by Charlene Burgi
Alarm clocks are no longer needed in our home since the pups arrived on the scene. Every morning between 5:30 and 6:30, four front puppy paws appear on the edge of the mattress to let Jack and I know it is time to get up.
Those paws, to my consternation, tell me more than the time. They also reveal the current weather conditions based on the mud or snow they track in as they race through the house after being outdoors. The dilemma is that Misty knows how to open the front door if it isn’t locked, so unwelcome tell-tale (no pun intended) paw-print signs show up all over the floor.
The bad news is the carpets and tile floors are in a constant state of being shampooed or vacuumed. The good news is the pups’ imprints tell me if the soil outside is like a sponge or in need of amendments. One could almost say their paw prints in the house are sure indicators of which outdoor areas they’ve explored. Did their paws sink into the rich, healthy soil of the garden area? (Muddy prints.) Or did they explore an area in need of more amendments, where water tends to collect or run off? (Wet prints.)
Indicators help us all know what to do to create living sponge-like soil in our gardens. Marin is famous for clay soils where water pools up in level areas or runs off on slopes. Runoff carries away nutrients that plants need, erodes what little topsoil may exist, and will shorten the life of asphalt. Clay also compacts easily, trapping rich nutrients within and requiring us to buy fertilizer to feed our plants.
In last week’s workshop, Brad Lancaster mentioned various ways to create living sponges in the garden and avoid funneling precious rainfall straight to the bay. First, direct water to your plants—or as he says, “plant the rain.” This is done by grading the soil toward your plants, creating conduits to guide water to where it can soak into richly fed earth. Second, amend and mulch. Leave your clippings around the base of your plants unless the material is diseased. This natural mulch will break down and add nutrients back into the soil. The more leaf-drop and amendments left to decompose, the more sponge-like the soil will be. Compost made from kitchen scraps and added to the garden will also provide healthy and diverse life while breaking down clay soil conditions. In turn, the soil absorbs more water. This synergic process reminds me of a childhood song called “Dem Bones” that describes how our bones are all connected to make a whole!
Are you thinking of harvesting rainwater? Soaking up the rain with your soil is the first and healthiest step for your garden. Take a walk. Do you see any indicators of erosion, puddles, or salt stains on hardscapes from irrigation runoff? How much water can you save by planting it back into the garden instead of into storm drains? How much money can you save by using such amendments as home-grown compost or allowing the leaf litter and garden clippings to stay where they fall? How much rainwater can you save by keeping it on your property? Let your eyes be the indicators and use your ingenuity to come up with ways to turn hardpan clay into a living sponge.
For those ready to grow their rainwater harvesting and graywater expertise to the next level, there are two upcoming courses that may be of interest. Both are geared to landscape professionals. The American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association presents a two-day rainwater harvesting accreditation course March 10-11 in Napa. And starting March 25 in Santa Rosa will be a free, four-session Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper (QWEL) Graywater Training. Please share these opportunities with others who may be interested!