Archive for soil food web
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!
Feb. 09, 2012 |
For the past year you have read our articles that described what is happening in the soil and the potential problems that can occur if that “life cycle” is disrupted either chemically or through our own use of the land. Today I would like to talk to you about a tool that homeowners and gardeners can use to help get back your healthy soil – compost tea.
Brewing high-quality compost tea with consistent results is a challenge (much like brewing good-quality coffee or beer), which is why it’s critical to source the highest-quality compost and nutrients as well as utilize the best equipment and processes that will not harm the biology. Brewing compost tea can be as simple as a five-gallon bucket and compost processed from home or as complex as a 250-gallon brewer, bio-assay tested compost, and an assortment of nutrients and soil additives, which is the approach that Backyard Organics™ takes. In addition to the technical design of the equipment and the science behind the formulations, timing of the applications is critical. Compost tea is a live, active, aerobic blend of microbes, which are rapidly expanding and can become unfavorable if they run out of nutrients and become anaerobic. Applying compost tea with the first 48 of a finished brew cycle is critical to receiving a quality product.
A good-quality compost tea has a quantity and diversity of microbes. Compost teas that achieve high quantities and a good diversity of bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoas are able to combat a larger variety of symptomatic issues. Each community, each neighborhood and each yard have unique soil needs. Having a high count and a diverse group of microbes ensures consistent results. Also, applications within a yard can vary, which is why it’s important to be able to understand the differences between a fungal-dominated need versus a bacterially dominated need. For example, certain grasses prefer a more bacterially dominated compost whereas certain trees and shrubs prefer more fungal activity. This is why it’s always important to test your soils prior to applying amendments.
Verified benefits of compost tea
- Improves soil structure and porosity – creating a better plant root environment
- Increases moisture infiltration and permeability, and reduces bulk density of heavy soils – improving moisture infiltration rates and reducing erosion and runoff
- Improves the moisture holding capacity of light soils – reducing water loss and nutrient leaching, and improving moisture retention
- Improves the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of soils
- Supplies organic matter
- Aids the proliferation of soil microbes
- Supplies beneficial microorganisms to soils and growing media
- Encourages vigorous root growth
- Allows plants to more effectively utilize nutrients while reducing nutrient loss by leaching
- Enables soils to retain nutrients longer
- Contains humus – assisting in soil aggregation and making nutrients more available for plant uptake
- Buffers soil pH
In addition to the numerous biological benefits, compost tea also has a practical side that can greatly benefit the homeowner. Compost tea, whether you brew it yourself or have someone apply it for you, can be applied as a foliar feeder. Feeding the leaves of plants, shrubs and trees, efficiently uptakes nutrients, stimulates the plant rhizosphere and acts as a protector against harmful leaf diseases. Also, compost tea is much easier to spread and faster acting than compost with the same biological benefits of a compost top dressing application (we would still recommend compost application if your soil is lacking organic matter).
Here is what a few experts in the field have to say about compost tea:
“Aerated compost teas are the latest in scientific organic research today. In many ways, aerated teas offer greater immediate benefits than classic compost, manure or other homemade foliar teas” – The Garden Web
“Compost tea is one of the inputs on the horizon that will change the way we deal with several of the management aspects of growing high-quality turfgrass, either in your backyard, on your town’s parks and athletic fields, or on commercial and institutional properties” – Chip Osborne, Osborne Organics
Dr. Elaine Ingham, a leading researcher and founder of the Soil Food Web organization, sums the benefits of compost teas up best … “The use of actively aerated tea, when applied under a proper management regime, returns beneficial biology to the soil. This in turn rebuilds a soil food weed which, reduced dependency on fertilizers and pesticides, improves plant growth and reduces disease, significantly reduces water use, reduces toxicity and encourages the healthy establishment of healthy biology” – Dr. Elaine Ingham, President and Director of Research at Soil Foodweb, Inc.
Backyard Organics™ firmly believes in the benefits of organic land care and agrees with Chip Osborne and experts in the field who believe that compost teas will be one of those “tools” that will change the way we deal with land care in the future.
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). Backyard Organics also supplies a variety of natural and organic products for people, pets and property. To read more about our products and service, or to submit a question, please visit us at www.backyardorganics.net, e-mail us at email@example.com or call us at 920.850.7450.