Note: The following was written in the previous millenium, at the end of a rainy winter.
There’s a proverb that says, “Spend too much time looking at the clouds and you will never plant.”
Those clouds could turn into a storm, you might think. And that storm could bring a downpour and that downpour could flood your new garden and damage or wash away all the work you put into your seeds and plants.
Nancy Harrington, perhaps the most down-to-earth garden designer in Los Angeles, doesn’t spend much time looking at the clouds. In fact, she has been planting new gardens throughout this winter – an El Nino winter.
Her plants are thriving and her patrons are singing her praises, even as excessively wet weather continues to douse the Southland.
“Well, you know,” she says nonchalantly, “it’s only rain, after all.”
In many cases, the much-maligned weather phenomenon actually has done more good than harm, according to Harrington.
“The long spell of rainy weather has been a blessing; the extra water has increased and prolonged the flowering of winter-blooming plants,” she said. “Last year, it stopped raining in January and we had much less color in our gardens as a result.”
Rain really hasn’t been the worst part of this winter’s weather, Harrington adds. It was the cold.
Most homeowners, however, abandoned their gardens and headed for the house at the forecast of a wet winter late last year.
“Nurseries have had a very old and tired collection of plants these days because not many people are planting right now; they all think it’s going to keep raining,” Harrington said.
I had to confess to my own skepticism about planting in wet soil. What could possibly stand up in mud?
Harrington’s solution: “Mixing in the required quantity of compost dries the soil out to the point where planting in it is not a problem.”
Her planting techniques served Elaine and Steve Murphy well. The Murphys recently hired Harrington to install gardens around their hilly property near Topanga Canyon Boulevard and Mulholland Drive.
At the base of a slope, she planted several different cultivars of what many consider to be some of the trickiest plants to grow: the Australian and New Zealand tea trees (Leptospermum species), most of which are actually shrubs. Unless planted in soil with excellent drainage, tea trees quickly die; yet, the plants need more water than California natives and most other dry climate plants. All of the tea trees in this garden looked perfect, and many were in full bloom.
Harrington’s recommended compost is Gro-Mulch. She used 152 bags (3 cubic feet per bag) of it on this project, which couldn’t have been more than 1,500 square feet in size.
Such intensive soil-amending would, by itself, reduce the amount of standing water in a garden. To be safe, however, Steve Murphy installed drains at the garden’s low points to dispatch any excess water that might settle there.
In the flat lands of Sherman Oaks, the drainage may not always be as good as in the hills.
In Mia and John Hollick’s back yard, the lettuce, beans and tomatoes just won’t grow. The Hollicks are used to seeing all three plants making good progress by now, but not this year.
“The lettuces are small, the beans are stunted and the tomato seeds haven’t even sprouted,” Mia Hollick complained.
And yet, just a few doors down from the Hollicks, at the home of Ronette and Robert Simon, there are unmistakable signs of horticultural health.
“Our grapefruit tree has never had such a large crop,” Robert Simon said proudly.
Pointing to an 8-foot-tall Chinese lantern (Abutilon) covered with hundreds of flowers, Ronette Simon said, “This is the most it has ever bloomed.”
It seems plants that were already established well before El Nino’s arrival – like those in the Simons’ garden – were poised to benefit greatly from the extra moisture. But any new plantings that hadn’t had a chance to firmly root themselves before this winter – like the Hollicks’ vegetables – were vulnerable to too much pounding from rain and possibly poor drainage.
“Just as in life, abundance will bring out the best and the worst of conditions,” Harrington said.
The biggest – literally – victims of the heavy rains haven’t been stunted vegetables or water-logged seedlings, but older trees that have come tumbling down.
Augustine Parra, tree surgeon for Los Angeles Unified School District, traces the problem to a combination of improper planting and pruning practices.
“A tree that is planted in a root-bound condition – with circling roots – may grow well for 10 or 20 years and achieve considerable size. In a heavy rain, the canopy takes up an enormous amount of water and the tree becomes dangerously top heavy, especially where too many lower branches have been removed,” Parra said. “The tree falls over and the roots are found not to have developed that much, still growing in a circle close to the trunk. We see this especially with pine trees.”
Homeowners can take heart. A tree will give off warning signs before it falls. Stress marks or cracks will appear on the soil surface near the trunk. Also look for a change in elevation of one sprinkler in relation to those around it; this means roots are pushing up on the sprinkler as the trunk leans hazardously to one side.
With an eye on tree roots working their way out of wet soil and special care toward providing proper drainage for your smaller plants, El Nino’s presence doesn’t have to mean plans for your garden this year have to be a wash.
If you do things right, El Nino could prove a boon rather than a bust for your garden.
Garden may be down, but not out
Back in the fall, when El Nino predictions looked like a big joke, you planted, you fertilized, you dreamed of beautiful spring gardens abloom.
Now that garden’s a muddy mess, with not a shoot in sight. What to do?
Here are a few tips on how to salvage what’s left of your flower bed and vegetable garden:
Amend your soil to improve drainage.
Take advantage of the rainy season to spot areas in your garden where water tends to pool. When the storm clouds clear, go back and solve those drainage problems to prevent drowning your plants during the next rains.
If you can’t plant, prune. Your established plants can use it.
In Southern California, where we usually have desertlike conditions, this dousing from El Nino-related storms is a rare treat for your garden. Don’t let all that rain go to waste. As we head out of the rainy season, continue to water regularly and deeply so your plants can continue to flourish.
All of this wet weather will mean a larger-than-usual insect population. Start planning now to prevent overpopulation by adding a birdhouse or birdbath to your garden to woo those insect-eaters.