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08 Dec 2011
Lawn Pest & Disease Control

Do I Really Want Fungi in My Yard?

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.” (Ground work – AgriEnergy Resources).

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” (Ground work – AgriEnergy Resources).

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 acces- sible sources for other organisms.

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

• 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)
• Impacts soil pH

Bottom line, beneficial soil fungi are workhorses and you want high numbers of them in your soil.
According to the Jeff Lowenfels and 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.” (Lowenfels)

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. For example, 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. Adding additional microbial products in early fall 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.

01 Dec 2011

Creating a Self Sustained Lawn Care Program and Why Bacteria Play a Large Role

What They Are and A Few Interesting Facts

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 on earth 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 They Are 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>.

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.

24 Oct 2011
Backyard Organics Land Care Services

Balancing Healthy Lawn with Healthy Lifestyles

This month’s question:

A concerned individual recently contacted me with this issue. “My dog lays in our yard all the time. Do I really want to expose her to this [chemical weed treatment]?”

I was definitely comfortable offering this individual an emphatic “No.” We shouldn’t expose our family to any chemicals if we can avoid them. But the journey to organics is different for everyone both in pace and outcome.

My journey started with inquiry. I’ve always relied on unbiased research when making a decision; land and lawn care are no different. The evidence is significant as Nathan Diegelman clarifies in his article “Poison In the Grass: The Hazards and Consequences of Lawn Pesticides.”

• “Congress found that 90 percent of the pesticides on the market lack even minimal required safety screening. Of the 34 most used lawn pesticides, 33 have not been fully tested for human health hazards. If any tests are done, they are performed by the chemical manufacturers, not the EPA.”

• According to the EPA, 95 percent of the pesticides used on residential lawns are possible or probable carcinogens.

• National Cancer Institute reported children develop leukemia six times more often when pesticides are used around their homes.

• The American Journal of Epidemiology found that more children with brain tumors and other cancers had been exposed to insecticides than children without.

• National Cancer Society and other medical researchers have discovered a definite link between fatal non-Hodgkins Lymphoma (NHL) and exposure to triazine herbicides (like Atrazine), phenoxyacetic herbicides (2,4-D), organophosphate insecticides (Diazinon), fungicides, and fumigants; all of which have uses as lawn chemicals. This may be an important contributing factor to the 50 percent rise in NHL over the past 10 years in the American population.

• Studies of farmers who once used these pesticides found alarmingly high numbers of NHL, especially in those who didn’t wear protective clothing.

• This latest finding also proves the theory that most danger from pesticides comes through dermal absorption, not ingestion.

• University of Iowa study of golf course superintendents found abnormally high rates of death due to cancer of the brain, large intestine, and prostate. Other experts are beginning to link golfers, and non-golfers who live near fairways, with these same problems.

On a personal note, my dog, Gruzin, recently passed away from cancer. Was his passing due in part to my traditional chemical lawn care used before moving to the organic way? There is no way to tell for sure, but I will certainly do everything I can to prevent this from happening again. The factual and anecdotal research is enough for me, but I respect any individual’s right to choose.

There is a reason why the chemical fertilizer industry has to post yards with warning after treatments; there is a reason why parts of the East and West coasts have banned synthetic fertilizers; there is a reason why the President appointed a panel to research the link between cancer and fertilizers, and there is a reason why our guts are telling us “these chemicals can’t be good.” Trust your gut.

The evidence seems to be mounting against the chemical fertilizer industry. Many respond to the research and their instincts by going completely organic. Home owners want a weed free lawn, and most of our customers prefer to achieve this the organic way, with organic soil amendments and compost teas. Treating weeds organically does require patience, however, which is why some customers will choose one or two synthetic weed treatments if their unwanted plants have gotten out of control and the lawn perhaps requires a “rescue.” We step in then with an organic application, a follow up which lessens the effects of the chemicals they put on the soil. This approach offers customers a reasonable compromise on the road to a more sustainable and healthy future.

Ultimately, we are committed to assisting our customers in their move toward organics and respect each person’s journey.

If you have a question regarding organic land care, feel free to email or call us. Your question might end up in next month’s Q&A article.

To read Nathans Diegelman’s article in its entirety, refer to this link: http://www.cqs.com/elawn.htm
The Presidents cancer panel’s 240-page report may be viewed in a PDF at: http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/pcp08-09rpt/ PCP_Report_08-09_508.pdf
The President’s Cancer Panel web site is: http://pcp.cancer.gov.

19 Oct 2011
weed control

Controlling Weeds Organically

Traditional lawn care since the late 1940’s has feasted on a one-size-fits-all approach to weed control that paints every plant with the same broad stroke. However, the EPA estimates that only 2 percent of the active ingredients in synthetic weed killers, 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, and 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 conversely, has too much nitrogen, nature will likely give you an abundance of dandelions. Again, our 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. Now, 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

* Pre-emergent weed control in spring and fall

* Soil modification that gets to the root of the problem

* Overseeding with new grass seed to crowd out weeds

* Mowing at an appropriate height and bagging only occasionally (first cut of the year, right after dandelions go to seed, right before winter)

If all else fails, use a synthetic herbicide that targets the weeds that are taking over your lawn, and then start fresh with an organic approach to achieving a healthy soil.

18 Oct 2011
nurturing healthy soils

Is Foliar Feeding (Compost Teas and Compost Extracts) Only Watering My Turf and Plants?

Here are some interesting facts that will answer that question.

A research project conducted at Michigan State University, using radioactive tagged nutrients, proved that foliar feeding can be 8 to 10 times more effective than soil feeding. Foliar feeding stimulates an increase in chlorophyll production, cellular activity and respiration. It also triggers a plant response that increases water and nutrient uptake from the soil. The Research headed by Dr. H.B. Tukey at MSU in the 1950’s comparing the efficiency of plant use of foliar-fed nutrients versus soil-applied nutrients near roots, found foliar feeding provided about 95% efficiency of use compared to about 10% of use from soil applications (MSU).

Further, according to Iowa State University research; “Because plants can absorb nutrients through their leaves, spraying fertilizer nutrients on the plants can prevent nutrient depletion; keep leaves more active in carrying on photosynthesis.”

How Foliar Feeding Works

1-Direct and Efficient Nutrient Uptake
Small amounts of nutrients at high utilization uptake into the plant without soil interference.

2-Stimulation of Rhizosphere
The application of foliar nutrients stimulates the plant to release plant exudates, which then stimulates the organisms in the rhizosphere, who then interact with the plant.

3-Colonization of beneficial organisms on leaf surfaces, into the plant, and onto the soil
Sets of organisms on the plant leaf can independently fix nitrogen from the air, colonize the leaves for the competitive exclusion of disease organisms plus fix nitrogen on the plant surface.

In summary, Foliar feeding can be the most efficient method of feeding a plant since MSU research shows that 95% of a fertilizer solution can be found in the root hairs within 60 minutes with good conditions! Clay and compacted soils bind up available nutrients causing soil feeding to be less affective and foliar feeding bypasses the soil and feeds the plant directly.

13 Oct 2011
Composed Tea

What Can I Do to Prepare My Yard for the Winter?

A number of our clients have asked this question, so much so, that it was worthy of an article.

As temperatures begin to lower here in Wisconsin so does the growth rate of much of our outside plant life, including turf. According to Paul Tukey, founding editor of People, Places and Plants magazine, executive producer of an HGTV show of the same name and the author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual, “the most important factor to remember is to mow the grass low, to about 2 inches.” Longer grass is a safe haven for mice, or voles, which will hide in the lawn and leave telltale trails of damage in the spring.” Taller grass is also a feeding ground for snow mold.

Tukey also suggests an application of compost tea just before winter to help maximize the number of microbes in the soil heading into the cold season. Backyard organics provides this treatment in the fall application, typically applied in mid to late September.

Most experts agree that turf in our part of the country requires three season maintenance programs to have a healthy lawn. For maximum payoff next spring, prepare your lawn for winter in early fall. Here are some additional suggestions:

Avoid heavy snow build up in any one particular area

Plow snow 1 to 2” above your turf

Avoid sodium based ice melters, which are not only harmful to your lawn but also your pets. Use calcium chloride instead.

Clear debris. A clear lawn allows sunlight, water, and nutrients to reach the soil and limits the amount of mold potential. A clean lawn also is a good start to avoiding mice, moles, and voles from moving in.

De-thatch. Thatch (layers of dead grass) creates a natural barrier for water and nutrients to reach your soil. (Backyard Organics provides a product in the early fall application that turns thatch into organic matter, thus enriching your soil and eliminating the labor of removing it.

Aerate. This allows water and nutrients to reach the roots and nourish the grass while reversing soil compaction.

Water. 1 to 2” per week just before the first big freeze should suffice

Sharpen your tools. This eliminates the “tearing” of grass which could make it susceptible to diseases.
Avoid heavy traffic in any particular area which can cause winter kill.

Go easy on the pruning. Pruning promotes growth and we don’t want plants growing just before the dormant season. Cut away dead wood, however, to avoid insect habitation.

Cover that plot. To prep your garden for winter, plant a nitrogen-rich cover crop such as clover that you can simply turn under come spring, or keep the weeds at bay with a burlap cover, suggests Elaine Anderson, program coordinator for the Washington State University/King County Extension Master Gardener Program.

Transplant.
Now is a great time to transplant your trees, plants, and shrubs.

Mulch. Pull mulch away from trunks in an effort to avoid moles, voles and mice from feeding on them.

So, don’t hibernate just yet. Now may be the best time to take care of your yard for 2012.

15 Jul 2011
Backyard Organics Fox Valley Wisconsin

July 2011 Newsletter

First, I would like to thank each of you for showing your dedication to your family and the environment by providing a safe alternative to chemical lawn care. It’s a rare opportunity to be a part of a purposeful career and after careers as an engineer, manufacturing consultant and a owner of an distribution company, I believe I have found a purpose in Backyard Organics and I appreciate the opportunity to share that with you.

Spring was an interesting season. Learning a new business and dealing with the weather were challenging, but I’m very pleased about our progress and grateful for the on-going support of dedicated professionals. Additionally, I’d like to thank you for your patience as we worked through the growing pains of new ownership.

March and April were spent applying the important early spring application. The corn gluten used in this application can take some time to work into the soil, which allowed some of our pets to consider it a treat unfortunately. This lead to a search and discovery of an alternative to this challenge. If your pets are eating the corn gluten and you would like an alternative we will apply a powder form that can be watered into the soil more quickly.

Our first wet applications started in late May, and we finished our first summer application the last week in June. Our Summer 2 application will start in Mid August. As usual, we will notify you with specific dates as we approach mid August. Early fall and winter application will follow up in late October or early November, depending on the weather.

We are excited to share our new partnerships with you. Backyard Organics has established some partnerships that we are excited to be apart of and let you know about. Because of my past experience with Habitat for Humanity and our commitment to give back to our community, Backyard Organics has donated its products and services to all new homes built in the valley by Habitat for Humanity. Vande Hey Landscaping has partnered with us on this venture to further enrich these new lawns.

Additional exciting relationships are the ones that we established with some of our local retailers. You can now find our products at Festival Foods (New London), The Free Market, Vande Hey Landscapes, Just Act Natural, Two Paws Up Bakery (Appleton), The Red Radish (Neenah), Natural Healthy Concepts (Menasha), and Schmalz Garden Center (Darboy). Please visit these local retailers; buying local benefits our community significantly.

We are also very excited to further our relationship with the Fox Valley Technical College’s organic land care leadership. We recently met with them to discuss how we can help each other in our quest to establish an organic presence in local land care. Backyard Organics and FVTC are promoting the same techniques and philosophies regarding organic land care and are two of three organizations in Wisconsin accredited by NOFA. We will certainly share more about this collaboration in future news letters.

Once again, thank you for your dedication to our service and organic land care. We look forward to a long and healthy relationship.

Todd