In Southern California and other mild-winter climates, winter months offer cool weather to make working in the garden a pleasant job and enough rain to make digging soil easier. Winter is also the best time to prepare new garden beds for planting. Whether you are starting a new garden or cleaning up an old one, here are some suggestions you can keep in mind to make sure you start out right.
Prepare your garden soil. Dig over the upper surface of your soil and remove larger stones and sticks. When you dig over the soil, you will be aerating it and cutting down on weed germination. Deep digging is usually not necessary and can disturb the natural balance of living and non-living materials below. Turning the soil is the perfect time to add any organics or other soil amendments that might make your soil into a better home for the plants you plan to plant. For native California plants, many drought-tolerants and most cacti and succulents, add no extras to your soil. Most of the inland chaparral has the well-drained, low-organic soil these plants want. City areas tend to have more clay which is rich in minerals, but drains poorly so these soils will do well with added sand, pebbles or other soil conditioners.
Add compost for the more traditional garden plants, and if you want to try any of the acid-lovers like azaleas, camellias or gardenias, plan on digging in plenty of peat, moss or other acid soil amendments. Expect to babysit acid loving plants inland as local hard water might be neutralizing all your efforts to keep these plants happy. They are best grown in small, contained beds or pots where you’ll have the most control over keeping down alkalinity. Most of the Southern California city areas have softer water and will find it easier to grow acid-loving plants.
Remove as many weeds as you can. Hand removal and hoeing are easiest when weeds are small. If you have a new garden bed where there are likely to be left over roots or weed seeds that will become problematic in the spring, you might want to lay down a covering of black plastic that will heat up in the sun and fry some of those nascent problems below. Layers of newspaper will also help to suffocate unwanted weeds in the unplanted soil. Leave the covering on top of the soil for at least a month during winter before planting. Expect some tough roots like dandelion or Bermuda grass to survive despite your best efforts.
Build your new garden bed with provisions to discourage pests. Line the bottom of new planters with hardware cloth or small gauge chicken wire to discourage gophers from burrowing up from below. Try surrounding beds with solid or wire walls or where rabbits can are looking to feast off of your young plants. Preparing for pests when the garden planter is new will save you a lot of frustration and retrofitting later.
Make new vegetable beds safe. Be cautious about introducing toxic materials to edible gardens. If you are using railroad ties or treated wood for construction, you may want to line the vegetable plot with plastic sheeting. Railroad ties can leach creosote into the soil and there is some concern about the chemicals used in preserved wood, though the question is still under debate. Both these materials make good surrounds for gardens, but you might want to stay safe by lining the interior of vegetable gardens.
Factor in irrigation early. Most garden plants will need extra water during Southern California’s hot, dry summers. If you install your watering systems before planting, you will avoid damaging the root systems of your plants. A successful landscape will have more than one type of irrigation. Woody plants and drought-tolerant plants usually appreciate slow, deep watering. Lawns prefer staying moist within the top inch or so of the soil. Popular bedding annuals and the majority of vegetables like plenty of water. Container gardens need carefully placed irrigation. And hillsides should be treated differently from level areas. There are a lot of different systems to choose from even within the categories of drip, sprinkler heads, soakers and water flooding applications. If you do a little research you can set up the best system for each area you plant encouraging strong, healthy growth with little water waste. Once you start placing your plants, you can tweak the spacing and volume to make your irrigation efficient.
Plan out your garden beds before planting. Then buy plants and set them where you want first. It is easier to move them around before you actually put them in the ground. Plan them out for their full growth size leaving plenty of room for them to grow. Again, spending a little extra time in the preparation is likely to make for more successful new garden beds.
It may take a little more time to set up your garden planting carefully at the start, but the savings in time and expense later will more than pay you back. Plus, seeing your plants thriving and showing off beautifully as they grow in will certainly make the effort worthwhile.
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