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Todd Rockweit

Todd Rockweit

Todd and Tara Rockweit are owners of Backyard Organics, LLC, Wisconsin’s first organic land care business accredited by NOFA, one of two organizations in the country that accredit Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs). Since 2004, Backyard Organics has been supplying natural and organic products and services for people, pets and property, including a complete do-it-yourself program. To read more about our products and services, or if you would like to submit a question, please visit us at http://backyardorganics.net, email [email protected] or call 920-730-3253/888-200-0446.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018 15:27

Do-it-yourself organic lawn care

The first step in switching from conventional to natural, organic lawn care is to assess the quality of the existing lawn. If an existing lawn contains few weeds and consists of desirable turfgrass species, natural, organic methods and cultural practices can maintain a good lawn. If a lawn has excessive weeds and/or consists of undesirable turfgrass species, it may be best to initially take a more aggressive approach.

After addressing lawn quality, the next step is assessing soil quality. A number of inexpensive soil test kits are readily available; however, they generally will not provide enough information to help benchmark your current soil requirements and provide you with a roadmap to a successful lawn care program. Without knowing what is right and what is wrong with your existing soil, you may be wasting your time and money. For the purpose of this article, I will recommend a program based on a nine year data base of soil tests taken from the Fox Cities and the surrounding area.

Most lawns found in the Fox Valley are lacking nutrients like nitrogen, calcium and potassium. Our soils are also poor in structure which is a result of high clay, low organic matter and a poor balance between calcium and magnesium. Based on those findings, my general recommendations for starting a DIY organic lawn care program are as follows:

Spring — Feed the plants

Apply all natural organic fertilizer which utilizes water insoluble nitrogen and zero phosphorus. The application rate will depend on the deficiencies found on your soil test and the recommendations on the product. The fertilizer is typically applied in early spring and applied at a rate of 5 to 10 lbs per 1000 square feet depending on the nitrogen content.

Summer — Feed the soil

What creates a sustainable lawn is healthy, biologically rich soil. Creating an environment that the biology thrives in is the key to a healthy lawn. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. Compost tea inoculates the soil with added beneficial organisms and, if done correctly, feeds the organisms and plants, creating a less stressful environment for both; this results in healthy, productive plants and a sustainable soil. If compost tea is not available to you, improve organic matter by top dressing with compost and/or humates. Apply compost tea throughout the growing season at a rate of 2 gallons per 1000 square feet. Top dress with ¼ inch compost at least one time per year until a sufficient organic matter percentage is achieved (5 to 6 percent).

Fall — Amend the soil

Fall is a great time to do a number of soil structure amendments if compacted soils are the problem. Aeration is the quickest way to deal with soil structure issues like compaction. Aeration opens up the soil allowing air and moisture to get deeper into the root zone which helps with loosening up tight soils. While the soil is open due to aeration, it’s also a great time to add humates and calcium (gypsum). If your grass is thin and has a number of bare spots throughout, overseeding with good quality C3 grasses like bluegrass and perennial rye is recommended. If available, add mycorrhizal fungi to the seed mix to enhance plant vigor and soil structure. Apply seed in late fall at a rate of 2 to 4 pounds per 1000 square feet; however, give yourself enough warm days to insure complete seed germination.

Watering

Turf is just like any other plant and it requires water to maintain its vigor and appearance, especially Kentucky Bluegrass which is in most of our lawns. I recommend deep, infrequent waterings in the morning only with 3/4 to one inch of water one to two times per week. Overwatering leads to soil compaction and disease. During extreme heat, water more frequently for shorter periods, or simply let your grass go dormant.

A word about weeds

Since the 1940s, traditional lawn care has feasted on a one-size-fits-all approach to weed control that paints every plant with the same broad stroke. The EPA estimates, however, that only 2 percent of the active ingredients in synthetic weed killers, which are called herbicides, ever reach the target plant. The other 98 percent goes into the soil, the ground water and the atmosphere. Organic land care specialists believe that the best tool against weeds is a healthy grass plant which can only happen with healthy soils. That takes time, especially on yards that have an abundance of weeds.

Weeds are telling you something about your yard. Each weed seed is genetically programmed to replace specific deficiencies in the soil. For example, if your lawn is missing nitrogen, nature will often send in clover or one of its cousins in the legume family of plants, which can trap and process nitrogen from the atmosphere. If your lawn has too much nitrogen, nature will likely give you an abundance of dandelions. The best approach to eliminate weeds is to improve your soil through an appropriate balance of biology and nutrients and improving soil texture and structure. This takes time if your soil is out of balance. The organic approach is not a quick fix; it’s a healthy and safe alternative approach to chemicals which benefits our family and our environment. Having said that, here are some tools to get rid of weeds without chemicals:

  • Total eradication using nonselective sprays or solarizing techniques
  • Spot weeding with nonselective sprays, flaming or mechanical tools
  • Soil modification that gets to the root of the problem
  • Overseeding with new grass seed to crowd out weeds
  • Mowing at an appropriate height (3 to 4 inches) and bagging only occasionally (first cut of the year, right after dandelions go to seed, right before winter)

Good luck and happy growing! 

Monday, 27 February 2017 20:58

The strength of our character

“Doing the right thing” is often a phrase tossed around without giving much thought to what it means or how it’s accomplished. Even writing about what it means to do the right thing has proven to be difficult, but it’s worth the effort.

Winston Churchill once wrote, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else.” While I disagree with his generalization, I do agree that we are in a time when we are more willing to sacrifice the benefits of the greater good for the benefits of ourselves. Is that doing the right thing?

Are we doing the right thing if it only benefits us or our family? Are we doing the right thing if we increased business by providing inferior products and/or services? Are we doing the right thing only when we think others are noticing?

I believe doing the right thing is much like a muscle training exercise that requires a routine that develops a habit that creates strength. Occasionally or often we will run into situations that test the strength of that muscle and force us to make a choice, and it’s our integrity that will take us down the right path. If we recognize the need to do the right thing and remain conscious of always trying to do the right thing, our integrity becomes the strength of our character. These moments happen often and continuously throughout each and every day, and some people are paying attention.

As the father of a 7 year old and an observer of human habits, I often see both the positive and negative effects parents have over children. If we as parents are not doing the right thing or are making choices without integrity, what are we teaching the next generation? I recently recalled a brief conversation I had with my parents as a child. It was a simple conversation but one I remember vividly and one that impacted many of my adult choices. Certainly many of us can recall simple moments like this with big lessons. Children hear and see everything, far more than our myopic adult eyes can focus on. We need to consider what we want them to learn from us — as parents, as neighbors, as community members. When we see our children interacting with other children, do we not want to see them sharing? When we hear our children expressing frustration, do we not want them to speak with honesty and respect? When we watch our children interacting with the earth, do we not want them to treat all of nature’s creatures with gentleness and awe?

This impact doesn’t need to end when the training wheels come off. I’d like to think we can positively impact and guide young people as long as they’re willing to listen. In fact, I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of environmental studies students about my business in general, but more so about finding passion and purpose in what we do. Sharing some of my unique personal and professional life experiences and my regrets about not finding purpose earlier informed the perspective I offered these young people. Impressively, I found that the students were eager to hear how doing the right thing can work in their professional and personal life. Ultimately, these experiences teach me far more than my guidance probably offers them, but I’d like to think all of us are better for these chances to reflect, consider and teach.

Because I deal with natural ecosystems, my business has taught me that perhaps the answer to what it means to do the right thing might be found in nature itself. Nothing can survive on its own. Plants require an entire ecosystem to survive, and we require a village to raise a family. Until we recognize that doing the right thing means doing what’s right for the greater good, we will all struggle with finding our purpose and determining the “right” path to take.

Maybe it’s as simple as the answer my daughter gave me when asked, “What does it mean to do the right thing?” to which she replied “be nice.” It’s certainly a great start.

Many consider “fungi” the distasteful evidence that last week’s leftovers are no longer safe to eat. The impressive work of this “green mold or white fuzz, “however, often goes unappreciated. Yet “breaking down and decomposing sugars, starches, cellulose, and lignin” is the primary goal of fungi. As AgriEnergies resources explains, “Biological relatives of these food fungi are commonly found in soil, and they live and grow in a very similar way. These soil fungi thrive in the aerobic portion of the soil and are superb decomposers and nutrient cyclers. Fortunately, beneficial soil fungi are common and widespread in biologically active soils.”

Ideally, our soil will be dominated by fungi, but we need to promote the necessary environment. “Fungi can’t make their own food like plants do. They are dependent on organic substances for carbon. As fungi break down organic matter and residues (dead plant material), fungi recycle important nutrients that would otherwise remain locked up in dead plants and animals. These nutrients then become available in the soil and are used by microbes and plants.”

Fungi even take on the challenge of decomposing and digesting complex organic material, such as thatch. Using the soil’s nitrogen, fungi turn low nitrogen, “woody, carbon-rich residues” into accessible sources for other organisms.

Here are some of the benefits of having fungi in your yard and garden. They:

  • Decompose complex carbon compounds (e.g., crop residues)
  • Improve accumulation of organic matter
  • Break down hard to digest cellulose and lignin
  • Retain nutrients in the soil
  • Extension of plant roots (increase surface area for water and nutrient absorption)
  • Solubilize phosphorus in the soil and make it available to plants and other microbes
  • Improve soil tilth (help soil particles cling together)
  • Help control pathogens
  • Break down some chemical residues (bioremediation)
  • Impact soil pH

Bottom line, beneficial soil fungi are workhorses and you want high numbers of them in your soil. According to the Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, authors of the book Teaming with Microbes, “fungi, like bacteria, play crucial roles in the soil food web. Ultimately, from the plant’s perspective anyhow, the role of the soil food web is to cycle down nutrients until they become temporarily immobilized in the bodies of bacteria and fungi and then mineralized. The most important of these nutrients is nitrogen — the basic building block of amino acids and, therefore, life. The biomass of fungi and bacteria (the total amount of each in the soil) determines, for the most part, the amount of nitrogen that is readily available for the plant to use.

It’s especially important that they (fungi) are out there and active during autumn. Soil with plenty of fungi will break down your residues and put those nutrients back in the soil, making them available for next year’s growing season. Backyard Organics provides this service in a number of ways. For example, our compost tea applications during the early spring and summer applications are packed with a blend formulated to supply the greatest diversity of bacteria, fungi, in addition to other forms of biology that help support the growth of microbial life. Then we add additional microbial products in early fall that further helps break down dead plant material (thatch) and ensures you have high numbers of beneficial fungi functioning in your soil.

The basic premise behind the soil food web and the simple answer to why fungi is important is that when one element in the soil food web gets out of balance, either from chemical treatments or other means, the entire system visibly suffers. Conversely, when the soil food web is in balance, it creates good soil structure, produces nutrients and controls diseases, all key elements in a healthy looking lawn and/or garden and the foundation to the guiding principles of Backyard Organics.

More to come on the soil food web in future articles, so please stay tuned.

What are bacteria?

Bacteria are minuscule, one-celled organisms that can only be seen with a powerful light (1000X) or electron microscope (we’re talking TINY). They can be so numerous that a pinch of soil can contain millions of organisms. Bacteria are tough — they occur everywhere and have even been found over a mile down into the core of the Earth.

Bacteria can be classified into five functional groups. Autotrophic (literally, self-feeding) bacteria are photosynthetic. They are the primary producers. Decomposers consume soil organic matter, plant litter and simple carbon compounds, releasing the nutrients in these substances for use by living plants. Mutualists, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria, form associations with plants and help them absorb nutrients. Pathogens are the bad guys — they cause disease in plants. The last group, the chemolithotrophs (literally, chemical and rock-eating) obtain energy from minerals rather than from carbon compounds.

Bacteria are common throughout the soil, but tend to be most abundant in or adjacent to plant roots, an important food source.

Actinomycetes are a broad group of bacteria that form thread-like filaments in the soil. They are responsible for the distinctive scent of freshly exposed, moist soil.

Why are they important?

Bacteria are important in the carbon cycle. They contribute carbon to the system by fixation (photosynthesis) and decomposition. Bacteria are important decomposers in grassland environments. Actinomycetes are particularly effective at breaking down tough substances like cellulose (which makes up the cell walls of plants) and chitin (which makes up the cell walls of fungi) even under harsh conditions, such as high soil pH. Some management activities, particularly those that change nutrient levels in the soil, can shift the dominance of decomposers from bacterial to fungal. When one group becomes dominant where it shouldn’t be, there is also a shift in the rest of the system. The shift from bacterial to fungal dominance, for instance, can enhance the conditions favoring weed invasions on rangelands.

Bacteria are particularly important in nitrogen cycling. Free-living bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen, adding it to the soil nitrogen pool. Other nitrogen-fixing bacteria form associations with the roots of leguminous plants such as lupine, clover, alfalfa and milkvetches. Actinomycetes form associations with some non-leguminous plants (important species are bitterbrush, mountain mahogany, cliffrose, and ceanothus) and fix nitrogen, which is then available to both the host and other plants in the near vicinity. Some soil nitrogen is unusable by plants until bacteria convert it to forms that can be easily assimilated.

Some bacteria exude a sticky substance that helps bind soil particles into small aggregates. So despite their small size, they help improve water infiltration, water-holding capacity, soil stability and aeration.

Wait! Aren’t there also “bad” bacteria?

Yes, there are, but some soil bacteria suppress root disease in plants by competing with pathenogenic organisms. The key is in maintaining a healthy system so that the good guys can do their work.

Bacteria are becoming increasingly important in bioremediation, meaning that we (people) can use bacteria to help us clean up our messes. Bacteria are capable of filtering and degrading a large variety of human-made pollutants in the soil and groundwater so that they are no longer toxic. The list of materials they can detoxify includes herbicides, heavy metals and petroleum products.

The process that Backyard Organics uses to cleanse and enrich the soil focuses on the quality, quantity and diversity of the microbiology that goes into our applications. Diversity is important because, (depending on your soil conditions) every soil is different. Having a wide variety of bacteria handles a wide variety of deficiencies. In order for the bi-products of the microbiology to be of any value, however, the soil food web needs to continue its cycle with the help of arthropods, nematodes and protozoa’s, (the shredders, predators and grazers found in the third trophic level of the soil food web). Backyard Organics provides the necessary predators by using good quality compost, naturally rich with nematodes and protozoa, and then extracts them using our brew process. We then add a variety of appropriate nutrients that help the microbiology live and prosper until your soil is able to sustain itself.

Learn more!

  • “BLM NSTC Soil Biological Communities - Learn More.” BLM - The Bureau of Land Management. Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <http://www.blm.gov/nstc/soil/learn/index.html&gt;.
  • Ingham, Elaine. 1998. The soil biology primer, soil bacteria. USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil Quality Institute.
  • Kennedy, A.C. and R.I Papendick. 1995. Microbial characteristics of soil quality. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 50 (3) 243-248.
  • Vollmer, A.T., A. Au, and S.A. Bamberg. 1977. Observations on the distribution of microorganisms in desert soil. Great Basin Naturalist 37 (1) 81-86.
Thursday, 25 February 2016 18:43

Sustainable soils – Soil basics, Part I

In a series of articles that will be written throughout this year’s growing season, I will walk you through the process of converting a non-productive and/or chemical-dependent lawn, garden and/or farm into a safe, sustainable environment that requires less time, money and effort to achieve fantastic results. This month, we are going to focus on the basics of soil and help you understand how sustainability starts.

Soil is typically made up of 45 percent clay, silt and sand; 25 percent air; 25 percent water; and five percent organic matter (if you’re lucky). Understanding your soil profile is the start to achieving sustainability, but we are not done yet.

The conventional view of soil looks at three independent factors, which make up soil: structural, chemical and biological. The emerging view of soil and soil health is looking at the same three factors; however, rather than looking at each component independently, soil health is achieved when all three are working together, not autonomously. Let’s consider the three factors independently and then how they should work together.

Structural

Soil structure tells us the size and portion of the particles within a sample, in other words, the percentage of sand, silt and clay found in the soil sample. Understanding soil structure is the start to better understanding the soil’s ability to retain nutrients, its holding capacity for water retention and its tendency to become compacted.*

Chemical

Understanding the chemical makeup of soil is the typical benchmark used by most land care providers. This will give you a better understanding of the macro (nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K)) and the micronutrients found in the soil. Chemical testing will also uncover the “blood count” and “blood pressure” of the soil. In other words, the pH of the soil. This pH is a critical factor in determining nutrient availability, especially if the soil is lacking biology — we’ll get into that in later articles. Depending on the test, a chemical test should also give you the holding capacity of nutrients (C.E.C.), organic matter percentage, and soluble values of macro and micronutrients, which are the nutrients actually available to the plants. Again, the chemical component to soil is certainly a key factor and one that should be understood, but by itself will not achieve a healthy, sustainable soil.

Biological

The biological component to healthy soil is probably the least discussed and perhaps the most influential factor in achieving sustainability. The biological component is made of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes in addition to a variety of other insects. Why is it important to understand the biological makeup of your soil? Because without good soil biology, pH alone will determine nutrient availability to your plants and manual inputs will then be required to retain the appropriate nutrient levels to feed those plants.

Here is a closer look at the microbes found in healthy soils:

Bacteria are mostly decomposers, which feed on plant exudates and fresh organic matter. They immobilize and retain nutrients in their bodies and are very nitrogen dense. Bacteria have six times the nitrogen than the microbe that feeds on them. Think of them as little bags of fertilizer!

Fungi are also decomposers, feeding on more complex organic matter. Fungi’s thread-like growth habit improves soil texture, transports water and nutrients, and protects against pathogens.

Protozoa, nematodes and other insects are the predators to bacteria and fungi, and the carrier of the value that comes in the form of natural, slow-releasing fertilizer. The biological component to soil is the difference between “dirt” and “soil.” Without biology, over time you would simply have sterile “dirt.”

“The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” –President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Soil requires a balance between structural, chemical and biological components to be sustainable. If you are lacking one component, your soil will require manual inputs in the form of fertilizers (either organic or chemical-based) or mechanical soil manipulation. The greater the balance, the more sustainable the soil.

In the months ahead, we will talk more about how soil components should work together and how to build and maintain soil fertility.

*For a quick and easy way to test soil structure, try the ribbon test (for instructions, see http://www.backyardorganics.net/faq/).

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