant vegetables, early February is the perfect time to get some of them started. Broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, kale, peppers, onion, peas, lettuce and tomatoes will all benefit from an early start inside your home or greenhouse. Sowing times vary by variety, so be sure to follow the instructions on the seed packet.
If you don’t have a seed-starting tray and warming mat, consider investing in one. The extra warmth can reduce germination time considerably. When you are not starting seedlings, you can also use the kit to improve your results for any cuttings you want to propagate.
Thinking of adding some ornamental plants but not sure which ones to choose? Consider California natives. The benefits are myriad, but to me, their best attribute is the low amount of care they require once established.
Plants adapted to the regional climate are generally more drought tolerant, making them an easy choice for low-maintenance landscaping. Some personal favorites include the Matilija poppy (Romneya trichocalyx) and Ceonothus ‘Dark Star’ (also called California lilac). Both have attractive flowers that enhance any garden.
Should you wish to attract hummingbirds, I recommend California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), scarlet monkey flower (Mimulus cardinalis) and hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). The blooms of the California fuchsia persist well past those of many other flowering plants and can be relied upon to add a splash of vibrant red to a fall landscape.
Finally, don’t let this winter’s wet weather fool you into thinking that drought is a thing of the past. Southern California is still considered to be in drought conditions. Ground-water levels across the state continue to be a concern, and 2016 was the hottest year on record. Designing a water-wise garden is not only socially and environmentally responsible, but will also certainly pay off in lower utility bills.
Proper plant choice, garden design and irrigation use can maximize your garden’s beauty while minimizing your effort and expense. If you are interested in making such changes to your garden but need more information, call or email the Master Gardener help desk. The volunteers there can help find answers to any questions you have.
Workshop: UC Master Gardeners of Napa County will host a workshop on “Growing Summer Vegetables” on Saturday, March 11, from 9-11 a.m., at UC Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. Learn what the garden needs to successfully produce spring and summer vegetables from seeds and seedlings. The workshop will cover soil types and preparation, temperature essentials, watering, fertilizing and harvesting, with a dash of integrated pest management. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Garden Forum: Join the UC Master Gardeners of Napa County at a forum for home gardeners on Sunday, March 12, from 1-3 p.m., at Yountville Community Center, 6516 Washington St., Yountville. Bring any questions about anything in the home garden. Questions about fertilizing, watering, planting, plant care, diseases and pests, tools and tool care or nursery purchases are welcome. Register with Yountville Parks & Recreation or contact 707-944-8712.