By: Jodi Joseph
We’re seeing an increase in the amount of requests from people interested in making the transition to natural products from traditional synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in their home landscapes.
As with the demands for healthier, more nutritious alternatives in eating and the popularity of organically grown food, the healthy trend is also moving into our home gardens. Many of the same organic principles that are now providing much of the fresh produce at our local grocers and farmer’s markets can be applied to the home landscape.
The central idea behind organic gardening and landscaping is to create conditions that allow the soil to develop to its full potential. A healthy soil is thriving with an abundance of microscopic organisms, each performing its own function within a complex food web and its constant recycling of nutrients. Highly concentrated conventional fertilizers with strong mineral salts and acids can destroy many of the beneficial fungi, bacteria and other microbes found in the soil. Adding back in what’s been stripped away makes sense.
In a natural woodland or prairie, the soil is teeming with life. Beneficial fungi are actively breaking down mineral components of the soil into forms that can be more easily utilized by plants. Certain types of bacteria are removing nitrogen from the air and thereby providing this necessary nutrient to the plants. Earthworms are actively recycling dead leaves and providing necessary aeration to the roots of plants. Plant roots are following the tunnels left by the earthworms, growing much deeper than in compacted sterile soils, and thus providing the plant more access to soil moisture during dry periods. Organic landscape practices are designed to mimic this natural process.
Organic- based fertilizers are broken down by the soil organisms, providing slowly released nitrogen for leaf development and also providing food and fiber for earthworms. Many of these organic fertilizers are now mostly plant based, using alfalfa as the primary source of nitrogen. Grass clippings can also be recycled by using mowers with mulching blades that shred the grass into smaller pieces for rapid decomposition and reuse. Lawns are mowed at taller heights, growing thick enough to choke out many types of weeds.
Compost tea, a liquid supplement that is full of active microbes and fungi and the nutrients to support their growth, can provide many of the beneficial organisms that can be lost with conventional fertilization. This liquid is typically sprayed on the plant foliage or used as a soil drench, where it begins to re-establish the natural food chain in the landscape. This supplement can also be injected under pressure directly into the soil at the root zones of trees and large shrubs providing pockets for aeration and rapid improvement in overall plant vigor.
Naturally occurring mineral compounds, such as lava sand and greensand, can be applied to replace the deficiencies in our chalky alkaline soils. A thin layer of a natural wood fiber mulch in planting beds can provide for more moisture retention and greatly reduce the number of problem weeds.
In addition to treatments to improve soil conditions, commercially raised beneficial insects can be purchased and released. Ladybugs and tiny stingless trichogramma wasps can help reduce the number of harmful insects. Natural oil sprays and insecticidal soap sprays can be used to reduce the populations of destructive scale insects and aphids without harm to the beneficial insects that can keep them under control. Mosquito populations can be reduced by the use of products containing naturally occurring bacteria that are harmless to plants and animals.
It’s not too late to start an organic plant health care program. The natural life in the soil has a full season to renew its vitality and restore health to your home landscape.
About the author: Director of Landscape Services for Lambert’s, Jodi Joseph, leads a team of 14 managers and 22 crews who work on a total of 226 gardens throughout the Metroplex. She currently holds the position of Vice Chairman for the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association (TNLA) Region IV Board, is a Licensed Landscape Irrigation Technician, and a Certified Landscape Professional.