At this time of year landscapers and gardeners begin fertilizing grass and gardens. Some use “organic” products and many use the old standbys. Fertilizing grass with chemicals remains standard practice—sure enough, that grass greens right up. Vegetable gardeners also turn the soil at this time of year. The men I work with still, after working with me for more than 11 years, think that my fertilizing and soil treatment techniques are in need of correction. I don’t fertilize—not even with manure, Milorganite (a sewage-based product) or any other “organic” fertilizer. And I do not turn over the soil even when I add compost.
Plants are fed not by fertilizer but by soil microorganisms that live in healthy soil. Any amendments to soil should aim to feed these microorganisms. They eat organic material that comes from compost, some kinds of mulch, plant debris left on the ground and humus—worm castings. When they have access to nutrients from these sources, they can use the nutrients as needed. Some organic fertilizers, and all chemical fertilizers, have salts in them, which kill microorganisms. When the microorganisms are diminished or gone, plants will need the artificial nutrients of fertilizer until the soil’s food web has been rebuilt.
I don’t turn or disturb the soil when I apply compost because it breaks the structure of the web of microorganisms in the soil. The nutrients in the compost will be worked into the soil by the microorganisms and the small disturbances we make when we plant.
I never Roto-till. Once may not be too harmful, but if repeated, a hardpan can form. This layer of compacted soil can inhibit water being absorbed evenly, contribute to runoff and suffocate roots, which cannot obtain oxygen when standing in a layer of water or soil that is too wet.
My garden beds might look messy to some. I leave as much organic material as my client can tolerate—leaves and small pieces of debris from last year’s garden. The beds in my own garden are covered in leaves.
Healthy soil feeds plants, helps inhibit fungus and pests, enables extensive root systems, holds water so that less irrigation is needed, and eliminates runoff and puddling.
This is a simplified description of a complicated biological system. But it should establish that eliminating even only chemical fertilizers and forgoing the annual tilling of the vegetable garden will be a big step towards healthier soil, healthier and more nutritious plants, and less nitrogen runoff into our waters.
This means changing some of our concepts of how our landscapes and gardens should look. Changing to an organic lawn is possible, but until the soil web is rebuilt, you will need to put up with a less-than-perfect-looking yard and learn to tolerate some plants we now consider weeds, such as clover. You might consider letting your lawn eventually return to the original English description of lawn, which included many kinds of plants.
Your garden beds should have good compost added regularly. (I like to add a 1” layer every year. To insure you have good compost, you might want to begin making your own.
Making any changes to your lawn and garden techniques to feed the soil can be done in steps. It might require you to ask your landscapers and gardeners to make changes to their habits. Don’t be discouraged. It will take time to rebuild that soil but the rewards are great. Healthy soil means a healthier you and a healthier environment.
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067 or visit jeanellemyersfinegardening.com.