Gardeners are optimists by nature. This year's drought may have severely curtailed our planting, but there always is the hope that next year or next season will bring good rainfall amounts. In our climate zones (zones 8 and 9 in the Central Valley and zone 7 in the foothills), planting cool season crops begins in late August when temperatures still are high — and this year, when the soil still is parched.
Even if we can't risk putting in much in the way of a winter garden this year, we can work and amend the soil in planting beds. Any preparation we do now will yield good results whenever we are once again able to plant.
There's still time to solarize the soil in areas where plants have shown signs of verticillium wilt, fusilarium wilt or nematodes. Temperatures remain high enough during our hot late summers to kill many disease pathogens and pests in only four weeks. (For instructions on soil solarization, go to the UCDavis IPM website, www.ipm.ucdavis.edu, and type in "soil solarization").
In bare areas where spent summer vegetables and annual flowers have been removed or where plants have died from drought stress or were not planted this year, lay down a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost or humus or sterilized manure and till in the amendments.
You may need to soak the soil and then let it dry a little to make it tillable. If you have heavy clay soil, add a half inch of gypsum or gypsite which prevents clay molecules from binding tightly together. If you have sandy soil, add more compost or humus to help replace nutrients that leach out quickly and to slow rapid drainage.
If adding manure, wait at least two weeks before planting to allow excess urea or excess nitrogen to dissipate.
Replace water wasting overhead sprinklers with water conserving irrigation systems including drip emitters, micro sprinklers and soaker hoses in planting beds at the same time.
While you're recuperating from tilling soil in the heat and fantasizing about heavy winter rains, check out seed catalogs for varieties suitable for our climate with its late fall and early spring hot spells and a short, mild winter. Look for heat-tolerant varieties of cool-season vegetables and flowers with shorter times to maturity.
Many of the seed catalogs are excellent sources of gardening advice and many also provide the interesting histories of heirloom varieties. Good reading when it's too hot to work in the garden.
The Burpee seed catalog, www.burpee.com, also offers a good selection of small and large grow lights, germination heat mats as well as seed starting mixes and cell packs.
Worth a splurge if you start your fall and spring transplants indoors every year — well, maybe not this year.