Fox Valley: 920-730-3253
Southeast: 920-980-4928
10 Feb 2015
weed control

Weed Control Options – Finding your balance between organics and herbicides.

Weed control options
By far the most asked question is “how do you control weed growth?” The organic answer is to create an equal balance of structural, chemical, and biological activity in the soil; without biological activity unhealthy soils and weeds are sure to exist. Biology (micro-organisms) is the foundation to healthy soils. Weeds are an indicator that the soils are out of balance. My primary goal, with all of our applications, is to create the balance that nature needs to thrive on its own which results in healthy soils and a naturally reduced weed population.
The conventional approach to controlling weeds is to use herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides –all which can have a harmful effect on beneficial micro-organisms (the same organisms that help create a sustainable, healthy soil) which is why chemical treatments are not sustainable. However, they are effective at eliminating weeds in a timely manner.
Soil/herbicide study
As you may already know, I have been conducting a study to explore the effects of herbicides on soil micro-organisms at our shop in Oshkosh. The purpose of the study was to help me better understand the relationship between herbicide treatments and the decline of micro-organism activity. My goal was not to condemn or credit herbicides but rather to provide a more insightful opinion to those clients who prefer a quick fix to weed issues. I truly believe there is balance in everything so why not find out what the “balance” is between herbicide use and micro-organism decline? First, I’ll give you a little background on the study, then the informal results. This was not an official study and was done for my personal use only.
Background
For the past two years I have used Stuart’s Landscaping Company to apply different applications of herbicides (each for a specific purpose) on three test plots at my shop, (chemical based landscapers typically recommend three or more herbicide applications per year). One test plot received one herbicide application, one test plot received two herbicide applications, one test plot received three applications, and one test plot was used as the control group. Throughout the growing season, I reviewed soil samples from all test plots using a high powered microscope located in my “shop lab”. What I looked for in the soil slides was activity involving live, active micro organisms throughout the slide. I was not looking for specific types or sizes of organisms.
Results
Test plot 1 – one application of herbicide (spring)
Obvious reduction in weed growth compared to test plot 4 (control plot), however still showing signs of weed activity. At or near the 5% goal of weed activity established by organic land care professionals. No significant degradation of micro organism activity. Weed activity occurred later in the season.

Test plot 2 – two applications of herbicide (spring and fall)
Significant reduction in weed growth compared to test plot 4 (control plot). 5% or less or weed activity. Showing signs of a reduction in micro organism activity.
Test plot 3 – three applications of herbicide (spring, mid spring, fall)
Less than 1% weed growth. Significant reduction in micro-organism activity
Test plot 4 –Control plot. No applications (organic or chemical)
Recommendation

  • Control weeds organically by building healthy soils and safe sustainable grasses
  • Spot treat with natural, iron based selective weed control products (contact us for more info)
  • Controlled, responsible use of herbicides

Achieving a 5% or less weed growth activity in your lawn is absolutely achievable using organic and cultural land care practices as I have personally demonstrated on a number of yards, including my own; however, if you are eager to rid your lawn of weeds right away and with less effort on your part, I would recommend spot treatment using a natural iron based treatment, or 1 or possibly 2 herbicide applications (in a year), depending on the severity of your weed issues. If your weed problem is severe enough, the organic land care community would consider that in need of a “rescue” and may require a more drastic one time approach. (I rarely encounter a yard that is in that dire condition.). Consistently using more than two treatments of herbicides and/or synthetic fertilizers throughout the year is clearly counterproductive to a safe, sustainable, organic process, and would be creating a “one step forward, two steps back approach” which would not be recommended.
Bottom line
If you’re eager to rid your lawn of weeds, take a responsible approach when using herbicides and use as few applications as possible (in most cases no more than 2 applications a year). Also, add organic, biological applications throughout the growing season; this will help replenish the micro-organism population.
I will continue to recommend herbicide treatments based on my clients’ needs and expectations. However, Backyard Organics will not apply herbicide treatments. We will coordinate all of the necessary efforts (scheduling and invoicing), however, will refer the work to Stuart’s Landscaping Company. Stuart’s is a professional company which is respectful of our clients’ overall land care needs and keeps me informed as to the timing of each application. I have attached Stuart’s description of their herbicide treatments for your review.
If you’re interested in a safe, healthy and sustainable environment, stay the course and continue with a purely organic approach, eventually your weed growth will decline to 5% or less!

To read more about our products and services, or if you would like to submit a question, please visit us at www.backyardorganics.net, email info@backyardorganics.net or call 920.730.3253/888.200.0446.

19 Mar 2014
Cover Blog

Nature’s Pathways Cover Article – April 2014

Building a purposeful life from the ground up Todd Rockweit betters his community and the earth through Backyard Organics In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. —Aristotle As they shine between the leaves of a nearby maple tree, the sun’s rays gently warm your skin.

The smell of flowering lilacs drifts upon a light breeze. Soft, plush grass cradles your bare feet as you close your eyes and listen to the birds singing from the nearby shrubs and trees. It’s a perfect, serene, picturesque backyard. But what makes it all the more beautiful is it was made that way by a man who takes doing right by the environment, his community, his clients and his family to heart. Todd Rockweit provides organic and sustainable land and lawn care to Northeast Wisconsin through his business, Backyard Organics. The Oshkosh-based Backyard Organics is much more than a typical landscaping company. It serves residential customers, as well as businesses, gardens, orchards, farms and even small vineyards — and it does so by recognizing the flaws in conventional and often harmful chemical-based methods, and instead using an educated and individualized approach to each client’s needs.Rockweit is easily able to relate to his customers’ needs — perhaps because he himself was one just a few years ago. He and his wife, Tara, both nature lovers to begin with, knew they wanted not only an attractive and inviting yard, but a safe environment. Their main motivation for this came in a tiny, adorable package: their new daughter, Emmaxia.
The Rockweits looked into the services Backyard Organics offered and Todd found himself gravitating to the company’s sustainable, continuous-improvement process. Thanks to this organic and thoughtful approach to their own lawn care, the Rockweits now have peace of mind knowing that their daughter, dogs and even chickens can explore their backyard without encountering harmful chemicals.
A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Five years ago, Rockweit had just sold his custom software distribution company. At age 43, he wasn’t in a position to retire, yet he was comfortable enough to choose what he wanted to do next in life. He and his wife sat down with a whiteboard in their living room and outlined a roadmap for the future. Not surprisingly, family played a major role in the Rockweits’ decision to purchase and operate Backyard Organics.
“Until you actually have one, you don’t know. It’s unreal how much they can change your life,” Rockweit says of having children. Todd and Tara had a bit of a preview through watching friends and family parent before their own daughter entered the picture. “We saw the good and bad,” Todd recalls. “We knew that if we didn’t take best approach to raising our child that we could, that wouldn’t be right. We wanted a better balance personally and professionally.”
Backyard Organics certainly seemed to fit the bill. Tara, a local high school teacher, has more free time to spend with Emmaxia in the summer months than during the school year. The opposite, seasonal nature of lawn care would allow Todd to compliment Tara’s schedule.
“It’s a good fit,” Todd says. “It helps us to always be with our daughter whenever we can.”
What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. —Henry David Thoreau
Another item at the top of Rockweit’s whiteboard list for the future was his goal to enjoy a more meaningful existence.
In the past, Rockweit tried to be as good of a person as possible, though this wasn’t the driving force in his professional life. He focused mainly on making money to support his family as best he could.
But Rockweit was able to shift his priorities, and he recognized that Backyard Organics would allow him to feed his soul, rather than just the bank account. Now, as owner and operator of the company, Todd recognizes that doing the right thing is part of who he is.
“The driving force behind this business or really anything that I do is to be more purposeful,” he explains. “Every time I make a decision, I ask, ‘Is it the right thing to do? Is it the best product I can utilize? Is it the best service I can provide?’ This can be difficult if the majority of your professional life was more profit-driven. It can be difficult, but it is absolutely the driving force behind this business.”
Rockweit’s focus on living a purposeful life has lead him and Backyard Organics to deep community involvement. Through participation in local committees and organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, Rockweit is able to help individuals and groups better understand the environment.
“To me, what’s most important is groundwater understanding,” he explains. “Water is a limited resource, and we really need to do whatever we can to preserve it.” Rockweit hopes that by connecting with community organizations, he will be able to help people build their understanding of how land-care decisions can impact the watershed, as well as the environment as a whole. This will lead individuals and businesses to consider alternatives to synthetic land-care chemicals, Rockweit hopes.
Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher. —William Wordsworth
Since taking on Backyard Organics, Rockweit has done more than his fair share of research. Thanks in part to his prior career in engineering, he takes a “left-brained” approach to lawn and land care. The business owner finds himself naturally craving to understand “how things work,” to identify root causes of problems and to search out the best solutions — strengths he uses to his customers’ advantage.
“In this industry, a passion for understanding how soils work is very unique. Landscapers in general don’t spend a great deal of time understanding soil. Instead, they use products to make grass ‘look’ greener,” Rockweit explains.
Rockweit, on the other hand, has been truly immersed in soil science for the past five years. A regular attendee at organic farm and land-care classes and conferences, he takes time each off-season to further educate himself. Rockweit has primarily attended educational opportunities on the east coast, where the Northeast Organic Farming Association, or NOFA, regulates organic land care.
While the east and west coasts have organizations like NOFA that set standards and guidelines related to organic land care, the Midwest does not. Rockweit explains that because of this lack of oversight, a Midwest company could say they are using organic products and approaches, but there is no way to verify this.
Backyard Organics is different. As a NOFA-accredited land care professional, Rockweit has the credentials and knowledge to back up his words. And Backyard Organics, with its purely organic approach to land care, is unique not only in Wisconsin, but the entire Midwest.
Backyard Organics customers know what they’re getting: Todd Rockweit — a man who believes in doing the best thing for his family, his customers, his community and his planet.

Each Backyard Organics customer benefits the environment. By contacting Todd Rockweit, clients can rest assured knowing that they are making the world a better and more purposeful place. Contact Backyard Organics at 920-730-3253 or email info@backyardorganics.net. To learn more, visit backyardorganics.net or stop by the shop at 5171 Green Valley Road, Oshkosh.]

Backyard Organics is actively involved in the following programs and committees:
• Sustainable Neenah
• Sustainable Fox Valley
• Gardens of the Fox Cities
• Master Gardeners of the Fox Valley
• Community Gardens of the Fox Valley and Oshkosh
• Habitat for Humanity
• Fox Valley Adopt a Garden
• Neenah Historical Society ]

14 Feb 2013
sustainable soils

Sustainable soils Part 2 – How nutrients and soil biology work together to form sustainable soils and healthy plants

To understand how soils work in conjunction with plants, you really need to understand cellular biology; however, in this article, we are going to take a much simpler look at how soil nutrients, plant function and soil biology work together to form a sustainable environment.

As indicated in February’s article, most of us who are trying to “fix” or “maintain” our soils are concerned about the NPK numbers on fertilizer bags; however, knowing the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels of a product is only the start to creating a sustainable soil. “Generations of gardeners have been brought up on 10-10-10 and 39-9-12, but nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are just three of many nutrients that plants need to survive.”

Two additional nutrients to consider when evaluating soil’s sustainability are calcium (which stabilizes pH levels and biological activity, loosens soil, is a major component of plant cell walls and is a key indicator of weed growth) and magnesium (which holds soil particles together and is a major component that promotes plant growth). An equally important factor to consider is the relationship between calcium and magnesium. Evidence shows that soils low in calcium and high in magnesium tend to exhibit greater weed pressure and are prone to compaction. There are additional secondary nutrients and micronutrients to consider, but we’ll address that in future discussions.

A good soil test will provide you with nutrient levels currently in your soil. Here are a few suggestions to assist you:

  • Don’t use a cheap test. Inexpensive tests are likely to paint an inaccurate picture of your soil, which can result in over-fertilization and further damage to your soil.
  • Make sure your test is checking for soluble nutrient values. Our soils in the Midwest are typically heavy in clay, which binds up nutrients and makes them inaccessible to plants. Soluble values tell you the amount of that nutrient that is available for the plant.
  • Make sure your test checks for the pH, organic matter percentage, cation exchange capacity (CEC) and base saturation levels. Ideally you are looking for a pH value of 6-7, 5-15 percent organic matter, CEC of 10-15 and a calcium to magnesium ratio of 7:1. Anything above or below these numbers will likely require inputs to adjust and this could take months or years.

So, now that we have a basic understanding of nutrients, how do we get the nutrients into the plants? This is where biology plays such a critical role in soil sustainability.

Plants have a symbiotic relationship with their soils. Plants give up nearly 60 percent of their energy to their roots, which release exudates. Exudates are a food source for bacteria and the start of the nutrient cycling process within the soil food web as well as the start of sustainability.

If you are applying a dry fertilizer to your lawn, garden or farm, and you have insufficient biological activity in the soil, there is no way for your grass or other plants to take up those necessary nutrients and very little defense against pests and diseases. If possible, have a bioassay test done on your soil to get a basic understanding of your biological activity.

In an organic environment, soil organisms need to digest the organic material (nutrients) and smaller organisms (soil food web) before any plant can benefit from the micronutrients. This is why synthetic fertilizers are so harmful and why we have become so dependent on them. Once the synthetic nutrient is absorbed into the plant, the runoff leaches into the ground, thus killing off the microorganisms in the soil. Once the organisms are gone, you become dependent on the synthetic fertilizer.

To speed up the nutrient cycling process, many organic farmers and land care professionals create and use custom blended compost teas. By suspending the micronutrients of quality compost in a liquid form, the plants and soil organisms can access the benefits of the compost/nutrients far more quickly and, if the soil is lacking in biodiversity, we can inoculate the soils with the necessary biology to ensure all necessary components are available for a healthy, sustainable soil.

Diversity is important because every soil is different. Having a wide variety of bacteria and fungi 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 (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 extracting them using an actively aerated 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.

So, if you are considering taking a healthier, more sustainable approach to maintaining your yard and gardens, consider not only the nutrients the plants need, but also the biology and the whole ecology necessary to sustain that environment.

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 www.backyardorganics.net, email info@backyardorganics.net or call 920.730.3253/888.200.0446.

06 Jan 2013
Complete Soil Analysis

Sustainable Soils – Part 1 Soil Basics

In a series of articles that will be written throughout this years growing season, I will try to 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, however, we are going to focus on the basics of soil and help you understand how sustainability starts.

Soil is typically made up of 45% clay, silt, and sand; 25%  air; 25% water; and 5% 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 the soil looks at three “independent” factors which make up soil and they are 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.  Lets consider the three factors independently and then how they should work together.

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.  For a quick and easy way to test soil structure, try the ribbon test.  Here is a link to the ribbon test instructions, http://backyardorganics.net/faq/

Understanding the chemical make up of soils 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 micro nutrients 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, but 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 micro nutrients, which are the nutrients actually available to the plants.  Again, the chemical component to soils is certainly a key factor and one that should be understood but by itself will not achieve a healthy, sustainable soil.

The biological component to a 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 make up 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 which feeds on them.  Think of them as little bags of fertilizer!  Fungi are also decomposers, feeding on more complex organic matter.  Fungi  thread-like growth habit improves soil texture, transports water, and nutrients, and protects against pathogens.  Protozoa, nematodes and other insects are the preditors to bacteria and fungi and the carrier of the value which 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.

Soils require 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.

This article will also appear in the February, 2013 edition of Nature’s Pathways

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

07 Sep 2012
court room gavel

Scotts Miracle Gro Fined $12.5 Million in Pesticide Case

CONTACT:
Enesta Jones
jones.enesta@epa.gov
202-564-7873
202-564-4355

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 7, 2012

Scotts Miracle-Gro Will Pay $12.5 Million in Criminal Fines and Civil Penalties for Violations of Federal Pesticide Laws

WASHINGTON — The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, a producer of pesticides for commercial and consumer lawn and garden uses, was sentenced today in federal district court in Columbus, Ohio, to pay a $4 million fine and perform community service for eleven criminal violations of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which governs the manufacture, distribution, and sale of pesticides. Scotts pleaded guilty in February 2012 to illegally applying insecticides to its wild bird food products that are toxic to birds, falsifying pesticide registration documents, distributing pesticides with misleading and unapproved labels, and distributing unregistered pesticides. This is the largest criminal penalty under FIFRA to date.

In a separate civil agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scotts agreed to pay more than $6 million in penalties and spend $2 million on environmental projects to resolves additional civil pesticide violations. The violations include distributing or selling unregistered, canceled, or misbranded pesticides, including products with inadequate warnings or cautions. This is the largest civil settlement under FIFRA to date.

“The misuse or mislabeling of pesticide products can cause serious illness in humans and be toxic to wildlife,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s sentence and unprecedented civil settlement hold Scotts accountable for widespread company noncompliance with pesticide laws, which put products into the hands of consumers without the proper authorization or warning labels.”

“As the world’s largest marketer of residential use pesticides, Scotts has a special obligation to make certain that it observes the laws governing the sale and use of its products. For having failed to do so, Scotts has been sentenced to pay the largest fine in the history of FIFRA enforcement,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “The Department of Justice will continue to work with EPA to assure that pesticides applied in homes and on lawns and food are sold and used in compliance with the laws intended to assure their safety.”

In the plea agreement, Scotts admitted that it applied the pesticides Actellic 5E and Storcide II to its bird food products even though EPA had prohibited this use. Scotts had done so to protect its bird foods from insect infestation during storage. Scotts admitted that it used these pesticides contrary to EPA directives and in spite of the warning label appearing on all Storicide II containers stating, “Storcide II is extremely toxic to fish and toxic to birds and other wildlife.” Scotts sold this illegally treated bird food for two years after it began marketing its bird food line and for six months after employees specifically warned Scotts management of the dangers of these pesticides. By the time it voluntarily recalled these products in March 2008, Scotts had sold more than 70 million units of bird food illegally treated with pesticide that is toxic to birds.

Scotts also pleaded guilty to submitting false documents to EPA and to state regulatory agencies in an effort to deceive them into believing that numerous pesticides were registered with EPA when in fact they were not. The company also pleaded guilty to having illegally sold the unregistered pesticides and to marketing pesticides bearing labels containing false and misleading claims not approved by EPA. The falsified documents submitted to EPA and states were attributed to a federal product manager at Scotts.

In addition to the $4 million criminal fine, Scotts will contribute $500,000 to organizations that protect bird habitat, including $100,000 each to the Ohio Audubon’s Important Bird Area Program, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Urban Forestry Program, the Columbus Metro-Parks Bird Habitat Enhancement Program, the Cornell University Ornithology Laboratory, and The Nature Conservancy of Ohio to support the protection of bird populations and habitats through conservation, research, and education.

At the time the criminal violations were discovered, EPA also began a civil investigation that uncovered numerous civil violations spanning five years. Scotts’ FIFRA civil violations included the nationwide distribution or sale of unregistered, canceled, or misbranded pesticides, including products with inadequate warnings or cautions. As a result, EPA issued more than 40 Stop Sale, Use or Removal Orders to Scotts to address more than 100 pesticide products.

In addition to the $6 million civil penalty, Scotts will complete environmental projects, valued at $2 million, to acquire, restore and protect 300 acres of land to prevent runoff of agricultural chemicals into nearby waterways.

The criminal case was investigated by EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division and the Environmental Enforcement Unit of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation. It was prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Jeremy F. Korzenik of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division, by Michael J. McClary, EPA Criminal Enforcement Counsel and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and by Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Michael Marous.

The civil case was investigated by U.S. EPA Region 5’s Land and Chemicals Division and Office of Regional Counsel, and the U.S. EPA Headquarters Office of Civil Enforcement, assisted by the Office of Pesticides Program.

More information about the civil settlement and recalled products: http://www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/cases/civil/fifra/scottsmiraclegro.html

28 Feb 2012
habitat for humanity fox cities

Building Successful Homeowners through Education

Providing low-income families with an affordable home addresses only part of the issue of poverty; in addition to building houses, Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity works to ensure that our first-time homebuyers become knowledgeable homeowners.

Families that partner must demonstrate that they have a genuine need for decent, safe and affordable housing, that they have the ability to pay a 0% mortgage, and that they are willing to partner with Habitat by committing to 300-500 hours of ‘sweat equity’.  Sweat equity hours can be met by working on their home, volunteering on the homes of other Habitat families and attending workshops and education sessions.  As a part of their sweat equity, all the adults in our partner families are required to complete over 55 hours of homeowner education.

Habitat for Humanity makes these classes a requirement because we know that education and preparation is the key to self-sufficiency.  Of the 55 hours, about 30 hours focus on financial literacy and financial preparedness, including understanding their mortgage, establishing monthly budgets, planning for a financial emergency, etc.

Since our families are mostly first-time homebuyers and are often the first in their extended families to live in their own home, we also conduct classes that help them transition into homeownership.  The topics addressed in this track include how to be a good neighbor, community relations, and home maintenance.  It is with the help of our family partners, mentors and class facilitators that Habitat can offer such an extensive range of topics to get our families ready for financial stability, and Habitat is blessed to have so many experts in their fields lend their expertise to our families.

Their new yard is often the first time Habitat families have had a yard, and typically aren’t familiar with lawn maintenance or landscaping.  Backyard Organics has stepped in to help our Habitat homeowners with getting their new lawns established, and is donating their services for all our 2011 families.  The purpose of Backyard Organics is to create a safe environment for families, pets and the planet.  Backyard Organics uses safe, earth-friendly methods for weed control, soil conditioners and also offers soil manipulation and testing services.  Backyard Organics utilizes the principles set forth by the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), and was the first organic land care business accredited by NOFA.

For 2011, there are 14 Habitat families, which is an increase from 2010.  Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity would not be able to increase our ability to provide decent homes in a holistic manner without the generosity and support of our wonderful volunteers and partner businesses like Backyard Organics!  

09 Feb 2012
nurturing healthy soils

Healthy Soils with help from Compost Tea

For the past year you have read our articles that described what is happening in the soil and the potential problems that can occur if that “life cycle” is disrupted either chemically or through our own use of the land.  Today I would like to talk to you about a tool that homeowners and gardeners can use to help get back your healthy soil – compost tea.

Brewing high-quality compost tea with consistent results is a challenge (much like brewing good-quality coffee or beer), which is why it’s critical to source the highest-quality compost and nutrients as well as utilize the best equipment and processes that will not harm the biology.  Brewing compost tea can be as simple as a five-gallon bucket and compost processed from home or as complex as a 250-gallon brewer, bio-assay tested compost, and an assortment of nutrients and soil additives, which is the approach that Backyard Organics™ takes.  In addition to the technical design of the equipment and the science behind the formulations, timing of the applications is critical.  Compost tea is a live, active, aerobic blend of microbes, which are rapidly expanding and can become unfavorable if they run out of nutrients and become anaerobic. Applying compost tea with the first 48 of a finished brew cycle is critical to receiving a quality product.

A good-quality compost tea has a quantity and diversity of microbes.  Compost teas that achieve high quantities and a good diversity of bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoas are able to combat a larger variety of symptomatic issues.  Each community, each neighborhood and each yard have unique soil needs.  Having a high count and a diverse group of microbes ensures consistent results.  Also, applications within a yard can vary, which is why it’s important to be able to understand the differences between a fungal-dominated need versus a bacterially dominated need.  For example, certain grasses prefer a more bacterially dominated compost whereas certain trees and shrubs prefer more fungal activity. This is why it’s always important to test your soils prior to applying amendments.

Verified benefits of compost tea

  1. Improves soil structure and porosity – creating a better plant root environment
  2. Increases moisture infiltration and permeability, and reduces bulk density of heavy soils – improving moisture infiltration rates and reducing erosion and runoff
  3. Improves the moisture holding capacity of light soils – reducing water loss and nutrient leaching, and improving moisture retention
  4. Improves the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of soils
  5. Supplies organic matter
  6. Aids the proliferation of soil microbes
  7. Supplies beneficial microorganisms to soils and growing media
  8. Encourages vigorous root growth
  9. Allows plants to more effectively utilize nutrients while reducing nutrient loss by leaching
  10.  Enables soils to retain nutrients longer
  11. Contains humus – assisting in soil aggregation and making nutrients more available for plant uptake
  12. Buffers soil pH

In addition to the numerous biological benefits, compost tea also has a practical side that can greatly benefit the homeowner.  Compost tea, whether you brew it yourself or have someone apply it for you, can be applied as a foliar feeder.  Feeding the leaves of plants, shrubs and trees, efficiently uptakes nutrients, stimulates the plant rhizosphere and acts as a protector against harmful leaf diseases.  Also, compost tea is much easier to spread and faster acting than compost with the same biological benefits of a compost top dressing application (we would still recommend compost application if your soil is lacking organic matter).

Here is what a few experts in the field have to say about compost tea:

“Aerated compost teas are the latest in scientific organic research today. In many ways, aerated teas offer greater immediate benefits than classic compost, manure or other homemade foliar teas” – The Garden Web

“Good tea is worth the trouble to brew because it can transform your lawn and garden” – Paul Tukey, author of the Organic Lawn Care Manual

“Compost tea is one of the inputs on the horizon that will change the way we deal with several of the management aspects of growing high-quality turfgrass, either in your backyard, on your town’s parks and athletic fields, or on commercial and institutional properties” – Chip Osborne, Osborne Organics

Dr. Elaine Ingham, a leading researcher and founder of the Soil Food Web organization, sums the benefits of compost teas up best … “The use of actively aerated tea, when applied under a proper management regime, returns beneficial biology to the soil.  This in turn rebuilds a soil food weed which, reduced dependency on fertilizers and pesticides, improves plant growth and reduces disease, significantly reduces water use, reduces toxicity and encourages the healthy establishment of healthy biology” – Dr. Elaine Ingham, President and Director of Research at Soil Foodweb, Inc.

Backyard Organics™ firmly believes in the benefits of organic land care and agrees with Chip Osborne and experts in the field who believe that compost teas will be one of those “tools” that will change the way we deal with land care in the future.

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). Backyard Organics also supplies a variety of natural and organic products for people, pets and prop­erty. To read more about our products and service, or to submit a question, please visit us at www.backyardorganics.net, e-mail us at info@back­yardorganics.net or call us at 920.850.7450.

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
Ask an Expert Backyard Organics

Exciting Improvements For 2012

Very little customization can be done with dry applications (early spring and winter applications), so they will remain the same for 2012. However, I have asked our agronomist to re-evaluate our wet applications in an effort to improve on the effectiveness of the application. The result of his findings and numerous conversations with professionals in the industry is new equipment, new products, and a new process.

Process Improvement

We will continue to apply products based on soil type; however, the rate of the application will now change, depending on your specific soil type. For example, soil types A and C will get a slightly higher rate of products (perhaps 1 to 3 gallons/1000 sq.ft vs. 2 gallons/1000) applied because of their lack of certain microbial activity. More product = more microbes which is lacking in soil types A and C.

Compost Tea Brewer

We have purchased a Greater Earth Organics compost tea brewer and will be setting that up in the shop during the off season. The brewer will allow us to formulate a tea that is more specific to our clients’ needs and is rich in numbers and diversity of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and the more complex nematodes. “As these organisms eat, grow, and move through the soil, they make it possible to have clean water, clean air, healthy plants and moderated water flow,” according to Elaine R. Ingham. Each day of applications will start with a freshly brewed batch of extract and, when combined with our custom nutrient blend, will form the most diverse and active blend of microbial activity offered.

Harvard Tea

Click the link above to see how Harvard is using the same equipment that Backyard Organics uses.

Application Equipment

Modifications will be made to our compost tea application equipment in order to “protect” the microbes as they are being applied.

Nutrient Additives

In 2012 Bio Humus will be used as a standard nutrient to all soil types. In 2011 we added Bio Humus only at certain times during the year or to certain soil types. We have since discovered that Bio Humus can benefit all soil types, depending on the application rate.

We will continue to work with our agronomist, local professionals, and the Soil Food Web professionals throughout the country on the optimal biology and nutrient combination that is best for our soil types. Certainly, this is a science and a number of variables go into healthy productive soil; the key for us is to live, learn, and apply as we go.

Natural Thatching Additive

We will continue to use an additive in our final, early fall wet application that naturally expedites the decomposing of dead plant material (thatch) into organic matter; however, we have been told that with our new brewer we should no longer need the additive. We will keep a close eye on the wet applications and make necessary adjustments as we go.  Please email me to let me know how your thatch looks in 2012.  BYO’s Email Address

Testing Products for 2012 – We will be experimenting with a product called Cedar Gard, an insect control product we can add directly to our Summer applications. We would apply it at a preventative level, and an added bonus is that it would add a cedar smell to the tea. Initially, we’ll be exploring client interest and will experiment with it on a few yards during the summer applications.

Chemical Free Insect Control – Testing Phase only

Our Summer 1 and Summer 2 applications will include Cedar Gard to drive non-beneficial insects from the area. The aroma of cedar oil is lethal to non-beneficial insects which are driven by pheromone (odor) and heat stimuli. Cedar oil stifles the ability of the insect’s receptors to detect food and mates, and the oil disrupts its reproductive habitats. The affected insects are grasshoppers, mosquitoes (adults), springtails, and ticks.

Added Services

Garden applications of Compost Teas.  Following the success at Gardens of the Fox Cities and the feedback we received from this years clients that received garden applications of compost teas, we have decided to add the application to the services offered.  Pricing will vary depending on garden size and will only be available during the early spring and late fall applications.

Tree and Shrub applications.  Our new brewer and application equipment is now allowing us to provide the same benefits to trees and shrubs as we do with soils and turf.  Pricing will vary depending on size and quantity.  Application can be done throughout the growing season.

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.