I had something of an epiphany a few weeks ago. I realized that everyone I talk with about problems in the landscape have lousy soil. Thinking about that I realized that probably 90% of American homeowners have lousy soil on their property. Not only that, but Americans have had lousy soil on their property for over 50 years! If that is true, and I believe it is, that is an astounding fact.
Why would over 50 million homeowners put up with having lousy soil? Don’t they know that any plant growing in lousy soil, is a plant that is in stress? A plant in stress is much more vulnerable to insect and disease problems. A plant is stress needs more fertilizer and more water, than plants with no stress.
By lousy soil I mean soil that is compacted. Most lawns are growing on compacted soil and have a root mass only two inches deep. Lousy soil does not drain very well or if it is very sandy it drains too fast and holds no water. Lousy soil can be either hard to work clay or sand with little organic matter in it. Most everyone I know has one or more of these soil problems.
Then for the epiphany. I realized that the reason we all have lousy soil is because of the way we take care of our property and because of the products we use in caring for the property. As Pogo said many years ago, “I know the enemy and the enemy is us”.
We rototill our vegetable gardens every year, destroying the structure of the soil. It takes soil microbes 3 to 4 months to replace that structure, the very period we are trying to grow our vegetables. Many of us roll our lawn in early spring seriously compacting the soil. Most of us apply a quick acting nitrogen fertilizer to our lawns, sometimes four times a year. The side effects of using that type of fertilizer include repelling every earthworm in the soil and killing over 50% of any soil microbes that might reside in that soil. We use many kinds of pesticides, including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides, many of which as a side effect kill earthworms and beneficial soil microbes. We create dead soil all by ourselves, over and over again.
Our most grievous mistake is that we don’t, every year, apply a layer of organic material to our gardens and lawn. The organic matter is essential as food for what is called the “soil food web”. No organic matter – no soil food web.
The soil food web is the term now applied to the total community of soil organisms that would reside in a healthy soil. That includes everything from earthworms, sow bugs, centipedes, and millipedes down to the microscopic nematodes, protazoa, fungi, and bacteria. There can be over 4000 species of critters in a healthy soil. They need an annual application of organic matter because that is their food.
We must remember that for 10 million years, before man came along, every autumn the trees dropped their leaves or needles and the prairie grasses died. In other words, for ten million years Mother Nature arranged for an annual application of organic matter on the surface of all soils containing plants. Without worrying about before 1950, I know that since 1950 few American homeowners even knew that they should be adding an annual layer of organic matter to their soil. No one tells us to do that. No book tells us to do that. They do not teach that in soil classes in universities.
I had a home in suburban Philadelphia for 18 years. Without really knowing what I was doing, I added organic matter to my soil every year for eight years. I put 3 to 4 inches of straw on the 1000 square feet of my vegetable garden each year. I put several inches of chopped leaves on all the 2000 square feet of flower beds. I put a half an inch of chopped leaves on my 6000 square feet of lawn.
For the next ten years, I did not fertilize my lawn or gardens at all. Over that period we had only a few problems of pest insects and no incidence of disease on any of our plants. I needed to water maybe three times all summer and the lawn stayed green 365 days a year. We had a yard filled with plants with no stress. If we feed the soil food web each year, a lot of good things happen.