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the dirt on my property is really poor. the neigbhors tell me that when these house were built in 1960's, the developers scrapped off and sold all the topsoil. which I believe because the dirt here has a high clay/stone content. you can grow grass but its not easy. so I'm thinking of buying topsoil/comost or just mushroom soil by itself. I figure i'll need about 30 cu. yards to cover the front and back to a depth of 3". before I do I'd appreciate some input from my fellow lawn enthusists. thanks for ya'll opinions.
 
Gerry Miller
Posts: 32
Location: Midlothian, IL Zone 5
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You have what is typical housing development soil, that as you say, the good stuff was scrapped off and then they built your home and put down some mostly clay filler junk.

Your plan to put down better soil can be a good one, but much depends on where you are going to purchase that soil from?  Hopefully not the same type of developer that uses that crappy clay material. The only way you'll know for sure is to check out the operation where you are going to buy the soil.

Many topsoil dealers screen their topsoil to remove all the stones, sticks, and other junk that shows up in urban soils. Screening is fine, it makes for some good topsoil.

But some dealers have topsoil that has a heavy clay base and they end up shredding the soil to make it loose and look good for the buyer. You don't want to buy that stuff as it will turn to mud when it gets wet and then will dry hard as a rock.  It's lacking organic matter!

So when you inspect where they process the topsoil, check it out and see if it is, in fact, tiny little balls. If it is, it's the result of shredding. You won't see that if it's good loam soil rich with organic matter.

If possible, look for piles of raw topsoil and inspect them. Ignore the weeds as good topsoil should be covered with weeds unless it's turned frequently. If you can see the teeth of a backhoe in the soil, you know it's made up of mostly clay.

But you have another option. Instead of purchasing topsoil, improve the soil you have already. It will take a bit longer to get your soil in balance, but you'll know for sure what's in your soil.

You just need a couple of things to get started. First, you need to have your lawn core aerated. Remember we are trying to get your soil in balance, so the next step after core aeration is to apply some Mycorrhizal Fungi with a hose end sprayer, mix the fungi and apply to your soil, particular the to the new holes. Here is the link where you can purchase these critters:
http://www.fungi.com/mycogrow/index.html

After the core aeration and apply the fungi, then you want to topdress your lawn with compost (chances are you don't have compost or at least not enough for your lawn) or other organic material, like dehydrated cow manure. You want to apply between 1/4 to 1/3 of an inch to your soil. The use of a compost spreader is highly recommended. I'm not sure if you can rent them, but for $100 investment for something you'll use again in the future, it's worth it.

Then when you are finish with the, you'll want to apply 20 lbs per 1000 sq ft alfalfa meal.  This can be purchased cheaply from your local feed store.  Alfalfa Meal (3-1-2) is very high in Vitamin A, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Pantothenic Acid, Niacin, Pyridoxine, Choline, Proline, Bentaine, Folic Acid, plus N-P-K, and trace elements. It also contains sugars, starches, proteins, coenzymes, and amino acids. All this to feed the soil biology in your soil. It alfalfa meal is not available, soybean meal is good as well.  In fact, during the course of the year, you want to use different protein meals to feed the soil foodweb.  When you use these protein meals, you are adding organic matter to your soil at the same time feeding the soil biology.

The next step is to learn to make your own Aerated Compost Tea. This is a way to supercharge your soil with the soil organisms you need for your soil to be healthy. It's easy to make and to apply. Check out Soil foodweb for all the information you'll ever need about compost tea:
http://www.soilfoodweb.com/03_about_us/approach.html

You may want to search the web for different compost tea brewers that are available. I highly recommend the KIS brewers. I use the 5 gallon system.  Here is their link:http://www.simplici-tea.com/

I know this is a lot of information to throw at you at one time. But this will put you on the right track to improve your soil so you can have a healthy lawn. Can't have a healthy lawn without healthy soil.

I hope this was helpful and didn't scare you off with the the info. Just take it slow and do some reading.

Gerry Miller

 
                            
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Location: Central New York
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This compost tea concept has intrigued me.  What compost mix do you use for lawns (% greens %wood and % high nitrogetn?)?  Also how many applications does it take to fill your lawn with organic life (assuming a pretty dead lawn)?
 
paul wheaton
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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A slower road to improving your soil is to fertilize and mow.  Your crappy subsoil can be converted to something useful.  Gerry has described some great stuff - but that might be a bit more than a cheap and lazy person would be willing to do. 

If you just follow the steps in the page, the soil will slowly evolve. 

But ...  if you are not so patient and have the cash - Gerry's stuff will work too!
 
                            
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Location: Central New York
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I think i may save up to get a brewery system up and running.  For $150 I could make enough to drench my soil, that's cheaper than compost over in my area.
 
Gerry Miller
Posts: 32
Location: Midlothian, IL Zone 5
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While there is some initial cost in purchasing the tea brewer, I believe the cost is around $136 plus shipping. You can also build your own tea brewer using any 5 gallon bucket and air stones and aquarium air pumps. This method will work, and cost under $50.  I have used both methods and the KIS brewer is far superior, but a little money is spent.

But after that, the rest of the operation is relatively cheap and easy to perform. Making tea is not rocket science. You just need to follow proper guide line and you will have no problems.

Purchasing protein meals is certainly cheaper than purchasing manufactured organic fertilizers. So the expense there is small as well.

The combination of using Aerated Compost Tea and protein meals and you'll never have to add topdressing again. Topdressing is expensive and hard work. Tea is easy to make and easy to apply as is applying the protein meals.

As far as my compost, it is mostly leaves and grass clippings. I also add my 'tea bags' that hold my compost when brewing into my compost bin when finished. I also throw in some finished compost to the mix as well.  I will occasionally throw in some soybean meal, or alfalfa meal, or feather meal, whenever I apply those protein meals to my lawn. I always keep some for my compost piles.

I rarely turn my compost piles, therefore, my stuff takes a good year to be good compost. But if you don't have any compost, worm castings can be used as well. There are cheap to buy and easy to find.

After lots of experimenting, I now use Alaska Humus instead of compost. It is a step up from compost, but is still cheap to purchase. Check out Alaska Humus Co. Here is there link: http://alaskahumus.com/

Organic lawn care and gardening is my hobby. So I don't mind experimenting.

Gerry Miller
 
                                      
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Gerry Miller wrote:
You have what is typical housing development soil, that as you say, the good stuff was scrapped off and then they built your home and put down some mostly clay filler junk.

Your plan to put down better soil can be a good one, but much depends on where you are going to purchase that soil from?  Hopefully not the same type of developer that uses that crappy clay material. The only way you'll know for sure is to check out the operation where you are going to buy the soil.

Many topsoil dealers screen their topsoil to remove all the stones, sticks, and other junk that shows up in urban soils. Screening is fine, it makes for some good topsoil.

But some dealers have topsoil that has a heavy clay base and they end up shredding the soil to make it loose and look good for the buyer. You don't want to buy that stuff as it will turn to mud when it gets wet and then will dry hard as a rock.  It's lacking organic matter!

So when you inspect where they process the topsoil, check it out and see if it is, in fact, tiny little balls. If it is, it's the result of shredding. You won't see that if it's good loam soil rich with organic matter.

If possible, look for piles of raw topsoil and inspect them. Ignore the weeds as good topsoil should be covered with weeds unless it's turned frequently. If you can see the teeth of a backhoe in the soil, you know it's made up of mostly clay.

But you have another option. Instead of purchasing topsoil, improve the soil you have already. It will take a bit longer to get your soil in balance, but you'll know for sure what's in your soil.

You just need a couple of things to get started. First, you need to have your lawn core aerated. Remember we are trying to get your soil in balance, so the next step after core aeration is to apply some Mycorrhizal Fungi with a hose end sprayer, mix the fungi and apply to your soil, particular the to the new holes. Here is the link where you can purchase these critters:
http://www.fungi.com/mycogrow/index.html

After the core aeration and apply the fungi, then you want to topdress your lawn with compost (chances are you don't have compost or at least not enough for your lawn) or other organic material, like dehydrated cow manure. You want to apply between 1/4 to 1/3 of an inch to your soil. The use of a compost spreader is highly recommended. I'm not sure if you can rent them, but for $100 investment for something you'll use again in the future, it's worth it.

Then when you are finish with the, you'll want to apply 20 lbs per 1000 sq ft alfalfa meal.  This can be purchased cheaply from your local feed store.  Alfalfa Meal (3-1-2) is very high in Vitamin A, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Pantothenic Acid, Niacin, Pyridoxine, Choline, Proline, Bentaine, Folic Acid, plus N-P-K, and trace elements. It also contains sugars, starches, proteins, coenzymes, and amino acids. All this to feed the soil biology in your soil. It alfalfa meal is not available, soybean meal is good as well.  In fact, during the course of the year, you want to use different protein meals to feed the soil foodweb.  When you use these protein meals, you are adding organic matter to your soil at the same time feeding the soil biology.

The next step is to learn to make your own Aerated Compost Tea. This is a way to supercharge your soil with the soil organisms you need for your soil to be healthy. It's easy to make and to apply. Check out Soil foodweb for all the information you'll ever need about compost tea:
http://www.soilfoodweb.com/03_about_us/approach.html

You may want to search the web for different compost tea brewers that are available. I highly recommend the KIS brewers. I use the 5 gallon system.  Here is their link:http://www.simplici-tea.com/

I know this is a lot of information to throw at you at one time. But this will put you on the right track to improve your soil so you can have a healthy lawn. Can't have a healthy lawn without healthy soil.

I hope this was helpful and didn't scare you off with the the info. Just take it slow and do some reading.

Gerry Miller  actually , I like your methods better. I think I can have more control over what I turn my lawn into. thanks for the info.


 
                                      
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paul wheaton wrote:
A slower road to improving your soil is to fertilize and mow.  Your crappy subsoil can be converted to something useful.  Gerry has described some great stuff - but that might be a bit more than a cheap and lazy person would be willing to do. 

If you just follow the steps in the page, the soil will slowly evolve. 

But ...  if you are not so patient and have the cash - Gerry's stuff will work too!
thanks for your input I think I'll try both methods since I have sizeable back and front lawns. i'm not particularly lazy but I am definitely cheap.
 
Gerry Miller
Posts: 32
Location: Midlothian, IL Zone 5
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Actually, they don't come cheaper than I!

The expense you experience in only in the beginning of your organic lawn care practice. As time goes on and your soil is in balance, your needs for imputs declines. I can't tell you how much money I've saved just on water bills since my need for watering has decreased dramatically since I have the right balance of soil organisms.

Like I have stated, with the use of ACT and protein meals, you will never have to use compost as topdressing again!  Most people don't produce enough compost for their needs and if you buy the good stuff, that costs lots of money. Besides that, topdressing is hard work.  What I am recommending is easy to make and apply, cheap to make, and less, less, work.  It has nothing to do with work hard as it has to do with working smart.

Using these in combination, you will never have a thatch problem, so you save time and money there. Like I mentioned before, you save on water bills. If you use protein meals, their cost is really cheap, with the exception of Corn Gluten Meal which can be expensive in some areas of the country.  I also never have disease problems, so I save money and time and work there.

Gerry Miller
 
paul wheaton
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Posts: 22488
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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I think it boils down to:

if your budget for lawn care is $0, then water infrequently and mow high.

if your budget is $20, then add fertilizer.

if your budget is $40, then test your soil pH also. 

if you are willing to go to $200, I would get a few dumptruck loads of topsoil brought in from seme weed infested pasture-getting-turned-into-a-housing-development.  Nothing improves soil like soil!  Deeeeeeeep soil means that you might not have to water at all!  Or fertilize!

 
Gerry Miller
Posts: 32
Location: Midlothian, IL Zone 5
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Well Paul, we have a difference of opinion.

While spending no money and the use of proper cultural practices of watering deeply but infrequently and mowing high and leaving the grass clipping will improve your soil, over time.  But if you want that time before you retire, the you are going to have to spend some money. 

Forget getting your soil pH, it won't matter with an organic lawn care practice. By using a balance Aerated Compost Tea and protein meals, will bring your pH to around neutral,  you won't have to topdress, you won't have to bring in yards of soil, you don't have to do all that work. It's simple and cheap, ACT and protein meals. That is how you'll get you soil in balance in short order, and not wait 30 years before you retire.

Gerry Miller
 
                            
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Location: Central New York
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you could also go in between.  I'm thinking about going the compost tea route since for only $150 I could make enough tea to cover my lawn a couple times, and that's including some high quality compost I would use to brew.  After that each application is $5 max assuming I use half a bag of compost.  Compost here is expensive (near Syracuse), and in bulk costs around $45/cubic yard.  On top of that, I don't have a truck and there's only 1 place I can find that will deliver to me and they charge $35 on top of the bulk cost to do that.  I live in an area called clay, due to the fact the ground here is mostly clay, so on the side of my house, where there's never been a tree or anything with a deep root system, I have only a few inches of soil before I hit the clay.  To help with drainage I'm gonna get some dirt/soil to smooth out that area, and just apply the tea heavily and hope the organisms start to work on the clay.  This is something I'll prolly do next spring after I save some money because I am still sleeping with my mattress on the floor.
 
Gerry Miller
Posts: 32
Location: Midlothian, IL Zone 5
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I use about a pound of material with each brew. I use Alaska humus instead of compost, but it's well worth the money.  So you don't need to buy a large quantity of compost, but it should be good compost that is guaranteed to it's content, IE percentage of organisms and type of organisms. You can purchase such compost at Earth Fortification Supplies Co.  Here is their link:
http://www.earthfort.com/shopdisplayproducts.asp?id=4&cat=Compost

As far as turning your clay into workable soil, did you know that every 28 years, 1 inch of topsoil is lost as a result of current petro-chemical fertilization practices, whereas organic biointensive fertilization can produce 6 inches of topsoil in as little as 50 years - 60 times faster than the rate in nature.

Gerry Miller



 
paul wheaton
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Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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A big difference of opinion. 

I think there are a lot of folks that see weeds and want the weeds to go away.  They want a nicer lawn and they are willing to consider organic.

If folks are considering going down the weed and feed road, I would like to encourage them to go down the "feed" road in combination with mowing high and watering infrequently. 

So rather than spending 20 bucks a year on toxic gick, spend 20 bucks a year on something a hundred (thousand?) times less toxic.  Along the way, a few tips will cut the work load by 30% to 50%.  And maybe reduce water usage by 50%. 

I've seen many lawns that do nothing more than this $20 per year approach and they look fantastic.  Buying more stuff would make little, if any difference.

And then there are extreme cases.  The soil is so bad ... you are correct - it would take years to grow enough grass to improve the soil to the point that you could have "turf".  Something else needs to be done.

I think compost tea has its applications.  One time use has mostly short term gain.  Frequent use can do great things in the long run also.  It can be especially good for lawns because they are not tilled - the teeny tiny OM can seep into the soil wherever water can go.  And it works especially well with lawns for the same reason - tilling releases about 30% of the OM into the atmosphere - but only the really tiny stuff - like what you get in compost tea.

And then, there is the glaring downside of compost tea:  the OM particle size is tiny.  And the amount is tiny too.  To see the benefit long term, you would need to apply it repeatedly.  If you stopped, it might be 99% gone in .... a year?  Of course, by then, hopefully the grass clippings would have created enough OM to last longer. 

So I think it is an excellent solution for a hobbiest.  But not so much for the "cheap and lazy".

Oh and while most composts do, and most forms of OM, do indeed neutralize pH, this is a good time to point out that some are a little N heavy (stinky) and the pH is way too high.  And then there are the byproducts of conifer trees where the pH is way too low (wood chips, pine needles, etc. have a pH of about 4.5).  And peat moss, a favorite OM source, has a pH of 4.5. 

Protein meals are almost always going to have a high pH (it's the extra N) - might not be a good choice if your pH is already high.

 
Gerry Miller
Posts: 32
Location: Midlothian, IL Zone 5
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Paul;

That is not accurate about protein meals. They will NOT raise your soil's pH. In fact, your soil's pH is determined by your soil organisms, not by protein meals.

"Nitrifying bacteria remove ammonium, and produce nitrate. They aren’t taking up the N, that are just using it to deal with the electrons they need to get rid of in respiration. In order to grow and perform their function, they will drive a soil more alkaline. As they utilize H ions during metabolic functions, the soil will become more alkaline."

So if you soil is acidic ( Below 7 pH) bacterial dominated tea will elevate your pH, make it more alkaline.

If you soil is alkaline (Above 7pH) fungal dominated tea will reduce your pH and make it more acidic.

"But how can normal soils have lower pH than neutral? Different organism dominance. Fungi produce organic acids as major components of their metabolism, but not the STRONGLY acidic organic acids that occur in anaerobic conditions. So, when we test soils that are aerobic, and fungal-dominated, the pH is always somewhere between 5.5 and 7.

This means the nitrifying bacteria are not major players in converting ammonium to nitrate, and so ammonium stays ammonium in fungal-dominated, pH 5.5 to 7.0, healthy forest soils.

Some scientists say that bacteria couldn’t possibly have that much effect on soil. Each individual bacterium is so small, how could bacteria have much effect on anything in soil? These people clearly don’t understand soil, or how many bacteria are in soil. In a healthy soil, there are 600,000,000 individual bacteria per TEASPOON, or gram, of soil. In conventional ag soil, there may be only 1,000,000 individual bacteria per gram of soil.

Consider that the only reason there is enough oxygen in the atmosphere of this planet for aerobic organisms to function is because anaerobic bacteria produced enough oxygen as a waste product to change the composition of gases in the atmosphere. Humans exist only because those tiny creatures performed their functions.

Why is it not possible that bacteria could alter soil pH? They altered the atmosphere of this planet. Why not soil?

Consider the real world, not a greenhouse or lab soil. Nitrate doesn’t exist in soil without the biology present and functioning. Without the organisms to alter the form of N, plants won’t grow. Now, when people add ammonium to the soil, they alter the normal flow of nutrient cycling. When people say plants take up ammonium, what you need to say back, right away, is, But is that the form of N that will keep that plant healthy?

What form of N do different plants need? Some scientists say that N is N, it doesn’t matter where it came from. Could that possibly be true? Think about yourself. What form of N do you need? What if you consumed your N in the form of nitrate? You’d be dead in a very short time because your kidneys would go into failure. If you didn’t consume enough nitrate to kill you that way, you’d starve to death. People can take up nitrate, but it will kill us. Is the form of N important? Can people consume ammonia? You’ll die even faster if you try that form of N.

Is the form of N important? Of course it is. Plants have similar requirements. If all you give a plant is nitrate, it will take up nitrate. But is that the correct form for that plant to grow without stress?

If the only thing you give your plant is ammonium, will that plant take-up that form of N? Yes, but is the plant growing in a healthy fashion? If the plant now needs fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, etc in order to grow, this is not healthy. All inorganic N is highly leachable. Stop destroying water quality by putting these leachable forms of N in your soil or potting mixes."

http://www.soilfoodweb.com/03_about_us/approach_pgs/a_08_nitro_cycle.html

I'm not suggesting weed and feed except for the use of Corn Gluten Meal in conjucntion with a weed hound.  This in conjuction with correct cultural practices will control weeds.

We are not talking about anything toxic here at all. In fact, just the opposite. In the beginning to get your soil in shape, you may need to apply ACT several times in the spring and fall. But once in shape, once a season should be enough. And you do have to keep applying because of exposure to air pollution, people using chemicals like your neighbors or even the farmer down the road. How often do you have to add topdressing?  At what expense? At what amount of work?  There is no comparison, ACT and protein meals are the ticket. Cheap and easy, it doesn't get any better than that.

Gerry Miller
 
Did you see how Paul cut 87% off of his electric heat bill with 82 watts of micro heaters?
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