So, at first glance, this past spring falls somewhere between “something of a dud” and “unmitigated disaster,” what with the colder-than-normal temps and unrelenting rain. Saturated soil was a real problem for farmers across the Midwest trying to get their crops into the ground, not to mention anyone with clay soil trying to walk through their backyard without losing a shoe.
But spring is past, and we’ve transitioned into the hotter, dryer days of summer. That means fresh tomatoes, berries, peppers, roses...and brown grass.
Yep. It’s nature, people. For those of us living in West Michigan (actually, everyone north of Kentucky), we have what’s called “cool weather turf.” That means once the temps regularly hit the mid-80s, the grass goes to sleep-- just like it does in winter. It’s not dead-- let me reiterate that point: Brown grass isn't necessarily dead grass. It’s just resting and building up energy for the next growing season, which happens to be autumn.
Cool weather turf greens up and grows when temps range between 60 and 80ish. That’s the sweet spot you have in the spring and fall, and that’s why you’re constantly mowing in May, June, late September and early October.
So what’s an ecologically-friendly homeowner to do during these crispy summer months?
The most-environmentally-friendly answer is: Nothing. Let it sleep. Grass can go 2-4 weeks (depending on how high the temps go) without water before it actually dies. Once you hit the three-week point, give it a good, deep watering early in the morning. A good way to tell the difference between dead and dormant grass? Give it a good tug. If it comes out easily, it's dead and it ain't coming back. If it stays put, it's just dormant and doing exactly what God intended in the summer.
If you don’t want it to go too dormant (and get too brown) you can give it a good deep watering whenever it gets too brown for your own comfort level. For some people, that means they’re watering every third day. For others, that means they don’t water for two weeks. But the key is to water deeply-- 30-60 minutes whenever you turn the sprinklers on, depending on how much water your soil can tolerate (you don’t want puddling). Deeper waterings mean the turf's roots grow deeper into the ground. And that means your grass will be able to find water deeper in the soil.
But here’s a little secret: When you treat your lawn organically, your turf won’t get as crispy as a lawn treated with synthetic chemicals during dormancy. Why? The soil is healthier and can tolerate heat and drought better. It can hold on to water better. Plus, those longer waterings mean your turf’s roots have grown deep into the ground and are better able to find water, even when it doesn’t rain.
Bottom line. Your grass is supposed to go dormant, and turn brown, twice a year: winter and summer. During those times, it’s building up carbohydrates for the next growing season. The more you’re able to let your turf go dormant in the summer, the stronger it’ll potentially be in the fall. However, to keep it from going too dormant, give it a deep watering on occasion, or whenever you want to see a little more green color on your lawn. Just avoid short, daily waterings.
This is a Q&A blog series on healthy organic turf. If you have a question for Good Sweet Earth's lawn guy, Steve, shoot him an email at steve@GoodSweetEarth.com, and include "Ask the Lawn Guy" in the subject line.
Most people know what sandy soil and clay soil look like. They know that sandy soil is pretty loose and doesn't hold water very well. They know that clay soil can often feel hard and compacted. Most people also also know that nothing grows especially well in soil that's either of these two things.
Somewhere in between sand particles and clay particles lies silt. Loam soil contains a balance of all three types of particles.
So the question that I got recently was this: "How much sand should I add to my clay soil to loosen it up and make it usable?" And I suppose the counterpart to this question could be "How much clay should I add to sandy soil?"
In short, the answer is: Don't bother. You'll make your soil even worse by trying to change its structure with sand or clay.
Imagine your clay particles as marbles. Proportionally speaking, silt would be about the size of a basketball compared to those marbles. Now I had a hard time coming up with a real-world object that would be representative of a sand particle next to our marble-sized clay particle. The best I could come up with is this: Picture a ball slightly larger than a three-car garage. Yep. That's a sand particle next to a clay particle.
Now imagine you had a field full of marbles. And you want to "loosen" things up. I don't care how many three-car garages you add to that field of marbles, you're never, ever going to end up with a field full of basketballs. You're just gonna have a bunch of really small balls and really large balls, and they're not going to work together for anyone's good because you're never going to have enough garage-balls to balance the little marbles.
Ideally, healthy soil is equal parts marbles, basketballs and three-car garages. But getting that balance is so much harder than it sounds. I don't recommend attempting to change the mineral structure of your soil this way.
So what is a clay-burdened or sand-burdened gardener to do? Two words: Organic matter.
Clay-heavy soil has a very difficult time getting air through its tiny, tightly-bound particles. Roots also have a hard time moving through them. Organic matter, like compost or organic fertilizers, changes everything. This is the answer you seek, not sand. Mix that organic matter into your clay soil or top-dress it. Adding organic matter will make your clay soil usable in a way that adding sand never will.
Likewise, if you're dealing with sandy soil (an especially common problem if you live by the Lake Michigan lakeshore), adding organic matter will help your soil retain water and nutrients so much better.
Types of organic matter that you can add to your soil to make it healthier include basic compost (that many gardeners make in their own backyards), Worm Compost or Alfalfa Meal. Biochar (mixed with some sort of composted material) also makes for a terrific soil amendment.
For really compacted clay soil, gypsum is a good, natural option for de-compacting it before adding organic matter. For compacted lawns with clay soil, aeration is a good option, best done in the fall, followed by a top-dressing of organic matter and/or gypsum.
Good news, Muskegon County residents! Good Sweet Earth isn't just serving the counties of Kent, Allegan and Ottawa anymore. Starting in 2019, we're expanding our service area north along the lakeshore to cities and townships in Muskegon County.
If you live in Muskegon, Norton Shores, Whitehall, Roosevelt Park, Casnovia, Fruitport, Montague, Ravenna, or any neighboring community, and you'd like to feed your turf and soil organically, we'd love to come out and give you a free consultation for lawn care.
But why go organic on your lawn?
First, healthy grass comes from healthy soil. Synthetic chemical fertilizers kill your soil, which in turn kills your turf and makes it overly reliant on chemicals. Dead soil is also a breeding ground for weeds and disease.
Organic fertilization focuses on feeding your soil and developing a healthy ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, worms and other life below the surface of your yard. We use vermicompost (nutrient-rich compost made by earthworms), microbial tea (a liquid rich in microbes to help break down organic matter in your soil), and all-natural slow-release fertilizers.
Second, many people in the United States have made the switch to buying organic produce, yet continue to dump chemicals on their lawn and garden. There's a real disconnect there. If you're concerned with how your food is grown on a farm, you should be even more concerned with how your grass (and garden) are grown in your own yard.
Third, synthetic chemicals are destroying our ecosystem. These chemicals leach into our watersheds, they kill the life found in our lakes, rivers and streams, they cause algae blooms, and ultimately introduce poisons into our environment.
Organic soil management practices can reduce the effects of climate change by helping soil hold on to carbon more effectively. This type of healthy soil management doesn't have to be limited to farms, it needs to start right in each of our yards. In fact, lawns cover more acreage in the United States than any other crop. That means the management practices adopted by homeowners could have a larger impact on our nation's soil and climate than the actions of our farmers.
If you live in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan or Muskegon Counties in West Michigan, and you'd like to learn more about organic lawn care for your own home, give us a call at 616-594-0693 or email us at office@GoodSweetEarth.com.
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.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.