By Charlotte Torgovitsky
Early in the rainy season is when many of our native plants come alive again – and what a wondrous thing that is!
By Charlotte Torgovitsky
The Rainy Season is Our Planting Season. Early in the rainy season is when many of our native plants come alive again – and what a wondrous thing that is! With no more than a tenth of an inch of measurable rainfall, the nascent buds on the dormant Golden Currant (Ribes aureum) start to swell and unfurl brand new leaves, and within a month the shrubs are full of little yellow flowers! Salvias that looked nearly dead to an untrained eye put on new growth – both leaf and root, and soon enough flowers will follow. As the days lengthen and warm up, the insects will come alive. Wildflower seeds that were dropped in late spring or summer are just waiting for a bit of rain to germinate; I love looking for these tiny plantlets and challenging myself to identify the species.
Gardeners come alive too and are ready to once again add more plants to their gardens. However, before you purchase plants, make sure your soil is prepped and you have the space for the mature size of the new plants. Whether you are creating a brand-new garden or making room for more plants in an established garden, the single most important thing you can do is to focus on building healthy soil.
Ribes aureum – Golden Currant Planted in part shade under a live oak so no irrigation or additional watering is necessary in summer.
Please Don’t Call It Dirt!
Soil is a living ecosystem populated by an interconnected web of life; dirt is the stuff you sweep out of your house to throw away.The soil food web includes creatures that are scavengers, decomposers, and predators, as well as many types of fungal growths. These living beings, many of which are microscopic, all work in harmony to improve soil texture and friability, increase water retention and heat absorption, and moderate the soil pH. A healthy soil food web provides a full spectrum of nutrients and trace elements, in the forms that are best used by plants and at the time they are most needed by the plants; it also helps plants fight certain pathogens. In nature, the food web is developed and maintained from the top down, with leaf and plant litter left in place to decompose naturally. Organic gardeners build healthy soil by mimicking nature, always feeding the soil from the top down, thereby avoiding too much disruption to the creatures of the soil. Organic gardeners recycle plant materials on site, either by mulching under and around all plantings, creating compost in managed piles, or creating brush piles. Organic gardeners will often use sheet-mulching when creating new planting areas to build healthy soil. Sheet-mulching is a method of composting in place; layers of organic material are used to smother existing unwanted plants (a lawn, non-native groundcovers, or just unwanted weeds). Those layers break down over time to create fertile soil. For brand new planting areas, it really pays to sheet mulch about a year ahead of planting, especially if you must rid your garden of certain non-native invasive weeds! Some people like to have a soil test done in a lab, but there are simple ways to test for your soil type. A percolation test just requires digging a hole, filling it with water, and timing how long that water takes to drain. A jar test is also easy and will help you determine if your soil is sandy, loamy, or more clayey. Complete instructions for these tests can be found in the “Watershed Approach to Landscaping” book, available on the Marin Municipal Water District website.
All of these ‘soil conditions’ need the same remedy: compost, compost, compost! But remember that compost is an ephemeral thing; it gets ‘used up’ and needs to be replaced regularly. This occurs normally in nature, as each season a new layer of ‘duff’, leaf and plant litter, falls and remains in place to decompose naturally.
Slender Salamanders – Creatures of the Soil
When I’m working in my garden during the rainy season and happen to move a log or stone or even just rough up some compost or leaf litter, I will sometimes disturb the delicate little California slender salamanders (Batrachoseps attenuatus).
Slender salamanders are found along the California coast, where there are twenty different species, each with very restricted ranges. They are predators of even smaller creatures, and individual populations have a ‘home range’ that may not be much more than a foot or two in diameter. As the weather warms, and the soil starts to dry out, they move further down into the soil; and during the rainy season the migrate back up.
These salamanders are no more that two or three inches long, really slender, and with legs so tiny that one can easily think it’s an earthworm. They are motionless at first, so look closely, and perhaps you can even count the toes; slender salamanders have just four toes on the front legs, but five on their back legs. One can also tell the sexes apart; males have a blunt upper snout, but the lower jaw is pointed.
Salvia spathaceae, one during the rainy season and the other (exactly the same plants) during the dry dormant season. They are planted under the canopy of a live oak so no irrigation or additional watering with these plants. A bit more that 1/10 inch of rain to restore them.