Winter Planning

In the middle of winter, when the ground in most parts of
California is too wet to work, there is still something you can do to get the
garden ready for summer. Whether you
want to rejuvenate last year’s flower beds, reclaim a section of lawn for a
little wilderness area, carve out enough space for some shrubs or perennials,
or just get ready to seed in some seed-producing summer annuals, now is the
time to prepare the ground for summer planting.

 Once you’ve
identified a patch of ground in need of some preparation, clear the weeds by
cutting them down with a string trimmer or by hand, but take care not to pull
weeds out by the root—you’ll disturb the soggy ground too much. Instead, your goal is just to create a level
surface to get you ready for the next step: smothering the weeds.

 Cover the
ground with two or three layers of cardboard—cardboard moving boxes work nicely
for this—or good thick sections of newspaper consisting of at least 10 to 20
pages each. Make sure the layers
overlap, then start piling on organic matter. You can use dead leaves, grass clippings, rice straw, aged manure, or finished
compost. Layer it on until you have a
foot or two of organic matter—you’ll be surprised at how quickly it will settle
over the winter. Finish with a layer of
compost or a bagged planting mix. 

 Now, if
you’re in a coastal area where temperatures do not get below freezing for long,
seed in a cover crop. Fava, vetch, and
ryegrass are all good options that will put down roots, adding still more
organic matter to the mix and helping to hold the compost in place. It will be slow to grow in winter, but the
roots will be working all winter to build the soil so you can plant in spring.

 And when it
comes time to start working on that summer garden, you can give the cover crop
the same treatment you gave the weeds—chop it down but don’t uproot it. The roots will decompose slowly and continue
to benefit the soil. With the weeds smothered
and a healthy layer of organic material on the surface, you’ll be ready to
plant directly into your new garden bed—with no backbreaking digging
first. Now the hardest part is deciding
what to plant!