Hard Pan

A.V. Walters

The blessing and curse in this area of Sonoma County, is the ubiquitous, clay layer in the soil. There’s a reason that there’s an Adobe Road in Petaluma. During the rainy season it’s not a problem but starting around June, about six inches down, we get a really hard, clay layer. You plant early here, or not at all. (Oh, I suppose you could use dynamite and break up the soil, and get a handle on the gophers, in one step.) The good news is, that once the garden is in, that subsurface clay layer locks the moisture down in the root zone—making for lovely gardening conditions. No rain in the summer means very little weeding. Since we plant in buckets, we water into the well of the bucket and don’t waste any water where there aren’t vegetables. The soil otherwise is lush and fertile.

Since we will be away for the early part of May, Rick and I started early yesterday, digging in some of the buckets. It’s still too cool at night to put our starts in but daytime temperatures soared into the eighties, for a blistering day of digging (It takes extra planning to be sure you’ll be digging on the hottest days.)  I’ve been worried about the soil. All winter I’ve been commenting about how little rain fell this season. We need it to recharge the soils—and the supply for well water. And, if yesterday was any indication, we’re in for a very dry summer. Already the clay layer has started to harden—in May! We dug in about fifty buckets, about half of what we’ll do for the season. Usually we wouldn’t see these conditions for another four or five weeks. It makes for slower going, because the buckets go in deeper than that hard clay and because you need to break through it, or you risk having a “perched” layer, where any water you add follows the clay shelf and doesn’t sink down into the root zone. We dig in each bucket with a shovel-full or two of Elmer’s finest, eight-year-old manure.

It’s a community garden, sometimes in The Little Red Hen, sense. Though everyone this year is excited about the garden, only one neighbor stepped up to the plate with a shovel, yesterday. I guess we must have looked pretty rough—sweating up a storm with our grunting and digging—not exactly an ad for Fun with Gardening. At least we didn’t need to pull out the adze.

I’m particularly fond of “The Claw” for this kind of work. Yep, The Claw, (As seen on TV!) I used to scoff at those ads, but my nephew set me straight. It was years ago, during a time when I was disabled from a car accident. My nephew was visiting and had been directed by his mother to help me put in the garden. He asked me where my Claw was. Eh? What’s that?

He went on to say that his mum couldn’t garden without it. He turned up his nose at my trusty spade and garden fork. So, off he went to the hardware store to get The Claw. I was dubious. Then I watched, and tried, and became a convert. It’s the perfect tool for breaking down through our cursed, clay layer. Real men scoff at it, it looks like a girl-tool. But when push comes to dig, I noticed that even they reach for The Claw.

So, it’ll be a dry summer in the garden. Thank god for buckets. I noticed how strange my priorities have become when our new neighbor offered some really lovely, black buckets to the cause. I was almost drooling. Testing the waters I inveigled, “You know, we’ll have to drill holes in these for drainage?”

“Sure, do whatever. I was going to take them to the recycling-center, anyway.”

Nirvana! Lovely, choice buckets, heavy-duty, wide, but not too deep (think grueling, clay layer, here) perfect for winter squash or cooking-pumpkins. (This ain’t no Jack-O-Lantern garden!) You know you’ve gone a little batty when you covet someone’s used, nursery buckets. What a garden-gal won’t do…. Rick drilled them (adding additional, drainage holes—large enough for fast drainage but still too small for a gopher!) and we had them in the ground within an hour. A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Now, we’re ready for whatever weather comes our way.

Tomato-land is ready to go into its new digs, in the long garden. This is our warmest, sunniest garden and I’m expecting great results this year. Today I’ll sterilize the tomato cages and get them in. We have the super-sturdy, delux, 42-inch tomato cages. That part of the garden always looks impressive. Elmer likes a tidy garden. I accommodate by planting with plenty of space between the tomato buckets. I’ve done square-foot gardening with great results, but here we have room to spare, so we spread out some. We put in twenty-two tomato buckets, (plus six in our back yard for those troublesome Romas.) Hopefully, this year we’ll keep the tomatoes plants to less than thirty. (I know, I’ve said that before.)

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