Reader Question: Warm Season Turf Maintenance

Today’s Reader Question comes from Bill in Williamsburg:

I have a lawn that used to be primarily fescue. Over the past few years, bermudagrass has taken over the lawn and now it’s more bermuda than fescue. Can you let me know if the maintenance schedule is the same as it is for fescue? If not, can you let me know what I should be doing regarding fertilizer?

warm season turf maintenance

That’s a great question Bill and it’s quite timely too. We are in the middle of the warm season turf maintenance schedule and it’s not too late to begin yours. In case you’re not aware, bermudagrass is considered a warm season grass: it thrives during the warm part of the year. Fescue is considered a cool season grass as it performs best in the cooler parts of the year. With that being said, let’s look at the proper steps that need to be performed for warm season turf:

  1. Aeration – use a core aerator to aerate your soil. This lessens the effects of soil compaction as well as opens up little pockets of loveliness for items like compost to fill in.
  2. Perform a soil test – do this before adding any amendments to your soil so that you get a true reading of your soil composition
  3. Add compost – many people skip this step but if you want your turf to thrive instead of just survive, adding compost is a necessity. You only need to add a light layer, no more than a 1/4″ deep. By adding compost, you are feeding the soil which will in turn feed the plants.
  4. JJA Fertilization – JJA stands for June, July and August. Fertilize based on your soil test results applying no more than 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 ft2.
  5. Dethatching – in the first few years that your bermuda is establishing itself, dethatching won’t really be necessary. As the stolons on your bermuda continue to grow upon themselves each year, they pile up and have a hard time breaking down into organic matter for your soil. By dethatching, you are removing the stolons that aren’t breaking down. Your turf will look thin once you’ve completed the dethatching but it will fill in quickly.

 

warm season turf maintenanceI want to mention that as you add compost to your soil, you will be able to reduce your synthetic fertilizer inputs. As you transition over to a healthier, organic soil you should be able to completely eliminate traditional N-P-K. Here’s a link to an article describing the myth of synthetic fertilizers that you may find helpful. Also, I have to give credit where credit is due; I have gleaned virtually all of my turf knowledge from one of my co-workers, Brian Williams. He is a wonderful resource and without him, I wouldn’t have the “how-to” part of turf maintenance in my repertoire. Thanks Brian!

If other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers have helpful hints or tips for warm season turf maintenance, leave me a comment below or shoot me an e-mail. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. Happy gardening!

 

Did You Know? You Can Let Your Fescue Lawn Go Dormant

Well, the time of the year has arrived in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region where cool season lawns like fescue are doing their best to turn brown. The heat has arrived, the rains are becoming less frequent…and the fescue is doing its best to rest. As a cool season grass, it thrives in the cooler temperatures from September through May. It wants so badly to rest during the summer but many gardeners are adamant about keeping it green through the summer.

Before I continue further, I need to explain to readers that aren’t from the Mid-Atlantic that Virginia is considered a “transition zone” when it comes to turf. It’s purgatory for a turf manager. We are too warm for the cool season grasses to flourish through the summer and too cool for many of the warm season grasses to make it through the winter. Bermuda and zoysia do well here but that’s about it. Back to fescue…

Fescue can certainly be coddled enough during the summer to keep it lush and green. It just takes an extreme amount of water to do so. Fescue needs an inch of water per week, whether that be from you or God. To put that into perspective, if you have an acre of fescue lawn, you need to apply 27,154 gallons of water to equal 1″ of rain. Whew…that’s a lot of agua. To avoid getting on my soapbox, check out this Wikipedia link regarding the Ogallala Aquifer. No, it’s not the aquifer that feeds the Mid-Atlantic but it is enlightening to think how quickly that fossil aquifer is being depleted. Don’t believe me? Check out this link about the ghost towns that are cropping up on the outskirts of the aquifer where the water has disappeared.

OK, so what can you do if you have a fescue lawn and don’t want to apply over 100,000 gallons of water per month to keep it green? Stop watering. Let nature takes its course. Yes, your fescue lawn will turn brown. No, you won’t have the prettiest lawn on the block. The fescue will enter dormancy to preserve itself. In horticultural terms, dormancy equals brown. Unless we enter into a drought reminescent of 2010, your fescue will survive. There are summer thunderstorms that provide enough water to sustain your lawn. When the rains return in the fall, your fescue will green up and welcome the refreshing drink of water. But until then, consider turning off the spigot or irrigation system and enjoy not stressing over whether your lawn is receiving enough water. Enjoy your cheaper water bill. And most importantly, enjoy the seasonality of your garden. Your garden doesn’t have to look like something out of a magazine. Chances are, those magazine gardens have a season to them too.

So what are your thoughts on letting your fescue lawn turn brown? Is it something you regularly do? If not, are you considering it this year? Let me and other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers know your experience. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. Happy gardening!

Friday Free For All: Where Are All of the Bees?

Today’s topic is one that has me concerned…where are all of the bees? Seriously, I haven’t seen nearly the volume that I normally would for this time of year. In early spring, I noticed the honeybees devouring a corkscrew willow at a customer’s home. I didn’t know that honeybees were so attracted to willow blooms. The blooms are very unimpressive…here’s a picture:

where are all of the bees

 

I know of a gentleman who had a swarm try to take up residency in a nearby crape myrtle. But that’s it. The Salvia ‘May Night’ are in full bloom and have been so for several weeks. Salvia is one of those plants that usually trembles from all of the bees feasting on them. This spring? Nothing. The clover is in full bloom now and I’ve noticed a couple of honeybees but it’s only been a couple.

I’ve asked other horticulturists and people who observe the outside world around them and they haven’t seen the bees either. Is something going on that I’m not aware of? I am hopeful that there is a beekeeper in the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community that can shed some light on the missing bees. I plan on calling my local Extension agent tomorrow to see if he’s been hearing the same story from other gardeners.

Please chime in by leaving me a comment as to whether you have seen the bees this spring…it would be helpful if you give your geographic location so that we can see if it’s just a local phenomenom. Perhaps the bees are just hiding from me! If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

Did You Know? Collecting Rainwater for Your Garden

Collecting rainwater for your garden…it’s sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? Well, it can as simple or as complex as you make it with a little planning. One-third of all of the water used in the United States goes to irrigation. Now I don’t mean just the water that you use to water your lawn and garden; much of the irrigation water goes to agricultural production. And that’s important, right? Well, you could grow some of your own food to reduce your dependence on industrial agriculture but that’s not the topic of today’s post.

So how can you collect rainwater for your garden? There are all sorts of ways but let’s start with the simplest: the rain barrel. Rain barrels are an excellent way to capture some of the rainwater that is generated from your roof during a storm or shower. They’re scaleable as you can add bunches of them together so that you can keep collecting rainwater well beyond the typical 55 gallons that each holds. They can be attractive if you’re the artsy type…boy I wish was!

free water for your garden
Photo courtesy of www.prwd.org

 

So how much rainwater can a typical roof capture in a single rain storm? What’s your guess? 100 gallons? 1000 gallons? 10,000 gallons? Pull out your calculator (or your cell phone) and let’s do the math. My small rancher has a typical A-frame roof and each side of the roof is approximately 60′ x 20′. That’s 2400 square feet of roof surface area. Let’s say that we receive 1″ of rain. One inch of rain falling on one square foot of roof yields 0.6 gallons of water. So….2400 x 0.6 = 1440 gallons of rainwater. You would need 26 rain barrels just to catch the rain from a single 1″ rain event. In Virginia, we receive around 43″ of rainfall each year. That’s 61,920 gallons of water that you could be catching from your roof each year. That’s a lot of free water for your garden!

So what can you do if you don’t have enough room at your house for 1126 rain barrels (that’s how many you would need to collect all 61,920 gallons)? There are underground cisterns that can be installed to capture your roof runoff.

free water for your garden
Photo courtesy of www.chesapeakestormwater.net

 

These are systems that you need do some serious math for as well as figure out how you’re going to get all of that rainwater out of the tank. The beauty of rain barrels is that you use gravity to get the water out of the barrel and into your garden. With cistern based systems, you have to use a pump to get the water to your plants. But the cost of the water that is saved by capturing your roof runoff can more than offset the cost of operating the pump.

free water for your gardenWhat are some other ways to capture free rainwater for your garden if you don’t have access to an underground cistern? How about the tanks that everyone seems to have for sale these days? Check your local Craigslist for great deals. What about 5 gallon buckets to start with? Put one under each downspout to catch rainwater that you can use to water your garden. How about a kiddie pool? You can pick them up for under $10 at your local big box store. Any rainwater that you can catch is water that you don’t have to buy or pull from the depths of the ground to provide your plants with moisture.

What ideas have you used to capture rainwater for your garden? Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

Did You Know? ET-Based Irrigation Controllers

et-based irrigation controllersET-based irrigation controllers? When you hear that you may think back to the early 80’s when E.T. was all the rage. But the ET I’m referring to has nothing to do with phoning home. ET stands for evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration, as defined by the Irrigation Association, is the loss of water from the earth’s surface through the combined processes of evaporation from soil and plant surfaces, and plant transpiration. So what does all of this have to do with your irrigation system? Simply put…everything.

If you have an irrigation system in your garden you should be concerned with evapotranspiration. When you set your irrigation timer to water Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 30 minutes on each zone, your system will water the same whether the temperature is 70 or 90 degrees, whether there is a light breeze or 20 mph wind, whether the humidity is 40% or 90%. Unless you have a rain sensor on your system (which you should…they can be installed by a professional for less than $100), your system will water for 30 minutes if it rained 1/10″ or 2″ earlier in the day. What if you could have a controller that would take all of that into account and then water based on your plants’ needs. You can with an ET-based irrigation controller.

Hunter makes a very nice ET-based irrigation controller that I have personal experience with. Other irrigation manufacturers, including Toro, Rainbird and Irritrol, make ET-based irrigation controllers but I can’t speak to the quality of those controllers since I don’t have any experience with them. With the Hunter ET-based irrigation controller, you have your own weather station that records real-time data and converts all of that information so that your plants receive the water that they need. Here’s what it looks like:

hunter ET-based irrigation controller

It has a rain gauge, an anemometer that measures wind speed and a thermometer to determine the temperature at your specific site. When setting up the controller, you enter the following data that helps the computer determine when and how long to water:

  • Soil type
  • Slope
  • Crop being grown
  • Age of crop (new vs. established)
  • Sun exposure

 

This information is critical and the ET-based irrigation controller is only as good as the information that is entered at this stage. It is very handy to be able to enter different information for different zones according to their site conditions. Most landscapes have some sun and some shade, some turf and some landscape beds and some new plantings intermingled with the older ones. By entering and updating the information as conditions change, the controller is able to adjust the watering times and durations accordingly. Pretty cool huh?

So what does all of this cost? Well, that depends. If you already own an irrigation controller that is compatible with the ET-module, the cost is very reasonable…you can buy the module without the anemometer for the Hunter ET-based irrigation controller for $239.07 online. The anemometer is about the same price…so maybe you take baby steps in converting your existing system over….the choice is yours. While the upfront cost may turn you off initially, you should do the math to see how long the payback takes. Many localities are now charging a higher rate for water usage over a certain limit, aimed at users with irrigation systems. If you live in suburbia and have to pay sewer charges, the payback will likely take far less time unless you have a separate meter for your irrigation system. Also, consider the benefit of set-it-and-forget-it. No more adjusting your watering program when the temperatures soar to 95 degrees…the ET-based irrigation controller will adjust the watering times for you…yeah!

Of course, if you’re like me, my irrigation system is in the sky and it is completely at God’s will. If the rain doesn’t fall on my landscape, the plants don’t get watered. They’ll either live or die trying. My only exceptions to that rule are newly transplanted plants and vegetables. Since I don’t have a veggie garden at my house due to the abundance of shade, I don’t have that concern for now. Consider hugelkultur if you will be installing new beds in the future. It’s a way to garden without watering at all. That’s my kind of garden!

Let me know your thoughts about ET-based irrigation controllers…leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

Pests and Diseases: Carpenter Bees

In today’s post, I thought we would look at carpenter bees. While they resemble bumble bees, they are definitely different. If you’re into getting up close and personal, you’ll notice that the abdomen of carpenter bees is black and shiny whereas the abdomen of bumble bees is hairy and has yellow stripes. If you don’t want to get too close, just notice their habits. Carpenter bees are most often spotted hanging around eaves and other wooden surfaces in the spring or early summer. This year, the carpenter bees have been quite active already.

This time of year is when you will see the bees flying in great numbers and hovering around wooden structures…what you are witnessing is actually the courting ritual. The males are trying to impress the females, and while the males will often hover at the tip of your nose, there’s no reason to be frightened; the males don’t even have a stinger.

carpenter bees

Photo courtesy of www.carpenterbees.net

The female will excavate holes that are about the diameter of your finger into the wood so that she can lay her eggs. Her eggs will develop in the nesting holes and will emerge in late summer as adults. When it’s time for winter to roll around, the adults will go back to the nesting holes to overwinter. The damage that carpenter bees can inflict on a wooden structure can be quite impressive. There are several theories on the best method for controlling them…here are a few:

  1. Paint or stain the wood. Carpenter bees prefer wood that is untreated for their nesting holes. It is generally believed that painted wood seems to deter them more than staining does.
  2. Fill the holes. To me, this is like playing the whack-a-mole game at Chuck E. Cheese. You fill in one hole so the bee just moves over a bit and lays more eggs in a different location.
  3. Use insecticide. I am totally against this. Period.
  4. Alternative nesting areas. If carpenter bees are particularly worrisome around your home, consider providing wood that they can use as nesting areas. Sure, you can’t put up a vacancy sign at the desired location but you can provide them shelter. After all, they pollinate fruits and veggies too, ya know.

 

I should also note that while carpenter bees lay their eggs in wood, bumble bees form nests in the ground. That should help you ID them better as well. If you have experience with carpenter bees and would like to recommend any other treatments, please leave a comment below or e-mail me. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

Did You Know? Vinegar Can Replace Roundup

 

In today’s Did You Know? post, I thought that we would look at an alternative to Roundup. Roundup’s active ingredient is glyphosate and it is being applied at an alarming rate in the U.S. and abroad. According to the EPA, 135 million pounds of glyphosate were applied in 2010. That’s just the pounds of active ingredient glyphosate. Generally speaking, Roundup is 41% glyphosate and 59% inert ingredients. That’s a lot of chemical being applied to the 1.9 billion acres of soil in the contiguous United States.

vinegar can replace roundup

Photo courtesy of myghostorchid.com

Here’s an easy alternative to Roundup and all of the toxic ickiness that comes with it: vinegar. Yep, good old fashioned vinegar; the same stuff that you use to pickle cucumbers and you put on cabbage to kick it up a notch. Vinegar is acetic acid and the “normal” type that you get from the grocery store is comprised of 5% acetic acid. There is a horticultural type that is 20% acetic acid and it is much more expensive…to the tune of $29 a gallon versus $5 or under for “normal” vinegar. Either one will work but the 20% type will work a bit faster and be capable of killing perennials and more established plants.

Here’s my disclaimer: vinegar is a non-selective herbicide just like Roundup; it will kill whatever it comes into contact with so be sure that you apply it only to the plants that you want to get rid of. Don’t apply it on windy days either…it can drift just like Roundup too. Another caveat: be sure to rinse out your sprayer after each application to avoid damaging the internal parts. Spray clean water through the sprayer to ensure that all of the bits and pieces in the nozzle are free of vinegar residue.

So here’s the magic formula: Full strength 5% vinegar + a tablespoon or two of dish soap. Spray on the weeds and wait overnight. They should be browning up by the next morning. If you have particularly onerous weeds, you can apply again as soon as you see regrowth. Add table salt to the mix for more killing power…a tablespoon per gallon should do the trick.  You may also need to invest in horticultural vinegar for those hard to kill weeds. If you use horticultural vinegar, be very careful and wear personal protective equipment to protect your eyes, nose and skin. If you are killing young weeds that are primarily seedlings, you can dilute the 5% vinegar with water to make it go further. Experiment and try different concoctions…what do you have to lose?

If you like what we’re doing here at Mid-Atlantic Gardening, please subscribe to the website to receive updates to the latest posts as well as to be eligible for our subscriber giveaways. You can subscribe by joining our e-mail list on the top right of this page. Thank you for your support! If you have experience with using vinegar instead of Roundup, leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Don’t forget to like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter! Happy gardening!

Did You Know? Free Mulch

 

In today’s post, I thought we would take a look at sources of free mulch. I hope to be able to offer you some ideas for sources that perhaps you haven’t thought of. Whether it’s wood chips, leaves, straw or other materials, any of it will help to control weeds, improve soil fertility, regulate soil temperature and conserve moisture. Let’s get started!

WOOD CHIPS

Free mulchToday, I received an e-mail from Alltreeexperts.com in Atlanta, Georgia regarding free mulch. They offer free mulch to folks in the Atlanta area even if they aren’t removing a tree from their yard. If you are close to the route they are on, they will drop the mulch at no cost. This benefits the homeowner if they don’t want the mulch, the company since they don’t have to dispose of it and the person receiving the chips. It’s a win-win-win! Have you contacted any of the tree services in your area to see if they’ll drop off chips for you? I’m certain that more than a few tree contractors would be delighted to drop a dump truck’s worth for you at no cost. One word of caution: be certain that the wood that was chipped wasn’t walnut. While most of the allelopathic toxin is in the roots, it’s also in the branches of the walnut.

Another possible source is your municipal landfill. Often times, they have areas where citizens are allowed to dump brush and debris. This plant debris is then ground up and most localities will give it away for free…some make you load it yourself and others will even load it for you. With Hurricane Irene that swept up the Eastern Seaboard last September, many localities are overrun with mulch. Contact your local county or city and see if there is free mulch for the taking.

LEAVES

free mulchEvery year, millions of leaves fall from the trees that we work so hard to cultivate. And every year, gardeners rake up all of this free mulch and send it to the landfill. AHHHHHH! What are we thinking? Instead of sending this future black gold to the landfill, we should be coveting this free source of mulch. If it’s in your own garden and you insist on a tidy landscape, run the lawnmower over the leaves, chop them up, and then use it around your plants. Or compost it. If you are unfortunate and don’t have large volumes of leaves to contend with, go around your neighborhood in the fall and ask for bagged leaves. The leaves are in nice little neat trashbags that you can store until you need them. No more going to Home Depot for bagged compost or mulch…you’ll have your own.

STRAW

free mulchStraw is probably best used in your vegetable garden instead of around your landscape plants. It tends to blow away and scatter in heavy winds, but your veggies will be none the wiser. If you are fortunate to live in a rural area, or at least close to one, contact farmers. They often have spoiled straw available that you can purchase for little or nothing. If you’ve never broken open a bale of straw, you may be surprised at the volume of straw that is in that compact little rectangle. If you can get your hands on a round bale of straw, you’ve hit the motherlode! Just make sure it’s straw and not hay. Hay contains the seeds of the plants that were harvested and you don’t want to seed your garden with that! Remember the point is to keep the weeds out.

OTHER IDEAS

free mulchIf you really want to make sure that the weeds are kept at bay in your garden, consider putting down cardboard first and then mulching over top. Sources of cardboard are everywhere…instead of recycling all of the cardboard that enters your house, save it for the garden. Go to your local grocery store and ask for the boxes that the produce and other items come in. Go to your local appliance store and see if you can have the refrigerator boxes…those boxes can cover a lot of ground in the garden.

I’d really like to compile a list of free mulch sources…can the Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers help me out with this? What a great resource that would be for other gardeners. If you know of a free source, leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

March 19, 2012Permalink 2 Comments

Friday Free For All: The Much Maligned Dandelion

 

In today’s Friday Free For All post, I thought we would take a look at the much maligned dandelion. I hope that I can put a different spin on what most gardeners consider a weed. Dandelions are probably one of the most targeted weeds in the lawn and garden…it’s a close tie with crabgrass if I were guessing. I wrote a post about weeds but just touched on the dandelion. Let’s take a closer look.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are native to Eurasia but they have made themselves quite at home in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region. They are a perennial weed which means that they come back from the roots each year. You can pull the tops off all you’d like but all you’re effectively doing is pruning it. Unless every piece of the root is removed, you’ll have dandelions for years to come. Now let’s step back from the conventional way of viewing a lawn and decide if that is necessarily a bad thing.

dandelionWhat do dandelions have going for them? First and foremost in my mind is that they bloom at a time of the year when few other things are blooming. This timing coincides with the first flights of bees for the season. Bees adore dandelion blossoms and the flowers offer them an early drink of nectar. As bees are needed for virtually all of the pollination that occurs to bring you fruits and veggies, this early source of nourishment helps to get the hive going in the spring. That reason alone is enough for me to allow dandelions a place in my lawn. (that and I’m a lazy gardener)

Another reason to allow dandelions to grow where they may is that they make delicious salad greens. If your salads consist primarily of iceberg lettuce, you may not welcome these greens at first. If you pick the youngest leaves and offer your palate a chance to warm up to them, you may be surprised how tasty they can be. You can also add them to stir fries or steam them like you would kale; in my opinion, vinegar makes everything green more tasty.

How about wine? If you like to consume a little vino from time to time, you can take that weed in your garden and turn it into wine. Check out this recipe for a quick and easy homemade wine. Who knew that those pretty little flowers could do so much?

What about tea? The leaves can be dried and then steeped in water for a refreshing, albeit bitter, tea. The roots can also be used for tea; Jillian Michaels of Biggest Loser fame even recommends it as a way to lose extra water weight.

I hope that I’ve given you some alternative ways of thinking about dandelions. I certainly don’t want a lawn full of them but they also aren’t the bane of my existence. Let a few hang around in the lawn to attract bees to your garden in the early spring. And let a few survive for the pleasure of making wishes on the seedheads. Enjoy being in your garden and observing nature in her true form…don’t let a little plant take the joy out of gardening. Let me know what you think by leaving me a comment below or e-mailing me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

Did You Know? The Myth of Synthetic Fertilizers

 

In today’s Did You Know? post, I thought that we should look at synthetic fertilizers. In the next few weeks, people will be buying 10-10-10 and other fertilizers by the bags at home improvement centers and garden stores. While conventional wisdom dictates that a lawn or garden needs to be fertilized every year, you may be surprised to learn that you can save money and time by not applying them.

Let’s investigate a 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 fertilizer and see what it is really comprised of. 10-10-10 refers to the nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), or N-P-K for short, content. A 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 is made up of 5 pounds of N (10% of the 50-pounds), 5 pounds of P and 5 pounds of K. The other 35 pounds are inert ingredients that allow the fertilizer to be applied evenly.

Nitrogen in fertilizer is usually made from ammonium nitrate or urea. Either way, most of the nitrogen is readily available when it is applied and is therefore either quickly taken up by the plant or washed away with heavy rains. A good rule of thumb to remember is that the nitrogen is usually gone within a couple of weeks of being applied.

Phosphorus in fertilizer is generally made from phosphoric acid which is the end result of treating rocks containing phosphorus with sulfuric acid. Of course, there is much more to this process than I can explain here, but suffice it to say that it’s a chemical process that produces phosphorus that is in a bag of fertilizer.

Potassium in fertilizer is comprised of potash, which is a generic term that describes water soluble potassium in various salts. Again, I’m not attempting to give a chemistry lesson here…my main objective is to show you that all of these nutrients that we put down with the best of intentions aren’t naturally occurring in the form that they are applied.

If you’ve read any of my posts about soil building, you may have heard me say that we need to feed the SOIL not the plants. And that is my point here. By applying synthetic versions of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium we are feeding the plants…it is the plants that need these nutrients, not the soil. The soil needs organic matter to feed the microbes and earthworms that in turn release these nutrients in their natural form. By applying chemical fertilizers, we are acidifying the soil and turning an environment that would otherwise foster the growth of our little friends into a barren, almost lifeless area of dirt. That feeds into the vicious cycle of having to apply more and more fertilizers to achieve the same result in subsequent years.

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO TO BREAK YOUR DEPENDENCE ON SYNTHETIC FERTILIZERS?

  1. Add compost, compost and more compost. While it’s true that you don’t want to apply a thick layer to an existing lawn, but in the vegetable garden I can’t imagine that you could ever apply too much. Just make sure if it is manure based, that it is well-composted. The only exception to this rule is rabbit poo. It can go straight from the rabbit to the garden without composting.
  2. Aerate the soil. I don’t really think that tilling is a good idea (I’ll do a post about that soon) but it is vitally important to make sure that there is enough air in the soil to sustain plant roots and soil organisms. If you are encouraging earthworms, they will do all of the aerating that you will ever need…remember, Ma Nature knows what she is doing.
  3. Don’t leave the soil barren. You can avoid crusting of the soil and erosion by making sure that there is always something actively growing on the land. Cover cropping is a popular technique in veggie gardens for the winter but even mulching with straw or leaves is far better than allowing the rain to beat the topsoil into a crust.

 

I hope that I’ve given you a little insight into synthetic fertilizers and more importantly, how to think of them differently. If you take the time to compost your scraps and look for other sources of compost like horse barns, you will be rewarded with the most beautiful plants and healthy soil. I’d love to hear what you have done to reduce your use of synthetic fertilizers. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

January 23, 2012Permalink 1 Comment