If you can remember back to this spring, you'll recall we had some very cold, icy weather well into April. That late blast of winter pushed the spring bloom back a couple weeks for a lot of plants, including for our magnolia tree.
It seems that magnolia wanted to get all it could out of this season since it got such a late start on things, because it also decided to drop its leaves late this year too.
Today I was finally able to take care of those leaves. And it was a great day for my lawn.
I always tell anyone who will listen that they should mulch mow their lawn, all season long. That means, from the first mow of spring through the final leafy mow of the fall, take that bag off your mower and let those clippings stay on your lawn.
Making sure you mulch those leaves in the fall (instead of raking them up) is especially important, because they do so much for your turf.
First, those mulched leaves provide a home for critters-- both the macrobial and microbial populations in your yard. They allow beneficial bugs and fungi and bacteria and other critters to overwinter more effectively. A healthy turf relies on those living things, so we should be doing everything we can to make sure they're taken care of on our lawns.
Second, those mulched leaves are nature's fertilizer. They break down and release nutrients into the soil which your lawn needs for growth. Then as they break down, they turn into compost for your soil. Soil with a healthy level of compost (organic matter) holds both water and nutrients more effectively, which helps your lawn stay healthy all year long (even in the blazing hot summer and frigid winter).
Finally, those mulched leaves serve as insulation for your turf over the winter. Think of that thin layer of chopped up leaves as a blanket for your yard, which means your grass won't suffer as much through the harsh west Michigan winter.
In some cases, you may have to run your mower over those leaves two or three times to get the particles small enough for you to be comfortable with. But the extra bit of mowing will be worth it in the spring.
In some parts of our yard, I don't even bother to mulch the leaves. I just let them overwinter at full-size, and then in the spring I mulch them up for an early-season lawn feeding. If you've got a smaller yard, or neighbors who might cast judgement upon you, I don't recommend just leaving the leaves, however. Mulch 'em. But if you've got areas of your yard where you just don't care about a little unsightly leaf cover, I say let them go until April. They'll do what nature intended: Cover and feed the soil. (One word of warning: If you've got a really thick leaf cover on your lawn, or you've got big heavy leaves, like from a magnolia tree, you're gonna want to do at least one pass with the mower, otherwise the blanket will be too thick, and may smother your grass or encourage mold.)
A couple weeks ago, I taught a class at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids on eco-friendly lawns.
I have to say, preparing to teach a class on your life’s work really helps you organize your thoughts and mission. I came out of this experience with a clearer understanding of, not just how I approach organic lawn care, but why I do it the way I do.
I’ve always thought of myself as a “lawn guy.” I’m certified in lawn care management through the University of Georgia, I’ve joined the National Association of Landcare Professionals (NALP), and I help people get their turf strong and healthy. That would fit most people’s definitions of “lawn guy.” But after doing this class at Meijer Gardens, I realized I’m not so much a “lawn guy” as I am a “soil guy.”
But the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
If you’re a lawn guy without also being a soil guy, you’re potentially doing long-term damage to the turf (not to mention the planet). If a lawn guy is simply interested in getting your lawn green and weed-free in a matter of days, with no concern for the health and fertility of the soil below, your lawn’s going to suffer. Applying synthetic chemical fertilizers and herbicides kill the soil, plain and simple.
But as a lawn guy, who’s also primarily a soil guy, I’m more interested in creating healthy soil—full of microbes, worms, beetles, organic material, nutrients that don’t leach away—than I am in making your lawn instantly green and weed-free.
Healthy soil will give you healthy turf. Dead soil will give you, well, dead turf.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still interested in giving people a lawn that’s green and relatively “weed free,” but there’s no magic instantaneous potion that can do that while NOT killing the soil, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And that’s why I am so passionate about feeding the soil, rather than the grass. That’s how nature’s been doing it for millennia.
Soil damaged by synthetic chemicals will ultimately give you weak turf and “dead zones” where weeds pop up and grass just doesn’t grow… and then the chemical lawn guys will tell you how much you need them to get your lawn looking good again. And it’s true, in a twisted way—through chemicals, they’ve created a lawn that is wholly dependent upon more environmentally-damaging chemicals for its survival.
But what your lawn really needs is healthy soil. Healthy soil will give you healthier, stronger turf. Healthier, stronger turf will push out those pesky plants we know as weeds. And that’s why my focus is to give our customers healthy soil—by feeding your soil with microbes, compost, natural fertilizers like alfalfa and kelp.
So when I work on a lawn, I’m doing it as a “soil guy” first and foremost. And when you take care of the soil, your lawn is actually sustainable and healthy, not dependent and weak.
If you'd like to have Good Sweet Earth give you a healthier lawn by improving your soil, get in touch with me at Steve@GoodSweetEarth.com or call us at 616-594-0693.
This is the first in a series on how to deal with garden pests chemical free.
Garden pests—we all get them, but how do you deal with the pests without spraying chemicals on your food? No worries, we are here to help!
The first garden pests we’ll deal with are aphids. Aphids also come in variety of colors ranging from bright green to brown or even pink. These little buggers are so small, sometimes you cannot even see them on your plants.
So how do you know they are there? The leaves of your plants will begin to curl and turn yellow. The plants will also feel sticky and ants will be attracted to this sticky substance.
For a pest so small, they can cause a lot of damage on your young plants as well as your established plants. They feed on plant juices by attacking leaves, stems, flowers, buds and even the roots. Basically they will suck your plant dry potentially killing if left untreated.
So what is a chemical free gardener to do? Luckily you have quite a few options! A few seasons ago the Good Sweet Earth garden was attacked full force by aphids. I promptly ordered a slew of ladybugs. The beneficial ladybug feeds on aphids and controls the population. After a few days I didn’t see any aphids or ladybugs, but thankfully the ladybugs come back each season. While waiting on the ladybugs in the mail I blasted my plants with cold water and also used a mix of soapy water to spray on the bottom of the leaves. Dusting your plants with flour can also deter aphids.
If you see aphids or suspect aphids in your garden don’t stress! You are now armed with a plan of attack to save your season.
If you’re familiar with compost tea, our Worm Tea is similar, except instead of using traditional hot compost (or thermophilic compost), we use our own Living Worm Compost. Our Worm Tea is sold by the gallon to backyard gardeners for flowers, fruits, veggies, shrubbery and as a compost pile activator. It’s also used by farmers on their crops as a microbial drench and anti-fungal agent. Finally, we use it on lawns.
Before we get into how we make our Worm Tea, let’s look at different types of microbial tea and the different methods of making it. Then we can get into how we do it, and why we do it that way.
The basic recipe of compost tea consists of compost (the source of the beneficial microbes), a food source for the microbes (typically molasses) and water (distilled, rain or well water; using municipal water straight from the tap can kill the microbes because of added chemicals like chlorine). Other things can be added to give the finished product a more complex microbial population or nutrients. But those are the basics.
For a simple recipe, just throw a pound or two of compost into the bottom of a five-gallon bucket, add a half cup of black strap molasses and fill the bucket with distilled water. Let it sit in the sun for a few days, and you’ll begin seeing some film, froth and bubbles. This is evidence of your microbial population growing. You could simply add this to your plants and soil.
The problem with this method is it’s a little haphazard. First, it’s anaerobic, meaning there’s no added oxygen, so you can often end up with dangerous microbes. Second, traditional hot compost isn’t very uniform. It might not be completely “finished” (meaning it might contain pathogens or materials that aren’t necessarily beneficial), it could be too “finished” (meaning it lacks any sort of nutrients), and since different materials break down differently, every batch of hot compost is completely different from the next.
To create a safer compost tea, you could consider adding oxygen by way of an aquarium or pond aerator. Simply use the ingredients from above, but then plunk some aeration stones attached to an aerator and let it bubble for a couple days. This will give you an aerobic (active in the presence of oxygen) tea.
The problem you might face now is a product that doesn’t come out of a spray bottle cleanly. With your compost simply tossed into the bucket, you’re going to have chunks and slurry in the finished product. To fix this, use an old pair of panty hose. Or a burlap sack.
So now comes the question: What’s the difference between tea made with traditional hot compost and tea made with vermicompost (like our Living Worm Compost)? Difference #1: Vermicompost is completely “finished.” You never have to worry about semi-composted chunks of matter (sometimes containing pathogens) getting into your tea. When a worm eats the organic material and poops it out, it’s done. It gives you a more uniform result because vermicompost itself is more uniform than hot compost. Difference #2: Unlike traditional hot compost, which often has all the nutrients leach out or get destroyed by the high temperatures, vermicompost still contains trace amounts of nutrients. That’s good for your plants.
At the end of the day, tea—whether it’s made from hot compost or vermicompost—is meant to give your soil and plants a boost of microbes. Those microbes, both fungi and bacteria, help break down organic matter in your soil and serve as an anti-fungal agent. Without life in your soil, your plants will suffer.
So now on to how we make our Good Sweet Earth Worm Tea:
We use specially-made compost tea bags that we fill with our Living Worm Compost. We also add a special blend of alfalfa meal and kelp for added growth hormones and iron, respectively. To that we will add black-strap molasses. We add the water from our underground aquafer (fancy way of saying “our well”) and turn on the large pond bubbler. The whole thing is done inside our 100-gallon tank, which we can use to apply it directly to lawns, transfer into a farmer’s irrigation tank, or put into jugs and buckets for individual use.
We let the tea brew for between 24 and 72 hours (earlier in the season, when temps are still cool, it takes longer to get the microbe population up to where it needs to be; in mid- to late-summer, the microbes multiply faster in the heat).
Now when it comes to brewing our Worm Tea for use on lawns, we’ll at times add other ingredients based on the needs of a customer’s turf at any given time. Sometimes we’ll add more kelp extract, sometimes we’ll add another bit of alfalfa. If we want more a more fungal tea (not typical for lawns), we can add oats or spent distillers grains. If we want a more bacterial tea (good for lawns), fish emulsion or additional sugars (maple syrup, cane sugar, etc) can be added.
For the tea that we sell at farmers markets and on our website, our recipe is pretty standard: Living Worm Compost, aquafer/rain water, kelp, molasses, alfalfa meal. This is the recipe that we’ve found gives the best results, and it keeps things consistent for everyone that uses it.
And there it is. It sounds relatively simple, and at its core, it is. However, what we’ve been working on over the past several years is ingredient ratios, brew time and oxygen levels. And that’s where we feel like we’ve hit the sweet spot. If you’re interested in purchasing our tea (available only in West Michigan), check out our product page. Be aware: Since it does contain living organisms, you will need to use it within 8 hours of getting it.
At Good Sweet Earth, we believe healthy soil is the key to a healthier—well, everything. It’s the key to producing healthier food, keeping our watersheds clean, giving us more breathable air, and even reducing the greenhouse gasses responsible for climate change. Reducing the amount of chemicals in the soil around our homes exposes us to less carcinogens, which is healthier for our families. Healthy soil provides a home to billions and billions of lifeforms, which are threatened when soil is tainted with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. And when soil is healthy, it helps prevent erosion. Soil is life.
But what exactly does soil do?
According to the Soil Science of America, they describe the basics of soil like this:
Soil is an amazing substance. A complex mix of minerals, air, water, and countless microorganisms, soil forms at the surface of land and comes in many types. Put another way, soil is the thin, outermost layer of Earth’s crust, and like our own skin, we can’t live without soil.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.