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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.