Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Healthy Soil, It's Foundational

With spring's early arrival, many of us have been out working in our gardens. Today, I'm happy to have an old friend doing a guest post for me. Claire Schuchman, Master Gardener, was one of the first people I met after moving to Pittsburgh in 1977. She and I worked together and worshiped together. It's been many years since I've seen Claire, but I've seen pictures of her lovely gardens at her home. Claire took a passion and turned it into a career.

Claire is a local landscaper and owns her own company ExceptionalGardens. She also teaches gardening related classes at CCAC, is a Phipps Master Gardener since 2004 and contributing writer for the Mt Lebanon magazine. Please visit her website for more information or email her at Claire.CS@ExceptionalGardens.net

Healthy Soil, It's Foundational.

Spring is tantalizing. I can’t wait to get outside to my garden. What will I find and what must be done? Waste not, want not. My garden rake in hand I am headed to my beds to rake out the leaves from last year. These leaves will not go in the trash or out to the curb. No, I have a large leaf pile in a secluded place in my yard where I can compost them. Every so often I turn the pile, wet the layers and let it heat up again. A white fungal thread has formed, helping the decaying process along. Back in the day, across the water, the farmers in England thought this white thread was mould (English spelling) so they called this stuff “leaf mould." Once it is completely broken down, (which takes a full year and then some) it goes into one of my plastic composters to be used in potting soil. Last years leaves are partially broken down and might go back in my woodland beds as mulch. As they break down, the worms will arrive to grab up that decaying carbon material. Sometimes I cover those partially composed leaves with composted wood chips, which I get free from a tree trimmer.

In my line of work as a local landscaper and Master Gardener I am often asked about soil building and how to do it. Simply put, I have learned when I cooperate with mother nature she works hard for me. In fact, she does such a good job that I cannot even begin to replicate the results. Underneath the soil surface is a veritable village of hard working macro- and micro-organisms. These little super heroes of the garden move through the earth, opening up passageways and dragging decaying carbon material with them. 

So what is the advantage to that? 

Photo by Petr Kratochvil
Those passageways make air, water and nutrients  available to the root zones of your plants. Not only that but our little super heroes leave behind something so rich in nitrogen that organic gardening companies are actually setting up worm farms to manufacture the stuff. 

What is this stuff? 

This product, made for you right in your own garden, is called “worm castings." Yup, worm poop is the bomb. As the leaves, grass clippings, mulch and compost you put on your garden breaks down, the worms eat it and out the other end comes black gold. This is why being organic is so important

Chemicals damage the process because they kill the worms and micro-organisms that are working so hard to create balance and soil health. Organic gardeners know if they feed the soil, the soil will feed the plants. It’s that easy.

So how do you feed the soil? 

I can only aid in the process of feeding the soil, by providing the right ingredients. No matter how hard I try I cannot create good soil structure; that is accomplished by the army of heroes under the soil surface moving around the particles of sand silt and clay in such a way that is optimal to plant health. And, by the way, we now know that roto-tilling every year does more harm than good because it disrupts that healthy process that our underground warriors are trying so hard to accomplish. Tilth is the term used to describe soil structure. “good tilth” is the goal.

At this time of year, many home owners are thinking about lawn care. I have it on good report that men love grass. And the fascinating thing is, most men nod in agreement when I postulate this theory. But when I talk to them about organic lawn care they look at me like I am just a little bit crazy. A lawn without chemicals?? Yes sir, in fact an organic lawn is easier to take care of and will make it through the dry heat of summer much more gracefully than a chemical lawn. Healthy soil is the key. A top dressing of mushroom manure every spring will go a long way towards aiding in healthy soil. The root system of the turf is deeper because the soil is more friable, due to all that underground activity, and that means less watering!! Organic fertilizer is naturally slow releasing, giving the grass what it needs over time and avoiding that spurt of green growth in the spring, which means you don’t mow as often. Speaking of mowing, sharpen your blade and mow high


Tall grass shades out the weed seeds, thus inhibiting germination. That means less weeds. It also encourages root growth instead of top growth. That means healthier grass and healthy grass crowds out the weeds. It’s all good! It also helps to protects the root zones from being exposed to drastic changes in soil temperature in the high heat of summer which is very hard on turf. No need to rake your clippings up (unless there are big clumps because you waited too long to mow) or catch them in a bag because those tiny pieces of grass thrown back on your lawn return up to 30% nitrogen to the soil, which is one way to feed the soil. And by the way, did you know that organic lawns don’t have thatch? Nope, the worms use that decaying carbon material and the cycle starts all over again. When you cooperate with mother nature, you can get her to do the hard work for you. It just makes sense!

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