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Garden Variety: Garden Preparation Means Getting to Know the Dirt By RON SULLIVAN

Friday January 27, 2006

Last week I counseled patience with a newly acquired garden. Honest to Ceres, it really does pay off, or at least cost less in terms of lost plants and ego-damage, to wait a full year before doing anything major and permanent to your land. You don’t have to sit on your thumbs: put in some encouraging annuals, watch when sprouts from whatever was left behind, and get your hands in the dirt in the meantime. You know you want to.  

While you’re waiting impatiently to see what kind of yard you have and decide what you can grow there, you can do some simple testing to speed the process. 

What is the soil like? You probably won’t need expensive testing; you can learn what you need to easily. In Berkeley, you probably have clay. In the flatlands, that means poor drainage, but that can be improved. In the hills the drainage is better but the soil’s thinner, and there’s a slim chance you have some serpentine-derived soil. (Look for deep-maroon soil that most stuff isn’t growing well in.) Pick it up and squeeze it. Does it fall apart, wet as it is in midwinter? Good. You must have very good drainage and/or a gift of amended soil from your predecessors. 

Most of us have icky sticky bricky clay to work with. You know you’re one of us when the soil has stayed wet enough after a few non-rainy days to turn into a tight ball with your fingerprints on it. That also means you shouldn’t be digging it, walking on it, or generally messing with it because compressing it now will cost you lots of fluffing and amending later. 

Smell the dirt. Really. Hold a handful to your nose and savor the bouquet. Is it sour or stagnant-stinking? That’s really bad drainage. I have a mysterious watery hole in my yard, where the driveway turns from concrete to dirt, that smells like that. It’s not near a sewer or waterline; it appears every winter, no matter what I’ve tried to fill it with—rocks, sand, soil, garden waste, random small objects from the house. Something like it (OK, larger) appeared in Pennsylvania where a coalmine caved in, when I was a kid, and half the Susquehanna River poured into it. They tried truckloads of fill, concrete, even a locomotive and some of its train—really; I have pictures. I don’t remember what finally got the thing plugged. I’m worrying. If you hear that south Berkeley’s vanished, it might be my fault. 

Just plain clay smells like, well, clay: wet bricks, modeling clay (not plasticine), a freshly-watered plant’s pot. Dig a hole. How hard was that? Did the mud stick to your spade? Clay. Good amended garden soil, fit for growing food and most non-natives, smells loamy like a damp forest floor or just-picked root veggies.  

After rain, look for long-lasting puddles or mushrooms or even moss on the ground. That’s where you put your water feature. Watch the course of water running through your yard. You’ll be better off adapting to that than trying to make big changes in it. ?