Home & Garden

With preparation, a healthier, prettier garden is within reach

Mulching around plants conserves water and keeps roots happy. It also suppresses weeds. This rice straw mulch ensures that basil plants will be much happier during Sacramento’s hot, dry summers. During extended periods of drought, mulches are essential.
Mulching around plants conserves water and keeps roots happy. It also suppresses weeds. This rice straw mulch ensures that basil plants will be much happier during Sacramento’s hot, dry summers. During extended periods of drought, mulches are essential. Special to The Bee

Gardens are escapist retreats far removed from stressful, soil-free office environments and disturbing world news. In gardens, we’re allowed to express creativity and nurture beautiful and nutritious things. With the twist of a doorknob, we’re outdoors hobnobbing with fragrance, color, butterflies and hummingbirds.

But even the tranquil garden can wear us down with its chores and seasonal to-do lists. “I’ve got to get out in the garden and get something done” is a common refrain when life limits time spent in the garden. Who needs the anxiety of thriving weeds and dead plants everywhere?

Fortunately, you can elevate the beauty and health of the garden in the coming year, while reducing work and stress. Here’s how:

Soil is royal

Soil is trampled daily, flipped and slammed with the back of a shovel, tilled to dust and ignored as we coo sweet nothings at a rose lowered into its earthy embrace. Stop the abuse.

Good soil is the key that drives a beautiful and bountiful garden. Give soil unconditional love. Nurture it, respect it, improve it, and gardening worries and anxiety will morph into nirvanic bliss.

“What you really want to do is feed the soil and create a beneficial environment for plants,” said Steve Zien of Living Resources Company in Citrus Heights. “One thing you want to do is improve soil structure.”

Soil can be improved with compost, worm castings and cover crops, but first it should be tested.

Before emptying the checking account for a new landscape, take soil samples and test for nutrient levels. Would you buy a used car without a test drive or bake a cake without first checking the ingredients?

Soil testing can be accomplished two ways. Inexpensive and simple soil test kits can be purchased at nurseries for around $20. Or, soil samples can be sent to a lab where all essential nutrients are tested and recommendations made. A lab test will cost around $100 and you’ll likely receive a thick stack of information about your soil.

Simple test kits reveal basic information. The levels of the three major nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium – and the soil’s pH can be determined. The pH is a 0-14 range between acidic and alkaline soil. Generally, a pH reading of 6.0 to 7.5 allows plant roots to absorb necessary nutrients.

Zien advocates an all-organic approach to gardening. His company provides soil testing, and he’s all in for organic fertilizers and especially nutrient-rich worm castings.

“My favorite thing, other than soil testing, is worm castings,” Zien said. “I even apply them to houseplants. Put them right on top and either water in or let Mother Nature water it in.”

Compost is decomposed organic matter and primarily a soil amendment that is especially helpful in improving clay soils. All types of soils benefit from adding compost, which can be made at home or purchased in bags or in bulk. Zien said the quality of commercial compost greatly varies. Buyer beware.

“It needs to be fully composted without a lot of woody material,” he said. “With finished compost you shouldn’t be able to recognize anything in the bag. If the bags are warm and out of the sun, it might still be composting.”

Planting a cover crop is like giving soil a big hug. Cover crops, sometimes called “green manure,” feed soil (nitrogen), improve soil structure and attract beneficial insects. A cover crop can include peas, fava beans, bell beans, common vetch, clover, alfalfa and other choices. Often cover crops, which are rarely eaten, are planted in winter to enrich soil for a summer vegetable garden. They also can be planted in summer, the most common choice being buckwheat.

Chop down the cover crop into small pieces and work into the soil three to six weeks before planting.

All plants are not equal

Dead and dying plants and a yard cited as a public nuisance by county code enforcement isn’t the path to neighborhood peace and tranquility. Neither is over-watering landscapes during a three-year drought. Choosing the right plants that require minimal maintenance and water allows gardeners to dance around yard disasters, saves considerable money and avoids the headaches of angry neighbors and costly fines.

A common trap is buying and planting whatever catches your eye that particular day at the nursery. Impulse buying can result in inappropriate plants for our growing region or plants that demand constant attention and too much water. The extended California drought is changing landscaping decisions.

“Generally speaking, almost everybody is asking for drought-tolerant landscapes, with the exception of very few people,” said Davis landscape designer Bernadette Balics, owner of Ecological Landscape Design. “I’ve been doing this for 13 years. Clients I had in the beginning were environmentalists, scientists, bird watchers and people who already loved nature. Now I’m getting people who just want to save water because of drought.”

Shrinking and disappearing lawn areas are prompting many to replace turf with plants. When choosing plants, do homework first and purchasing second. Visit water-efficient gardens, attend workshops and seminars, read publications and go online. The UC Davis Arboretum All-Stars (http://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/arboretum_all_stars.aspx) are a valuable list of plant suggestions. The water-efficient landscape gardens at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center (at the back of Fair Oaks Park) are open daily and showcase numerous water-wise plant options. Get to know your plants.

Balics said plants and children have much in common.

“When you buy them, you don’t know them that well, but they need extra care,” she said. “They need food and water, but not too much. They want to be left alone when they’re teenagers. They need their space. Don’t prune them, leave them be. And, like a parent, you’ll make mistakes, but they tend to grow up anyway.”

Before planting, know the mature size of the plant, the right exposure (plant it east side, west side, etc.) and how much water it will demand.

“I use a lot of Mediterranean and California-specific plants,” Balics said. “Go for shrubs if you’re looking for low maintenance. Salvias are a tough, versatile group. I really like germanders because they come in all different sizes, they’re tough and you can’t prune them out of existence. Some ornamental grasses I like are giant feather grass, pine muhly grass and eyelash grass.”

Once you’ve selected new plants, group them according to water needs. Water-guzzling perennials next to water-wise perennials portend disaster. Balics loves smart irrigation controllers that use data and sensors to determine how much, if any, watering is needed.

Now that you’ve planted the newcomers, get out into the garden on a regular basis to discover problems before it’s too late. Strolls in the garden are good for the soul and for spotting diseases, pest invasions and ailing plants.

“People will ask, ‘Why didn’t this plant make it?’” Balics said. “Even water-efficient plants need regular water for a period after they’re planted.”

Water-efficient plants should be on a regular watering schedule for the first year or so while they’re establishing the deep root system that makes them low-water garden stars.

Balics recommends as little pruning as possible, allowing plants to take natural forms in the garden. Since constant pruning can entail a lot of work, the strategy has merit for a less-stress garden.

“The mow and blow guys prune everything into lollipops and boxes, shortening the life of shrubs,” she said. “Plus, there are a lot of pollution and greenhouse gases from the blowers and trimmers.”

Mulch is your BGF (Best Garden Friend)

Misunderstood and too often ignored, mulch is like ice cream: a little taste and suddenly you’re binging on the stuff.

Weeds, especially when they’ve overrun the garden in a dense carpet of seedy green, can cause handwringing and feelings of defeat. Weeding may be the most time-consuming and dreaded garden chore.

Mulch is the low-tech answer.

Mulch is a layer of material arranged on top the soil and around plants. It allows water and air to pass through. Types of organic mulches include shredded bark, wood and bark chips, straw, grass clippings and shredded leaves. These mulches are porous and allow the penetration of water and air. Sheet plastic mulches (inorganic) are not porous and provide no nutrients, but are good at shading out weeds and warming soil for earlier planting.

A layer of mulch deters weeds by eliminating light to seeds lurking in soil. By significantly reducing weeds, there’s more time for the enjoyable aspects of gardening.

Mulch acts like attic insulation, helping soil retain moisture on hot days and minimizing evaporation and heat stress. During periods of drought, mulch is especially valuable as it reduces water use, and it is used to prevent soil erosion and wasteful and damaging runoff. In November, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the U.S. Forest Service air-dropped straw mulch on massive areas burned by the King fire in El Dorado County to help prevent runoff and possible flooding and mudslides.

When organic mulches decompose, nutrients are added to the soil. The benefits make plants much happier. Happy plants ensure happy gardeners.

Some people confuse mulch with compost, which is fully decomposed organic matter that is dug into soil. Compost also can be spread on top of the soil and used as mulch, which compounds the confusion.

How deep you apply mulches depends on the size of the material. Small and medium-size bark chips can do the job with a 2- to 3-inch layer, while straw and leaves can be distributed 3 to 4 inches deep. Keep mulches a couple of inches away from woody stems and tree trunks to prevent diseases. Eventually organic mulches become compressed and decompose and will need to be replenished.

One of the few drawbacks of mulch is the hiding places it provides for burrowing pests like voles, also called meadow mice. Vole populations widely vary from season to season, so it’s a small price to pay for the numerous benefits of mulch.

Less stress the hard way

Patios, pergolas, retaining walls, decks, walkways, outdoor kitchens, fire pits and other non-plant landscape elements are referred to as hardscape. Outdoor living areas, which feature expanses of tile, stone or concrete, are relatively maintenance-free and demand no water.

Gardening purists cringe at the thought of covering up earth, but for those who have very limited free time or often entertain outdoors, well-designed, outdoor living space is an attractive alternative and increases home value.

“You have to water and maintain a lawn or big groundcover area,” said landscape designer and contractor Michael Glassman of Michael Glassman & Associates in Sacramento. “I’ve never heard a client say they have too much patio; it’s always the reverse. That doesn’t mean wall-to-wall concrete or tile. You soften the areas where you don’t want people, but give yourself enough useable space.”

Glassman is nationally known, hosting and designing on TV shows “Yard Crashers,” “Gardening by the Yard,” and “Garden Police.” His eighth book, “The Garden Bible,” will be released this year.

A well-designed landscape incorporates plants into hardscape elements. Glassman installs drip irrigation for its efficiency in raised planters and large containers. Drains are installed under containers to prevent staining from brown drainage water; and he sometimes uses permeable pavers for improved drainage and better use of available water. He softens the look of stone and pavers with visual accents like a living wall of succulents.

“They’re living art,” he said. “Water the succulents once a week. They’re great.”

Glassman said he approaches his designs from a functional standpoint. “Basically, the reality is people need entertainment space. They like to have parties. It has to look good and be practical. As we get older, navigating steps and different levels doesn’t work. Babies and toddlers present challenges with doors and steps.”

His own backyard in Davis is mostly outdoor living area with hardscape surfaces.

His prized “gardening” tool is a giant shop vac that sucks up debris from bamboo.

“I vacuum, do a little bit of pruning, fertilize the raised beds and clean up after my two dogs,” he said. “It takes one or two hours a month to spruce it up. My biggest heartache is my 13-year-old dog. Every time I put in new plants, she either pees on them or digs them up.”

Irrigation irritation

Hose-dragging is time-consuming and demands that you be present to water plants or else. Old-time lawn sprinkler heads spew water everywhere, and lawn is a drought’s worst nightmare. A reliable, water-conserving irrigation system will ease your mind and likely save money on water bills if you have a water meter. That brings happiness, right?

It’s not exactly breaking news that folks are removing water-needy lawn areas, planting native and Mediterranean climate plants and groundcovers and converting to modern irrigation – drip, rotary heads and bubbler systems. Drip and micro-head systems are sometimes called micro-irrigation.

Drip irrigation conserves water with a more efficient method of watering. Water seeps from emitters at soil level, soaking the root zone. Since you’re not standing there, hose in hand, there will be much more time to admire the garden from a patio chair. Plus there’s no more aggravation from kinks in the hose, hauling heavy watering cans or concerns about watering containers daily when you’re vacationing.

During periods of drought, drip irrigation delivers precious water where it’s needed and is 20 percent to 40 percent more efficient than traditional high-pressure sprinklers, which spew water onto sidewalks, driveways and wherever the wind blows. A lawn sprinkler spray head might use 60 to 180 gallons an hour, while a drip emitter uses 1 to 4 gallons an hour. Sprinklers also waste water through evaporation. Drip systems are buried under mulch.

Rotator heads slowly throw water in circles so it penetrates the soil rather than runs off. They’re especially useful for medium and large groundcover, lawn or flower bed areas.

Bubbler heads are ideal for containers and smaller areas. They water deeply around plants, shrubs or trees and are low to the ground for less evaporation.

Installing or converting your present system is relatively easy, and there are free workshops and plenty of online how-tos if you need help. Those who aren’t handy can hire professionals.

Maintenance is minimal, but necessary. Flush the main line in early spring and clean the filter. Check emitters and heads to ensure they’re not clogged and are working. Periodically, check systems during summer months.

Chill factor

Finally, re-evaluate the importance of perfection. If you’re fretting about a poorly performing plant or a few weeds that sprouted behind your back, it may be time to chill out. Follow the aforementioned strategies and forgive the inevitable stumbles.

You don’t need the extra stress and, chances are, nobody noticed but you!

“I would encourage people to let go of perfection and take more time to just sit and enjoy all the things living in the garden, the birds and the insects,” said Balics, the Davis landscape designer. “Enjoy being there and don’t worry quite as much how it looks. Nature will give you a hand if you’re not always cleaning everything up.”