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Soil Microbes-your lawn-healthy soil-Conservation Corner

Remove Your Lawn the Healthy Way

The day has come to replace your thirsty, water guzzling grass. Before you remove it, plan your process carefully to leave only healthy living soil as the foundation for a beautiful, thriving new landscape.

Don’t just turn off your irrigation and let your grass turn brown as it dies off. Healthy microbes in your soil will die off along with the lawn. You want to work with those microbes to help create healthy soil for your new plants.

Instead, keep your grass moist until you remove it. It’s also a lot easier to remove fresh, moist grass than to try and pry out dead dry grass and weeds in rock hard, dry soil.

Stay cool and save healthy microbes

Remove your old turf in a way that preserves valuable soil microbes. Photo: Water Authority

Remove your old turf in a way that preserves valuable soil microbes. Photo: San Diego County Water Authority

It’s tempting to remove your lawn through solarizing. Solarizing is sometimes used as a way to remove grass without chemical treatment. Instead, a covering such as a heavy black plastic tarp is placed over the grass. Sunlight heats the covering, which broils and kills the lawn through high temperatures. This heat also kills existing healthy microbes you need for healthy soil. It’s possible to artificially replace them with compost, but you need to invest in a lot of compost to restore the good microbes when grass is killed off and removed with this method.

When soil is solarized, it’s sterilized. It remains like this for weeks. Worse, it really doesn’t do much good. Opportunistic weeds move in quickly to try and take over the ground. These weeds don’t grow from existing seeds in the soil. These have usually been killed off. But without any competition, new weeds can arrive in a flash, and nothing prevents them from taking over.

Stay loose

If you use heavy equipment to remove your old turf, the equipment’s weight will compact your soil underneath. You need to avoid this. Minimize the use of heavy equipment and use walk-behind equipment with hand tools where possible. Use a tractor or scraper only where necessary.

Avoid tilling your soil. Tilling soil breaks up and kills your soil microbes. Without the microbes, you’re guaranteed to have those weeds pop up for a long time until new soil microbes develop.

Protect your trees planted in areas where the grass is removed. The key is not to damage their roots. Heavy equipment can destroy roots established by a healthy shade tree. Steer clear of the canopy area under the tree’s branches. Its root structure extends all the way out to the drip line at the edge of the leaves. Irrigate your trees generously during the removal process to help minimize root shock.

Save landscape trees from shock

Creating a DIY self-watering bucket will help prevent landscape trees from going into shock after surrounding turf is removed. remove your lawn

Creating a DIY self-watering bucket will help prevent landscape trees from going into shock after surrounding turf is removed.

When your new sustainable landscaping is installed, your previously existing trees may go into shock when irrigation is reduced overall in your garden. While it’s one of your watersmart landscaping goals, keep the trees watered during the first year after your grass is removed.

A good way to hand water your trees: Punch holes in a five-gallon plastic bucket. Fill the bucket, and set it down at the edge of the tree canopy, and let the water slowly seep into the ground. Repeat the process three to four times to water your beautiful mature trees. This mimics the natural rainfall Mother Nature provides.

This article is part of a year-long series inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Soil Probe Tips for Success

Knowing how to use a soil probe as an important soil management tool will support your effort to create a healthy, thriving landscape full of beautiful plants. You need to first know as much as possible about your soil to understand your irrigation needs. Irrigation is critical to keep your landscaping green and growing. But more isn’t better. One way to easily gauge your landscape’s needs is to use the Jar Test.

Irrigation-Soil-roots-Conservation Corner your plants, use a soil probe. Photo: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels soil probe tips

Soil Probe Tips for Success

Knowing how to use a soil probe as an important soil management tool will support your effort to create a healthy, thriving landscape full of beautiful plants.

You need to first know as much as possible about your soil to understand your irrigation needs. Irrigation is critical to keep your landscaping green and growing. But more isn’t better. One way to easily gauge your landscape’s needs is to use the Jar Test.

Another helpful tool is a soil probe. A soil probe lets you determine a lot more information about the soils in your landscaping. It will give you information about whether your irrigation is successfully reaching the roots of your plants, or even if it soaks in too deep past the reach of plant roots.

If you don’t understand your individual soil profile, you can’t plan effective irrigation. When there is variability in the conditions across your landscape, you may have different types of soils from one area to another or from a surface layer of soil to a deeper layer.

A good soil probe will help you figure out when your irrigation water has reached the right depth for the plants in your landscaping. It is a simple process with the right tools.

How to use your soil probe

Use a soil probe to test how well irrigation dispenses into your landscape. Photo: Courtesy University of Florida/Creative Commons soil probe tips

Use a soil probe to test how well irrigation dispenses into your landscape. Photo: University of Florida/Creative Commons

When your soil is moist, a soil probe should go into the ground easily, without a lot of effort. Your soil probe will stop when it hits hard, dry dirt, and won’t go further. But your soil probe could also be hitting rock, so you may want to reposition it just a few inches away and try again.

If you are confident you’ve hit only dry soil, put your fingers around the probe at the soil surface, and pull it out. Measure the depth in inches to learn how deep your irrigation will penetrate into the soil.

To properly irrigate your plants, understand the depth of their roots. Trees send their roots much deeper into the soil than shrubs, and shrubs have deeper roots than bedding plants like annual and perennial flowers or vegetables.

Most plants will do fine as long as the top foot of soil (12 inches) is filled with water when you irrigate. Shrubs should be irrigated to a depth of two feet (24 inches), and trees irrigated to a depth of three feet (36 inches).

You can purchase a soil probe at any general hardware store or gardening center. A basic soil probe costs between $30 and $80, but there are high-tech probes costing up to $300.

To learn more about your soil, sign up for Soil & Site Assessments virtual workshop.

This article is part of a year-long series inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

Oxygen, Water, and Life Create Healthy Landscape Soil

Your landscaping soil needs three things to feed the billions of microbes within it to transform brick-hard, lifeless dirt into healthy, living soil sponges: oxygen, water, and life. Think OWL to remember these important, interconnected factors.

Set yourself up for landscaping success by building the best foundation in your soil structure. Photo: walkersalmanac/Pixabay

Oxygen, Water, and Life Create Healthy Landscape Soil

Your landscaping soil needs three things to feed the billions of microbes within it to transform brick-hard, lifeless dirt into healthy, living soil sponges: oxygen, water, and life. Think OWL to remember these important, interconnected factors.

Oxygen lets microbes breathe free

Oxygen is needed by healthy plant roots and soil organisms. Healthy soil has lots of tiny little pockets of air. When soils are eroded, graded, or disturbed, their structure becomes compacted and hard. Compaction takes place when tiny air and water bubbles are squeezed out of the soil. This kills the healthy microbes working to keep your soil replenished. Microbes can be killed by fertilizers, pesticides, or even heavy traffic from people or vehicles. 

Water for your microbes and plants

Microbes and plans both need water to live. But too much water in your soil will displace oxygen, saturating the soil. This creates an anaerobic condition. It is the unhealthy microbes like bacteria, viruses, or parasites that prefer anaerobic soil. If this condition persists, diseases may develop. They will endanger the health of your garden.

Water is constantly moving through the soil. Water in the soil needs to be replenished as plants use it, as it evaporates from the soil surface, and as gravity pulls it down past the root zone of your plants.

Bring your soil to life

The microbes consume organic matter, and then they are consumed by bigger creatures (worms, ants, slugs, centipedes, larvae, etc.). They are consumed in turn by creatures further up nature’s food chain. Photo: Malcolm Fowles, Wikipedia

The microbes consume organic matter, and then they are consumed by bigger creatures (worms, ants, slugs, centipedes, larvae, etc.). They are consumed in turn by creatures further up nature’s food chain. Photo: Malcolm Fowles, Wikipedia

Life in the soil includes all the bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, and fungi, the food they eat, the excretions they make, and the root systems they sustain. Living microbes are most quickly incorporated into your soil by adding high-quality compost.

Plants attract microbes to their roots by feeding them carbon. Bacteria and fungi hold the soil together with microscopic glues and binders. The microbes consume organic matter, and then they are consumed by bigger creatures (worms, ants, slugs, centipedes, larvae, etc.). They are consumed in turn by creatures further up nature’s food chain.

Carbon and other nutrients cycle through these many life forms, creating healthy living soil, no matter what the soil type.

Without any of these elements, your landscaping will not thrive. Organic matter, planning and some labor may be involved, but creating healthy soil using the OWL method –  Oxygen, Water and Life – will pay off in reduced maintenance, reduced inputs, reduced pollution on land and in our waterways, and the beauty of your thriving, healthy landscape.

This article is part of a year-long series inspired by the 71-page Sustainable Landscapes Program guidebook. The Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.

 

Set yourself up for landscaping success by building the best foundation in your soil structure. Photo: walkersalmanac/Pixabay

Take a Test to Determine Your Soil Type

If you put a shovel into the ground in San Diego County, you are likely to encounter the region’s impermeable soil structure. Impermeable soils are defined by poor infiltration areas. This means water doesn’t flow through the soil to replenish groundwater, because the soil is too dense.

Having impermeable soil also means water does not soak evenly into the ground or flow through living soil to plants in a healthy way. No matter where you plan your landscape, you should concentrate on improving your soil structure. That will help you irrigate more efficiently and cost-effectively, and your plants will receive the nutrients and water they need to flourish. It is relatively easy to improve your soil structure, but first you need to determine what kind of soil you have.

Particle size matters

The three basic types of soil are:

Clay: Soil made up of the smallest particles
Silt: Soil made up of a mixture of particle sizes
Sand: Soil made up of the largest particles

In general, sandy soils drain faster than clay soils, because there is more space between the larger particles. Soil structure also influences the quality of the soil. Lifeless, compacted, sandy soil will not absorb water, while healthy clay soil will be more sponge-like, holding and releasing water. The “best” soil – an even blend of sand, silt and clay – is called loam.

Find your soil structure by testing your soil

Some tests can be done onsite to figure out what kind of soil you have. Others might require lab analysis. Certain other conditions require specialized tests, such as soil used for food production or soil receiving a lot of storm water.

You can test your home landscaping soil yourself using a “Jar Test.” This is a fun project to do with kids or as a family.

Use this graphic as an example to compare your jar to. Aim to get the most even distribution, as shown with the loam jar. Image: Water Authority

Use this graphic as an example with which to compare your jar. Try to get the most even distribution, as shown with the loam jar. Image: San Diego County Water Authority

How to do the “Jar Test”

  • Use a one-quart glass container.
  • Add one cup of soil from the garden. You can select one area or take samples from several areas and blend them together.
  • Add three cups of distilled water.
  • Close the jar and shake it until all the soil solids are suspended in water. Put the jar on a shelf and wait 24 hours.
  • If the container is still cloudy, wait another 24 hours. After 48 hours, the soil layers should be settled on the bottom.
  • Measure the layers in proportion to each other, with the total adding up to 100%. Sand will be on the bottom, silt in the middle, and clay on top.
  • Refer to the graphic to determine your soil type, based on the proportions of sand, silt, and clay. Which jar does your home sample look most like?

Now you can work to improve your soil condition, providing the best possible foundation for your landscaping plants and the most efficient irrigation.

The San Diego County Water Authority and its partners also offer other great resources for landscaping upgrades, including free WaterSmart classes at WaterSmartSD.org.