• Our good Sierra foothill soil

    by  • April 17, 2013 • Garden, Spring • 13 Comments

    Our ‘bad’ soil…?

    I get comments all the time about ‘our bad soil’ in the Oakhurst, Coarsegold and North Fork areas.  Giving this some thought, I’m wondering if gardeners are making use of the natural ‘mulch’ we have in pine needles and oak leaves. After doing some reading on the tannins in oak leaves, I learned that there isn’t enough of it in the decomposing leaves to make any difference to the plants.

    2006- Planting Western sword fern and heuchera

    2006- Planting Western sword fern and heuchera

    Each year, in my planting areas, I add either one of these to start out the new Spring season.  As I weed, I turn over the mulch from last year with my trowel picking up a 1-2″ later of dirt.  This incorporates the mulch into the soil and eventually improves the texture of the soil.  This could be called a form of sheet composting.

    Decomposed granite and clay

    Both clay and decomposed granite have plenty of nutrients for growing healthy plants…I don’t think it’s the minerals in the soil that is the problem.

    Decomposed granite

    Decomposed granite


    Thick clay needs organic matter added to make it plant friendly

    Thick clay needs organic matter added to make it plant friendly

    Soil Texture

    I think it’s the hard texture of unmulched clay or DG, decomposed granite soil, that discourages gardeners and leads them to replace much of the soil in planting beds or cause them to give up entirely an limiting themselves to container gardening.

    The ground is lovely and soft from the rain in Spring and a dream to plant in. If you have areas of clay, cover it with oak leaves and turn the clay over on top of this, breaking up as many of the solid clods as possible.  If you do this methodically, eventually your soil will improve. Rake up oak leaves and use them to your advantage, mixing them into your beds and planting areas. The fact that they ‘never decompose’ is a good thing!

    Mixing in mulch

    After adding and mixing in layers of natural mulch into my soil for the last few years, I now have wonderfully friable and workable soil.  It’s getting easier and easier to plant.  It’s full of earthworms and mycorrhizae, the good soil fungus that helps plants absorb nutrients from the soil. The best thing about adding mulch to soil, is the texture which is loose and fluffy, all the better for plants to grow!

    Autumn sage from the 'Ugly Plant' sale

    Autumn sage with pine needle mulch, stones hold the plant and water


    When planting on a slope, place a rock on the downhill side to anchor it and keep water longer near the roots

    See Wangling wood chips from work crews for how to get FREE mulch.


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    13 Responses to Our good Sierra foothill soil

    1. Carol Demann
      April 18, 2013 at 9:01 am

      I have been doing the same also adding a good planting mix as well with some sucess .

      I live on the south fork of the American River and it is so hard pack clay and rock It is very hard to grow anything but weeds

      I have had luck with Lavender , Rock rose, Grasses,and Sage but miss my favorite Echinacea. because it is so rural we have alot of DEER I used to like them now I am ready to hire a Hunter ! I am a Previous Orange County person where I gardened all year but hear it is such a challenge ..

      • Sue Langley
        May 25, 2013 at 7:50 pm

        Hi Carol,…good to know that you are finding the same things work for your soil. Try ceanothus(wild lilac) Russian sage, Phlomis (Jerusalem sage) and catmint. All are decorative and deer won’t eat them..
        I know it’s not funny when deer bite off the flowers and then decide they don’t like what you planted! I lived in OC, too.

    2. Loba
      April 30, 2013 at 4:05 am

      Hello, I just nominated you for a Liebster award because I think your blog is awesome http://greensandgardens.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/libester-award/

    3. April 30, 2013 at 3:16 pm

      In think most gardeners probably have less than ideal soils, without investing some effort in amending them. Our soil here is almost too friable, as it’s so sandy, so the soils struggle to retain moisture, and nutrients. It is amazing what just a little organic material can do to transform a soil though. I’ve been working on some areas here for 6 years, just a little at a time, and the difference from when we first arrived is remarkable. I hope your post gives some others some encouragement. Choosing the right plants for unique soil conditions helps a lot too. We certainly won’t be growing tea roses here any time soon 😉

      • Sue Langley
        May 1, 2013 at 1:31 pm

        I think the key is loosening, or in your case enriching the soil enough so the roots can push through or water can be retained.
        All the ‘good’ soil has been that which has been covered naturally with leaf litter. Our ‘bad’ soil is what’s left after grading for the house building, the usual cut and fill where they scrape down a bank and push the soil out level.

        Unfortunately that is ten feet all around the house where we’d like landscaping. It’s been slow growing there because we didn’t replace the topsoil. I would say it’s taken 6 years of mulching, like you, to get it in good shape.

        The solid clay bank, however has been the home for rosemary, lavender, rockrose and three thriving Howard McMinn manzanitas.

    4. April 30, 2013 at 10:57 pm

      I can never get enough information on soil preparation and improvements. Thank you for sharing tips and information.

      • Sue Langley
        May 1, 2013 at 1:43 pm

        You’re welcome! The best soils are those covered naturally with leaf litter and if our gardens don’t have that, then it’s good to replicate those conditions with layers or different kinds of mulch. When our house pad was graded and the clay bank was laid bare, the first thing I thought to do was cover it with pine needles, oak leaves and soil from the surrounding area.

        In California, you don’t really have bad soil unless you’re in the 9000 acre Coalingas ‘benitoite badlands,’ where there is the serpentine mineral chrysotile in the soil and nothing grows OR in the city.

        • virginia english
          June 11, 2013 at 9:23 am

          where are you

          • Sue Langley
            June 19, 2013 at 6:48 am

            Hi Ginger,…my garden is in the Oakhurst area…

    5. Carole Sue
      May 2, 2013 at 4:26 am

      I’m so glad I found your web site. I’m working on sustainable gardening (veggies, fruit, etc.) at 3500′ on the edge of the Plumas National Forest. Do you worry about acidity build up with pine needle mulching? Also, loved your article on deer resistant plants but found they love my Japanese maple. I use deer resistant spray to protect vulnerable plants where they are not fenced.

      • carol demann
        May 2, 2013 at 9:17 am

        Hi Carole I am concerned about Aciidity build up so I use the oak leaves for most but also use a good organic soil and also use organic Bone meal that realy helps. I thought I had lost my tomato plants because being on the River we had. 3 days of a morning Freeze (25) I didn’t see this coming but before I found time to tear them out I found new leaves so I cut back the dead and I now have my tomato plants back

        • Sue Langley
          May 25, 2013 at 8:06 pm

          Hi Carole,
          I reason that planting mostly CA natives and Mediterranean plants are suited to our native soil. I try to loosen it and add native organic matter to keep things percolating along.

          I rarely buy soil except for containers and sometimes mix my own using native soil, sand from a tiny stream on the place and ash from burn piles. The soil under a burn pile is lovely rich and crumbly.

      • Sue Langley
        May 25, 2013 at 8:01 pm

        Hi Carol, during a workshop, I was asked this question about acidity, so I did a bit of research. The tannins from oak and pines is not enough to affect the ph of the soil and the health of the plant. The tannins do color water that they sit in, like birdbaths, so it’s a bit off-putting, but I’ve been adding both oak and pine leaves to my soil for 7 years now with good result. AND, much savings! Some plants love the extra acid, like rhododendrons. My garden has an oak or a pine about every 20 feet, so all my garden is planted in oak and pine litter covering either DG or clay.

        What’s frustrating about deer resistant plant lists is that deer eat different things in different locations sometimes. It’s tricky business. I’ve listed the ones resistant in my garden, that I’ve tried because I found them on a plant list Then you do the actual ‘testing!’ Thanks for your kind words!

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