Posts Tagged ‘Soil’

Vulcan Guide to Soil Testing

Soil Testing. It’s that time of year when most Turfheads are gonna pull some soil tests. My experience is that for many (if not most) this is done as kind of a box check. You know you have to do it, because that’s what you do this time of year. A lot of Turfheads tell me that soil tests are one of those things that they understand as well as a fourth or fifth language. So let’s Rock our Spock and geek a bit with some ideas about soil testing.

The confusion hasn’t really helped anyone and if you don’t work with this kind of thing nearly every day, then the language (words like Saturated Paste Extraction and Mehlich-III and P-Sorbtion Curve) may as well be written in Klingon and we Vulcans don’t do Klingon.

Because of this lack of grokking, soil testing has gotten a bit of a bad rap. And inside of that, there are now all kinds of ideas and theory about how one should really read a soil test. The confusion hasn’t really helped anyone and if you don’t work with this kind of thing nearly every day, then the language (words like Saturated Paste Extraction and Mehlich-III and P-Sorbtion Curve) may as well be written in Klingon and we Vulcans don’t do Klingon. I don’t want to really get into the whole this vs. that thing here, but I’d love to address a few things that may help you when you go to collect some important data.

  1. Soil Tests are never a bad thing. People who don’t know how to read them are bad, but the tests themselves are good. Data is good.
  2. You get what you pay for. Want the cheap test? Get cheap or incomplete data. Paying a bit and perhaps even using a couple different methods on the same sample is worth it.
  3.  Sticking with the same lab is paramount. I can’t tell you the number of times a super will open up a big file of tests spanning several or more years from as least as many labs. Impossible to make the comparison.
  4. Bar Graphs aren’t really that important. A lot of people are looking for a picture of high or low or whatever in the form of an easy to use bar graph. Imagine if we approached all of your planning this way. Just let someone else tell you the highs and the lows and… oh wait, that’s Wall Street. Learn the numbers. It’s better for you.
  5. Pull enough samples. Unless you are on a regular data collection routine, make sure you cover your different soil types, indicator and good citizen greens and some clubhouse flower beds too. Data is good.
  6. Don’t always repeat the same samples. Repeat some, but always add a few areas in and set up a good rotation to get through all of your key areas in a 2-3 year cycle.
  7. Pre-season and Post-season samples are a good idea. Especially if you have poor water or a drought situation or that sort of thing.
  8. Sampling during the season is not a bad idea either. When your place is apt to change, a good sampling routine might tell you what’s happening. This is where I really love Paste Extracts, by the way. They show so much of what’s happening right now.
  9.  Not every number of that test sheet is an actual test. Some values are calculations. Make sure you know which is which. Your lab or your consultant can and should be able to help you understand which numbers are which. Use the actual tested for numbers for your test to test comparisons.
  10. Sampling depth is key. Make sure to let your lab know what your sample depth is and make sure you sample to that depth. Those calculated numbers I talked about above depend on you getting this right.

There are 10 things you need to know and may not have thought about in regards to getting soil test info that matters. If you wanna geek out with some of the numbers, comment below and throw up some questions. I’ll use them for fodder for future posts.

I believe that soil tests are an agronomic planning tool and not a fertilizer sales tool. That doesn’t mean your agronomic supply supplier can’t be involved, but if the material coming to you looks like it is driven to create a list of things to buy read number 1 and number 2 above. Rinse. Repeat.

Sometimes You Gotta Stink Up The Joint

I’m convinced that one of the main reasons that Turfheads dont embrace the concept of application of Organic Fertilizers is pretty simple—It Stinks.

Seriously. Who really wants to offend the olfactory senses of the Tuesday 9-Hole Ladies Group after a wonderful application of decomposition on Monday? It’s a pretty easy answer, that one. We’ll get to the should you or should you not use and how to use organics later. For now, a few tips on dealing with the assault on the nose that stops people from doing something great.

Tip #1: Pick Right. What a product’s parent material is composted of is going to affect the nose. And if it’s not handled very well in the assembly, it’s not going to handle itself well in the nostrils. And an odor of any kind of Ammonia is a dead giveaway that something isn’t right. If it snaps your head back like smelling salts, its all wrong… Stay away.

Tip #2: Date Right. You’ve found what you think is the perfect product. Instead of bringing in a truckload, how about taking a couple bags, preferably not next to the house where they hate your 5am start time and spread a little and see what sort of kiss you get. You need to calibrate the spreader anyway, right? Turn on a sprinkler after you spread it and see what getting it wet does. Go out the next morning and use your nose. Half of getting it right is knowing what it does.

Tip #3: Marry Right. Courtship has gone well, you know the one that brung you to the dance and the smells you are gonna get and you can afford the dowry, so now buying, storing and applying should all be pretty easy. If this one smells a bit at time of application, but water fixes that, then you have your answer. If the dry smell is benign, but water brings up a bit of a flare, you know what to do and when to do it. Organic products require a little thinking and even though they may not be the most beautiful at the dance, the performance later is worth using the veil.

His product of choice would go down and right after, he would apply some Gypsum and then a fertility spray with some Molasses. Ding. A whole new way to keep the bedroom interesting and the smell was gone.

Tip #4: Talk Right. It’s time to be creative when you have to do what you have to do. This is why the dating phase is so critical, you know what’s coming. Inside of this communication. It’s not a bad idea to let everyone know what you know what you are doing. If the application just has to go out when it has to go out, make sure you’ve communicated well and talked about the great benefits and complete safety some new odors might give. 

Tip #5: Create Right. I’ll never forget a Turfhead who had some troubles with what the golfers were saying about his organic fertility program coming up with a great idea. His product of choice would go down and right after, he would apply some Gypsum and then a fertility spray with some Molasses. Ding. A whole new way to keep the bedroom interesting and the smell was gone. Creative and fun and worth the effort, no one complained again. Often adding some other carbons and some minerals of your own acts as a wonderful filter for the nose. Beyond simple.

There’s 5 quick tips to help you help yourself and make a difference in dealing with an Organic Fertilizer, when you know it’s the right thing to do. Now go hug that pretty new bride of yours, even though she smells!

Humus Part 2: You Need Fungus, Brother!

When the word Fungus is mentioned, Turfheads often run for the spray rig. Regardless if you want to talk pesticide free turf or not, there has to be a better discussion on Fungi and the resulting role in Humus development by being as key in decompositional shredding as strings on James Hetfield’s guitar.

The first stage in the development of Humus is called Catabolism. It isn’t the warm up act, it is part of a multi-billing. This process should be initiated by fungi and fungal bodies. In their special way, they take the sticks, twigs and debris of various inputs and in the way only they can, they pre-digest materials so that Macro and Meso fauna (Millipedes, Earthworms, etc.) can get to work. Many of those animals lack the digestive enzymes required to get the decomposition process started. In their cool way, fungi make key changes to the soil food system, allowing the breakup of cellulose, chitin and other sticky and twiggy debris forms.

This system process is fueled by fungi that are contained in all plant parts. Like a good tour bus full of roadies and tee shirt guys, plant seeds, leafs and stems are all fungal carriers of the gang that is going to start the process. Nature has this way of getting what it needs and a system that is void of the fungi that support soil life will look for food. Where? From the plant. Now, think about it…what happens if that process starts too early. That’s right. The death band takes over and either the plant is sucked under before it really should be or nature tries to make something happen by calling in the bacterial scabs. See the show must go on. There will be music, but as you are going to see, it can quickly turn ugly.

The liquid portion of the life of the soil, called Soil Plasma becomes a wonderful blend of Proteins, Carbohydrates, Salts, Degraded Organic Compounds and Water. Life. Hot chicks at the after party. No warm mayo sandwiches.

Remember we talked about the powerful bacteria? If they initiate this process bad things happen and instead of Catabolization taking the stage which is who everyone came to hear, the scab band Putrefaction crashes the gig. Putrefaction defined is the decomposition of plant and animal proteins especially by anaerobic microorganisms, described as putrefying bacteria. One of the most common reasons that this imbalance takes place is the presence of excess moisture. Putrefaction tours with its friends Rancidification, Maceration and Fermentation. Putrefaction usually plays songs that result in amines such as putrescine and cadaverine, which have a putrid odor and all kinds of toxic substances are produced like Methane and Formaldehyde and Hydrogen Sulfide.These are not the hot groupie chicks and they are easy to detect because they smell. One of the most common reasons that this imbalance takes place is the presence of excess moisture. And now you know why I’m always harping on having a dry rootzone.

At the end of all this, when it goes right, there is development. When it goes wrong there is a different kind of development. In the show that is supposed to be played, fungal decomposition leads to breaking down food sources for decomposers which eat, digest, pass wastes and sometimes die themselves to be food for the system. It’s neat and clean and it sounds good and smells good and that’s the fresh live smell that we have all committed to our memories as healthy soil. The liquid portion of the life of the soil, called Soil Plasma becomes a wonderful blend of Proteins, Carbohydrates, Salts, Degraded Organic Compounds and Water. Life. Hot chicks at the after party. No warm mayo sandwiches.

Without the fungi, the wrong party begins and when that happens, that soil plasma resembles infection. Toxic compounds, smelly amines, drunken fermented drummers, overdosed earthworms. Skanky groupies. Harmful to soil and deadly to plants. Death. Write your resume. Not a chance that Humus will develop. Death once more. Nothing applied works as it should. Hassled by The Man.

For years, superintendents, green chairmen and others have made fun of me when I am pulling soil samples. As a routine part of my sampling, I use my nose. I smell and often that act is almost as good as a soil test or a pathology report. There is so much information to be had in this kind of observation. That’s why I just sort of chuckle along at being made fun of and take very close notes in my head as to what I smell. It’s fieldwork.

“I’d rather regret trying to do something than not doing something”

–James Hetfield, Metallica

Humus Part 1: Not Dirty, Hairy!

The Difference between Dirt and Soil has to do with this amazing word: Humus.

I love humus. I do. I spend time contemplating how it works, what it is about and how it affects everything that we do in soil management. So in my small brain, any discussion about what soils are and are not has to start (and end) with some kind of thought as to what does and does not happen to the Humus content in the soil.

Most of us will agree that soil is perhaps the most major natural resource that we are involved with. Yet most of the same people who acknowledge this simple statement are quick to move right past the velvet ropes of carbon based life and get right into the chemical salt dance club. You can blame the hot fertilizer chicks or the mean agronomy bouncers, but the truth is, the good party is in the Humus kitchen and it is still pretty underground. Ignore the Velvet Underground of Humus and you risk joining other failed soil disaster cultures like Mayans and Mesopotamians.

The soil dance floor moves with life in a natural light show of Oxygen, Water, Minerals, and Decomposing Plant and Animal Matter. It’s actually simple to fit in with the groove and when those elements combine they create ongoing party life if not disturbed. Healthy soil just works, nutrients are available to the plant and everyone Wang Chungs. As Turfheads, we see this in the quality of the playing surface, not just the color of the grass, but in the overall quality of the turfgrass sward.

It’s a simple drink recipe. Good soil consists of 93% mineral and 7% bio-organic substance. The Bio-organic blend is right at about 85% humus, 10% roots and 5% living organisms. The “live” world consists of microbes, fungi, bacteria, earthworms, micro and macro fauna.

…and the Turfhead’s old Outlaw Buddy, Rhizoctonia, who we need at the gig for security, but like Hell’s Angels, can create total chaos…

Surrounding the club is Carbon Dioxide.

During the growing season, plants party with the CO2 in a much better way than a Deadhead with a Nitrous Tank. Plants fix the Carbon Dioxide by the Miracle Ticket called Photosynthesis. About 10-25% of this fixed Carbon finds its way back into the show after being treated at the Oxygen tent. It gets back to the soil through the roots in the form of Root Exudates, something on the order of shake or trimmings.This happens even if all the plant residues are eventually removed.

Fungi and Actinobacteria seem to be the best jazz players around at Humus formation. The end product of their microbial degradation results in Humus. The cats that play have heavy names like Aspergillus (a moldy cousin to Dobie Gillis), Pisolithus (who used to sell shrooms to Keith Richards), Streptomycetes (gram-positive mosh pit bacteria) and the Turfhead’s old Outlaw Buddy, Rhizoctonia, who we need at the gig for security, but like Hell’s Angels, can create total chaos if left to do their own thing.

Over the years, the the Techo types (aka, Science) have tried and tried and failed and failed again to create Humus. It can’t be done synthetically. Can’t. It’s life and it’s delicate. Like a computer being fed every note of a Jimmy Page solo or a Keith Moon rhythm, the recipe is known, but it takes nature’s talent to make it happen. However, the whole concept of stewardship means that humans can influence and control the whole process by virtue of what is input and what is not. Too much salt fertilizer, too much organic addition, too much control agents and the system breaks down. Too little, and often the same thing happens. That balance can be assessed in the fertility and productivity of soil. It’s that simple.

It’s called Stewardship and that word along with fellow band mates Organic and Sustainable have caused a ton of good and a great deal of chaos. Why? Because they were never supposed to out perform and upstage Mick Jagger–the Humus, the true frontman.

My Perspective On The Most Important Part

It’s time.

Recent forum discussions, people asking me and even Herr Peter have prompted me to get with it and talk about soils. I’m told that this is one of the things that people want to hear most from me. That’s nice.

I think I’ve stayed pretty current and I think I understand that much of the so called controversy is just a way for someone or something to make waves and therefore get attention.

My perspective comes from having the words Soil Consultant make my living, a zillion soil tests looked at, a  half-zillion golf course visits and way way too many nights up late writing recommendations. I’ve been told that this perspective, while not unique, is valuable and practical and it works.

I’m not going to get into any kind of debate on methods or research vs anecdote. I think I’ve stayed pretty current and I think I understand that much of the so called controversy is just a way for someone or something to make waves and therefore get attention. This hasn’t really helped anyone and for the most part, developed ignorance rather than fostering critical thinking or, (gasp) science.

I tend to like old texts and dead authors on the subject. This again, doesn’t mean I’m not current, but when one studies electricity you have to look at the work of Edison and Tesla.

I also (gasp again), often read agricultural texts, articles and other dreck that has nothing to do with Turfgrass and might pass some of this along. That’s right, I actually believe that we can safely kiss our cousins who produce food, hang in greenhouses to make pretty flowers, grow hemp and strawberries by the hottub and other lively and wonderful agricultural endeavors. Heck, I might even talk about fish farming, just to see if you are really reading.

For a while I’m going to focus on a couple areas:

First, some baseline info on what I consider the difference between Dirt and Soil: Humus. It might help some of you who have been asking so many questions about organic things being good or bad or only for Hemp and Strawberries.

Second, I’d like to spench about some soil basics that I can’t understand why people can’t understand. We might define some terms and  even look into the how and why of some of the numbers that everyone likes to throw around.

And then, Soil Testing. Time to wrestle the Testing Yetti and talk about methods, numbers and what’s good and what is just plain crap about soil testing.

For me, this is a really really big subject. While I might be a Turfhead at heart, it’s the whole thing of Soil that has captivated my waking and sleeping moments for far too many years. This is going to be fun. This is what a lot of you have been asking for and a lot more of you need to consider. There might be some Dogma at hand, but hey, my picture is at the top of the page, so I guess that’s the price paid for sticking my neck out.

At the end of the day, the learning never ends.



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