First steps?

WBS-LI(6b/7a)July 8, 2014

While digging out a dying dogwood tree stump, I discovered that the soil in my yard isn't exactly what I would call healthy. The top 5-6" are pretty hard and difficult to get a shovel through (though it does look like "soil"). Below that it gets worse, turning to rocky sand that broke a tine off my hand cultivator and bent my hand trowel. (Both of those were in use because it was just too difficult to dig with a full size shovel.) In addition, during the entire time I saw only 3 earthworms. This is a "new to me" house, but I do not believe there have been any chemicals on the lawn for many years (maybe ever) and the previous owners didn't seem to care much about the lawn (or trees or plants or anything).

I have lurked around long enough to know that I need a soil test. I did the Drainage Test and indications are that I need a LOT of organic matter in the ground. I would do the jar test for organic matter, but I think the results would be predictable.

What are my first steps? What's the fastest way to get a lot of organic matter into the ground with no resident population of earthworms? Should I do the baby shampoo treatment? Should I core aerate the bejeezus out of the lawn and then rake away the cores before topdressing with 1/2" of compost & trying to sweep it into the holes? Should I dig all that dirt back out of the dogwood hole and fill it with rabbit poop, compost, & worms and hope they spread out?

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Baby shampoo (personally, I just use Suave on sale as it contains SLS and does the same thing a lot cheaper) never hurts.

Speed is not going to happen when adding organic matter. The creatures that work it in (beetles, worms, and the like) aren't in great supply at first, and it takes some time for them to reproduce. I'm also not a fan of core aeration, although I suppose it has its place...somewhere, perhaps. It makes a sudden change in the soil gasses that wouldn't happen naturally, disturbs the bacteria that don't happen to like that soil gas level, and it takes time for them to reproduce back and find their proper levels.

The fastest injection is 1/4" of compost at a time, repeated as the soil shows again. Or you can use peat moss if you wish, although it's not as good (but a lot lighter).

Compost and peat moss do jack to feed the lawn (and gardens). For that, you need something that isn't yet decayed. I use 15 pounds of soybean meal four times per year for that--and you don't really need any more.

Still and all, it takes three to five years for the OM to work down to a good depth no matter how much you add. I've gone from 0.3% (it used to be tilled corn field) to 14%, but it's taken eight years and it's still filtering down.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2014 at 11:57PM
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Thanks for the info and advice, Morpheus.

Initial plan: Shampoo treatment, protein on top of that to feed the lawn (corn meal or soy, depending on price) compost on top of that to get OM into the soil, repeat shampoo treatment after 2 weeks, try to relax. :)

Follow up question: If I were to introduce pockets of worms from a vermicomposting setup, would it be worth my effort? I've been thinking of setting up a worm bin or two to get castings for the garden. As the worm population doubles periodically, I could take those worms and "seed" them into the lawn in holes filled with compost & rabbit droppings. Would it be worthwhile or would I just be wasting time/effort/worms? Would I be better off adding them to a second bin and making more compost tea for the lawn?

    Bookmark   July 9, 2014 at 10:28AM
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You need to get the amount of organic matter in the soil built up so any earthworms will stay. Organic matter is what the earthworms live on.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2014 at 11:15AM
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My understanding (and please correct me if I am wrong) is that worms and organic matter are two sides of the same coin. Earthworms need organic matter to eat and it is the action of earthworms eating the organic matter that moves it down into the soil.

I totally agree that I need to get organic matter into the soil, my understanding is that I need worms in the ground to eat & incorporate that organic matter into the soil, and I need all of that before the other components of a healthy soil food web will start working to spread the topsoil down into the rocky sand below it so that there is someplace for grass to grow deep roots and thrive.

Is there a way to kick-start the whole process? (Short of tearing out the whole lawn, tilling in compost, and reseeding.)

My thought regarding the "seeding" of worms into the yard is that I could chisel out a hole 1 foot deep & 1 foot square (or bigger, if possible), fill it with compost and manure (LOTS of rabbit poop available here), put in a handful or two of worms, and let them go to work. If I replicate that all around the yard by doing a hole a week or so, I feel like it would greatly speed up the process. (Okay, maybe not 'greatly'.)

It seems like it would work, but what do I know :)

    Bookmark   July 9, 2014 at 4:14PM
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Spray the shampoo if you like, it won't hurt, but the best way to kick start the process of improving your soil profile is to go rent a core aerator and blast the lawn, multiple passes... but do not rack away the cores, leave them on the ground. While the soil is exposed apply 20lbs p/1000 of soybean meal. Also, topdress with 1/4 inch of compost. Try to sweep it into the holes if you have the patients.

It would be best if you wait until late August to do this. That way you can go crazy overseeding at that time as well. In the meantime, you can start brewing your own compost tea and spraying that around and apply. That should get you in good shape for next spring, at which time you will put down Corn Gluten Meal pre-emergent when the forsythia blooms or the when you have 3 consecutive 50*+ days. Then again 3-4 weeks later.

If you repeat this process of adding organic fertilizer, top dressing with compost, compost tea, mow high, water 1 inch or so per week, mulch mow.. your OM levels will increase dramatically. In 3 years I went from like 3 or 4% to 11%... and I have done that mostly by maintaining a rich compost pile full of house scraps, starbucks coffee grounds, tons of leaves(shredded) and maybe 2-3 moderate applications of organic fertilizer per season. I have a low budget, if you have more to spend you could do it even faster.. but the compost pile or vermicomposting is a nice free way to generate quality OM.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2014 at 9:56PM
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I so hate core aeration (enjoy the decades-old but still viable weed seeds that brings up), but don't completely object to using it once just to inject some late-stage organic material into the soil.

Post aeration, I'd only use peat moss or compost--never corn or soy. Non-decayed materials require huge amounts of oxygen, which they won't get once the core holes close, and it takes a fairly long time for them to decay down to late stage OM.

Don't bother injecting worms. Vermicomposting tends to use red worms anyway, which aren't native to the lawn and don't survive harsh conditions well. Good old Lumbricus terrestris, the common earthworm, does very well at both.

If you can get earthworms free, go ahead and try the volume seeding method if you want with compost-rich areas. It might do some good, although I tend to think it's more likely to be a lot of work for very little result.

For the most part, earthworms (you have a few at least) will reproduce fast once the OM is there to support them. I've gone from none visible to so many that digging anywhere is a hazard for the poor things.

Shampoo is a fantastic way to kick start the process, particularly if your soil is very hard and water (and air) don't penetrate well. You can also take the opportunity to use liquid humic acid and liquid kelp to push some OM directly into the soil. Tiny amounts won't have a problem with oxygen shortage, and that's what you'll add with the liquids.

They do increase soil bacterial life very quickly, though, which is the basis of OM processing and some OM themselves. Plus they aerate and increase water penetration into the soil all by themselves--to the tune of billions of microscopic holes per square yard.

Compost tea is also entirely workable, but I've never bothered as it's more effort than necessary. I just dump raw material up top and let nature compost it for me.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2014 at 5:49AM
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The only thing shampoo (soap) will do is reduce the surface tension of water so it will flow somewhat easier. Keep in mind that all soaps are anti bacterial and may contribute to killing off the soil bacteria when sprayed on soil.
Core aeration might be of some use, if adequate amounts of organic matter are then worked into the soil and if the soil is clay. Sandy soils do not need core aeration.
Earthworms, indicators of am active Soil Food Web, will convert organic matter is soil into nutrients plants can use. However, those earthworms need organic matter to live on and putting earthworms into soils with little or not OM is a waste of time, energy, and money since they will leave to find a food source. The levels of organic matter in soil must be increased before the earthworms will be able to do what they do. First steps first.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2014 at 7:15AM
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>>The only thing shampoo (soap) will do is reduce the surface tension of water so it will flow somewhat easier. Keep in mind that all soaps are anti bacterial and may contribute to killing off the soil bacteria when sprayed on soil.

Incorrect on both counts. Source: I'm a soap maker.

Soap works by breaking up grease layers on your hands, which harbor bacteria. It assists the mechanical action of your washing to remove bacteria, but isn't toxic to them until you reach incredibly high concentrations. (Hint, I won't accept any study that used a large amount of soap and small amount of water to kill bacteria. Oxygen will do that, as will sugar).

At the concentrations we use on the soil, nothing notices it (and I always recommend a hose-end sprayer set at the tablespoon per gallon range to no higher than 1 ounce per gallon).

One should not, of course, use an antibacterial soap. Those have added chemistry to kill bacteria. For a long list of reasons, use at any time other than surgery is not a good idea.

Addition of soap to the soil profile can assist in flocculating soils (source: my garden). Ionic diversity in the soil profile helps flocculate soil particles, so always use an anionic soap. Cationic soaps won't work, but are difficult to find anyway.

Concerns over the tiny amount of sodium added can be ameliorated by using a soap made from potassium hydroxide, which is the lye agent used in some liquid soaps. Check the label to determine this; it'll either list potassium hydroxide with the base oils, or list the final chemical agents as "potassium (whatever)ate." The whatever-ate portion will be the chemical term for the oil used (sojate for soybeans, and so on).

    Bookmark   July 10, 2014 at 4:12PM
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The Center for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health have both stated that anti bacterial soaps are unnecessary and harmful to the environment and out health because the anti bacterials used will allow disease pathogens to develop immunities. Every day soaps, and detergents, are just as effective in controlling disease pathogens as the anti bacterial soaps and detergents are.
Food and Drug Administration has asked, but is not yet requiring, soap and detergent manufacturers to stop adding the anti bacterials because of the above reasons.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2014 at 7:08AM
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"Every day soaps, and detergents, are just as effective in controlling disease pathogens as the anti bacterial soaps and detergents are."

The FDA is not saying that everyday soaps kill bacteria like anti-bacterial soaps. Just that when used properly, they are just as effective at removing bacteria from surfaces.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2014 at 11:29AM
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Yes, I know that; as I said, I'm a soap maker by hobby. I was responding to "that all soaps are anti bacterial" which is incorrect.

Unless you consider assisting mechanical removal to be anti-bacterial, which I suppose it is--but it's not a chemical method and isn't caused by anything added to the soap. It's simply a characteristic of soap's tendency to change the viscosity of water and to break up grease and oil layers.

Since we aren't rubbing soil together after soap application and aren't using it in high concentrations where the sodium level would be toxic, it's not a concern.

Soap makers (myself included) all worry about DOS--Dreaded Orange Spot, which is a bacterial decay on the soap itself.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2014 at 11:33AM
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From the linked article. "In fact, there currently is no evidence that over-the-counter (OTC) antibacterial soap products are any more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water, says Colleen Rogers, Ph.D., a lead microbiologist at FDA."
By the way, I did not say that everyday soaps kill bacteria, someone misread what was written.

Here is a link that might be useful: About antibacterial soaps.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2014 at 6:55AM
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From your post of July 10: "Keep in mind that all soaps are anti bacterial and may contribute to killing off the soil bacteria when sprayed on soil."

    Bookmark   July 12, 2014 at 11:08AM
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My point exactly. I dislike it when incorrect information gets spread around and the reverse of it can actually be helpful. The keyword "may" in there doesn't help as it does specifically state that ALL soaps are anti-bacterial.

They are not.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2014 at 2:46PM
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Anywayyyyy. I had a yard similar to yours, I followed someone's advice on this forum: bring OM and the worms will come.â¦
It really works,using mulch around your plants such as wood chips will make 'hotspots' for worms when ur trying to innoculate them in your yard.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2014 at 6:03AM
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The only problem I ever had with wood chips was snails and slugs. I found that shredded mulch worked better, decayed faster (it has more surface area) and generally looked nicer all at the same time.

Snails and slugs are a major issue if you have a lot of dahlia or other plants they favor--which I do, on both counts.

Snails and slugs have several methods of handling. Beer traps, manual picking, or something like Sluggo or Escar-Go (both OMRI approved) all work.

I keep about three inches of mulch down in the gardens, not including the compost I produce in the bin.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2014 at 12:23PM
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