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Preparing for (possible) rain

Fall greetings gardening friends! iGROWSonoma is back, thanks to a few dedicated people with Sonoma County Department of Health Services, where iGrow was born, and one particular, (and modest), dedicated community volunteer, who spent many, many hours reformatting the information onto an independent web site. Still to come are the garden-related event calendar, where you can find classes, workshops, plant sales and other listings. Also, we want to bring back the “comments” function, which was part of the iGROW blog but not being used very often. We want to hear from you – your gardening questions and suggestions for how iGROW can serve our goals – to promote growing, eating and sharing fresh, locally grown produce in our region.

Where to start after a long, full gardening season? Like many farmers and others in our region, my focus is on now – autumn – with the hopeful anticipation of rain. But as the experts say – no promises. The El Nino deluges could be few and far between, miss us completely, or we could be inundated. Only time will tell. How to prepare for this uncertainty is on our minds.

A lot of good information on managing rainwater has been offered in previous iGROW blog posts and in several of our documents. There is an excellent in-depth guide, “A Homeowner’s and Landowner’s Guide to Beneficial Stormwater Management”, at the Sonoma Resource Conservation District web site,


Simply put, we need to make our soils into absorbent sponges. Hard, compacted soils should be loosened and organic materials such as compost, manures, leaves, and straw put in and on the soil. On larger properties and slopes, creating “berms and swales” along the contours will help capture water and “slow it, spread it, sink it and store it” in the soil. I saw a video the other night that showed how a farm in southern California had raised the water level in their well significantly – even after a whole season of irrigation – after installing berms and swales before the December storm last year.

Can we do anything like this on a garden scale? How much impact you can have on rainwater infiltration will depend partly on your subsoil type and other factors beyond your control. But it will always be good to reduce impermeable surfaces and keep as much organic material on the soil as possible. This means “leave the leaves” when they drop on the soil. Rake leaves off patios and driveways and add them to unpaved areas.

However, a thick mulch will also prevent light rain from reaching the soil. I’ve been thinking that in and around our gardens it might be good to make mini berms and swales just with mulch, creating rows around a foot or so wide, alternating thicker and thin layers of mulch. This way light rain will still reach the soil in the thinly mulched rows but when we get heavy rain, the thick rows of mulch will prevent erosion and provide additional protection. Just make sure that the rows run perpendicular to slopes, and take care not to direct water under buildings.

With all this talk about the importance of organic material, it is a sad irony that we’ve now lost our outstanding local composting company. Our yard and other green waste is now being trucked to 3 other counties – at great expense. Both an incredibly valuable resource and many more dollars are now being lost, while the county’s greenhouse gas emissions increase. While the politics of this situation evolve, the best thing that we can do is to keep our organics at home. It’s more important than ever to make your own compost, if you can. Whether you make static piles that slowly decompose, have bins and turn your compost regularly or get worms and let them eat your kitchen and garden waste, what’s important is to recycle your organic materials on site.

My garden is in fall transition phase. I’m still planting the late stuff -escaroles and endives that I started in late September and a few more kohlrabi. In early November I’ll direct sow some bok choys and perhaps some fava beans. This is garlic planting time too. By then the rest of the summer crops will be done and most of the garden will get mulched. I have one new bed that this week will get planted to crimson clover as a cover crop, while the soil is still warm. I’ll scatter the clover seeds on the rough surface and cover with a light layer of compost.

I’m also keeping a close eye on pests, as the birds like my young lettuce and the brassicas are attracting cabbage worms, Bagrada and Harlequin beetles, and aphids. Rain and cooler weather will help this situation too!

Remember to take notes while memory is fresh on how your summer garden did. What varieties did you like or not like? What could change – planting dates, spacing, nutrients?

Enjoy the fall!