A great garden requires great soil.
Whether you are growing trees, shrubs, perennials, or annual flowers or vegetables, if you want healthy, vibrant, and productive plants you will want to invest time and energy creating great soil - the best home for your plants.
You have heard this before, but here it is again: the best thing you can feed your soil is organic compost - the decomposed remains of organic matter such as leaves, grass, kitchen scraps, and other garden remains.
Why is compost good?
Compost is a storehouse of nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and other elements that plants thrive on. Compost feeds the soil micro-organisms and earthworms that enrich soil life and boost the availability of nutrients to plants. It holds up to 80 percent of its weight in water, increasing the availability of moisture to plants in dry times. It improves soil aeration, and it holds the warmth of the sun in cool weather. Warm soil, soil nutrients, and soil moisture are the key elements of good plant growth.
Late winter and early spring - February and March - is an ideal time to prepare your garden's soil for the coming growing season. Add one to two inches of aged compost across the top of your growing beds; do this at least once in spring and again next fall if you can. Rain and irrigation as well as the light turn of your shovel will work the compost deep into your garden improving soil structure and providing nutrition for plants.
Where to get compost
You can make your own compost or you can buy it bagged at a nearby nursery or garden supplier: check Swede's Feeds in Kenwood, Prickett's Nursery in Rincon Valley, or Friedman's Home Improvement or Wedekind's Nursery in Sonoma - ask for aged compost or organic planting mix. You will pay about $9 to $12 for 1_ cubic foot bag; that will cover 18 square feet to one inch deep or 9 square feet to two inches deep. You can also buy compost by the truckload from landscape supply yards such as Grab N' Grow in Santa Rosa. Always ask for weed-seed free compost; no sense importing someone else's weeds into your garden.
How to make compost
If you want to make your own compost, here's how: select a level spot that is 3-feet to 4-feet square that is close to the garden; set in place a compost bin or open cage (make a simple round cage out of 10'-length of hardware cloth or wire); fill the cage with leaves, grass clipping, and kitchen scraps - not meat or dairy products - and wait. You will have compost in three to six months depending on the weather - the warmer the weather, the faster organic materials decompose. Good compost will smell earthy or woodsy and will lightly crumble through your fingers.
How to apply compost
Apply compost around existing trees, shrubs and perennials; spread it out to the plant's drip line or slightly beyond. The drip line is an imaginary line that extends from furthest outstretching branch of the plant to the ground. If you are planting new trees or shrubs, put several handfuls or shovelfuls into the planting hole. If you are growing annual flowers or vegetables, spread the compost across the top of the planting bed.
Checklist of things to do in the
Even though the weather can be unpredictable in late winter and early spring, there is still plenty you can do to get the garden going now through March. Here are some suggestions:
- Start weeding perennial and annual flower beds.
- Prune rosebushes, fertilize them and put fresh mulch over the root zone.
- Plant sweet pea seeds outdoors as soon as the soil is dry enough to turn.
- Set out primroses, pansies, and violas now. Towards the middle of March you will be able set out stocks, snapdragons, sweet alyssum, and sweet William.
- Sow indoors seeds of coreopsis, impatiens, and petunias for transplanting later.
- Sow seeds of California poppies, cosmos, forget-me-nots, and nasturtiums directly into the garden.
- Set cool-weather vegetables out in the garden now including arugula, kale, onions, peas, and lettuce.
- Start summer vegetable seeds indoors soon - about 12 weeks before you plan to transplant them into the garden. (May 15 is a fairly safe date for the last frost in Kenwood and most of Sonoma Valley.) Start tender crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant indoors in about one month. Now is the time to assemble your seed-starting trays and mix, and buy seed.
Here are some of the plants you will see blooming in gardens around Kenwood during the next month: camellias, crocus, narcissus, daphne, galanthus, helleborus, iberis, and viburnum.
Steve Albert is the author of The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide available at Amazon.com. He teaches in the landscape design program at the U.C. Berkeley Extension. He lives in Oakmont.