Enhance Soils with Native Materials
Guest Article for the Tallahassee Democrat
October 23, 2015
By: Glenn Mayne
There are a lot of products for sale that are aimed at enriching our soils, whether it be for lawns, ornamental beds, fruit trees or vegetable plots. One can spend a lot of money trying to enhance their soils for whatever gardening endeavor they ascribe to. But there is a better way! Enhance your soil naturally with native materials!
Think about it – nature is a self-sustaining engine running on planet earth and it has been doing so for a long time (some 4.5 billion years if the age of the earth estimates are accurate)! Long before Homo Sapiens (i.e. modern humans) came on the scene, nature was a thriving, growing and ever changing process on the planet’s surface, so why do we think that we, as gardeners; and soil enhancement product manufacturers; can do a better job? Certainly, the evidence from the fossil record suggests otherwise, as lush flora has been preserved for scientist to see. Plus, all of the three essential elements for plant growth (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) are contained in native materials, albeit in very small percentages, but then again, historically, it has worked.
Consider the two primary sources of native materials that are available in Leon County:
- Most home owners have some sort of grass, and almost all either have it mowed or mow it themselves. Thus, grass clippings are available.
- Tallahassee has an abundance of a wide variety of trees and these will shed leaves and straw in the fall.
Let’s look first at grass clippings: Grass catchers may be used to collect the clippings, which can then be composted. I believe there is a better way to handle grass clippings: Discard the grass catcher and just let the clippings be cast out upon the grass, where they will decompose and return essential elements into the soil. This will provide a natural source of grass fertilizer and in most cases, this will be sufficient for a healthy lawn. Really, there is no need to fertilizer grass in Tallahassee! One can have a beautiful and lush lawn just by returning the grass clippings back to the soil. While some argue that this practice can introduce disease and fungal growth, the instances of this are rare and generally not a problem. Besides, when one applies chemical fertilizer to the lawn, there is a need to water it in and once the extra nitrogen kicks in, the growth rate will require more frequent mowing. Both of these needs consume energy that could likely be put to better use. I have lived in North Florida most of my life and have never captured grass clippings or applied chemical fertilizer to my lawn. My lawn is lush green and I simply mow when needed.
Next, let’s consider the wealth of natural materials that come from tree de-leafing in Tallahassee: I have a motto – “never let a leaf leave my property”. In the fall, I do rake leaves and pine straw off the grass area of my yard. I then pile them up in the back of my property, where they will sit until I use them as mulch for my vegetable garden in the spring. By applying a 4” layer of mulch between the rows after the last cultivation, I find that this mulch does the following:
1) Provides effective weed control.
2) Holds in moisture.
3) Returns essential elements back into the soil as they decompose.
4) Prevents erosion.
5) Protects the roots from temperature extremes.
All of these are good things, in my experience, so I continue with this practice.
Last, we, like most property owners, enjoy having ornamental plants in beds across the yard. I let the natural leaf fall stay in these beds where it lands and get the same benefit for ornamental plants and trees as was discussed above for vegetables.
Should you not have sufficient trees to produce enough mulch for your property, then there are kind neighbors that rake up leaves and straw, place them in plastic bags and set them on the curb to be taken to the land fill. My experience shows they are most happy to let you haul them off to your yard and use them for mulch!
So with all of the resources readily available and at practically no cost, why not just let nature take its course?
Glenn Mayne is a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Office. You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.