Garden Notebook: April Showers
Learning to work with unpredictable seasonal rain in the garden
April Showers: Learning to Work with Unpredictable Rain
As San Diegans, we are trained to anticipate rain in the same way we look forward to big holidays or a surprise visit from distant relatives. Both are exciting but, if you’re caught off guard, anxiety can set in. Rain in California is a rarity (except for this year, am I right?), and all too often we can find ourselves overwhelmed by the unexpected power and disruption a few inches of precipitation can bring.
It was around this time last year that I first decided I wanted to be “a real gardener” and began my rehab garden journey. Plans were made and plants were purchased, but overnight Mother Nature reminded me she has her own plans…and it poured! My already chaotic garden turned into a mushy disaster zone.
Learn your soil profile
Knowing what you’re working with underground has been one of the most important things I’ve learned since I started my garden journey. When it comes to soil, too much of anything is a bad thing. Just like anything else in life, the right balance is vital. If your soil contains too much clay, you can end up with a muddy mess at the first sign of rain. If you don’t have enough, the ground will have a hard time sticking to your plant’s roots, i.e. they can’t retain moisture. An excellent balanced soil profile to shoot for is loamy soil, which is usually 40-percent sand, 40-percent silt and 20-percent clay.
How do you know what’s in your soil? I found a soil-testing experiment at Preparedness Mama (preparednessmama.com) that I did with my kids—I’m all about encouraging my kids to become little scientists, so anytime the garden presents an experiment, I jump at the opportunity.
How to Test Your Soil
1. To test what’s in your soil, it’s as simple as gathering samples in mason jars until the containers are about 3/4 full. Try more than one from different areas in your garden.
2. Next, add water and a couple of tablespoons of dish soap to break things up a bit.
3. Seal it up and give it a good, long shake.
4. After leaving the jars overnight, watch how the particles settle. Record how much gravel, sand, silt and clay are layered in your jars. If it looks like you lack material in any of the layers, supplement your soil to prevent runoff, erosion and (even though your kids love them) mud pits.
Now that you know what you have in the ground, you can formulate a plan for proper drainage before you get several inches of rain.
Consider a rain garden
For me, one of the best parts of gardening is tapping into my creativity, something that a lot of moms know only gets utilized when assisting with last minute book-report covers and science-fair projects. Sigh. But designing my garden’s layout has been a refreshing outlet. It’s a guilt-free, satisfying “me time” to read and dream for my home and family. I didn’t anticipate how often you get to change things in the garden, but I love reimagining spaces as the seasons change and new challenges or ideas arise. During my research on how I can utilize the year’s wet weather in the garden, I discovered the concept of rain gardens in New Landscaping Ideas That Work by Julie Moir Messervy (Taunton Press, 2018).
What’s a rain garden? It’s not only a beautiful space, but it’s also a tool to slow down water flow and help prevent puddling and those darn mushy mud pits. First, choose an area that usually collects water and excavate a bowl-like depression that can retain the runoff. You’ll want to layer the center of the “bowl” with gravel and sand, and then place rocks around the sides and water-tolerant plants down the center. You then fill the garden space with native plants that can withstand both wet and dry conditions. Rain gardens are designed to retain and drain water away from structures, so while you have something great to look at, you are also directing water where you want and preventing unnecessary runoff. Tap into your creative side and make your rain garden as simple or as extravagant—such as the one above designed by Nancy Harrington of Evergreen Garden Designs—as you’d like.
Fertilize and mulch, mulch, mulch
I know I hammer this home almost every month, but more than ever, it’s so crucial to mulch over your existing plants and soil. Add 2 to 3 inches of a protective layer, whether its leaves, clippings or wood chips, to preserve existing plants and prevent erosion if they get too much water.
Something I can’t wait to try this rainy season is organically fertilizing with molasses. I know, it sounded odd to me too, but hey, maybe our soil loves sweets as much as we do. I plan on mixing 1/4 cup of molasses for every 1 gallon of water.
If you don’t have any molasses lying around, add some organic compost to ensure your soil and plant’s root systems are ready for the rain to arrive.
Don’t forget the automatic stuff
Dark clouds looming? Try to think ahead.
Don’t fall victim to standing in the middle of your local grocery store on a rainy day, with your cart filled to the brim, only to remember that you left your favorite clippers outside and your garden sprinklers are on an auto five-minute watering cycle.
In the middle of all your rain prep, don’t forget to do a quick sweep of your stray tools and TURN OFF YOUR IRRIGATION!
Gutters and rain collection
Before the rain comes, make sure your gutters are clear for smooth water flow and that your downspouts are secure. Also, check for leaky spots or holes in your gutters that create those lovely waterfalls over your walkways and windows. If your gutters are in good shape, you may also consider diverting your downspout into a handy rain barrel. Don’t forget to also attach a pipe from your downspout to your new rain garden.
My husband’s favorite saying is to “work smarter not harder,” and that’s just the ticket when it comes to rain barrels. You can tap into resources you’re already enjoying (thanks Mother Earth!) and collect the clean runoff that can provide water for your garden and animals for weeks.