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 the first in 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.
So the question of "How much should I water?" is a frequent one, which is why I've decided it tackle this one first in our "Ask the Organic Lawn Guy" series.
And here's a simple answer: Water as often as you'd like, to keep your turf as green as you'd like, but make sure you water for at least 30 minutes at a time (ideally 45-60). Read on for a more-nuanced answer.
First, we need to talk about turf in Michigan. We're in what's called a "cool-weather turf zone." That means our turf grows when it's cool, and it goes dormant when it's hot and when it freezes.
And contrary to popular belief, grass shouldn't be bright green in the middle of summer, and you probably aren't going to be mowing it twice a week either. Michigan turf grows and greens in the spring and the fall. Then during the summer and winter, it gets brown and stops growing while it stores up carbohydrates for the next growing season.
So, all that brown grass you see in the summer? It ain't dead. It's sleeping. If you don't mind having brown, crispy grass during the months of July and August, letting it sleep is probably the best thing you can do for your lawn. It'll have much more vigor and density in the fall. That being said, turf shouldn't go for more than three weeks (two in especially hot conditions) without water. So even if you go the dormancy route with your turf, you should still put the sprinklers on every two to three weeks (if there's been no rain). And when you do put the sprinkler on, let it go for about 45-60 minutes per zone. This will allow the water to go deeper into the ground, which will force the roots to grow deeper as well. This will give you stronger and more drought-resistant turf.
But what if you don't want brown crispy grass all summer? What if you like to have some soft green turf to play on and admire? Then my advice to you is to let it get as brown as you're comfortable with, and then put the sprinklers on for 45-60 minutes. For some people, this might mean watering twice or three times a week. For others, it might mean once every 10 days. I don't have a hard and fast rule for how often you should water. Just do it when you think your lawn's getting too brown for your own comfort. If you're able to go 15 days between waterings (and let the grass go into a dormancy), great! If the thought of crispy turf makes you feel a little uneasy, go as many days as you can without watering, and then let the sprinklers fly.
The only rule I have is to water for at minimum 30 minutes, but ideally 45-60, depending on how your soil can handle that amount of water (you don't want puddling). The one thing you do NOT want to do is a 10-minute watering. This will mean the water never goes very deep into your soil, and neither does your turf's root zone. And that's bad news.
I've talked to too many customers who water their lawn every morning, seven days a week, all summer long, for 5-15 minutes a day. This is not effective for healthy turf. Watering at mid-day or in the evening is also bad. Why? When you water at mid-day, you lose a lot of moisture to evaporation. And watering at night can create a breeding ground for fungus on your grass. Mornings are the best time of day to sprinkle.
Now, I have to mention that there's a real technical answer that turf professionals like to give when asked how much to water a lawn, and it includes the number of inches of water you should be applying, and then putting out coffee cans in your yard while you sprinkle in order to measure the amount of water, etc. But most of us aren't managing a golf course. If you go with what feels comfortable for your lawn, watch out for over-watering (puddles), avoid short watering periods, and avoid mid-day/evening waterings, you'll be fine.
So to sum up: In the spring and fall, you can probably rely on rain to do all the watering your lawn needs, but if you do turn the sprinklers on, water deeply (at least 30 minutes). In the summer, go as long as you're comfortable going between waterings. If you don't mind grass that's a little brown, letting your turf go dormant is ideal for it's long-term health. Otherwise, turn the sprinklers on for about 45 minutes in the morning whenever you see your turf getting too brown for your own comfort.
We're excited to be part of the Fourth Annual Macatawa Water Festival this Saturday, July 14, at Windmill Island in Holland! The event goes from 9am-1pm, and is free to the public.
We'll be joining over 30 other community organizations promoting a cleaner, healthier Macatawa Watershed. Activities will include kayaking, fishing and crafts! Meijer will be there providing fresh fruits and veggies from local farmers.
Good Sweet Earth will be there (Steve & Corey) to talk about the importance of healthy soil and vermicomposting in relation to healthy watersheds, with a craft for the kiddos.
The Macatawa Water Festival benefits Project Clarity.
Windmill Island is located at 1 Lincoln Avenue in Holland. For more information, click here.
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.