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 Denise Seghesio Levine, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
First, a disclaimer. While there are many wonderful landscape and garden designers who are Master Gardeners, I am not one of them. Garden design is still pretty experimental for me even after all these years.
After taking seminars and classes and reading books and articles on designing a garden, it seems to all come down to questions. Where are you? How much space do you have? How much time do you have? How much water do you have and where does the sun shine? Are you in town or does your garden blend into the surrounding landscape? Do you need fences and do you have deer?
Are you craving a colorful, disheveled explosion of flowers and a whimsical cottage-chic retreat, or the stark repetition of agave plants and background of gravel for a calming, low-maintenance, meditative space? Do you have a blank canvas of a subdivision plot around a new house, a corner yet undone in an otherwise well-established garden, or even just a deck, patio or balcony to bring the outdoors in? A well-designed garden can be a haven, create an attractive frame and curb appeal for your home and provide privacy so it is worth taking the time to think about it.
I have a longtime friend, a botanist and herbal gardener, whose familial roots trace back to an old Scottish castle. Several years ago, he was honored to be tasked with restoring and recreating the historic gardens that used to surround the family castle. The gardens had been abandoned decades, if not centuries, ago.
His garden restoration design was guided by necessary historical references. The boundaries were set, the plant lists were recorded, the scale was predetermined by the magnitude of the stark, angular castle and the steep terrain that sloped up to it.
We usually do not have such dramatic limitations and can branch out into our garden wish list with more abandon. Yet, if you have a new garden space to create or a tired spot to enliven or recreate, many of the same principles apply.
Garden designers consider contrast, proportion, balance, repetition and rhythm. Colors, enclosures, structures, shapes and textures are fun and necessary considerations as we imagine garden spaces. And depending on personal preferences, other criteria may be included.
I recently read an article about the original garden design at Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. Given that Epcot Center is built upon acres of swamp, Disney's main concern was mosquito control. To that end, none of the plants used has leaves that collect water. Mosquitos breed in standing water and not even leaf puddles are allowed in Disneyland. All the plants have waxy, sloping leaves and shed water into the mulch below.
But back to Napa. How can you pull your different garden spaces together so, at the end of your design journey, there is a feeling of cohesiveness and harmony?
Often this is where path and hardscape choices come in. Paths and outside living areas can be purely utilitarian or add to the whimsy or mood of your garden. Certainly, a straight concrete or aggregate patio or path lined with stark agaves has a different feel than redwood rounds or soft wood chips with nodding ferns and forget-me-nots softening the edges.
Look at your garden from all vantage points. Will the area be a private space enclosed with plants or open to a larger landscape? Perhaps the space you are designing is your view from a kitchen, living room or bedroom window. Drag a chair out, grab a cup of coffee or an evening beverage, and spend some time imagining. This is the part I am good at.
One mistake many new gardeners make when trying to achieve a colorful, diverse garden is to plant just one of each. Nature rarely does that. Planting in groups of three, five or seven is a basic, although flexible, rule for a natural look.
Stroll through your favorite nursery for plant ideas and advice. On hikes, note what grows together in nature. As you walk around your neighborhood, note which garden styles and plants you like. When considering a plant, learn its preferred sun exposure, soil requirements, watering needs and rate of growth. So many questions.
In our new Napa County reality, it is also a good idea to incorporate FireWise design principles. No shrubs or trees close to your foundation. Keep landscape trees limbed up. Avoid planting pampas grasses, resinous shrubs or other highly flammable plantings. Look online and at the University of California Cooperative Extension office for a list of FireWise plants. There are abundant magazines, books and online sources for diving into garden design on your own.
Workshop: “Sustainable Vegetable Growing” (Four-Part Series) on Sundays February 23, March 1, March 8 and March 15, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. For more details & online registration go to Online registration (credit card only) or call 707-253-4221.
Workshop: “Step-by-Step Garden Design” on Saturday, February 29, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. For more details & online registration go to On-line registration (credit card only) or
Mail-in/Walk-in registration (cash or check only) or call 707-253-4221.
The UC Master Gardeners of Napa County are volunteers who provide UC research-based information on home gardening and answer your questions. To find out more about upcoming programs or to ask a garden question, visit the Master Gardener website (http://napamg.ucanr.edu) or call (707) 253-4221 between 9 a.m. and noon on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays.