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.
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.
Steve & Corey Veldheer are organic yard & garden specialists in west Michigan.