This has been a very wet winter for northern Nevada. While we need the water, our soils need some thoughtful protection, now and throughout the growing season.
We all have garden fever, but it may be too soon and too wet to work your soil right now. The biggest concern after our wet winter is soil compaction. Soil that is saturated with water is easily compacted by both foot traffic and machines. Try to avoid walking, driving or running any machinery over wet soils.
We all want to live in our landscape, so if you can’t avoid traveling over wet soils, try to establish travel paths for both foot traffic and machines. This will limit the compaction to just a few areas. Avoid working your soil when it is too wet, as this will also cause compaction. Compaction destroys the structure of soil, causing loss of critical pore space that hosts air, water, plant roots and other living creatures.
When soils lose pore space, they become less productive and harder to work. If your soils are already compacted, an application of organic matter to the surface can help reduce the compaction, but this takes time. The best strategy is to limit or prevent compaction in your landscape.
Another concern for our soils after this wet winter is erosion. You’ve probably been working to improve your soil, and it is a shame to see it wash away during this winter’s storms. While you can’t do much about past storms, you can start planning for ways to improve your landscape during this growing season.
Look at your landscape and note the areas that formed rills or gullies this wet winter. These are areas that will require some sort of cover before next winter. Cover can be provided by vegetation, which helps absorb and deflect rain and snow. Organic mulch, such as bark, can help deflect and absorb rain and snow also, slowing runoff and potential erosion. On a positive note, these organic mulches will break down, improving the organic matter content of the soils beneath them. On the negative side, they will breakdown, requiring replacement over time. Organic mulches may not stay in place on steep slopes or in windy areas.
Rock mulches can provide protection from erosion on slopes and in windy areas. They do not improve the underlying soil and generally must be laid on landscape cloth placed on top of the soil. If you put rock directly on the soil, frost heaving can gradually absorb the rock into the underlying soil. Additionally, if you change your mind, removing the rock mulch can be a labor-intensive proposition. For steeper areas, armoring with rock or building terraces may help reduce erosion in the future. Both these options can be expensive, depending on area to be armored and materials you choose.
If your landscape has formed water drainage paths, consider armoring these paths, providing a channel for future storm runoff. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.
Melody Hefner is the Urban IPM and Pesticide Safety Program Coordinator for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Want to learn more about the challenge of gardening in Nevada’s soils? Attend our Grow Your Own, Nevada! class on soil improvement April 11 from 6 to 8 p.m. To register, visit www.GrowYourOwnNevada.com.