By Michael Chaplinksy, Turf Feeding Systems

Plants need less water than you think when they live in harmony with soil biology. Here is an example of a tree growing out of a rock using moss, lichen and biology to build a suitable root system in the cracks of the rock.

The segment of the green industry that maintains turfgrass, sports fields and large greenscapes has seen many really significant changes over the past 20 years. Even so, for the most part, we’re doing the same thing, applying chemical fertilizers and overwatering, over and over again, but expecting different results. This is the definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein.

However, there is a simple, cost-effective method that landscape professionals on the cutting edge are starting to use. It’s called sustainable landscaping, and it doesn’t take a genius to do it.

What is sustainable landscaping? Definitions vary, but in general, it means landscape practices that are in harmony with nature and the local climate, requiring minimal inputs. Sustainable landscape practices can reduce water use by up to 50 percent. They can cut labor costs and the need for chemical fertilizers. The end result is better soils and healthier, more disease-resistant plant material.

Turfgrass managers who have instituted sustainable practices are noting significant results. Focusing on soil and plant health, this method is an efficient management program for any facility or landscape. Maintaining soil nutrition is just as important as any other turfgrass maintenance task, such as mowing or aeration.

The first thing a facility turf manager or maintenance contractor who wants to begin a sustainable landscaping program should do is a bioassay of the soil. This test will evaluate its overall health, its biology and biodiversity. It will also find any pathogens that might be in it. If amendments are needed, they can then be applied by fertigation. This is simply the process of applying quality liquid nutrients through the irrigation system.

But that’s not the goal, that’s just the start. What we’re seeking is a relatively self-sustaining biosphere in the soil that replicates what nature does by itself.

Soil feeds plants. Dying plants feed soil, which in turn feeds plants. This cyclical, symbiotic process has been enacted by nature for millions of years. In jungles, grasslands, forests and other native areas untouched by humans, plants are sustained by this relationship between the soil, the plants and the trees. No one feeds the plants chemical fertilizers out in nature, yet somehow they thrive. Nature does a better job of nourishing plants than we ever could.

We can look at Hawaii as an example of how nature creates rich soils. When the Hawaiian Islands were formed from volcanoes more than 50 million years ago, they were nothing but sterile, sulfurous rock that could grow nothing. But then winds carried dust and birds left droppings, both of which were loaded with bacteria. The elements eroded the rocks over time, creating sand and gravel. Birds dropped seeds onto these fertile soils.

Plants grew, producing leaves, fruits and seeds. When these dropped to the ground, they decomposed into nutrient-filled humus.

These nutrients were, in turn, absorbed by the roots of both the new and the existing plants. After millions of years, this process of growth and decomposition, combined with volcanic materials, produced Hawaii’s lush soils.

Some of the best soils in the world are found in Middle America, the Ukraine and the grasslands of Argentina. These regions are called “Bread Baskets of the World” because of their rich, black soils. This fertile loam can be created the same way on any landscape or sports field by allowing for the con version of organic materials into humus. The process can be speeded up by adding probiotic stimulants.

Grasses turn over their roots every two to three years, leaving the soil with thousands of pounds of dead roots to decompose. In a soil rich in biodiversity, the dead roots and other organic matter will be converted to organic humus particles. Leaving the roots there to decay naturally, instead of removing them, is like tilling in rich potting soil, only cheaper and more effective.

As soil health improves, it becomes more nutrient-efficient and needs less fertilizer and water. Organic humus particles have great storage capacity. Humus-rich soil becomes a very efficient biological dynamo that will attract, hold and release water and nutrients at a rate ten times higher than clay soil. It increases the efficiency of any mineral or synthetic fertilizers that may then be applied.

This process also frees up nutrients such as phosphorus, iron and boron that are trapped in the soil but unavailable to the plants. They only need to be released so the plants can uptake them.

Roots are where a plant stores water and nutrients. The healthier the soil, the deeper and denser the roots will be. A plant with a good root system is a more efficient plant, one that needs less water— up to 30 percent less in some cases.

The result is higher quality turfgrass.

Plants in soil rich in probiotics will not be stressed by the growth process. They’ll have thicker cell walls and be more disease-resistant, reducing the need for chemicals. Although sustainable practices may not eliminate the need for chemicals entirely, it can reduce their usage to a much lower level, saving money.

Of course, even with sustainable practices, other factors may interfere with soil health. There are many landscapes that have a very high pH, because of bicarbonates in the water or soil. If the pH is too high, nutrients will be unavailable to the grass and will go to waste. Applying sulfur or gypsum as a buffering agent is a simple, low-cost solution to this problem.

Sodium is another concern. Landscapes and sports fields located in coastal areas can suffer a buildup of sodium, especially in clay soils. Too much salt is toxic to plants. Unfortunately, it can’t be flushed by rain and the more it’s irrigated, the more damage is done. Once grass is poisoned with sodium, it’s like irrigating with seawater.

Fortunately, fertigation with organic additives like humic acid and organic enzymes has had great success on many sodium-tainted landscapes. This method should be applied first as a treatment and continued as a maintenance practice.

The overuse of chemicals has made many soils sterile. Beneficial bacteria is killed along with the bad. Some groundskeepers want to keep their soils that way so they don’t have to worry about disease. But when soils are brought back to life and made biologically active, the plants they feed are naturally resistant to disease. If you need evidence of this, take a look at the native areas around your sports field or landscape. Do you see any diseased plants there?

By bringing nature into your management practices, you’re starting up a biological engine that will never stop running. This engine will create stronger, better, more disease-resistant plants and grasses that use water and nutrients more efficiently. Your landscapes and fields will look better, be healthier and cost less to keep that way.

A new market is being created to promote and support sustainable landscapes. Across diverse parts of the country, experienced professionals are leaving the traditional landscape maintenance business and creating a new service industry.

I know a former business owner who sold his landscape maintenance business with more than 300 employees two years ago because he wanted to ‘do it differently.’ He created a business that gives cities and large property owners exactly what they want, beautiful landscapes that cost less to maintain.

Sustainable landscaping practices are ideal for financially strained cities suffering from reduced public budgets. Cities in the western United States, such as Denver, are purchasing fertigation systems for their larger parks and sports fields.

Sustainable landscaping is a new approach to maintaining turf areas, large properties and sports fields. By working with Mother Nature instead of against her, professionals in charge of maintenance and property owners alike will see greener plants and a greener bottom line as well. It’s a win-win combination.

This natural cycle is the agronomic engine that feeds plants all over our planet, and it depends on healthy soil.

The future of agriculture and all areas of agronomy rely on growing and managing healthy plants. Just as physicians promote a healthy, disease-resistant body for their patients, healthy soil is the important foundation for a healthy plant.