Rain Clouds Have Silver Lining: No Need to Water


February has frequently been our wettest month, which is one reason why gardeners try to get their bare-root planting and dormant pruning done in historically drier January.

This February turned out to the wettest ever, with over 13 inches of rain, breaking a record set in 1884, and lots of gardeners are beginning to wonder if this is good for their gardens.

After all, the average for the entire season is just over 14 inches, and backyards have looked soggy for weeks.

Despite tragedies associated with these February storms, all this rainfall is good for the typical garden, washing accumulated salts from the soil and giving everything a thorough soaking.

In a relatively arid climate like ours, many harmful chemicals build up in a soil over time, especially from over-fertilizing, but a really rainy year will push them down through the soil.

Many gardeners are thoroughly enjoying all the rain. If nothing else, it's giving them a real break from watering, and things planted in the fall have needed no care.

When I asked a group of gardeners in Orange County if they were enjoying this winter as much as I, they answered with a resounding "you bet," or something to that effect.

One, who gardens on the hills above San Clemente, is "loving it" and has kept right on gardening. "I put on my rubber boots and play in the rain," said Beautrice Grow.

She feels "a little guilty that I'm having so much fun in the garden when some are having such problems with the rain, but it has been so beneficial for plants."

I've seen Grow's beautiful garden and know that she spends a lot of time preparing the soil, as do I, which is probably why both of us have been able to garden in those gaps between storms.

I've even managed to plant quite a few things, including some roses, perennials and an 'Anna' apple. Needless to say, I haven't had to water any of my new plants, usually finishing my planting hours before the next storm.

If it stays dry this weekend, as predicted, I'll even start putting in the tomatoes, at least the early varieties such as 'Early Girl,' so I'll have tomatoes before Memorial Day.

Benefits of Mulch

I can get away with this because I've added lots of organic material and gypsum to my clay loam soil, and most of the soil is mulched. As a result, rain doesn't beat down the soil, and excess water drains quickly from the upper layer.

These beds (and not all of my garden is so pampered) can be worked in after just two days of drying out, so I can continue putting in spring flowers, pruning, weeding or whatever.

There's been no flooding or even puddles because the beds are slightly mounded (a byproduct of adding organic amendments), and the garden is graded, so water from sudden downpours heads for the street. Normal rains just soak in.

Grow can work in her garden "almost any time" though she is careful not to step inside garden beds, not wanting to compress the soil. She works from the edges of the lawn or from paths.

Her colorful garden beds are full of homemade compost. "I can't tell you how much I've added to it," she said, and she keeps adding mulch on top, which worms carry into the soil. Her rich, friable soil is seldom too wet to work.

If your beds are not so prepared--if you've been locked out of your garden by clinging, too-wet clay soil or standing water--you can't do much about it now, but you can go to work on it this spring.

The only quick fix is to try to dig little channels that will drain puddling water away from plants. If water sits around plants too long, it may drown them.

If there are spots where you want to plant something, like a bare root rose, gently loosen and open the soil with a spading fork so it can dry, but don't dig in the soil until it becomes crumbly and no longer sticks to the shovel.

The best advice for soggy soil is to stay out of it--don't dig in it, don't even walk on it. When it dries a little in spring, you can start improvements.

Areas in the garden that are low--where puddles last for more than a few hours--should be raised.

This might mean digging things up and redoing the soil. You can't simply add more soil because that will bury the base of plants, which is fatal to all but a very few.

Digging plants up and adding organic matter to the dirt (and gypsum if it's clay) will fluff up the soil so that it is higher than the surrounding ground, which gets rid of puddles.

You can leave paths (or the lawn) lower than the flower beds and they'll act as drains during downpours.

Adding organic matter will also make it easier for water to soak into the soil, and it will dry more quickly, so you can get back to gardening.

It is generally recommended that you add as much as 3 to 4 inches of organic matter, thoroughly mixing it in to a depth of a foot or more.

At the same time, you should slope the ground so it sheds water away from the house and toward the street. Don't overdo this mounding--a couple of inches of height does the trick--or you'll have a hard time watering the bed in summer.

Don't Be a Perfectionist

If you have an older house with a poorly graded lot, you may need a grading or soils engineer to get things running in the right direction. Homes built in the 1920s and '30s often were not graded properly.

Not every garden bed needs to be perfect, only those beds where you constantly putter, such as around roses or where you grow flowers or vegetables.

Other beds should be correctly sloped so water can't sit. But where you are growing shrubs and trees or drought-resistant things, including natives, current thinking suggests not meddling with the soil. These plants seem to prefer an untouched, unamended native soil.

When storms closely follow each other, as they did last weekend, even good soil won't let you work in garden beds. But there is still something you can be doing. You can sow seeds in flats or containers for spring or summer flowers or crops.

All this rain and weather that is beginning to warm will make them germinate quickly. I just sowed lettuce seeds that sprouted in only two days, a record for me.

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