Sticky when wet.

That’s what happens to our notorious clay soil after the kind of ground-soaking rains that we’ve received over the past several weeks. Even fast-draining sandy soil gets yucky when saturated.

The truth is, when just about any type of soil sucks in so much rain, it becomes too heavy to work and too thick to plant. You have to wait until it dries out, which may take a few days, a few weeks or not until spring, depending on what mother nature still brings.

But even another series of storms doesn’t mean that all gardening has to stop.

Whether you’re stuck indoors while more rain pours down, or the clouds are gone but your ground is still wet, the following are among my favorite rainy day to-do’s.

1. Stepping Stones

When my daughter was six years old, just as soon as it stopped raining, she’d slosh around outside, seeking the stickiest mud to help her “grow.” In our cooperative clay soil, she’d gain 2 to 3 inches in no time.

But if you have no patience with a couple of inches coating the bottoms of your boots every time you take out the trash or walk to the compost pile, lay down something solid.

Pre-cast, concrete pads or natural flagstones are available at local building supply stores. Make sure the stones are evenly spaced for your stride by setting them out on a dry surface, such as a driveway, patio or in the garage, first.

Ordinarily, it’s a good idea to lay stepping stones in a bed of sand. But it may be too mucky to do that now. When your soil does dry out, you may need to re-adjust the levels of the individual stones.

2. Freshen Mulch

Any time of year, a 2 to 3-inch layer of walk-on bark or organic mulch does wonders for a garden. It helps keep down the weeds, gradually improves the soil texture, returns nutrients to the soil and moderates the soil temperature.

Even more important during the rainy season — mulch is cleaner to walk on, and helps prevent wet soil from compacting when you walk on it.

Look for bare spots and fill them in.

3. Cut Back Perennials

Many perennials may look bedraggled by now, their water-logged flower heads bent over and wasting away. Cut back lavenders, salvias, coreopsis, penstemon and other multiple bloomers by as much as half, removing the dead flower stalks to the base and leaving a compact tuffet of foliage.

Also whack down ornamental grasses to mounds no more than 6 to 12 inches high. They’ll rebound in spring.

4. Prune Deciduous Fruit Trees

Now that your deciduous fruit trees are bare, it’s easy to check their branching structure and prune for the best fruit production.

Read up before you start. Some fruit trees, such as peaches, bear on new wood produced the previous summer. Others, such as apples, produce year after year on the same fruiting spurs.
An excellent reference is “How to Prune Fruit Trees,” a long-time paperback book available at local nurseries.

If you trim young boughs with new buds swelling, put them in a vase inside. In the cozy warmth of your home, they should bloom in a matter of days.

5. Clean Up Leaves and Other Detritus

The purists say leaving leaves where they fall enhances the natural cycle: the leaves form a protective blanket over the earth, providing all the benefits of the best mulch.

That’s fine for smaller leaves, such as oak, which do create a nutrient-rich carpet.

But bigger leaves, such as sycamore and liquidambar, take a long time to break down and may smother everything else in the meantime. It’s more practical to rake those leaves, compost them and then spread them. Or if you have a chipper/shredder, shred the leaves right away, then return them to the garden.

Also pull away soggy leaves that have piled up against any trees or large shrubs. The wet clumps can prevent the trunks from drying out, making the plants vulnerable to disease.

6. Aerate Your Lawn

If your lawn is not too squishy, loosen up the soil by aerating it. Use a step-on tool that bores into the sod, then pulls out plugs. Or rent an aerating machine.

You can also stab the turf with a long-pronged gardening fork, rocking the fork gently to loosen the soil. But don’t invest in strap-on cleats. The prongs don’t penetrate the sod deeply enough to do much good.

7. Fertilize Cool-Season Grasses.

Tall fescue and other cool-season lawns benefit from a monthly dose of high-nitrogen fertilizer during the cooler months. The nitrogen greens up the turf, while winter rains encourage deep rooting.

8. Evaluate Equipment

Have you worn through the fingers of your favorite gloves? Misplaced your best hoe?

Gather your gardening tools — gloves, weeders, kneeling pads, shovels, rakes, pruning shears, loppers and the like. Tighten handles, sharpen blades and clean off dirt and rust. Toss or donate what you don’t use anymore. Also decide whether you must have anything new.

9. Tune Up Power Tools

Between the rain and the holidays, you probably haven’t used your power tools much.

Leaf through your owners manuals to check on annual maintenance. It may be time to change the oil, install new spark plugs, buy a new lawn mower blade or rotate or replace flails on a chipper/shredder.

10. Peruse Garden Catalogs

Indulge in a gardening routine more often practiced in snowy climes: set a roaring fire, snuggle up to a stack of seed catalogs and gardening magazines, and dream about planting possibilities for spring.

Ewey Gooey

Clay soil is made up of fine-textured soil particles with little air space between them.

When it rains, water fills many of those voids.

Then when you walk on it, your weight packs down the soil and pushes out any remaining air. With few or no air pockets left, it becomes difficult for the water to drain, creating a less-than-hospitable home for new plants.

Seeds of Wisdom

Sandy soils dry out faster than clay soils because they don’t hold as much water. However, if the soil is still so wet that dirt clods form when you dig, wait a few days, then try again.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

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