Monday, April 28, 2008

My Soil Test

"You are what you eat". I remember that health message being taught to me back in elementary school and find myself repeating it to my own kids now. Of course, the same goes for all living things, including grass. A plant will be as good as what it gets from the soil in which it grows. I know this in my vegetable and flower gardens. I spend a large percentage of my gardening efforts enriching the soil by composting my kitchen and lawn scraps, adding wood ash, coffee grounds and other treats for my green friends. I know that a healthy soil is one that is alive and dynamic; full of micrororganisms, worms and other critters. Over the years, I have watched my veggies grow better and bigger as my soil has improved. So why have I been so resistant to paying attention to the soil in my lawn? This month's challenge has lead me to examine my feelings about fertilizer. 

The usual way to give nutrients to a lawn is to by a bag of standard fertilizer and apply it seasonally according to a prescribed schedule. I have been resistant to do this for a number of reasons.  A trip to Pewaukee beach in July to see the neon green algae bloom is all the evidence I need to know that too much of this stuff is ending up in our waterways.  It turns out that algae loves phosphorous too. Since the lakes in our area are such an important ecological and recreational asset, I have a hard time justifying my lawn at their expense. Some lake communities (town of Oconomowoc is one) have banned the use of phosphorous based fertilizers for that reason. 

The second reason is my aversion to chemicals in general. This isn't really fair when it comes to fertilizer. Natural or organic fertilizer can be just as harmful if applied incorrectly or in excess. All fertilizer is more likely to wash away into our waterways if applied just before a rain. This goes for synthetic chemical fertilizer, the trendy corn gluten, and good old cow manure on a farm field. Once it gets into the lake, the algae enjoy it just the same, gobbling up the oxygen in the water as they grow.

The third reason that I have been fertilizer resistant is that I like to believe that I can create a closed ecosystem-that if I do it right, I shouldn't need outside help. I know that grass clippings are a good nitrogen source for the soil so we mulch them back into the lawn as we mow. I'd like to believe that if I keep my grass healthy by mowing high and watering deep, it won't even need extra fertilizer like all those "drug addicted" lawns down the street. However, I am beginning to think that grass is a bit greedier and demanding than I thought. The weeds that are moving in are more flexible and are willing to put up with a more meager diet. My picky grass is getting run out of town as it waits for its gourmet meal. That does raise the question of whether or not I want such a snooty guest in my backyard, but for now I've chosen to keep at least some of him around. 

I have been hearing more and more about "Responsible Lawn Care". Can I use soil additives (and, gasp, maybe even chemicals) in targeted, small amounts? The first step is the soil test. 
What does my soil offer? Since I know that soil is the foundation to plant growth, its time to find out. If there are deficiencies, I am willing to fill in the gaps. 

Today I went outside and collected four samples of soil from my yard. The soil is mixed together and after a little air dry, will be sent off in a little bag with $15 to the Waukesha County UW Cooperative Extension for the test. In 2-3 weeks, I'll report back on the state of my soil. Will I learn that I have been withholding important nutrients from my lawn? Or will I learn that my grass has all that it needs and should stop letting all those dandelions push him around? I am hoping that it is the first since the second possibility implies that the weeds may need to be dealt with by other means, and I am just not ready to go there. 

To request your own soil test kit, call 262-548-7775 or

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