Saturday, March 10, 2012

No One Ever Fertilized An Old Growth Forest

I was asked to write an article for the first ever Horticulture Newsletter at Naugatuck Valley Community College. After my organic views were called called "quackery" in my landscape maintenance class by a guest speaker, a well-known CT Agricultural Station guy, I became a bit more outspoken on organic methods in class. I wanted those young upcoming landscapers and designers to know there is a better way, a natural way that the plants prefer. I tried to write about plants or design but my real passion these days is the soil. Soil is the basis of all life. 
So here is my article from 2011, copied from the Naugatuck Valley Community College Horticulture Newsletter, the great little school I go to, to study Horticulture and Landscape Design, one class at a time. I would appreciate any and all feedback or questions!

No One Ever Fertilized An Old Growth Forest

Fallen leaves are nature's mulch. Why not use them in your yard too?

Walking in the forest evokes a sense of calm and wonder. The forest is a lush, beautiful place filled with amazing plants of all kinds. Did you ever think about why the forest is so healthy? How could it be so without our intervention?
The answer is the soil. Specifically the “soil food web.” Soil is alive and filled with zillions of microscopic organisms all living and working together to promote a healthy environment for the plants growing in it. The forest soil is mostly untouched. It has never been rototilled, had its leaves raked up or had a synthetic fertilizer added to it. How can we achieve this type of soil in our gardens? It is simple really. We need to re-establish a healthy soil food web.

Ferns in the forest love the leaf mulch and spring forth each year from under the leaf blanket that protected and nourished them over the winter. 

Healthy soil is teeming with life, some of which we can see like earthworms and insects, but mostly life that is too small to see without the help of a microscope. Fungi, bacteria, protozoa and nematodes are all there. They colonize around the plant roots and form a symbiotic relationship with the plant and keep the bad guys away. They eat what the plant exudes into the soil, and in turn, they release it back into this soil into a form the plant can use. The larger organisms such as earthworms and insects eat and break down nutrient rich organic sources such as leaves and release the nutrients into the soil. They hold moisture. Nature is an amazing system and it takes care of itself without the blue fertilizer or chemical pesticides to feed and protect it.

Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) is a wildflower that pops up all over the forest floor in spring.

Every yard had a healthy soil food web at one time. The use of chemical fertilizers and chemical insecticides/herbicides to kill weeds, fungi and insects has killed all the healthy microbiology that was once there. The result is a sterile environment which is susceptible to further disease and nutrient deficiency. It must be continually fed with more artificial nutrients! 

Why not feed your gardens with compost, compost tea and organic mulches. Use free chopped leaves as a mulch or a natural cedar mulch on top of some chopped leaves (not the chemically dyed red, brown or black mulches). As a fellow plant nut like the rest of you- we all know that healthy soil = healthy plants. I would recommend reading a book that completely explains the soil food web (in a very easy way) by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis called “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardeners Guide to the Soil Food Web.” It has opened my eyes to the life below us and how amazing it is. 

In 2012, no matter what you grow, promise to keep synthetic chemicals out of your yard and garden. Your soil food web will thrive and reward you with healthier, happy plants. Not to mention peace of mind knowing you are contributing to a healthier earth for all.

*note-the title of this piece comes from the book by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis called “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardeners Guide to the Soil Food Web.”  It just makes so much sense!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Just Say No to TruGreen or Other Non Organic Lawn Services

This is my organic lawn which has the occasional "weed".
Do I really need to spray the whole acre to get rid of that one weed?
What is a weed? Do they HAVE to go away? Why?
Here it is, mid-January and I have just received my first lawn solicitation from a lawn "care" company. It is amazing actually, they may have even beat TruGreen's (formerly known as Chem-Lawn) pricing. For the low price of $115 per application, I can have my entire huge acre of lawn sprayed to keep it green and weed free. The problem here is this comes with a HUGE price for me and my family and any other living thing that may come over to visit. If I go with a company like this I will be spraying toxic liquid all over my yard and have poison granules spread that we will walk on and carry into our house. This will make my lawn very, very green and insect and dandelion free. The problem with me is, I LIKE the dandelions and insects. If I have a few dandelions, my kids can pick them and make bouquets. Bees will come visit my dandelions and pollenate my vegetables. Beneficial insects like ladybugs will come and eat the aphids off my garden flowers so I won't have to spray those either. Birds will come to the lawn and pluck out the grubs and other pests. There is no need to poison yourself for the sake of a carpet like green lawn. If you are covered in dandelions, this really means something is off with your soil and no amount of spray or spreading of granules is going to fix it. Weeds are a sign of a soil problem. Dandelions mean your calcium is low and the pH is off. Crabgrass means your soil is compacted and could use an aeration and overseeding in the fall. There is a cultural or organic solution to every lawn problem. What to do and where to start? Take a soil test and find out what your soil is asking you for. Ask for organic recommendations with the results. And if you really, really, REALLY look at the weeds, are they really so bad? The vase of flowers below is a vase of my lawn "weeds." I rather like them actually.

Flowers my kids picked for me from the lawn.
Who decided to convince us these are weeds???
The pink one is clover which bees love and bunnies eat!
As more of these solicitations arrive in your inbox, please think very hard about hiring one of these guys to come do your lawn. And don't be fooled by the bagged 4 step products from the big-box stores either--you'll just slowly poison yourself while applying. Or quickly if you overapply! (I used to do that-more is better right?)
I am realizing now I do not even need such an expanse of lawn. What I need and really, really, really want is a low maintenance (once a year mow/never fertilize), sustainable flowery meadow my kids and I can explore. I can mow paths through it and we can find cool bugs, watch butterflies and pick pretty flowers. Where is it written we need to have such large expanses of green lawn? Why is this the norm? I want a lawn, just not so much of it. So I will toss the $115 estimate to poison my yard into the recycling bin and hope many, many people do the same. And for the rest of winter I will dream of and figure out how to plant my beautiful meadow.


Really research what you are applying to the lawn. Pesticides and herbicides (weed and feed) products are quite dangerous, especially to kids who play and roll around here. (well not here as this is my lawn and there is no danger-come on over neighborhood kids!)
Do not trust the lawn care guy who states they are "perfectly safe in the small quantities we apply."
That is a BIG red flag!
Ask for SPECIFIC chemicals they use and google them before letting them be added to your soil.