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Organic Lawn Care

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Organic Lawn Care

Growing Grass the Natural Way

By Howard Garrett

Organic gardening expert Howard Garrett offers step-by-step instructions for planting and maintaining lawns, golf courses, and other turf with organic methods that he has proven to be easier, less expensive, and less water-intensive than conventional lawn care.

June 2014

$24.95$16.72

33% website discount price

Paperback

6 x 9 | 176 pp. | 20 b&w photos, 58 color photos in section, 4 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-72849-3

A lush green lawn is one of the great pleasures of the natural world, whether it’s right outside your front door or on a majestic fairway at a legendary golf course. But anyone who has tried to grow the perfect lawn the conventional way knows it requires an endless cycle of watering and applying synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides that costs a lot of money and kills all the life in the soil, on the surface, and on the grass. Fortunately, there’s a better way. Organic lawn care is not only healthier for the environment, it’s actually cheaper and less water-intensive, whether you’re managing a small yard or acres of turf.

In Organic Lawn Care: Growing Grass the Natural Way, Howard Garrett, the renowned “Dirt Doctor,” takes you step-by-step through creating and maintaining turf organically. He begins with the soil, showing you how to establish a healthy habitat for grass. Then he discusses a variety of turfgrasses, including Bermudagrass, bluegrass, buffalograss, fescue, ryegrass, St. Augustine, and zoysia. Garrett explains in detail how to establish and maintain a lawn, including planting, mowing, watering, fertilizing, composting, and managing weeds and pests. And he offers alternatives to lawn grasses and turf, describing the situations in which they might be your best choice.

Follow the program in Organic Lawn Care, and don’t be surprised when your water bill drops dramatically and your lawn or golf course is the best-looking one around.

Preface

Introduction

Environmental Issues
History of the Lawn
Water Issues
Organic Approach versus Conventional Approach

Chapter 1. Soil

Physics (Structure of Soil)
Chemistry (Nutrients of Soil)
Biology (Life of Soil)

Chapter 2. Turfgrasses

Basic Turf Facts
Seasonal Growth Cycles
Turfgrass Selection

Chapter 3. Lawn Establishment

Soil Preparation
Seeding, Sprigging, and Sodding
Early Lawn Care

Chapter 4. Maintaining the Lawn

Mowing and Edging
Watering the Lawn
Fertilizing the Lawn the Chemical Way
Fertilizing the Lawn the Natural Way
Composting and Organic Matter
Cultural Management
Pest Management

Chapter 5. Products for Lawn Care

Amendments/Fertilizers
Microbe Products
Micronized Products

Chapter 6. Alternatives to Lawn Grasses and Turf

Growing Alternative Crops and Specialty Plants
Low-Light Situations
Water Concerns

Appendix

Differences between Toxic Chemical and Organic Approaches
Formulas
Unacceptable Fertilizer Products for Organic Projects
Unacceptable Pest-Control Products for Organic Projects

Index

Introduction

Environmental Issues

Environmental concern has become mainstream. "Green" has become ubiquitous. Unfortunately, most of the marketing companies that using the various "eco-friendly" terms don't have the slightest idea what they are talking about. There is increasing interest from homeowners and businesses to be "green" because that's the "in thing" to do and the "feel good" thing to do. On the other hand, getting back in touch with nature is truly important to more and more people, especially those living in urban situations.

What still surprises many is that the only truly green approach is the natural-organic program for grounds management. Many companies that brag about their LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified buildings, for example, still allow the grounds maintenance to be done with synthetic salt fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides. Some of them realize that reducing water is an important environmental issue, but few of them realize that 40–50 percent of their water bill expenses could be saved by using an organic program. One of the big problems is that the landscape industry continues to tell homeowners and businesses that the organic approach doesn't work. Many universities that prepare those who want to enter the landscape industry are still teaching the use of soil-, air-and water-injuring synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides. They go further by proclaiming that organic techniques don't work. But they don't work for these people because they have never tried them.

As a result, maintenance of turf is still basically in the dark ages--the chemical dark ages that is. It all started just after World War II when new uses for weapons were created. Nitrogen started going into fertilizers instead of into bombs, and toxic chemicals started being put into "pest control" canisters. The irony is that these products don't work well, especially in the long term. What the harsh chemicals do that is so bad is destroy the life in the soil.

This book is designed to teach you how to choose the right grasses for the site and situation but also how to use a completely different management approach that protects the life in the soil and improves it to make grass plants healthier and turf management easier and more cost effective. While not as visually impressive as a forest, jungle, or ocean reef, the life at work in a patch of turf can be every bit as interesting--if it is as alive and healthy as it should be.

History of the Lawn

Lawns are thought to be a primarily American landscape feature, even though most of the common lawn grasses are not native to the United States. Lawns have become a big part of our lives and big business. I'm not sure when it all started, but perhaps some king somewhere figured that if he kept the grasses and bushes cut low, he could better see the approaching enemies interested in entering his castle, cutting off his head, and taking his women. Maybe later he discovered that this low-cropped grass looked different and had a nice appearance. As other rich folks noticed and copied this new "refined" look, the lawn was born. Yes, lawns were originally for the wealthy, but now everyone can have their own plot of turf. Colonial Americans apparently surrounded their home with what was called front meadows or grass yards. George Washington hired English designers and gardeners to create and maintain a bowling green in front of Mount Vernon.

Several organizations are primarily responsible for the popularity of lawns in the United States: the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), the USGA (United States Golf Association), and the PGA (Professional Golfers' Association of America). These groups have pushed the importance of low-cut, well-maintained monocultures of turfgrass. No part of the landscape has been so advertised and promoted. The USGA and the golf industry have led the charge with the financial support of the chemical industry.

I like to play golf and appreciate the beauty and precise maintenance of the turf on golf courses. However, American golf courses have warped the attitude of homeowners, landscape companies, and turf managers worldwide. One specific golf course is the primary culprit. It is the Augusta National Golf Club where the Masters golf tournament is played. This property has no weeds. It is the ultimate monoculture and the most artificial natural beauty that exists anywhere in the world. Yes, I am as impressed with that golf course as anyone who has ever experienced it, but that doesn't excuse its damage to the environment--and not just to that specific site in Augusta, Georgia, but to home lawns, commercial landscapes, and golf courses worldwide.

When visitors or television viewers first witness the perfection of the turf at Augusta, few realize that the grass is a cool-season variety groomed to be at peak during the tournament. There is very little play on the course because most members live in other parts of the world, the course is closed six months out of the year, and the maintenance costs of this tract of turf are astronomical. The average annual cost of golf course maintenance for eighteen holes may be as high as $2 million; at some private country clubs it is $5 million. The annual cost at Augusta National is rumored to be in excess of $20 million. If the real truth were known, the budget is most likely unlimited. And, like most golf courses, it is not under an organic program--quite the contrary. What's wrong with all that you say? Nothing, if they could maintain their artificial setting without influencing so many other people and places.

As of 2013, there are very few totally organic golf courses in the country. The reason? Golf course superintendents do what the USGA, Texas A&M University, and other universities teach them to do. No major universities recommend any organic techniques. Because few of their peers use organic techniques, following the status quo is usually done. If superintendents follow the university-prescribed fertilizer and pest-control instructions--the same ones being used by their fellow superintendents at other clubs around the area as well as around the country--there is a comfort level. It's not a comfort that comes from using the best approach, but a comfort that if failure occurs, "it's not my fault." Turf managers, not just the golf course people, are intimidated to try methods and products that aren't approved by the current conventional wisdom. The status quo is very powerful. When grass fails to perform--even expensive golf greens die--the manager has a convenient out if he has used the highest technology and the conventionally used state-of-the-art products and techniques. If, on the other hand, he has ventured off into the land of the "chemical heretic" and has gone organic, he has no one else to blame. He has to take the responsibility himself.

Tierra Verde, a municipal course in Arlington, Texas, is one of the few courses currently using organic fertilizer practices. They aren't 100 percent organic yet because of the use of herbicides, although they use these at a much lower volume and rate than others do. Totally organic programs work. They work better in every aspect if all the costs are factored in. In 2011, the total annual course maintenance budget was $700,000, and that included the cost of water that they have to pay just like everyone else. Under the direction of Eric Johnson, the Rawls Course at Texas Tech University was under a similar natural-organic program and has experienced similar success with cost savings and quality of turf. The only other golf course using organic techniques, that I know of, is the Vineyard Golf Club on Martha's Vineyard. I don't put it in the same category, however, because this place literally has an unlimited budget.

Water Issues

Water is a big issue today, and it will become a bigger issue every year and ultimately the biggest issue, especially in the more arid parts of the country. Runoff of high-nitrogen synthetic fertilizers and toxic chemical pesticides is a major problem for the health of our water sources and the plant and animal life that depends on it. Without question, the organic approach helps solve this problem. Organic soil amendments and pest-control products not only end the pollution but are the answer to decontaminating the existing problems.

Contamination isn't the biggest problem with water. Having enough water is a more serious issue. One of the most important aspects of changing direction with management practices from synthetic to natural organic is the resulting water savings.

Besides changing management techniques, switching to multispecies turf is one more answer. Not that monoculture turfgrass plantings won't continue to be desired, installed, and maintained, it's just that there is a practical alternative for most people and places. Multispecies turf means just that: many species of grasses and forbs growing together. The overall look is green and very pleasant. Without looking closely, the difference is largely undetectable. Trying to kill the invading species of grass is a silly thing. Why not let the grasses that want to grow, grow? One alleged weed that I often encourage is white clover. I actually plant it in some cases. The tiny black seeds germinate easily when planted late summer to early fall.

Lawns become increasingly artificial and unnatural in direct proportion to the sales of synthetic lawn-care products.

Organic Approach versus Conventional Approach

The differences between organic and chemical lawn care are considerable. The latter involves ignoring nature's systems and force-feeding the plants with high-nitrogen, highly water-soluble synthetic fertilizers and spraying toxic chemical pesticides on the insect and disease outbreaks that are directly related to the poor fertilization program. The organic method, on the other hand, looks at the soil to determine its condition and then adjusts the balance of chemistry, biology, and physics. The organic gardener or lawn-care professional feeds the living organisms in the soil and lets the healthy soil feed the plants.

The watering schedule is critical to organic lawn care. The most common mistake is watering too often and not deep enough at each watering. The result is weak, shallow root systems and the wasteful use of too much water. Watering less often and deeper each time prevents salt buildup; limits waste from evaporation; and encourages larger, healthier root systems. Putting down about one inch at each watering is a good basic starting point. As with nature, organic programs are dynamic and need to be adjusted from time to time.

An organic turf program will give you not only a beautiful lawn but also a comfortable place where your pets and children can play safely. Synthetically maintained turf is really not.

The first thing I always tell people who are considering the organic approach is to get rid of the grass catcher. There are several reasons why grass clippings should be left on the lawn, and there are even stronger arguments for not putting clippings in plastic or paper bags and leaving them on the street curb for the garbage collectors to pick up and haul to the landfill. Clippings provide the critical organic material that beneficial microorganisms in the soil need to create natural fertilizer. In addition, grass clippings contain nutrients, and a large percentage of those nutrients accumulate in the leaf tips, which, of course, is the part that is cut away. University studies have shown that nitrogen in grass clippings left on the lawn can be absorbed back into the living grass plants in less than a week. If you mow your own lawn, you should stop spending the money, time, and energy required to bag the grass clippings. Grass clippings should never be caught, with the exception of immediately before overseeding with cool-season grasses such as rye.

Many cities in this country have a serious problem with the amount of available land left for landfills and garbage dumps. As much as 40 percent of landfill volume is attributed to grass clippings, leaves, and tree chips. Grass makes up a great percentage of all the vegetative materials, and the plastic bags are another serious environmental concern. The fact that this problem even exists is ridiculous because the clippings are beneficial to turf and should be left on the ground. Some experts say that the mowing frequency needs to be increased to once every five days instead of once a week, but I don't agree. In most cases, when organic fertilizers are used and used properly, the grass will be healthy and green but slower growing. Organically maintained turf doesn't have the spurts of growth that are commonly caused by high-nitrogen salt fertilizers. Mowing more often for a special look is okay if time and the budget allow it. An extra mowing may sometimes be needed after a rain because of the extra nitrogen and oxygen that is produced in a thunderstorm.

If excess grass clippings accumulate for whatever reason, put them in the compost pile, not in garbage bags. If you own a mulching mower, you never have to worry about excess clippings because they are ground into fine particles that don't accumulate on the surface because they are eaten quickly by the beneficial soil organisms.

No, leaving the clippings on the lawn does not cause thatch buildup. Just the opposite, in fact--the clippings, along with organic fertilizers, provide food for the microorganisms and naturally slow-release fertilizer nutrients for the grass. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides kill the microorganisms, causing the thatch to remain and become a problem.

Organic fertilizers, and even the "bridge" products that are sometimes used during the transition stage, don't have to be applied as often. That fact, along with the reduction of insects and diseases, is part of the reason why the organic program is cost effective and in the long term can save a lot of money. Using organic fertilizers and programs that cost more money than the synthetic approach doesn't make any sense. Some proponents and even some organic fertilizer manufacturers don't actually get it. They preach that the natural products cost more and don't work as fast or as well, but it's worth it for the environment. It's doing the right thing that's important. That's malarkey! Those people just don't know what they are doing. To me, if the organic program doesn't work from all aspects, including the financial one, it doesn't work at all and shouldn't be used. A properly designed and executed organic program does work better--in every way.

Chapter 1

Soil

Soil is a complex mixture of organic and inorganic materials. It consists of air, water, minerals, organic matter, and living organisms. It serves as the source of the water, nutrients, and energy needed for the growth of all plants, including turfgrasses. To have balanced, healthy soil, the physics, biology, and chemistry must all be in order. If they're not, those things can be fixed with natural-organic techniques and products.

Physics (Structure of Soil)

Soil is made up partly of minerals called sand, silt, and clay, and the difference between these three is both physical and chemical. Physically, they are different in size. When soil is tested, how much sand, silt, and clay it contains is determined by using a set of sieves. The resulting percentages place the soil in what is called a soil texture group, such as loam, clay loam, or sandy loam. For example, if a soil contains about 50 percent sand, 30 percent silt, and 20 percent clay, it's called a loam. Clay loam has about 20 percent sand, 20 percent silt, and 60 percent clay. The percentages of these three ingredients will vary for sandy loam, but equal amounts of each is common. Most consider a sandy loam to be the best soil texture for a lawn because it has both good drainage and good nutrient-holding characteristics.

The most important direct effects soil structure has on lawns are the rate at which water enters a particular soil, the amount of water that soil holds, and the rate at which water drains through that soil. As the percentage of sand in a soil increases, water will enter it more quickly, it will hold less water, and the water will move down through the soil faster.

Thus, sandy soils tend to be droughty, and the plants growing in it must be watered more often. Clay soils dramatically slow down water infiltration and increase water retention. Thus, they can be poorly drained and even waterlogged after heavy rains or improper irrigation. Generally, turfgrasses form deeper roots in sandy-type soils than they do in high-clay soils.

Physical Soil Modification

The goal of physically modifying a soil is to provide oxygen for soil life--the biology of the system. Microbe health will improve the chemistry and the physics of the soil. All three result in better internal drainage, better aeration, and better root growth. The most commonly used material to improve drainage is sand, but it doesn't help much at all because you can't really change the structure of soil. You can make it better, but sandy soils will always be sandy, loam soils will always be loamy, and clay soils will always be clayey. The only sands I recommend are volcanic sands, which are good for their volcanic properties (paramagnetism) rather than their overblown drainage-improving properties.

Plant growth usually isn't very good in compacted soils, so aeration is recommended. There are several ways to aerate the soil. Heavily compacted soil would benefit greatly from core aeration, or "ripping." Ripping the soil is actually more effective at aerating than poking holes but shouldn't be done if trees exist, as the feeder roots would be torn. The liquid aeration treatment would be to spray or drench the soil with hydrogen peroxide. Applying the 3 percent product from the drug or grocery store is one way to go. Commercial 35 percent hydrogen peroxide is also available and can be mixed at about 1 ounce per gallon of water, but this concentrated product can burn skin and eyes, so it must be handled very carefully. The ideal approach would be to do both. The physically aerated soil lets the liquid penetrate more deeply to help loosen the soil more effectively. Then if you add the Garrett Juice mixture or at least compost tea to the hydrogen peroxide application, you will have fertilized the soil as well as aerated it. All this work is usually a one-time need, unless the soil is physically compacted all over again.

The hydrogen peroxide does kill microbes when it first hits the soil, but that ends fast as it breaks down into water and oxygen. The big positive about the product is that it starts the flocculation of the soil. That means that clumps of soil and air spaces are created. Then the microbes grow back better than ever--especially when organic amendments and fertilizers are used.

Soil can be greatly improved regardless of its color or structure with the addition of organic matter, rock minerals, and sugars. An ideal soil contains about 5 percent organic matter. Most soil before improvement contains less than 1 percent organic matter. Clay soils are actually easier to improve than sandy soils. Clay soils are deficient in air and organic matter. Sandy soils are deficient in everything except sand. Some soils that are high in clay and low in organic matter have very poor drainage. Mixing organic matter into these soils will improve drainage much more so than adding sand. Decomposed or composted organic matter should be used. Fresh organic matter is not as desirable because the organisms that decompose organic matter have a high nitrogen requirement. Thus, any plants growing in soils containing fresh organic matter usually have severe nitrogen draft and deficiencies until the organic matter has decomposed. The most efficient way to improve the physics of the soil in a short time is by mechanical aeration.

Drainage

Soil drainage is an important part of the physics of the soil. Drainage problems can happen not only in heavy clay soils but also in sandy soils. One of the worst drainage problems I have ever encountered was on a residential landscape project that had sandy soil. Everyone on the project was stumped about why the place was a swamp and plants were dying until I had the contractor dig a large hole and we discovered a "hard pan" layer that had apparently been caused by plows moving through the ground at the same depth over and over, year after year when the land was agricultural. Drilling and ripping through this layer so the water wouldn't be trapped solved the problem.

Lack of good soil drainage can be one of the worst continual problems a lawn can have. Grass roots simply won't grow in wet soils. Surface drainage may be adequate if the grade is at least 1 percent. This means that for water to run downhill, the slope should drop at least 1 foot for every 100 feet in distance or \F1/2 foot for every 50 feet from the house.

While surface drainage is important and will aid greatly in keeping the lawn from becoming waterlogged, especially during periods of heavy rainfall, the internal drainage characteristics of a soil are just as important. Soil may not drain well internally for several reasons. The most common cause is simply the high amount of clay in the soil. Clay holds water, so the higher the percentage of clay in the soil, the more water is held and the poorer the drainage.

Soils that are very high in calcium or sodium may tend to be poorly drained. These are two of the elements that may cause the soil to lose its desirable structure and, thus, its good drainage characteristics. If a soil has lost its structure because it is high in sodium, the addition of gypsum may improve internal drainage. Since gypsum is calcium sulfate, its application to a high-calcium soil won't help in many cases. A soil test will determine if either sodium or calcium is a problem and if gypsum will help. High-calcium soils can be improved with the addition of organic fertilizers, humates, magnesium products and sulfur.

Chemistry (Nutrients of Soil)

The ability of a soil to hold and make nutrients available to a plant depends on the amount of clay and the amount of organic matter it contains. Both the clay particles and the organic matter have a negative charge, and since most plant nutrients have a positive charge, the nutrients are held to their surface for possible future use by the turfgrass plant. Soils very high in sand do not hold many nutrients, so fertilizer programs are more critical. As an extreme example, a lawn grown on a very sandy soil may need to be fertilized with small amounts of fertilizer every two or three weeks, whereas lawns grown on soils containing moderate amounts of clay can go as many as six weeks or more between fertilizer applications. The addition of compost or other forms of organic matter and carbon can help the soil hold water and nutrients, but volcanic rock materials such as lava sand are even more efficient at holding moisture at just the right level for a long time. Sugar can help indirectly by stimulating the growth of microbes. Microbe waste and dead bodies created by their life cycles are the most significant long-term sources of humus in the soil, which has great moisture-holding capacity. These improvements (organic material, rock minerals, and sugar) help keep the proper moisture levels and allow the soil to breathe, which benefits the tilth of the soil. It is all related.

Chemical Soil Modification

The best way to adjust the chemistry of the soil is to take soil samples and send them for testing to a lab that uses the carbon dioxide extraction method, which provides information on what nutrients are available to plants and gives organic recommendations to improve the nutrient availability. Currently the only lab that fits that specification is the Texas Plant and Soil Lab (TPSL) in Edinburg, Texas.

The testing lab at Texas A&M is the one most commonly recommended in Texas, but there are other university-related labs around the country. I don't recommend any of them for several reasons, but the main issue is that they use harsh chemicals to do the extraction of the nutrients in soil samples. The A&M lab in the past used the worst techniques. After significant criticism and prodding from those of us in the organic arena (mostly K Chandler, Malcolm Beck, and me), A&M decided to change their testing techniques. Below is the memo that announced the change. It was sent quietly in an attempt to stay under the radar, but we were able to get a copy. The change to a less harsh chemical extractant was a step in the right direction, but the new process (Mehlich III) still doesn't give any useful information about what nutrients are available to the plants.

The Texas Cooperative Extension Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory has changed its primary soil nutrient extractant from the TAMU method (acidified ammonium acetate with EDTA) to the Mehlich III method. The former extractant, originally derived from the Morgan method, underwent multiple changes during its 57 use by the laboratory. Recent research by the laboratory and supporting Extension faculty and staff, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers, agricultural industry, and cooperative agricultural producers indicated the former extractant over-estimated plant-available phosphorus in several isolated agriculturally productive areas of Texas.

A review of historical geological surveys and preliminary research by the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory suggested the over-estimation of phosphorus in these soils was due to the presence of rock phosphate. Exclusively, the soils of concern are dominated by a high concentration of free-calcium carbonates (pH > 7.6) developed in the Upper Austin Chalk geological deposits. These areas included a narrow band of the soil from North Waco to Oklahoma and along the Rio Grande River.

An exhaustive laboratory research program evaluated each of the major soil nutrient methods used in the south-central United States, along with several others used in North America and one developed by the laboratory. Using field research samples, the following criteria were used in selecting a new test (or maintaining TAMU extract):

1. accuracy in predicting significant economic yield increases to phosphorus fertilization

2. capacity to extract and analyze multiple nutrients

3. ease of use by laboratory

4. use of extractant by neighboring Land-Grant universities

5. relationship between new extractant and TAMU extractant (facilitates use of historic datasets)

6. acceptance by state and federal environmental and agricultural agencies

7. potential acceptance by private laboratories

The only method evaluated that adequately predicted economic yield response to phosphorus fertilization across the numerous research study sites was the Mehlich III extractant. Fortunately, this method currently is being used by Univ. of Arkansas, Oklahoma State Univ., Kansas State Univ., and many private soil-testing laboratories throughout the United States. While published research suggests the Mehlich III extractant also be used for micro.nutrient analysis (iron, zinc, copper and manganese), the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory did not find a strong enough relationship between existing methodology or plant uptake data to support this claim. The method does however work well for predicting available potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium and sulfur. Sulfur extracted by the Mehlich III, while strongly correlated with the TAMU method, was significantly lower, and thus existing sulfur recommendations were altered to reflect the difference in sulfur extractability by the methods. The other four elements' recommendations have not been altered at this time.

Impact of Phosphorus Change

Nine hundred eleven soil samples submitted by Texas clientele were analyzed by the laboratory using multiple methodologies, and data was compared to the TAMU method. The only criteria used for selecting these samples were:

1. non-urban samples

2. non-manured samples

3. originated from Texas

4. Non-research samples

5. TAMU phosphorus levels below 200 ppm

6. no apparent issue with salinity

7. soil pH levels between 4.5 and 9.0

8. adequate soil to complete all tests.

Mehlich III data can be used with the following equation to predict EDTA [Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid] phosphorus levels: EDTA phosphorus = -40.63 + 4.313*pH*pH + 0.104*M3Mg-0.0000824*M3Mg*M3Mg + 0.718*M3P + 0.00128*M3P*M3P r = 0.896; P =

Healthy soils and healthy plants must have a balance of chemistry, physics, and biology.

Soil pH

The pH of the soil has been said to control the availability of the nutrients in the soil. That really isn't true. The pH of the soil is a resulting factor, not a controlling factor. It doesn't matter if the nutrients are provided by the application of a liquid or dry fertilizer or if the nutrients are supplied by the decomposition of soil minerals--their availability to the grass plant is controlled by biological activity within the soil. The pH of the soil will be around 6.5 when the soil is healthy, balanced, and rich in biological activity. Microorganisms affect the pH of the soil and are needed to convert plant nutrients from an unavailable form into a form the plant can use. These conversions are slower in both high-and low-pH soils.

The most common nutrient deficiency blamed on excessively high pH is iron deficiency. Many times there is enough iron in the soil, but it simply is not available to the plants. The condition called "chlorosis" is usually blamed on iron unavailability, and sometimes that is the case. What's more common, however, is a deficiency of several trace minerals resulting from an imbalance of the physics, biology, and chemistry of the soil. Such soils are referred to as being "dead," but they are fixable with the Basic Organic Program (see www.dirtdoctor.com, Organic Advice, Guides, Basic Organic Gardening Program for complete details).

Salt Issues

In some soils, a salt buildup can create a serious problem for plants. The primary source of salt may be irrigation water, but the most common culprit is synthetic fertilizers. Turfgrasses vary in their ability to tolerate high soil salt levels. The first symptom of a salt problem is reduced growth. As salt levels increase, white salt deposits usually appear on the soil surface. A soil test can determine salt levels. While a few hundred parts per million (ppm) won't do any harm, most plants will be injured and even die if levels reach 1,000 ppm.

Salts can be leached out of the root zone, but the best long-term solution is the use of organic fertilizers and amendments.

Biology (Life of Soil)

The most important part of the soil is the soil life. While sand, silt, and clay are the mineral nonliving parts of the soil, organisms such as worms, nematodes, algae, fungi, and bacteria are just a few examples of the living parts of the soil. The most common soil organisms are bacteria and fungi. As many as 100 million bacteria per teaspoon may be present, although a few thousand is the usual population. Fungi populations are harder to estimate because they grow in threadlike strands and don't exist as individuals. Mycorrhizal fungi greatly expand the root system, increase nutrient availability, and protect plants against insect pests and diseases.

One of the most important functions of soil organisms is the conversion of the organic form of nitrogen to an inorganic form the plant can use. Bacteria convert organic nitrogen to the ammoniacal form of nitrogen (ammonium), which they use as their food supply. As long as there is a large source of carbon in the soil, such as organic matter, these bacteria will not use up all available nitrogen and plants will not suffer from nitrogen deficiency.

Healthy soil organism populations are critical to the production of healthy plants. For example, bacteria help keep fungi populations in check. Fungi are the number one cause of plant disease. Anything like excessively high or low pH, high salt levels, poor drainage, or excessive pesticides may serve to reduce the number of soil organisms, which in turn harms plant growth.

Diseases in grasses, as with all plants, are a matter of biological activity out of balance. Diseases are rare under an organic program because of the balance provided by the program. The most common fungal diseases can easily be controlled by stimulating the beneficial organisms in the soil. That can be done with compost, compost tea, cornmeal, molasses, and other natural materials. The microbes that we consider pathogens and disease organisms are actually beneficial in natural systems if they are there in their proper percentages and buffered by all the rest of the life in the soil. The reason the toxic chemical fungicides and other "cides" don't work is that they are indiscriminant. They kill all the life in the soil, good microbes and bad. When this semivacuum has been created, it doesn't last long. Life immediately starts to regrow. Unfortunately, the first living organisms to return are the microbes that, when out of balance, are the disease pathogens.

 

Howard Garrett is a landscape architect with extensive experience in landscape design, contracting, greenhouse growing, golf course planning and maintenance, and organic product development. A leader in the natural-organic marketplace, he provides advice on natural-organic gardening, landscaping, pet health, pest control, and green living. Garrett’s many books include Texas Gardening the Natural Way: The Complete Handbook. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

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