While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

July Theme: Water

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Every Drop Counts:

The quality of your soil determines the health of your garden.  In urban settings, soil experiences destabilization frequently.  Compaction, desiccation, and flooding are some of the most common conditions that effect soil, while harmful practices such as excessive tilling, removing plant debris from soil surface, walking on wet soil, and use of fertilizers contribute to those conditions.  Healthy soil will absorb large quantities of water without puddling and flooding; it will have a loose, friable structure which allows ease of movement for roots and exchange of gasses; it will support the microorganisms and fungi necessary for plant health; it makes nutrients readily available to plants; and it will sequester large amounts of carbon.  And once your soil is working at optimum health, your work load will decrease noticeably.

The following are just a few steps to guide you through the soil-building process, and help you grow resilient plants that it will sail smoothly through our increasingly dry summers and autumns, and exceedingly wet winters, with ease.

  1. Don’t rake your garden beds! Leave plant debris on the soil surface where it falls.  Unless the plant material is extremely diseased or damaged by some chemical application, leave it on the surface where it can become part of the natural process of decomposition.  If the debris looks too messy to you, cover it with a thin covering of mulch or – as I’ve said before – lower your standards.
  2. Mulch your garden beds a minimum of twice per year, or more often if your soil is in poor condition. The benefits of mulch can’t be overstated; it keeps roots cool in summer, conserves soil moisture, as it breaks down it feeds the millions of microorganisms that build and sustain plant health, it prevents some weed seeds (but not all) from germinating and makes those weeds that do grow much easier to pull, it minimizes or prevents damage from freeze/thaw cycles, it prevents soil erosion, and mulch alleviates the need for fertilizers.
  3. Choose a few nitrogen-fixing plants to add to your garden. Plants such as Lupine, clovers, American or Japanese Wisteria, some Ceanothus, and many other plants appropriate for home gardens will fix nitrogen in the soil.

What does healthy garden soil have to do with water?  As gardeners in the Pacific Northwest have witnessed during the past decade, our summers and autumns become dryer and warmer with each year.  Water in the western United States has always been scarce, and often the cause of conflict between communities.  As human population grows and more demands are made upon our rivers, streams, and water sheds, these conflicts will increase and our undeveloped, wild areas will experience even more drought damage.  Maintaining healthy soil will decrease your need to water your garden by as much as half in summer and autumn.  Healthy soil retains moisture longer than poor soil, it absorbs more rain during downpours than poor soil, because plants grown in healthy soil have deeper and more extensive roots they live through drought conditions much easier than otherwise, and are much less disease-prone.

It is often said that good gardening begins with the soil.  With healthy soil your plants will be happier, your workload will decrease, and your need for supplemental water will become less each year.  It’s a win-win for all involved.

In my next post, I will explore ways to capture water used at home for use in your garden.




Author: dphare2014

Horticulturist, Lead Steward Carkeek Park Demonstration Gardens, Author

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