By Sara Fulton, Certified Organic Master Gardener –
A luscious, green, weed-free lawn. Perfection in the eyes of the modern-day home owner. However, how much environmental impact has occurred to get your grass so green, full, and weed-free, and why do you have to repeatedly fertilize it over the course of a growing season?
What is a “weed”? It is a plant, just like any other, that is growing in that spot for a reason. Either the soil is lacking in nutrients and the weed is trying to balance it naturally, or the surrounding plants are not healthy and it is taking the opportunity to grow alongside and create a diverse ecosystem. Weeds are a “modern” human perception going back to the early English manicured gardens enjoyed by the higher class and royalty. That “weed” is not robbing the accompanying plants of nutrients; it is actually sharing nutrients and trying to replenish the nutrient depleted soil. Grasses are actually the most invasive plants on Earth and if we offer them the proper growing environment and provide them with the balanced nutrients needed, they should thrive.
Conventional human-made fertilizers only supply our plants with three basic nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphate (P), and potassium (potash) (K). Can you imagine the human body surviving on only three basic nutrients? It wouldn’t, and we can’t expect our plants to survive, let alone thrive, on them either. Mother Nature, left to her own devices, supplies a broad spectrum of balanced nutrients that are tailored to just what that specific ecosystem needs through the decomposition process. Have you ever looked, I mean really looked, at a beautiful untouched forest or grassland? Everything has its place and is serving a purpose. Any unwanted plant material drops to the ground and is decomposed by small animals, bugs, and insects then fungi, bacteria, and protozoa to create nutrient-dense organic matter. There are many diverse plant species and levels of growing successions that help the soil become able to support a fully functioning ecosystem. Large trees, small trees, bushes, small perennials and ground cover, and sun- and shade-loving plants all have their places and provide different nutrients and benefits. Why have we gotten so far away from Mother Nature’s wondrous, nutrient-supplying, natural lifecycle? She is truly a beautiful system who knows what she needs, when she needs it, and we really need to get back to supporting her rather than ordering her.
Did you know that a fertilizer, by Canadian standards, that lists as 10-10-10 contains, by weight, 30 per cent NPK—what is the other 70% per cent? Astoundingly, it can be anything from ground limestone (which can cause severe nutrient imbalances) to industrial waste fillers. In actuality, the plants don’t even soak up the fertilizer in its applied form. Nitrogen in the form of nitrate (NO3-) is the preferred form for grasses and crop uptake but to get to nitrate it needs to be broken down in a three-step process of consumption. First, by larger organisms, ie. bugs and small animals, (to produce ammonium through their excrement) then again by plants, fungi, and nitrifying bacteria (to produce nitrite), which is further consumed by other bacteria to produce the nitrate. Quite the process. In a natural, balanced ecosystem, the nitrate becomes available from the bacteria just when the plant needs it, not when we tell it that it is time to feed and overload the soil with unbalanced nutrients. And what happens to the synthetic fertilizers and fillers that are not broken down and processed by the plants? The nutrients that are not being used right away will be washed off of the particle they are attached to and leach into our groundwater and waterways poisoning our environment and causing major pollution and health problems for our planet.
So, what should you use instead of harmful synthetic chemicals? Your best options would be organic compost, or a full spectrum fertilizer derived from the sea (fish meal, fish emulsion, fish hydrolysate, kelp, or seaweed) or rock dust (glacial rock dust, basalt dust, granite dust, or volcanic rock dust), from natural deposits, of course. Any of these, along with an effective microorganism application to help increase biodiversity and breakdown all the nutrients into a plant preferred uptake form. An organic fertilizer may have lower numbers of NPK compared to conventional synthetic fertilizers, but it does in fact contain a broader spectrum of minerals and vitamins as well as other great substances like enzymes and acids, which all have a natural role in feeding the ecosystem.
Once your yard is transformed to a self-sustaining organic ecosystem, the only “food” it will need is its own clippings or unwanted matter left to decay where they lay for the microbes to decompose into nutrients. Also, a benefit with leaving the clippings where they lay is you are increasing the organic matter in the soil, increasing the water holding capacity, so you will not have to water as often, either. In the long run the organic system is truly cheaper and much less work for humans when left to Mother Nature’s natural biological process.
Sara Fulton is a certified organic master gardener and lives in Williams Lake. If you would like more info or are interested in transforming your yard into a beautiful, all natural, organic, self sustaining ecosystem, contact her at (250) 302-1981 or firstname.lastname@example.org.