by Penny Pawl, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
According to a long-term forecast I heard recently, we may not see substantial rain until April and could be facing drought by summer. With that possibility in mind, you can take steps now to help your plants survive.
First, don't rake up those leaves. They protect the soil, help retain moisture and slowly break down and improve the soil.
I cover my vegetable beds with plain cardboard and leaves for the same purpose. Worms adore cardboard glue and will come to the area, add their manure to the soil and aid the soil bacteria. Worm droppings, also called worm gold, is expensive so it's smart to encourage worms in your garden.
If the cardboard has not completely decomposed when you are ready to plant, just cut a hole in the cardboard for the plant. Several years ago, I did an experiment and planted some plants in plain soil and the rest in holes in cardboard that I laid for that purpose. The ones planted in cardboard did better as the soil retained more moisture.
If you have space, dig a few swales. You can make them artful by putting in curves and planting drought-tolerant plants on the edges. When it rains, runoff will be captured in the swales rather than in the gutter and will slowly percolate into the soil. Ideally, runoff should drain in three days to avoid standing water that attracts mosquitos. And your garden will benefit by having water stored a few feet below the soil surface. Some people fill in their swales with sticks, straw or other material and cover them, but I like to see when the swales are full of rainwater.
Do some research on drought-tolerant plants from other regions of the world with a Mediterranean climate. Also consider California native plants, which have evolved to require little water. About three years ago, I planted Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans), which is native to the island of Madeira. I haven't watered it in two years and it just keeps going. Other choices may not be this hardly and may need water occasionally, especially when first planted.
Group plants with similar water needs so you can irrigate more strategically. Sunset's Western Garden Book can advise you on the water requirements of a plant you're considering. You can also find a chart on the water needs of plants at https://arboretum.ucdavis.edu/arboretum-all-stars
Set up a rain harvesting area. I devised two different systems some years ago and both work well. They are attached to downspouts and collect rainwater for use on my plants. I don't have pumps on either system, but I built them higher than ground level so they drain well. Make sure to use screens or other covers where the water collects to foil mosquitos.
When you do irrigate, water deeply. The feeder roots of most plants are deep in the ground. Water that just penetrates the first few inches of soil won't reach the feeder roots on most plants.
If you're designing a new landscape, choose paths over concrete walkways. Paths allow rainwater to soak into the soil. Choose gravel, bark mulch or steppingstones, all of which allow water to penetrate.
And remember to compost, compost, compost. You can make your own or purchase finished compost. Compost is not a great fertilizer, but it improves soil tilth, so your soil will retain more water. Work compost into the soil. In contrast, materials used for mulch should remain on top of the soil to minimize evaporation, keep the soil cooler and control weeds. Weeds will steal water from plants so controlling weeds is important.
Be sure to deadhead most of your spent flowers, although you may want to leave some to benefit the birds. Setting seed takes energy so a plant that isn't deadheaded may require more water.
Napa Library Talks: First Thursday of each month. Register to get Zoom link. http://ucanr.edu/wildlifehabitat2020
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by Penny Pawl, U.C. Master Gardener of Napa County
Oh no, I've done it again. I have fallen in love with a plant and its beautiful flowers. I planted it; it grew well and then I discovered that it is on the invasive plant list. What to do? And why is this plant on the list?
Many of the wonderful plants that I have planted over the years are on this list. How do authorities create this list? Some of those plants include pampas grass (Cortaderia jubata), mullein (Verbascum),butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), Watsonia and privet (Ligustrum spp).
Most gardeners are aware that bamboo is invasive. Years ago, my husband and I planted bamboo in a wine barrel. Because we knew it had a spreading habit, we set the barrel on cement blocks. A few months later we noticed that a stem had come out the bottom of the barrel and was inching its way across the soil toward our house. Bye bye, bamboo.
Scotch broom (Sarothamnus scoparius) is probably the most notorious problem plant. It has taken over entire areas of our state and moved up the coast into Washington. It is also a problem in many other states. I have read about groups going out to remove this plant from parks and other wild areas.
Scotch broom spreads by the root system. The roots have nitrogen-fixing bacteria so the plant grows all year. It also produces large amounts of seed. If left alone, it will take over and crowd out native plants.
Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) is native to the island of Madeira. I visited there a few years ago, saw the plant and fell in love with its tall purple spires. I planted one about two years ago. It has grown well and has not needed water or care. It bloomed this year, and the bees and other pollinators were in heaven.
Before I planted more, I decided to check its status. Alas, it is also on the California list of invasive plants. Each one of those little purple flowers produces lots of seeds which take root easily in our soils.
I do not plan to remove it, so I went out one evening as the flowers faded and before the seeds set, and cut it back. I did it at that time of day to avoid the bees and other insects. I will need to repeat this every year to keep pride of Madeira from becoming a pest in my garden and my neighbors' gardens.
A couple of years ago I snipped two pieces of honeysuckle (Lonicera) and rooted them. They are now in barrels growing up a big trellis. When I looked for more information on this plant, which is currently in full bloom, I discovered it, too, was considered invasive. Like pride of Madeira, it produces many seeds and pollinators love it. I have to trim it after flowering to keep the seeds from spreading. It also spreads when long runners touch the ground and take root.
The California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) list has been around for many years. If you are serious about preventing the spread of invasives, you should check the list before planting. You can find it on the Cal-IPC website along with photos to help with the identification.
Some of the plants in the weed category came in with New World settlers. The weeds were hitchhikers. Others such as Scotch broom were brought in because they grew so well in their native areas.
What do these plants all have in common? They are generally drought tolerant, and they produce massive amounts of seed. Birds love the seeds and spread them far and wide. Some invasive plants, such as wisteria, spread when their branches touch the ground and take root, or their root system moves around seeking water. When I trim the flowers of invasive plants, I don't put them in my compost. I put them in my brown yard-waste bin so they can be hot-composted by the city.
If, like me, you have a beautiful invasive plant growing in your garden, take care to keep it from taking over the whole garden. Otherwise, be safe and replace it with a native plant instead.
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