The Living Soil, Part 3: Organic Matter & Humus

The founding theory of the Select Program is that “Healthy Soil creates a Healthy Lawn”. But what is “healthy soil”? Let's look at the factors that go into producing a healthy soil that benefits your grass and lets nature feed and protect your lawn.

Note: The science of soil chemistry and makeup is complex. This is a very simple overview of the process.

Organic Matter: The Raw Material

 A compost pile shows the transformation of raw organic material into dark rich soil.

A compost pile shows the transformation of raw organic material into dark rich soil.

Organic matter is the raw material of good soil structure: grass clippings, leaf clippings, twigs, things that have died (plant or animal); essentially whatever is laying on top of the soil that isn’t alive but once was. It’s also anything that’s died below ground: plant roots, microorganisms, animals and insects. When you consider that there is as much plant material below the ground (roots etc.) as there is visible above the ground, plus the incredible, invisible mass of microorganisms and soil-dwelling animals and insects, that is a lot of organic raw material.

The raw organic material is broken down through several processes into its component mineral compounds and humus. (We looked at how mircoorganisms and earthworms contribute to this breakdown in part 1 and part 2) These byproducts of organic matter feed your grass and other plants and organisms. Organic material and humus also perform the following functions in the soil:

  • Increases the water-holding capacity of the soil, increasing drought resistance
  • Keeps soil nutrients from being dissolved or washed away by rainfall or irrigation
  • Slows changes (up or down) in soil pH and helps maintain a fairly neutral pH
  • Provides a constant source of nutrients to feed soil microorganisms

Obviously, adding and keeping organic material in the soil has many important benefits to soil health (and therefore plant health). But how do you build up organic material in your soil, especially if it has a high clay content like the soils in the Triad?

Leaving grass clippings and fallen leaves (finely chopped so as not to smother grass) on your lawn returns a great deal of organic matter to the soil. Additionally, supplanting organic compounds during lawn care applications (as we do with  the Select Program’s proprietary ingredients) will also increase the organic matter in the soil and also provides needed components to turn existing raw organic matter into humus.


Humus: The Sustainable Goal

 Left, red soil with heavy clay content is common in the Piedmont. While it's fertile, it has low organic content.  Right, a dark, humusy soil heavy in organic content. Slower-decomposing raw organic material (twigs and leaf petioles) is still recognizable.

Left, red soil with heavy clay content is common in the Piedmont. While it's fertile, it has low organic content.

Right, a dark, humusy soil heavy in organic content. Slower-decomposing raw organic material (twigs and leaf petioles) is still recognizable.

The transition of organic material to humus takes time and the help of many different parts of the “living soil”. As organic material decomposes, some of it becomes broken down into minerals that feed your grass including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium (the “N-P-K” macronutrients), and other equally important micronutrients.

The remainder doesn’t break down so much as become recombined into complex organic polymers known collectively as humus. Some of these polymers are very stable and resist further breakdown by soil microorganisms, becoming a long-term component of the soil. Humus improves soil texture and helps lock moisture & nutrients in the soil—all very desireable traits for growing anything from grass to landscape plants to food crops. Humus also holds CO2 in the soil and away from the atmosphere where it contributes to the greenhouse effect.

The goal of the Select Program is to promote and sustain the formation of a sustainable, healthy soil environment that benefits your grass, your landscape, and the living things both below and above the surface. The end product is the “black gold” we know as humus. Your healthy, humus-y soil will create a healthy and sustainable lawn, naturally.

Part 1: Microorganisms

Part 2: Earthworms

Part 3: Organic Matter & Humus

The Living Soil, Part 2: Earthworms

The founding theory of the Select Program is that “Healthy Soil creates a Healthy Lawn”. But what is “healthy soil”? Let's look at the factors that go into producing a healthy soil that benefits your grass and lets nature feed and protect your lawn.

Earthworms: Nature’s Aerators

Earthworm in organic garden

Photo attribution Holger Casselmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the first things you’ll notice if you dig in healthy soil is that is full of living things: beetles, sowbugs, ants, centipedes, grubs and other small animals populate the soil. In a healthy acre of land it is estimated the weight of the organisms in the top 6” of soil is between 2500 and 5000 pounds! The most iconic and important of these soil-dwellers may be earthworms.

Earthworms perform multiple functions that enrich and improve the soil. Their feeding activity pulls dead organic material from the soil surface into the soil. They also ingest soil particles that are used to grind the plant material into a paste.

The organic plant material and soil is combined with compounds from their gut and excreted as “castings”. Earthworm castings are an excellent source of humus, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium. Castings also contain bacteria which help decompose additional organic material.

Earthworm castings

Photo attribution Muhammad Mahdi Karim [CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Earthworms consume and excrete an estimated 20 to 40 tons of soil per acre per year. The castings combine organic material and mineral soil particles into a stable “aggregate” that improves soil texture. Earthworm castings are critical in developing topsoil.

They also help aerate soils. The tunneling activity of earthworms creates spaces for air in the soil, reducing soil compaction. As they travel in these tunnels their bodies create a piston effect that forces air and oxygen throughout the soil, helping soil to “breathe”. This is important because plant roots will not grow where there is no oxygen. Earthworm tunnels in the soil also help water infiltrate into the soil.

Think of earthworms as tiny workers invisibly tilling and aerating the soil the soil beneath your feet, at the same time providing “free” fertilizer. They are a critical component of healthy soil.

The Select Program helps to maintain a good environment for these tiny workers to build and improve your soil. One thing that our Select customers eventually notice is that their lawns start to contain a lot of earthworms. This is a great sign that their soil’s texture is improving and nutrients are becoming more available to the soil microorganisms and the grass.

Part 1: Microorganisms

Part 2: Earthworms

Part 3: Organic Matter & Humus

The Living Soil, Part 1: Microorganisms

The founding theory of the Select Program is that “Healthy Soil creates a Healthy Lawn”. But what is “healthy soil”? Let's look at the factors that go into producing a healthy soil that benefits your grass and lets nature feed and protect your lawn.

Microorganisms: A world beneath your feet!

Healthy soil is alive. It has distinct properties that are plain even without lab tests. It is dark in color, crumbly in texture, and smells pleasant and “earthy”. If your soil does not have these three characteristics, it is probably not as healthy as it can be.

Soil nematode  

Photo attribution: Cristina Menta [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The most important and least appreciated aspect of healthy, living soil are the microorganisms in it. The bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa, and nematodes that live in the soil are microscopic and invisible to the naked eye. Invisible or not, they are present in astonishing numbers-a teaspoon of soil contains more microorganisms than there are people on the planet. 

Soil microorganisms break down organic matter into compounds that feed plants and animals. This organic matter is a valuable component of a healthy soil. Organic material is particularly valuable in improving the qualities of our very heavy clay-content soils.

Not only do they break down organic material as they consume it, but when they die their remains become part of the organic material in the soil. So soil microorganisms are not only responsible for soil nutrients but to some extent the soil itself. Soil microorganisms also produce a sticky substance that “glues” soil particles together to improve soil’s texture and water permeability.

Actinomycetes on a fragment of basalt

Photo attribution Samuel Etienne [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Soil that is biologically active with a healthy balance of microorganisms will use and recycle nutrients. Unbalanced soils will be less efficient in recycling and need the constant application of high levels of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, to keep grass green and looking healthy.

A healthy and diverse population of soil microorganisms also protects plants from fungal and bacterial diseases. Some naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi produce antibiotics that kill pathogens, while competition for resources in a healthy, well-populated soil keeps levels of “bad” bacteria and fungi low, preventing diseases from taking hold.

The Select program works with nature and the living soil. Our blend of organic materials, biologically-derived components and micronutrients continuously feed soil microorganisms and provide some of the key raw materials needed to encourage a healthy, thriving microorganism community. Over time this creates a layer of rich, dark soil that becomes increasingly more sustainable. This helps to create a lawn that is beautiful, thick, and green; it also has enhanced drought tolerance, is slower to go into dormancy, and quicker to green-up in the spring.

Part 1: Microorganisms

Part 2: Earthworms

Part 3: Organic Matter & Humus


What to do Now for a Prettier Summer Lawn

Tired of looking out over a patchy, weedy, not-very-green lawn all winter? Dreading the thought of looking at the same problems all summer too? The key to a great lawn in summer is to start on lawn care now before grass growth begins with warmer weather.

A soil test is the best way to get started.  It’s a good idea to test the soil at least every two or three years for established lawns. You can find basic home soil testing kits at many garden centers that will tell you pH (how acidic your soil is).

If you suspect nutrient imbalances, more advanced testing can reveal specific nutrient deficiencies or excesses. Ask at your local garden center or check your local county extension office for information on testing services, many are free or low-cost and come with recommendations for correcting any problems discovered.

Most soils in the Piedmont are acidic, so lime application is almost always beneficial for cool-season grasses, which need a nearly neutral pH of 6.5 to 7.0 to adequately take up available nutrients. A basic rate is 40 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft.

Lime is made available in the soil very slowly, so unlike applications of fertilizer or iron, results will be apparent over time rather than in a few days. Also unlike fertilizers, lime can safely be applied at any time of year.

(If you have a centipedegrass lawn don’t apply lime without a soil test as it prefers a more acidic pH of 5.5.)

Cool-season grasses (Kentucky bluegrass and fescues) should be fertilized in February around Valentine's Day at 1 pound of Nitrogen per 1000 sq. feet, with an additional application before March 15 if testing indicates higher fertility levels are needed. Slow release formulations will avoid a surge of growth that will require more mowing.  By their nature, organics are slow-release fertilizers and feed your lawn more steadily.

Warm-season grasses (Bermudagrass, centipedegrass and zoysia) should not be fertilized until the warmer months when they have turned green and are actively growing (usually April). Fertilizer application for warm-season grasses is every other month for average soils, and monthly if your soil tests indicate soil fertility is low. Fertilizer application to warm-season grasses during colder months can result in cold damage.

Keeping weeds out of the lawn also starts now-you don’t want to fall behind for the season as prevention is easier than managing weeds later.  Applying a pre-emergent herbicide between February and April will stop crabgrass and many other weeds from making an appearance this spring.

Pre-emergent can be applied at the same time as lawn fertilizer, or you can find it as a time-saving combo product that contains both fertilizer and pre-emergent. For those who prefer organic approaches, corn gluten meal-based preemergents can be an effective weed preventer when used exactly as directed and if rainfall cooperates.

You do have other options when your plans for a beautiful lawn exceed your available time (or desire) to do lawn maintenance. Using our Select lawn care programs means you don’t have to worry about the right time or choosing the right product to apply to have a beautiful, healthy lawn.

Whether you’re a “do it yourself-er” or prefer to have someone else care for your lawn, maintenance care now can pay off in a beautiful lawn for you to enjoy this summer.

Is it Time to Outsource your Lawn Care?

Have you ever considered using a lawn care service? While hiring a company to care for your lawn might not be right for everyone, it can be beneficial in more situations and have greater benefits than you might expect. If you love slinging bags of fertilizer and herbicide on your days off and have always gotten picture-perfect results with your lawn care regimen, stop reading here-a lawn care service is not for you.

Still reading? Most of you probably are. Let’s look at some circumstances where a lawn care service makes sense and see if any seem familiar.

You used to love all kinds of yard work and take great pride in your property’s appearance but it’s getting a little harder every year.  Or maybe an illness or injury limits the amount of time you can devote to caring for your lawn. Having temporary or permanent physical limitations is one reason to entrust lawn care to a service.

Soccer practice, baseball games, math tutoring-getting your kids to all their activities can take up lots of time, especially on weekends. Or long hours at work leave you looking forward to relaxing on the weekends and wrestling bags of lawn food or calculating how many pounds of N per thousand square feet isn’t your idea of a good time.

You’ve just purchased a new home, and the previous owners neglected the lawn, leaving a bigger renovation job than you’re prepared to or able to handle. Conversely, maybe you’re selling soon, and want to maximize the value of your property with knockout curb appeal.

What product goes on when? How much do you have to buy, and where will you store the extra safely? Is using the wrong product a waste of money…or even worse could it harm your lawn, pets or family? Do you have the equipment to apply lawn products properly? Do you know how to calibrate it for best results and safety? Maybe you don’t even know where to begin with lawn care, or have been doing it yourself but haven’t gotten the results you wanted.

Plenty of people will identify with at least one of these scenarios. Any of these alone are good reason to consider a lawn care service, but there’s another reason: results. Superb lawn care is a combination of correct timing, precision application and quality product. Some people start out strong in the spring but when weather gets nice they would rather get away for the weekend, and miss the window for pre-emergent applications.  Most homeowners don't know how to calibrate equipment and end up applying too much or too little of a product. This can result in no benefit at all for all your hard work, or worse, damage. The cost for the product and the time invested is wasted.

Consistent, correct application of quality lawn care products over time builds a stronger, deeper, more efficient root system. This makes grass more drought tolerant, resulting in less water use (remember your water bill last summer?). This also makes a healthier, thicker lawn with fewer weeds, so less herbicide is needed. That’s a plus for your family and the environment.

Nature's Select and Project EverGreen: Ballfield Restoration

 Baseball Field

April 6, 2016: This week Nature's Select Premium Turf Services helped to restore the playing surface at Penn-Wright Field at Greensboro's Barber Park in association with Project EverGreen The repairs to the turf will provide a safer surface for play and practice for local and out-of-state teams. Other industry contributors included our sister company New Garden Select, Site One Landscape Supply, and employee volunteers from Syngenta Lawn & Garden.

The project included weed control and fertilization, reseeding and top dressing, sod installation and replacement of the infield surfaces. New plant material and general landscape clean-up around the field was also done.

The mission of Project EverGreen is to preserve and enhance green spaces where we live, work and play. Nature's Select Premium Turf Services and New Garden Select believe that healthier landscapes and safe places to enjoy the outdoors with recreation and relaxation is important to our community and all those who live, work and play there and encourages a better quality of life for everyone.

Survey Says: Americans Love their Yards

April is National Lawn Care Month so it is a great time to think about what your lawn and landscape do for you. Even in the age of the smartphone and T.V. show binge watching, the love affair with the American yard is not over.

According to an online survey commissioned by the National Association of Landscape Professionals and conducted by Harris Poll in May 2015, eighty-three percent of Americans think having a yard is important. Here are a few insights about the value of our lawns and backyards.

Your neighborhood’s landscaping is important. Americans (91%) want to live in an area where they can see or walk to nice landscaping. So if you want the best chance of increasing the home prices in your neighborhood, make sure the landscaping looks good.

Nice landscaping helps to sell your house. Eighty-four percent say that the quality of a home’s landscaping would affect their decision about whether or not to buy. Great neighborhood landscaping helps, but it isn’t enough; yours needs to look good too.

Your neighbors care what your yard looks like. Seventy-one percent think it is important that their neighbors have well-maintained yards. Perhaps “good landscaping makes good neighbors” should be the new adage.

We want to enjoy our yards. Seventy-five percent of people feel that it is important to spend time outside in their yards.

Despite common misperceptions, even Millennials want to spend time in their yards. Seventy-five percent of Millennials (18–34 year olds) think spending time outside in their yards is important.

People want help with their landscape. A large majority of Americans (67%) agree that professional landscape help would allow them to have a nicer yard.

So, this April, don’t take your yard for granted: make the most of it and it will return many financial and emotional benefits. 

Photo Credit: NALPPhilippe Nobile Photography by National Association of Landscape Professionals