Whether you are talking about rain, plant food, or political arguments, there comes a point where nothing else can be taken in. Saturation is one if those points of perfect, momentary balance between plenty and too much.
To the untrained eye, a garden looks tranquil. The quiet greenery is peaceful and calm. It’s like watching what appears to be a Perfect Family, with everything running smoothly - no conflicts, no stresses, no worries. Of course, in reality, it’s nothing like that. The chemistry and conflicts that occur in gardens and relationships are never as smooth as it looks from the outside.
Saturation tends to sneak up on me. The amount of water I use to irrigate the garden in one month doesn’t work as well in another. The daily 25 minutes of weeding in one week is enough to keep down the competition, but in other weeks, the weeds practically race across the yard. Recognizing the delicate balance between enough, plenty, and too much is part of what separates a successful garden from one that is struggling.
Water is an obvious case of saturation. Whatever your soil structure and composition, there are only so many macropores and micropores that can hold onto water. Sand will have a lot more porosity and better drainage than the Bay Area’s heavy clay. But even clay reaches a saturation point. That’s when gravity pulls the water down and away, preventing your plants from drowning, but also leaching away valuable nutrients. If it can't go anywhere, it pools around your plants, drowning them and creating mosquito breeding grounds. Just enough water for each plant can be difficult to determine. In dealing with California’s drought, our family has reduced the amount of water we use to only 25% of what we were using 3 years ago and guess what? All the plants are fine. In fact, they are better off than they were before. Oops.
Fertilizer is another case of enough is great and too much can be deadly. Many fertilizers can burn plants once the point of saturation is reached. If you are up for a fun read, try Don Mitchell’s 'Moving Upcountry' series. He has a hysterical account of using too much nitrogen and destroying his tractor. Of course, there’s nothing funny about burning your garden crops with too much fertilizer, but it happens.
More common, and frequently unseen, is the case of certain minerals saturating a soil and creating an imbalance. After sending soil samples to a lab for testing, I learned that my heavy clay soil has tons of every nutrient, except iron. Unfortunately for my plants, they need iron to be able to absorb everything else. Getting your soil tested by a local, professional lab is the only way to really know what’s in it. It’s a complex dance of chemistry and molecules going on every moment in the garden. A nutrient imbalance or troublesome saturation can change everything.
Saturation can also refer to sunlight, garden design, and your pantry. Are your plants showing signs of sunburn? Are you saturated with tomatoes by autumn? Do you still have butternut squash left over from two years ago? Are you tired of looking at a monotonous sea of green?
Avoiding saturation may mean nothing more than adding some color or a piece of art to the landscape. It may mean planting shade-loving plants under sun-loving plants. Or it may simply mean planting what you and your family (friends and neighbors) will be happy to eat.
Have you ever over-planted something to the point where you never wanted to see it again? How has saturation impacted your garden?
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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