Nationally acclaimed organic gardening expert Howard Garrett offers detailed, proven instructions for designing and managing large-scale landscapes organically.
Can you manage the landscape of a golf course, city park, or corporate campus without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides? Absolutely! Organic landscaping is not only possible on a large scale, but it also makes sense both economically and environmentally. It promotes healthy soils and plants, which require less water and sequester more carbon—a winning combination for both your bottom line and the planet’s fight against resource depletion and global warming. Organic programs on a commercial scale have enormous potential to make a difference in the quality of our environment, our use of fuels, and our climate. And as those who have already converted to organics have discovered, they also cost a lot less over the long term.
Organic Management for the Professional is the first comprehensive guide to “going green” in large-scale landscaping. Nationally recognized organic gardening expert Howard Garrett, with associates John Ferguson and Mike Amaranthus, not only explains in detail how to manage projects with natural organic techniques, but also presents the material in clear, simple terms so that commercial and institutional property owners can understand what to ask of their landscape architects, contractors, growers, and maintenance people. They give detailed, proven instructions for the key components of organic landscaping—soil building, correct planting techniques, fertilizing, pest control, compost, and mulch. Then they show how to apply these organic methods in large-scale landscaping, commercial growing (orchards, tree farms, nurseries, and greenhouse operations), and recreational properties (golf courses, parks, and sports fields).
- Chapter 1: Introduction to Organics
- Reasons to Go Organic
- Converting to the Natural Organic Program
- Chapter 2: Soil Building
- Basic Soil Science
- Soil Biology
- Soil Texture
- Soil Testing
- Soil Amendments
- Chapter 3: Planting
- Basic Bed Preparation
- Seed Planting
- Tree Planting
- Potting Soil
- Chapter 4: Fertilizing
- How Organic Fertilizers Work
- Foliar Feeding
- Product Information
- Chapter 5: Pest and Disease Control
- The Real Purpose of Toxic Chemical Pesticides
- Pests and Their Organic Remedies
- Insect Pests
- Structural Pest Control
- Honeybees and Other Pollinators
- Weeds: The Disliked Plants
- Chapter 6: Compost
- Why Compost?
- Compost Types and Methods
- Compostable Materials
- Composting Process
- Warning Signs in Compost
- Using Compost
- Compost Tea
- Chapter 7: Mulch
- Mulch Types
- Mulch Uses and Applications
- Pitfalls of Mulching
- The Science of Mulch
- The Mulch Business
- Mulches Not Recommended
- Chapter 8: Landscaping
- Landscaping Elements
- Landscaping Specifications
- Chapter 9: Commercial Growing Operations and Recreational
- Commercial Growing Operations
- Recreational Properties
- Chapter 10: Organic Strategies and Global Climate Change
- Global Warming by the Numbers
- Organic Methods Make a Difference
- The Link to Soil Life
- Carbon-rich Organic Glue
- Organic Material, Organic Matter, and Soil Carbon
- Squashing the Symbiosis
- Managing Trees in Landscapes as Carbon Sinks
- Landscape and Turf Management
- Appendix 1: Organic Treatment Formulas
- Appendix 2: Sources for Organic Supplies
- Appendix 3: Soil-Testing Resources
- Appendix 4: Conversion Tables
- Information Resources
Introduction to Organics
Chemical agriculture specialists have always told us that it makes no difference if you use natural organic or synthetic fertilizer because the microbes have to process the fertilizer into the ion form before plants can properly use it anyway. They are wrong. They forgot an important law of physics: "Nothing starts in motion without a source of energy." All of our energy—food, gas, coal, diesel, etc.—comes from the sun. Only green plants can collect and store the sun's energy and supply it to us in a usable form.
Soil life must have energy. Synthetic fertilizers, for the most part, contain no carbon and no energy. As a result, soil life is forced to use the soil's energy reserves. The soil's energy supply soon runs low, the chemicals don't get properly processed, and plants are fed unnaturally, causing them to have a dramatically lower resistance to pests. As a result, diseases and insect pests are invited in. Production falls off, more chemicals are used, more soil energy is burned up, the soil life doesn't have ample energy to process the fertilizers or detoxify the pesticides, microbe and earthworm populations decline, the soil dies and loses structure, wind and rain erosion take their toll, and the once-productive farm or ranch land soon becomes a biological desert with little diversity and poor health.
Earth is about 30 percent dry land, and only about 11 percent is suitable for food crop production. All life on Earth is supported by a thin layer of topsoil. Fertile topsoil is the result of decaying organic matter, which adds carbon to the soil, and decaying rock. Both must be present. The quality of that thin soil layer determines the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
Carbon stored in topsoil is the bankroll of plant productivity. The great early civilizations of Mesopotamia, for example, arose because of the richness of their soils and collapsed because of declines in soil quality. Poor land management and excessive irrigation caused soils to become increasingly degraded and unable to support the Fertile Crescent civilizations. Ancient Greece suffered a similar fate. The philosopher Plato, writing his Critias around 360 B.C., attributed the demise of Greek dominance to soil degradation: "In earlier days Attica yielded far more abundant produce… . In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, … all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left." What Plato likely did not recognize is how much organic matter had washed away from these Greek soils.
In the New World, similar processes were unfolding. Sylvanus G. Morley, a Harvard professor, concluded that the great Maya civilization of Mesoamerica collapsed because it overshot the carrying capacity of the land. Deforestation and erosion exhausted their resource base, causing many Maya to die of starvation and thirst en masse and others to flee once-great cities, leaving them as silent warnings for generations to come.
According to UCLA professor Jared Diamond, author of the books Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, most inhabitants of Easter Island in the Pacific died because of deforestation, erosion, and soil depletion. In Iceland, farming and human activities caused about 50 percent of the soil to end up in the sea, explains Diamond. He also notes that Icelandic society survived only through drastically lower standards of living. Not surprisingly, the practice of destroying soils by torching watersheds or salting farms and fields has been employed by armies in warfare from the time of Alexander the Great to Napoleon.
Today, we are facing many of the same issues as these former civilizations: removal of native vegetation, overharvesting, dwindling supplies of freshwater, overworked soils, and sprawling population growth. Our poor management of the land has resulted in serious warning signs. Widespread agricultural pollution of lands and seas, accelerated topsoil loss, damage to fish and aquatic life, pesticide buildup in our own bodies, and rapidly declining nutritional value of food have become environmental problems of immense importance that are directly related to soil.
Today, the organic content of most agricultural soils is far below sustainable levels. Many soils are down to less than 1 percent, some as low as .2 percent. Originally productive soil organic levels were between 3 and 5 percent and as high as 8 percent by weight. Before World War II and the invention of synthetic fertilizers, no irrigation, fertilizer, or pesticides were needed. Now, the average vegetable farmer spends over $1,000 per acre per year on these three inputs, and the soil quality is still deteriorating.
Sunlight on bare soil, overuse of high-analysis N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) fertilizers, and overtillage of soils have caused the microbes to deplete the organic matter and humus reserves of the soil. Conversely, natural organic fertilizers, composted manures, and natural organic materials have low amounts of N-P-K but contain a broad spectrum of trace minerals, carbon, and beneficial organisms plus an abundance of energy needed to sustain life.
Plant life collects carbon dioxide from the air, releases oxygen into the air, then loads (combines) the carbon with other elements and energy from the sun to create carbohydrates. This carbohydrate energy the plants manufacture is the only way the sun's energy can be utilized by animals and people in the form of food. This energy is needed by all life-forms for growth and survival.
This sun-generated energy enters the belowground food web as a wide variety of organic substances (i.e., molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen). In the food web, plant residues—leaves, roots, stems, fruits (i.e., soil organic matter)—or sugar exudates from the roots are consumed by the micro- and macro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, microarthropods, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and insects. As carbon flows throughout the food web, it provides energy and the building blocks for the organisms that are consuming it, whose waste or bodies provide the energy and building blocks to other organisms in the web.
In other words, although each organism is working to find energy and food for its own survival, the interactions of all these organisms are providing food and protection to the plants and all the other soil organisms. Ultimately, this organic matter contains the nutrients that new plants need to grow. Then, mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, made up of hyphae that look like fine threads, come in and "hunt" down these nutrients and carry them back to the plant roots.
Research is revealing that practices like reduced tillage, use of cover crops, and incorporation of crop residues can dramatically alter the carbon storage of agricultural lands. Much of the excess CO2 in the air said to cause global warming comes from the bare cultivated soil on our farm and ranch lands. Parks, golf courses, and landscapes that are managed conventionally also contribute to this problem. For years, many have argued that organically produced food is safer and more nutritious. Now we are learning that a switch to organic production methods is an expedient and soil-based sink for carbon from the atmosphere. Data from the Rodale Institute's long-term comparison of organic and conventional farming methods substantiates that organic practices are much more effective at removing carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere and fixing it as beneficial organic matter in the soil. Organic practices result in rapid carbon buildup in the soil.
Little-known Facts That Have a Big Effect
On a global scale, soils hold more than twice as much carbon, an estimated 1.74 trillion U.S. tons, as terrestrial vegetation does, 672 billion U.S. tons. U.S. agriculture currently releases 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. Converting all U.S. agricultural lands to organic production would eliminate agriculture's massive emission problem. In addition, because fossil fuel–derived chemical fertilizers would be eliminated, switching to organic production would actually result in a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds.
In twenty-three years of continuous recordkeeping, the Rodale's Institute's Farming Systems Trial found that organic farming systems have shown an increase of 15–28 percent in soil carbon, whereas the conventional farming system has shown no statistically significant increase. If just ten thousand medium-sized farms in the United States converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road or reducing car miles driven by 14.62 billion miles.
According to USDA studies, a block of soil containing 4–5 percent organic matter (by weight), weighing 100 pounds, and measuring 3 feet by 1 foot by 6 inches deep can hold 165–195 pounds of water. Agricultural soil with this high organic content can absorb 4–6 inches of rain per hour. Most of our agricultural soils today can only absorb .6–1 inch of rain per hour. Water pollution, drought, floods, and soil loss from wind and water erosion are caused, to a large degree, by a lack of organic matter that creates good soil structure.
As organic farmers, ranchers, horticulturists, contractors, and gardeners, we can and should make a difference. True science and common sense support us. The organic program works better in every way. Why aren't more people using organics? The answer is: change. Change of any kind is difficult. The status quo is always very powerful, and often those in charge of it don't want change. Some practitioners don't want the trouble of change, and it is more profitable to vendors of toxic chemicals to treat the symptoms rather than prevent or cure them. There is, however, growing appreciation of the true costs of our synthetic management of the land, and a groundswell of large-scale organic management is sprouting all over America.
Organics in a Snapshot
- Organic matter and its effect on the health of the soil is crucial to the health of all life.
- Products and techniques should be used that positively affect the health and growth of soil biology.
- Converting the sun's energy into biological activity in the most efficient manner is the goal.
Reasons to Go Organic
There are many reasons to go organic and stop using synthetic toxic pesticides and high-nitrogen artificial salt fertilizers. Here are the nine most important reasons:
- Improved Health. Natural organic fertilizers, soil amendments, and pest control products improve soil health and the overall production of plants. They are nontoxic to beneficial insects, birds, lizards, frogs, toads, earthworms, and other valuable life-forms. Pets and humans can be added to the list. Even the manufacturers of the toxic chemicals admit, indeed brag about, the fact that their products kill all the bugs. That's right—they can't tell the difference between the good and bad. Only 1–2 percent of insects are troublesome. Even most disease pathogens are beneficial if they occur in their proper proportions.
- Cost-Effectiveness. Any project can be converted from toxics to organics at the same budget. What is more important is that the organic program costs are reduced every year. Each year fewer sprayings for pests are needed, less plant loss is experienced, and plant yields continually increase. And what price do you put on the health of your animals and family? Garden beds never have to be removed and redone, as is often the case under chemical programs. Under an organic program, the soil gets better and better forever—just as the natural forest and prairie soils do. Organic grass–fed cattle ranches spend little to nothing on fertilizers and pesticides. They rely primarily on the natural recycling of organic matter and the natural control of pests and diseases.
- Time Savings. Because of the healthy soil, irrigation, fertilizing, and replacing diseased and dead plants are needed less often, which saves time compared to the recommended synthetic schedule. Another time convenience is that the timing of the organic applications is not as critical. The season's first fertilization can be applied whenever time and weather allow after the first of the year. The second application may be applied whenever time allows in late spring to early summer. The third application should be done whenever possible from late summer through fall. Since the natural organic fertilizers aren't soluble, they can be broadcast basically anytime. The nutrients become available to the plant roots when the temperature and moisture conditions are right for microbial activity and plant growth. Organic fertilizers stay in place, don't leach through the soil into the water stream, don't volatilize into the air, and basically behave themselves.
- Fewer Sick and Pest-Infested Plants. When adapted plants are chosen and planted correctly in the proper environment, they have few pests and require little care. High-nitrogen synthetic salt fertilizers and toxic pesticides are problem creators. They lead to more pest problems because of the destruction of beneficial microbes and insects. Natural organic fertilizers and organic pest control techniques are problem solvers. They concentrate on stimulating life instead of killing it.
- More Stress Tolerance. Plants growing in soil that is rich in compost, rock minerals, and beneficial living organisms have a greater resistance to all stresses—heat, cold, too much water, too little water, and unusual weather fluctuations. Trace minerals, which are abundant in an organic program, are an important part of this stress tolerance. Organically grown plants will have larger and more efficient root systems. When the proper balance of organic matter, mineral nutrients, air, and living organisms is present in the soil, ornamental plants and food crops have greater concentrations of complex carbohydrates, and these sugars function like natural antifreeze. Anecdotal evidence shows that freeze damage occurs on organically grown plants at significantly lower temperatures than on plants artificially grown. Many organic growers have personally experienced these benefits of the natural way.
- Better Taste and Food Quality. The increased trace minerals and complex sugars in plants improve the taste of food crops, which is directly related to the health and nutrition of the plants. So-called experts will argue this point, as they will most of our points, but they are wrong. There's a very easy test: Eat fruits and vegetables grown both ways and see which you like better. Also, the use of toxic chemicals eliminates—or should eliminate—the eating of many vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The best example is the rose. Unless you are spraying poisons on the plants and dousing the soil with toxic synthetics, the rose petals are delicious in salads and teas, and the hips, which are the rose fruits, are delicious in teas and an excellent source of natural vitamin C.
- Improved Environment. Unlike synthetic fertilization, organic products don't cause excess nitrogen to volatilize into the atmosphere or soluble nutrients to leach through the soil and into the water stream. Natural organic fertilizers stimulate beneficial microorganisms, which very effectively clean up contaminations such as pesticides, excess mineral salts, and heavy metals in the soil. Leaching is reduced to almost nil, and no one has to breathe the fumes or otherwise come in contact with the toxic materials. Carbon dioxide, a problem greenhouse gas related to global climate, is taken from the air and converted to an energy form in the soil, where it promotes soil life.
- Recycled Valuable Natural Resources. All once-living materials are rotted through composting and mulching and then recycled back into the soil to build humus and trace minerals. Grass clippings are left on the turf, leaves are left as mulch in beds, tree trimmings are turned into mulch, and animal manures are composted to become important fertilizers. Under the synthetic programs, these valuable resources are often taken to landfills, burned, or otherwise wasted.
- Natural Organic Programs Are Fun. It's really no fun to spill toxic chemicals all over you; breathe the fumes; or have to deal with the contaminated clothes, containers, and residues. It's certainly no fun to worry about developing cancer. Under an organic program, the ease of application, the great diversity of life that's experienced, and the successful production of plants truly create some of life's great pleasures.
Converting to the Natural Organic Program
The first step in converting to an organic program is to stop doing those things that we know to be harmful. These practices should be followed:
Eliminate Bare Soil
Nature never allows bare exposed soil in productive land. Vegetative cover supplies roots and soil with life-giving energy from the sun, whereas bare soil allows wind and water erosion, energy loss, and nutrient depletion. Topsoil loss prevents proper water absorption and good water management, resulting in crop failure and ultimately desertification. Keep the soil covered—by cover-cropping, practicing low- or no-till farming, not overgrazing, and mulching when possible. Do not allow bare soil to exist.
Reduce or Eliminate Tillage
Tilling causes the carbon (organic matter) to be oxidized (used up) faster than nature can replace it. Tillage exposes more surface area of soil to sunlight, which kills beneficial fungi, bacteria, and other microbes that store nutrients, help create soil structure, and control soil pathogens. The result is lower yields that are poorer in quality.
Stop Managing Plants Artificially
Artificial salt fertilizers and toxic pesticides are still used because of university recommendations, peer pressure, chemical sales pressure and the related money, paradigm problems, a quick-fix mentality, and laziness. Artificial and toxic products keep unhealthy plants and animals alive and reduce the populations of beneficial organisms in the soil.
The critics will continue to argue that the organic approach is a fad, can't be done on a large scale, and costs too much, but they are wrong. Here's the shorthand version of the ideal program:
- Stop using all synthetic pesticides and other toxic chemicals. This one is simple. For those faint of heart, cut the current fertilizer applications in half and spend the money saved on the recommended organic inputs. Quitting everything and changing over cold turkey is the best route. Phasing in the organic program is possible, but success will be much slower to obtain. Continuing any toxic products or bad techniques will suppress the desired biological activity.
- Build soil health with natural organic products (compost and other organic fertilizers, rock minerals, and sugars) and techniques. The best product to add to the soil is quality compost, but because of budget limitations, shortcuts often need to be used. The least expensive way to begin is to stimulate the microbes by adding sugar or a product that converts quickly to sugar. At the top of this list is molasses. Although any sugar will work, molasses has more trace minerals and does a better job of spiking the growth of the beneficial microorganisms. The sugar primarily stimulates bacteria, but the general increase in life seems to have a balancing effect because fungi populations also increase. The reason dry molasses works better in this regard is that the sugar is best for bacterial growth and the organic piece inside the covering of molasses is best for fungi.
Dry molasses can be used on smaller projects at as much as 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. For farms and ranches, the rates can be reduced to as little as 50–100 lbs. per acre. Obviously, the more the budget allows, the faster and more significant the establishment of microbes will be. Compost, compost tea, and organic fertilizers that contain mycorrhizal fungi will work even better, but budget again is at issue.
Building a healthy soil is done by putting the basic elements in place and letting nature do the rest. Most unhealthy soils lack air and humus, have a weak population of microorganisms, and are chemically unbalanced. All these things are related, and improving any one of them indirectly improves the others.
- Use native plants and well-adapted introductions. Help with choosing and planting native and adapted plants should come from regional or even local experts. With that advice as a good starting point, use your own experiments and trials to improve the palette of plants that will best grow on your property, since every property has different conditions. Continue to look at new varieties and even different species of plants to find which ones are best suited to your soil and climate.
- In cases of extremely poor soil, the first step in major soil improvement is to aerate the ground. Cultivated and pasture land can be ripped or chisel plowed, and turf areas can be mechanically aerated. Landscape beds can be hand-aerated with a turning fork, rototilled, or stirred with tools like the Air Spade or Air Knife.
Basic Guidelines for Stimulating Biological Activity (Life) in the Soil
- Most annuals, vegetables, and grasses do best in bacteria-dominated soils.
- Most trees, shrubs, and perennials do best in fungi-dominated soils.
- Dry, brown, aged, coarse-textured organic material supports fungi.
- Wet, green, fresh, fine-textured organic materials support bacteria.
- Mulch on the soil surface primarily supports fungi.
- Mulch and compost worked into the soil tends to support bacteria.
- Sugars help bacteria grow.
- Seaweed, fish, fulvic acid, humic acid, rock phosphate, and vinegars help fungi grow.
General Notes on Plant Soil Life
- Conifers and hardwood trees prefer ectomycorrhizal (cell-surrounding) fungi on their roots.
- Annuals, perennials, vegetables, herbs, grasses, and softwood trees prefer endomycorrhizal fungi (those whose hyphae enter into the cells of the roots).
- Synthetic fertilizers kill off beneficial soil food-web microbes.