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I had a great idea recently, and I hope that many of you will join me when you reach the end of this article.
For those of you who have been reading my articles for a while, you probably have noticed that I encourage gardeners to work with nature when growing plants. In natural areas, such as forests, prairies and all areas that are undisturbed and not maintained by humans (think fertilization, irrigation and pest control), the soil is full of microbes, called the soil food web, that support the plants.
A topic that has been gaining momentum over the past decade is soil health, because it is the key to producing healthy plants and protecting water quality. The definition of soil health, provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the US Department of Agriculture, is “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.”
At the base of the vital living portion, the soil food web, are beneficial bacteria, saprophytic fungi and mycorrhizae.
Saprophytic fungi are necessary because they are the only microbes that can break down lignin, which is the wood in trees, shrubs and palms. Once the wood is broken down, bacteria move in to consume the smaller pieces, breaking down the remaining material.
For herbaceous plants and other non-woody plant material, only bacteria are needed to break them down. Mycorrhizae are unique because they form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. Plants feed the mycorrhizae complex sugars with root exudates, and in return, the mycorrhizae gather nutrients for the plant.
The nutrient cycling provided by the soil food web supplies plants with various nutrients in small amounts, on a continual basis. Mycorrhizal fungi not only supply phosphorus and other nutrients to plants, but they can also move water from one area to another.
Many products are available to inoculate the soil, including organic fertilizers, granular products and liquid products. For everyone with a St. Augustine lawn, be sure to choose a product that contains the mycorrhizae Glomus intraradices, now called Rhizophagus irregularis, because research at the University of Florida discovered that it forms a symbiotic relationship with St. Augustinegrass.
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With the help of the mycorrhizae, your grass and other perennial plants will receive more phosphorus (that is already in the soil), other nutrients and water than their roots could possibly obtain on their own.
Trees are mycorrhizal dependent, so if you love your trees, inoculate their roots also.
For the soil to be a living ecosystem, it must contain a healthy and diverse microbial population.
Soil microbes have been called the “stomach” and “engine” of the soil, and without their presence, all organic matter amendments will eventually disappear. The soil food web creates organic matter, which increases both the nutrient-holding and water-holding capacity of the soil. These factors explain why healthy soils protect water quality.
In addition to increasing the soil organic matter content, eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers, which are salts that are made to provide water-soluble nutrients for the roots of plants to easily absorb, you will also be eliminating the potential leaching of the pollutant’s nitrogen and phosphorus into the Indian River Lagoon or the St. Johns River.
Organic matter will also capture irrigation and rainfall, preventing it from passing through the soil, and storing it until the roots or mycorrhizae need it, reducing the need for supplemental irrigation.
Now back to the great idea that I mentioned earlier, which is the new Soil Guardian program.
For this program I am looking for everyone who is interested in helping the Indian River Lagoon or the St. Johns River by establishing and maintaining the soil food web in their yard, which could be the entire yard or just a portion of it.
You may want to do an experiment and divide an area in half, where one section is the control, and the other half is where you establish and maintain the soil food web. You know what they say: Seeing is believing.
The key aspect of this program is that each Soil Guardian will test their soil every year for the percentage of soil organic matter, in the same area, and the cost of this test is $10. My objective is to see the percentage of soil organic matter increase by a minimum of 2% over four years, though it would be wonderful if this program continues past the initial four years.
The reason why I am focusing on the percentage of soil organic matter is because research has shown every 1% increase in organic matter could result in up to 20,000 gallons of available soil water per acre, or approximately 3,000 gallons per 5,000 square feet.
To find out more, search for “Raising Soil Organic Matter Content to Improve Water Holding Capacity” at edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
This is a long-term project, because it takes time for the soil food web to create organic matter.
In return for becoming a Soil Guardian, you will receive a Soil Guardian newsletter four times a year that will include information on a variety of topics related to soil health.
Potential topics include information on soil microbes, vermiculture, cover crops, ground covers, lactobacillus, nematode extractions, protozoa infusions and video links with information that you can use in your yard. I hope that many of you reading this article will want to become a Soil Guardian, and for those who are interested right now, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will collect are your name, email, zip code and the approximate square footage of the area you will be improving and testing each year.
Immediately upon becoming a Soil Guardian, I’ll send you the soil testing form for organic matter, along with instructions on how to collect a soil sample, so you can send it in for testing. When you receive the results, forward it to me. The first test results will establish the baseline percentage of organic matter for your soil that your future test results will be compared to.
Many residents have already requested information on how to on add life to the soil, but if you haven’t received that information, I can send it to you. Every Soil Guardian will need to start by inoculating the chosen area with a liquid product.
For residents who are dealing with problem areas, it would also be beneficial to test the soil in that area to correct any large deficiencies, the main one possibly being potassium, while the soil food web is getting established.
If you have problem areas, let me know and I’ll send you a different soil testing form along with instructions.
When you receive your soil test results, I’ll also provide you with a fertilizer recommendation based on the soil test results.
In addition to receiving the quarterly Soil Guardian newsletter, you will be part of the solution for the Indian River Lagoon or the St. Johns River. You will also get to experience a healthier yard (and nutritious food if you are growing edible plants), with less effort on your part.
Please share this article with your family and friends, because this information isn’t just for gardeners. All residents who have a yard could improve their soil to protect the Indian River Lagoon or the St. Johns River.
Sally Scalera is an urban horticulture agent and master gardener coordinator for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences. Email email@example.com.
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