gardenphyllisophy1By Phyllis Galowitz

I’m watching the first big snowstorm of this strange winter today, while writing the March garden column. March, although one of the harshest months of the year in Andes, is almost Spring! Anyway, the snow is beautiful, especially if one has the luxury of enjoying it from behind glass doors. Alan shoveled a path between our neighbor’s and our house at about eleven o’clock this morning, when a foot of snow had fallen. Now, at three o’clock, there’s at least another foot and it’s still coming down heavily.

It’s hard to believe that soon we’ll be able to work in the garden again. As the catalogues keep coming, it’s fun to plan the first chores of the season.

We’ve always had a drainage problem but our modest budget does not allow for an expensive irrigation system. Instead, I try to correct it as well as I can with each planting, digging in as many soil conditioners as possible, such as compost, shredded leaves, and humus, smothering weeds with layers of newspaper or horticultural cloth, and adding hydrophilic polymer gels, that store huge amounts of water, under mature trees and drought-sensitive plants. They also provide frost protection.

These gels, I’ve learned, must be placed well below the soil surface where they act as tiny reservoirs for plant roots, releasing extra water on demand. There are different names and kinds of gels on the market. Some are derived from corn and other natural starches and some from synthetic polymer acrylics. Starch derivatives break down faster than acrylics. With large established plants, one can poke deep holes around and through a plant’s root zone and add polymers as needed. Whatever the composition, when they disintegrate, the gels turn into natural compounds, mostly water with small amounts of ammonia and carbon dioxide.

The first time I used polymers, I didn’t realize that they must first be hydrated before mixing with the soil, or you will see a strange mass oozing out from under a plant, looking like a bunch of baby jellyfish, quivering all over.

In wet areas, dig holes a bit deeper than usual and fill the bottom with a mixture of manure and compost. Cover that with a layer of gravel and place rot prone bulbs like crown imperials on their sides, to keep water from accumulating in the stem scar (the stems will emerge straight). After filling the hole, top off with a mulch of gravel. Cover that with bark or leaf mulch to blend with the rest of the bed.

Taking extra time to give each plant the environment it needs, sun, shade, dry, or wet, pays off in the long run. Adding plenty of humus will cut down on the need to water frequently. Smothering weeds cuts down on another time-consuming job. I always look for the easiest way to garden.