Archive for landscaping
To understand how soils work in conjunction with plants, you really need to understand cellular biology; however, in this article, we are going to take a much simpler look at how soil nutrients, plant function and soil biology work together to form a sustainable environment.
As indicated in February’s article, most of us who are trying to “fix” or “maintain” our soils are concerned about the NPK numbers on fertilizer bags; however, knowing the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels of a product is only the start to creating a sustainable soil. “Generations of gardeners have been brought up on 10-10-10 and 39-9-12, but nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are just three of many nutrients that plants need to survive.”
Two additional nutrients to consider when evaluating soil’s sustainability are calcium (which stabilizes pH levels and biological activity, loosens soil, is a major component of plant cell walls and is a key indicator of weed growth) and magnesium (which holds soil particles together and is a major component that promotes plant growth). An equally important factor to consider is the relationship between calcium and magnesium. Evidence shows that soils low in calcium and high in magnesium tend to exhibit greater weed pressure and are prone to compaction. There are additional secondary nutrients and micronutrients to consider, but we’ll address that in future discussions.
A good soil test will provide you with nutrient levels currently in your soil. Here are a few suggestions to assist you:
- Don’t use a cheap test. Inexpensive tests are likely to paint an inaccurate picture of your soil, which can result in over-fertilization and further damage to your soil.
- Make sure your test is checking for soluble nutrient values. Our soils in the Midwest are typically heavy in clay, which binds up nutrients and makes them inaccessible to plants. Soluble values tell you the amount of that nutrient that is available for the plant.
- Make sure your test checks for the pH, organic matter percentage, cation exchange capacity (CEC) and base saturation levels. Ideally you are looking for a pH value of 6-7, 5-15 percent organic matter, CEC of 10-15 and a calcium to magnesium ratio of 7:1. Anything above or below these numbers will likely require inputs to adjust and this could take months or years.
So, now that we have a basic understanding of nutrients, how do we get the nutrients into the plants? This is where biology plays such a critical role in soil sustainability.
Plants have a symbiotic relationship with their soils. Plants give up nearly 60 percent of their energy to their roots, which release exudates. Exudates are a food source for bacteria and the start of the nutrient cycling process within the soil food web as well as the start of sustainability.
If you are applying a dry fertilizer to your lawn, garden or farm, and you have insufficient biological activity in the soil, there is no way for your grass or other plants to take up those necessary nutrients and very little defense against pests and diseases. If possible, have a bioassay test done on your soil to get a basic understanding of your biological activity.
In an organic environment, soil organisms need to digest the organic material (nutrients) and smaller organisms (soil food web) before any plant can benefit from the micronutrients. This is why synthetic fertilizers are so harmful and why we have become so dependent on them. Once the synthetic nutrient is absorbed into the plant, the runoff leaches into the ground, thus killing off the microorganisms in the soil. Once the organisms are gone, you become dependent on the synthetic fertilizer.
To speed up the nutrient cycling process, many organic farmers and land care professionals create and use custom blended compost teas. By suspending the micronutrients of quality compost in a liquid form, the plants and soil organisms can access the benefits of the compost/nutrients far more quickly and, if the soil is lacking in biodiversity, we can inoculate the soils with the necessary biology to ensure all necessary components are available for a healthy, sustainable soil.
Diversity is important because every soil is different. Having a wide variety of bacteria and fungi handles a wide variety of deficiencies. In order for the bi-products of the microbiology to be of any value, however, the soil food web needs to continue its cycle with the help of arthropods, nematodes and protozoa (the shredders, predators and grazers found in the third trophic level of the soil food web). Backyard Organics provides the necessary predators by using good quality compost, naturally rich with nematodes and protozoa, and extracting them using an actively aerated brew process. We then add a variety of appropriate nutrients that help the microbiology live and prosper until your soil is able to sustain itself.
So, if you are considering taking a healthier, more sustainable approach to maintaining your yard and gardens, consider not only the nutrients the plants need, but also the biology and the whole ecology necessary to sustain that environment.
Todd and Tara Rockweit are owners of Backyard Organics, LLC, Wisconsin’s first organic land care business accredited by NOFA, one of two organizations in the country that accredit Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs). Since 2004, Backyard Organics has been supplying natural and organic products and services for people, pets and property, including a complete do-it-yourself program. To read more about our products and services, or if you would like to submit a question, please visit us at www.backyardorganics.net, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 920.730.3253/888.200.0446.
Feb. 28, 2012 |
Providing low-income families with an affordable home addresses only part of the issue of poverty; in addition to building houses, Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity works to ensure that our first-time homebuyers become knowledgeable homeowners.
Families that partner must demonstrate that they have a genuine need for decent, safe and affordable housing, that they have the ability to pay a 0% mortgage, and that they are willing to partner with Habitat by committing to 300-500 hours of ‘sweat equity’. Sweat equity hours can be met by working on their home, volunteering on the homes of other Habitat families and attending workshops and education sessions. As a part of their sweat equity, all the adults in our partner families are required to complete over 55 hours of homeowner education.
Habitat for Humanity makes these classes a requirement because we know that education and preparation is the key to self-sufficiency. Of the 55 hours, about 30 hours focus on financial literacy and financial preparedness, including understanding their mortgage, establishing monthly budgets, planning for a financial emergency, etc.
Since our families are mostly first-time homebuyers and are often the first in their extended families to live in their own home, we also conduct classes that help them transition into homeownership. The topics addressed in this track include how to be a good neighbor, community relations, and home maintenance. It is with the help of our family partners, mentors and class facilitators that Habitat can offer such an extensive range of topics to get our families ready for financial stability, and Habitat is blessed to have so many experts in their fields lend their expertise to our families.
Their new yard is often the first time Habitat families have had a yard, and typically aren’t familiar with lawn maintenance or landscaping. Backyard Organics has stepped in to help our Habitat homeowners with getting their new lawns established, and is donating their services for all our 2011 families. The purpose of Backyard Organics is to create a safe environment for families, pets and the planet. Backyard Organics uses safe, earth-friendly methods for weed control, soil conditioners and also offers soil manipulation and testing services. Backyard Organics utilizes the principles set forth by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), and was the first organic land care business accredited by NOFA.
For 2011, there are 14 Habitat families, which is an increase from 2010. Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity would not be able to increase our ability to provide decent homes in a holistic manner without the generosity and support of our wonderful volunteers and partner businesses like Backyard Organics!
What They Are and A Few Interesting Facts
Bacteria are minuscule, one-celled organisms that can only be seen with a powerful light (1000X) or electron microscope (we’re talking TINY). They can be so numerous that a pinch of soil can contain millions of organisms. Bacteria are tough—they occur everywhere on earth and have even been found over a mile down into the core of the earth.
Bacteria can be classified into five functional groups. Autotrophic (literally, self-feeding) bacteria are photosynthetic. They are the primary producers. Decomposers consume soil organic matter, plant litter, and simple carbon compounds, releasing the nutrients in these substances for use by living plants. Mutualists, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria, form associations with plants and help them absorb nutrients. Pathogens are the bad guys— they cause disease in plants. The last group, the chemolithotrophs (literally, chemical and rock-eating) obtain energy from minerals rather than from carbon compounds.
Bacteria are common throughout the soil, but tend to be most abundant in or adjacent to plant roots, an important food source.
Actinomycetes are a broad group of bacteria that form thread-like filaments in the soil. They are responsible for the distinctive scent of freshly exposed, moist soil.
Why They Are Important
Bacteria are important in the carbon cycle. They contribute carbon to the system by fixation (photosynthesis) and decomposition. Bacteria are important decomposers in grassland environments. Actinomycetes are particularly effective at breaking down tough substances like cellulose (which makes up the cell walls of plants) and chitin (which makes up the cell walls of fungi) even under harsh conditions, such as high soil pH. Some management activities, particularly those that change nutrient levels in the soil, can shift the dominance of decomposers from bacterial to fungal. When one group becomes dominant where it shouldn’t be, there is also a shift in the rest of the system. The shift from bacterial to fungal dominance, for instance, can enhance the conditions favoring weed invasions on rangelands.
Bacteria are particularly important in nitrogen cycling. Free-living bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen, adding it to the soil nitrogen pool. Other nitrogen-fixing bacteria form associations with the roots of leguminous plants such as lupine, clover, alfalfa, and milkvetches. Actinomycetes form associations with some non-leguminous plants (important species are bitterbrush, mountain mahogany, cliffrose, and ceanothus) and fix nitrogen, which is then available to both the host and other plants in the near vicinity. Some soil nitrogen is unusable by plants until bacteria convert it to forms that can be easily assimilated.
Some bacteria exude a sticky substance that helps bind soil particles into small aggregates. So despite their small size, they help improve water infiltration, water- holding capacity, soil stability, and aeration.
Wait! Aren’t there also “bad” bacteria? Yes, there are, but some soil bacteria suppress root-disease in plants by competing with pathenogenic organisms. The key is in maintaining a healthy system so that the good guys can do their work.
Bacteria are becoming increasingly important in bioremediation, meaning that we (people) can use bacteria to help us clean up our messes. Bacteria are capable of filtering and degrading a large variety of human-made pollutants in the soil and groundwater so that they are no longer toxic. The list of materials they can detoxify includes herbicides, heavy metals, and petroleum products.
The process that Backyard Organics uses to cleanse and enrich the soil, focuses on the quality, quantity and diversity of the microbiology that goes into our applications. Diversity is important because, (depending on your soil conditions) every soil is different. Having a wide variety of bacteria handles a wide variety of deficiencies. In order for the bi-products of the microbiology to be of any value, however, the soil food web needs to continue its cycle with the help of arthropods, nematodes and protozoa’s, (the shredders, predators and grazers found in the third trophic level of the soil food web). Backyard Organics provides the necessary predators by using good quality compost, naturally rich with nematodes and protozoa, and then extracts them using our brew process. We then add a variety of appropriate nutrients that help the microbiology live and prosper until your soil is able to sustain itself.
“BLM NSTC Soil Biological Communities – Learn More.” BLM – The Bureau of Land Management. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <http://www.blm.gov/nstc/soil/learn/index.html>.
Ingham, Elaine. 1998. The soil biology primer, soil bacteria. USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Quality Institute.
Kennedy, A.C. and R.I Papendick. 1995. Microbial characteristics of soil quality. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 50 (3) 243-248.
Vollmer, A.T., A. Au, and S.A. Bamberg. 1977. Observations on the distribution of microorganisms in desert soil.Great Basin Naturalist 37 (1) 81-86.
Jul. 15, 2011 |
First, I would like to thank each of you for showing your dedication to your family and the environment by providing a safe alternative to chemical lawn care. It’s a rare opportunity to be a part of a purposeful career and after careers as an engineer, manufacturing consultant and a owner of an distribution company, I believe I have found a purpose in Backyard Organics and I appreciate the opportunity to share that with you.
Spring was an interesting season. Learning a new business and dealing with the weather were challenging, but I’m very pleased about our progress and grateful for the on-going support of dedicated professionals. Additionally, I’d like to thank you for your patience as we worked through the growing pains of new ownership.
March and April were spent applying the important early spring application. The corn gluten used in this application can take some time to work into the soil, which allowed some of our pets to consider it a treat unfortunately. This lead to a search and discovery of an alternative to this challenge. If your pets are eating the corn gluten and you would like an alternative we will apply a powder form that can be watered into the soil more quickly.
Our first wet applications started in late May, and we finished our first summer application the last week in June. Our Summer 2 application will start in Mid August. As usual, we will notify you with specific dates as we approach mid August. Early fall and winter application will follow up in late October or early November, depending on the weather.
We are excited to share our new partnerships with you. Backyard Organics has established some partnerships that we are excited to be apart of and let you know about. Because of my past experience with Habitat for Humanity and our commitment to give back to our community, Backyard Organics has donated its products and services to all new homes built in the valley by Habitat for Humanity. Vande Hey Landscaping has partnered with us on this venture to further enrich these new lawns.
Additional exciting relationships are the ones that we established with some of our local retailers. You can now find our products at Festival Foods (New London), The Free Market, Vande Hey Landscapes, Just Act Natural, Two Paws Up Bakery (Appleton), The Red Radish (Neenah), Natural Healthy Concepts (Menasha), and Schmalz Garden Center (Darboy). Please visit these local retailers; buying local benefits our community significantly.
We are also very excited to further our relationship with the Fox Valley Technical College’s organic land care leadership. We recently met with them to discuss how we can help each other in our quest to establish an organic presence in local land care. Backyard Organics and FVTC are promoting the same techniques and philosophies regarding organic land care and are two of three organizations in Wisconsin accredited by NOFA. We will certainly share more about this collaboration in future news letters.
Once again, thank you for your dedication to our service and organic land care. We look forward to a long and healthy relationship.