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Smart gardening is water-wise

Learn techniques that will benefit your plants, your budget, the SCV and the environment

Posted: May 8, 2009 9:41 p.m.
Updated: May 8, 2009 9:37 p.m.

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Check your watch. Depending on what time you are reading this, you might have to put down your coffee and dash out your door. Don't even bother to fix your bed-hair, and no one will care if you forget your socks.

You are rushing out to the free Smart Gardening Workshop, which starts promptly at 9:30 a.m. this morning at the Castaic Lake Water Agency.

Here are some directions to save you time: Drive (carefully) to the entrance to Central Park on Bouquet Canyon Road. Just inside the entrance make a left and follow the road up the hill above the park. And when you get there, ask for the workshop because the CLWA's Open House will be going on at the same time as the Smart Gardening Workshop - and yes, you will have time to enjoy both events. The Open House runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the workshop runs from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Learn smart gardening
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works Environmental Programs Division sponsors a Smart Gardening Program (visit www.smartgardening.com) through which you can learn a number of gardening techniques that will benefit you, your plants and the environment. As the Web site puts it, "When you practice the techniques of Smart Gardening, you will conserve water and energy, save time and money, improve your yard and garden, recycle yard waste and kitchen scraps, reduce waste going to our landfills, and help preserve the environment. These simple practices do not take much time, and help you develop healthy and beautiful lawns and gardens to enjoy."

As part of the program, a number of Smart Gardening Workshops (for beginners) are held throughout the county each year. These provide a wealth of information about, and hands-on experience with, such things as composting, worm composting, grass recycling, water-wise gardening and fire-wise gardening.

Curtis Thomsen, the manager of the Smart Gardening Program, said that along with the above, "The emphasis this weekend (at the CLWA workshop) will be ways to reduce water use and use less chemicals." And he added that making your smart gardening more sustainable will also be emphasized.

Composting
Thomsen said that by composting you can reduce from 20 to 40 percent the amount of your "waste" that has to go to a landfill. "Recycling these materials captures nutrients, putting them back in the soil," he added.

Mixing you composted material into the soil also increases the soil's ability to hold water and keep it available for plants. This benefits your plants and reduces your overall water usage for them, up to 50 percent. Thomsen said that, typically, 70 percent of the water used by homeowners goes to their grass, landscaping and gardens. Doing the math, a 50-percent reduction of that 70 percent means a 35-percent reduction in you water bill.

"In reality, that is a conservative number," Thomsen said.

"Compost acts as a sponge and sucks up water and holds it, keeping it available to the plant for up to seven to 10 days," he said. And he explained that without mixing compost in, clay soils may only have the water available to the plant for two to three days - and sandy soils only hold onto about 10 percent of the water that goes into them.

He noted that your ground-up wood waste can be used as mulch, which will help block out weeds and retain moisture (and insulate in the winter).

Thomsen said that the Smart Gardening Workshops teach you how to add compost to the soil in the proper ratios to make the best use of it in your existing landscaping and gardens. He noted that "purists" will tell you not to add compost to soil for native plants, but he said that using compost will help the native plants be healthier for a longer period of time and that they will need less water.

Worm composting
Thomsen feels worm composting is essential to smart gardening. A worm compost bin is a separate container from your regular compost bin. It usually contains a specialized bedding material, such as coconut fiber, and you put different "waste" into it, such as certain kinds of food scraps. "The food scraps you feed to worms turn into one of the richest fertilizers there is, both solid and liquid," he said.

The "solid" fertilizer is made up of worm "castings" and the liquid is the "worm tea," which drains out of the bedding material into a lower level.

"The liquid is so strong that you need to cut it with water," Thomsen said. You add six parts water to one part worm tea.

"It fertilizes like crazy and gets rid of fungus in the soil," he said.

He added that, when you add earthworms to your garden soil, it they open up passages that allow air into the soil.

"The end result is healthier, bigger plants that produce more fruit and vegetables and flowers with less insects and disease," he said.

"And it's all coming from ‘garbage' people are throwing away into the landfills."

Chemical fertilizers, which require a lot of bacterial action to make nutrients available to plants, are easily washed away during the time that takes to happen. Worm tea is absorbed into any organic material in the soil, so it doesn't get washed away. And, the nutrients from worm tea are instantly available to plants.

Grass recycling
Recycling your grass means using a mulching mower to add the clippings to the root zone of the soil. Thomsen said that 90 percent of the nitrogen that the grass plant absorbs from the soil is stored in the grass blade. So when the blade clippings fall back into the root zone, that nitrogen will eventually be made available to the grass plants again.

Also, the clippings help create a new soil zone around the grass roots, which helps the roots send up new shoots to fill in bare spots in the lawn.

Water-wise gardening
Thomsen said that the Smart Gardening Workshops show you how to implement a variety of techniques to reduce water use. In addition to composting, the instruction covers sprinklers, drip irrigation and the proper time of day to water. It also covers the use of drought tolerant native plant species and how to understand and make use of "hydrozoning."

"This area out here is about an 18 on the Sunset Gardening Zone," Thomsen said. This gardening zone, or climate zone, is described as "Hilltops and Valley Floors of Interior Southern California - Growing season: mid-Mar. through late Nov. Summers are hot and dry; rain comes in winter, when lows reach 28 degrees to 10 degrees F/-2 degrees to -12 degrees C. Plants from the Mediterranean and Near Eastern regions thrive here."

He added that using compost, worm castings and worm tea should help such plants do really well.

Fire-wise gardening
Fire-wise "gardening" includes clearing away dead brush and debris from around your home and knowing which plants not to plant. In the workshop you will also learn how large different plants will grow over time and which make good low-growing ground cover.

Extras
Thomsen said the workshops also cover related "yard" topics such as creating butterfly gardens and how to attract (or repel) native animals.

"Society garlic helps keep gophers out," he said.

You can plant marigolds to keep certain insects away, and use ladybugs to get rid of others. He said that your compost bin will help draw insects away from your garden and landscaping.

There will be compost bins (30) and worm compost bins (15) available at the workshop on a first come, first served basis. Both will be offered at bargain prices - worm bins at only $65 and compost bins at only $40. There will also be coconut core bricks available for use as worm bedding ($2 per brick).

So get off the couch and get out to the Smart Gardening Workshop. You'll be doing everyone a favor.

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