According to conventional wisdom, spring is the season to feed your landscape. But before you spread that big bag of fertilizer (slow-release organic, of course!), take the time to find out what your soil actually needs. Feeding too much encourages rapid growth, disease, and nutrient run off, while feeding too little deprives your soil ecosystem and plants of the nutrients they need for a healthy summer.
What can a soil test tell you?
- pH level —> How acidic or alkaline your soil is and whether you need to add lime or sulfur to adjust the pH.
- Nutrient levels —> How much nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and other minerals your soil contains and whether you need to amend.
- Organic matter —> How much organic matter your soil contains and whether you need to add compost.
The best times to test are: on new planting sites, before planting your annual vegetable or flower garden, and before seeding a large section of lawn. And no matter the project, always run a test before investing in fertilizer.
Is it best to go with the pros? DIY kits are cheaper and faster, but professional labs will give you more accurate and detailed reports. If you need help interpreting your professional soil test data, contact the lab before submitting your sample in order to request specific recommendations based on your results.
Professional labs in the New York area:
State University & Agricultural Experiment Station Labs
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Riverhead and Great River, NY
Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory
- Also check out the Cornell Waste Management Institute—Soil Quality and Testing page for more information on interpreting your test results.
Soil Foodweb New York
Port Jefferson Station, NY
Harrington’s Organic Land Care
Photo credit: Barry Bradshaw / EyeEm / Getty Images
De-icers—even those labeled “natural”—can have nasty side effects. Many products burn pets’ paws, mouths, and throats when ingested. (Just think about the damage they do to concrete and cars…) Most contain salts that damage soil, dehydrate (and kill!) plants and trees, and pollute drinking and surface water.
Is it safe to salt your sidewalk? Not really—most products will have some downside. But slippery sidewalks aren’t safe, either. Instead of risking falls, take the following steps to minimize the impact of de-icer on your landscape, your pets, and the environment:
- Use the bare minimum. Whenever possible, turn to elbow grease instead of chemicals. Remember: The point of de-icer is to make ice easier to shovel, not remove it completely. Read the product label for recommended application rates, and if possible, use less.
- Apply de-icer BEFORE the storm hits. Preventing ice from forming requires less product (and elbow grease) than removing it once hardened.
- Keep de-icing products away from your garden beds. Anything you apply will affect your soil’s composition, potentially damaging your plants.
- Avoid products containing nitrogen-based urea. While it may be less-toxic for pets than salt, the nitrogen in these synthetic products eventually ends up in nearby bodies of water, contributing to algal blooms and other pollution.
- Sprinkle bird seed, instead of sand or kitty litter, on ice to improve traction. Seed will not melt snow or ice, but will make pathways less slippery and provide a welcome winter meal for your feathered friends. Sprinkling sand or kitty litter creates a mess and can clog sewers and drains.
- Put your pups in booties when taking winter walks. In addition to insulating their paws from cold pavement, you’ll protect them from irritation caused by salt and other de-icers. Plus…cute!
Many people never ask whether their landscapers are using chemicals. Are you walking across a toxic lawn to get to your organic vegetable garden?
In many places, landscapers are required by law to inform the person hiring them of any pesticides—natural or synthetic—used on a property. These chemicals are often listed in your contract by brand name and EPA registration number. (All pesticides must be registered with the EPA, but that does not mean they are safe for humans or the environment!)
When your landscaper sends your contract for renewal, take a close look (many people don’t!). See words ending in "–cide"? Long chemical-sounding names that you can’t pronounce? References to "weed and feed" or "broad spectrum" applications? Time to ask your landscapers which chemicals they are using and why, and let them know you want to have a PRFCT landscape.
If they have questions about getting started, send them our way. Please don’t fire them—we want to convert them! With your help, we can transform every landscape professional into a land steward.
Just like your skin, soil craves warmth and moisture during the dry, cold winter months. Bare soil is prone to drying out and freezing, which can damage roots and affect soil quality.
The best protection for your garden beds? The leaves that naturally fall from the trees and plants on your property. Not only will they insulate your soil over the winter, they’ll feed it, too. Leaves decompose over the winter and build the amount of organic matter in your soil, providing natural nutrients that are essential for soil health and reducing the need for additional fertilizer. (Do you ever see bare soil like this in forest floor?)
Plus, you’ll be saving yourself the trouble of raking and bagging, and keeping organic material out of your local landfill. It’s a win for you, your garden, and the planet.
You can also run your mower right over those leaves instead. Mulched leaves not only protect and feed the plants you love, they also help control plants you don't love. Next spring, those chopped up leaf bits can block sunlight from germinating dandelion seeds and other sun-loving weeds.
Need a special mower? Not necessarily. Mulching mowers are most effective, but regular mowers mulch leaves, too. Run your mower over the leaves a couple times and be sure to bag your mower bag.
Don’t forget: Leaves are called “leaves” for a reason!
Temps are dropping, winter is coming. Too cold for your compost to keep cooking?
Not if you bring it inside! With an indoor worm composting tower, you can actively compost all year long. Worms (red wigglers are best) live within these self-contained systems, turning food scraps and bedding (shredded newspaper, coconut fiber) into nutrient-rich compost. Once they’ve eaten through a tray of food scraps—raw fruits and veggies, coffee grounds, tea leaves, or finely crushed eggs shells—in the tower, the worms wiggle up to the next, leaving behind a tray of food for your houseplants or garden.
Worried about bugs? Or smell? Keep the bedding:food ratio 1:1 and skip the meat, dairy, and citrus.