New Years Resolutions + New Beginnings

New Beginnings

Ah yes, a New Year. A time for new beginnings, and of course, resolutions. Everybody makes them, but not everybody keeps them. You may have made your resolution to get outside more and practice outdoor lawn care. Maybe you have committed to starting a garden this year. Or maybe you have decided to start working with a lawn care company. When determining your resolutions pertaining to outdoor living space, there are a few things to keep in mind that make this year different.

Firstly, 2022 will ring in a rise in fertilizer prices. Global supply chain problems have contributed to a shortage of key raw materials in fertilizer production for all types of fertilizers. But in addition, as a result of the natural gas crisis (predominantly in Europe), although seemingly unrelated, fertilizer prices are projected to rise even further.  Here’s why natural gas has further exacerbated the problem.  Natural gas is a key input in nitrogen-based fertilizer production. Let me break it down. Urea (the solid-state of ammonia) relies on natural gas to exist. Thus, without natural gas, we have no urea and without urea, we have no nitrogen-based fertilizer. As the prices of urea and natural gas increase, as will the price of fertilizer, and subsequently the price of food (since fertilizer accounts for the second largest cost component of most agricultural production). Over the past year alone fertilizer prices have more than doubled, according to The Wall Street Journal. With fertilizer looking at a substantial price increase, it is important, and in the interest of your bank account, to pay for only what your plant needs. You can take a soil test (through SoilKit) to determine this amount.

COVID has drawn us all to the outdoors, spurring a profound appreciation of our planet for some, but little action has been taken to improve environmental conditions globally. We have experienced an unprecedentedly warm fall and winter season and this increase in global temperature has been largely the result of human consumption and pollution. It is now in the hands of the individual to protect our home and an environmentally-related resolution is a great place to start. One way you can help is by improving soil health and decreasing the overuse of fertilizers.  Soil testing can show you how to improve soil health and decrease fertilizer use.  Improved soil health will lead to an increase in soil organic matter which is a proxy for an increase in carbon capture (soil organic carbon).

Regardless of the goals, you have set for 2022 we all get a long-overdue, fresh start, just be sure to consider the factors that make outdoor living different this year. Remain cognizant of your impact on the environment this year. The time for action is now. Together we can make a difference.


Christmas Tree Disposal

The New Year’s resolutions have been made and new gardens have been planned but what to do with that lovely Christmas tree that is turning brown and losing needles in the corner of the family room? 

The SoilKit® office chose to take our office tree out to the 256 Woerner family farm and placed the tree in front of a brim feeder in our pond. My brother, Allen, also disposed of his family’s Christmas tree at the farm too. Algae will grow on the trees, giving baby fish something to eat and providing cover for the fry.  This will increase the chances the fish will grow to adulthood providing fish for us to catch or feast to the resident Bald Eagle.  Natural Resources and Bureau of Land Management officials near Carlyle Lake in Illinois and Lake Havasu, in Arizona round-up trees each year to help refurbish reefs that provide food and shelter for species such as sunfish, bluegill, and bass. I encourage you to find a similar program near you and dispose of your Christmas tree in a sustainable way.  

Communities all over the U.S. have other ways of recycling Christmas trees that are beneficial to the environment.

For more than four decades, Alabama’s Gulf State Park has been organizing a yearly drop-off for Christmas Trees (they collect through the end of January every year!), and then come spring, volunteers lay out the trees in ways that promote dune structures for local beaches. All of this hard work has paid off, and naturalists with the state park recorded less dune erosion after Hurricane Sally than they did sixteen years ago following Hurricane Ivan. Dune restoration projects that use Christmas trees are popular along the Gulf and east coasts. 

Cities a little more inland, such as Daphne/Spanish Fort AL and Sonoma, CA, take dropped-off trees to composting sites or chip them up for mulch for spring gardens. Mulching and composting your tree is great for the soil and helps keep organic matter out of landfills so everything breaks down the way nature intended! Plus, most communities that mulch the Christmas trees will provide their resident’s mulch for their gardens free of charge, especially to those who donated their trees; with the continued rise in fertilizer prices, every little bit helps. 

If you aren’t ready to part with your tree just yet, you can move it to a porch or outdoor area, and redecorate it as a Mardi Gras tree or Valentine’s Day tree! Really, really attached to your tree? Consider planting a variety of pine or spruce that grows in your grow zone, if you are able to, in native soils (start with a soil test!), or in a large pot that can be moved both inside and outdoors. Our Project Administrator, Morgan Cahn, grew up with a Norfolk Island pine that lived in a pot that her family used for a Christmas tree for more than a decade. 

The most important thing to remember before you take your tree to be recycled, mulched, or be made into a reef, make sure you take off all lights and ornaments (even the homemade cranberry and popcorn strings!). Most programs will have a designated drop-off area, day of the week to put on the curb for pick-up, and some non-profit organizations have even offered pick-up. 

How are you disposing of your tree this year? Show us a photo or video of you responsibly disposing of your tree and tag us on social media!

Saying goodbye to the year of the Sunflower 2021

We are saying goodbye to the year of the sunflower. What is my favorite flower? A sunflower. The National Garden Bureau has established 2021 as the year of the sunflower.

My brother, Allen, planted a field of sunflowers this year on our 256 Farm. We got to enjoy watching the beautiful flowers grow. I also had the chance to teach my children that a sunflower’s purpose is more than just being a beautiful flower. Sunflowers serve an agricultural purpose and have quite a meaningful life cycle.

There are many varieties of sunflowers but we planted the Clearfield variety. This variety grows to over 6 feet tall and stands very stately in beauty and it grows well in south Alabama climate fluctuations. Actually, it flourishes in our heat and humidity. If you sit back and watch the life cycle of the sunflower you experience all kinds of emotions. You feel the excitement with the germination, determination when it grows tall, and complete awe-struck when the flower reaches full growth (which only takes about 100 days) and you experience the colorful beauty in the gorgeous flower. But what fascinates me the most is watching the field come to life.

The sunflowers attract families and children taking pictures, bees, and pollinators with lots of activities, deer, and sometimes even some snakes. But there is life also to the flower. You get to watch the flower as it slowly and carefully follows the sun. The movement of the sunflower is called heliotropic which means they turn to follow the sun. It is what draws me in as if I am watching a motion picture. The whole field of flowers knows that it draws its’ energy and life from the sun and it follows the sun around throughout the day instinctually and completely choreographed together.

But, when the beauty has passed and the flower looks dead, its purpose begins. Most sunflower growers are growing the crop for oil, seed production, or for a cut flower. We grew our sunflowers for the birds. Literally – for the birds. As the flower dies, the head begins to bow over and protect the seeds that it has grown in the head. That protective measure is to keep Mother Nature from directly affecting the drying out process. The flower now knows to bend over and hover over the seeds to prevent rain from counteracting the drying out time. The flower will sit in that position for weeks and wait until the seed is dry. We have cut rows in between sections to help with accessibility into the field but ultimately, we will be preparing to draw in the migrating doves. The flower head will dry out and the seeds will fall to the ground. And guess what doves like to eat? Yes…sunflower seeds. And guess who will be waiting for them? My husband and children because one of their favorite grilled foods is the dove.

What is so amazing is a plant, a beautiful flower, will end with a delicious carnivorous family meal simply by attracting the bird to the by-product as a food source. But don’t miss out on the beautiful show that the sunflower puts on as it prepares for its ultimate purpose. I can see why this flower was chosen for 2021 and I am not sure the 2022 flower or rather any other flower of the year will live up to this great legacy.

Christmastime Blog

What do you buy for someone that has everything?  The buzz right now is all about the at-home tests–identifying problems or searching for an answer with easy-to-use, scientific tests.  You can find a COVID test, a food sensitivity test, an ancestry test…. But what about a test that unlocks answers about your lawn or garden?  If the hard-to-shop-for someone on your Christmas list has a lawn or garden, SoilKit is here to end your gift search. Whether they’re an avid outdoor gardener with a green thumb or have a lawn needing a little extra love, they need a soil test. It is the most important purchase they will do for the lawn and garden health and it most likely is the one thing they haven’t done this year!  A soil sample is a great idea for a Christmas gift!  

Traditionally soil testing has been cumbersome and intimidating – SoilKit, our lab-based soil test, has simplified the pain points and marries the science results to product answers that can be found in the marketplace.  Not to mention, with fertilizer prices rising and misuse & abuse of nutrient products becoming, this test points you to the right product and the right amount.  No more wasting time and money on the wrong fertilizers and no wash-off into our precious community watersheds. 

Ready to get started? It’s simple.  Purchase a SoilKit from your local garden center, Lowe’s or at soilkit.com.  Give it away!  When your benefactor receives the gift, they will register the kit and experience the simple process but the exciting premium features.  SoilKit provides geolocation to select where you are and satellite imagery of the selected area to help calculate the square feet.  The user will select their crop and registration is complete. A collection video will follow and all that remains is the dirt!  Put the soil in the included brown bag then place it in the pre-paid mailer.  Raise the red flag at the mailbox or scan the QR code on the mailer and request a free USPS package pickup.  

When the results post, there is a shopping list that can link the user right back to a garden center, Lowe’s, or online with exact product brands and amount of how much to buy!  And what is even better, the winter is a great time to plan how to take care of the soil to prepare for the spring.  

It’s a simple idea, but with powerful answers.  Dig underneath to know your soil story. 

Fertilizers with Nitrogen: How to Read the Label

Why is the “Apply nitrogen when turf is actively growing” disclaimer so important? 

There is a disclaimer that is found on most, if not all, fertilizers containing nitrogen.  Have you noticed?  “Apply nitrogen when turf is actively growing.” Let’s talk about why this disclaimer is on the bag and what it means. 

The first of the three numbers on all bags of fertilizers is Nitrogen; the next two are Phosphorus and Potassium (aka N-P-K).  If there is a number greater than 0 in the first position, then that means that Nitrogen is included at the percentage represented by the number. Nitrogen is the fuel for plant growth and essential to plant health.  However, it can also be deleterious to plants and the environment if used inappropriately. 

Let’s start with, “How do you know your turf is actively growing?”  The obvious answer is when you are having to mow your turf.  Dormant is the term used when the grass is not actively growing. 

For warm and cool season grass owners, your grass will go dormant when the temperatures consistently drop and cause the soil temperature to also drop. Depending on your USDA growing zone, you can expect your warm season grasses to go dormant anywhere from end of October to December and come out around end of February to April. And for all the cool season grass owners, your grass will go dormant approximately in November and come out around March.

The reason you do not apply nitrogen when turf is not actively growing is because Nitrogen is a fuel for growth.  You don’t want to initiate growth while the grass is naturally hibernating for winter.  The Nitrogen will also not get absorbed by the plants during dormancy and wash off into the watersheds and environment.  The overuse of Nitrogen could potentially harm the plant and cause nutrient overuse in the environment.

As a recap, Nitrogen is a vital growth stimulant and safe when used at the right levels at the right time.  Also be sure to perform lab-based soil tests so you know the right levels of Nitrogen for your crop species  — but only when the crop is actively growing! 

How to Use Your Grass Clippings

Has your freshly mowed lawn left behind a messy array of grass clippings? Well instead of trashing these pesky blades, or leaving them scattered across your lawn — although this actually proves to be beneficial (more on this later) — there are many practical ways you can benefit from this detritus.

Recycling grass clippings is a generally overlooked and grossly underrated aspect of lawn care.

Positive Effects

For all of my fellow “leave it on the lawn” yard owners, this indolent act actually proves to benefit your soil health, and subsequently improves lawn growth. Cut grass will decompose quickly, providing nutrients for your soil, particularly nitrogen, that the grass needs. It also will help increase your soil organic matter (SOM) which ultimately contributes to the sequestration of carbon – so you’ll be doing your small part to help with climate change!

If you aren’t keen on the untidy look of grass clippings covering your lawn, there are other ways to take advantage of clipped grass. An easy way to benefit from lawn clippings is to add them to your compost pile! Just as your lawn will benefit from the added nutrients, your compost will too! An alternative is to use clippings as natural mulch. By packing the clippings in flower beds and around vegetables, you will be helping the plant retain water, maintain a warm soil temperature, and prevent weeds. However, use caution in the thickness of clipping layers.

Negative Effects

All of this being said, there are instances when leaving grass clippings on your lawn can be harmful rather than practical. If the grass is going to be wet when you cut it, there is potential for the blades to clump together. Leaving clumps of grass on your lawn could damage the growing grass by choking it. Additionally, if you have recently sprayed your lawn with weed killer it is best to simply bag these clippings up and discard them.

Knowing how to use your grass clippings has a larger benefit than you might think on the health of your lawn or garden. Make sure to check out the rest of our blog for more tips and tricks!

Citrus Tree Growing Guide

What are the optimal environmental conditions for growing citrus? Whether you like a sweet, sour, or bitter taste, citrus fruit has it all. When you think citrus oranges, lemons, limes, or maybe even grapefruits probably all come to mind; however, there are many varieties of citrus trees that produce more than these rudimentary fruits. The fruits at hand are actually modified berries, called hesperidia, and vary in shape, size, color, and of course, taste.

How to Grow Your Own

Learning how to grow your own is a simple and productive way to enjoy the fruit! According to Mr. Austin Andrews, avid citrus farmer and founder of Sporty Citrus, the optimal environmental conditions for growing your citrus are warm locations with high humidity, lots of sunshine, few extreme weather swings, and clear ground underneath the tree. Mr. Andrews recommends that you plant your citrus trees “later in spring when actively growing, but not in the heat of the summer when the trees would be susceptible to disease and pests.”

Austin Andrews and one of his Citrus Trees
Choosing Your Tree

A broad overview of the process, Mr. Andrews says, looks a lot like this: “Choose a healthy tree, look for the tag to confirm certification details.  All you will need to do is a little trimming:  prune down branches to help direct the plant’s energy towards making fruit (make sure when you prune, you seal your cuts with tar or a prune seal); clean the area underneath the tree so that tree does not compete with grass or weeds; fertilize with a citrus fertilizer (such as Sta-Green Citrus and Avocado Food), and, once you see blooms, use Epsom salt to help grow and keep the tree healthy.” The first step after planting should be to place pine bark underneath the tree and lay it flat.  Mr. Andrews recommends pine bark over pine straw because it will decompose and contribute to soil organic matter and will eliminate most bugs and snakes pine straw can promote.

When initially acclimating your citrus tree, it is important to consider the amount of sunlight you are exposing the plant to. It will shock the trees if they are exposed to direct sunlight during the first week. The ideal location for this week would be a spot outside of your house with indirect sunlight that provides a one-to-two-hour window of sunlight for the tree. After the first week, you can move your citrus to its final location, a spot with 8 hours of sunlight a day.

Citrus trees require a rich, fast-draining soil. It is important to keep them moist without overwatering. Cover the soil surface with a three-inch layer of mulch to prevent moisture loss.

They are also non-resistant to freezes. To ensure the survival of your tree, especially during cold months, it is best to move the plants inside if possible. An alternative would be to cover the trees with a light landscape fabric or thin bed sheet. 

Feeding Your Trees

When it comes to feeding your trees, you must use a citrus specific fertilizer. These plants have special requirements and generally need heavier amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. Citrus plants may drop flowers if they are getting excess nitrogen. According to Mr. Andrews, it is best to fertilize typically twice a year with a citrus fertilizer – starting when you see new growth. He urges, “make sure to fertilize around the perimeter in the drip line and fertilize again around June and after if needed.”  To be sure to know exactly how much and what mix of elements your plants need you should take a lab-based soil test.

The best place to purchase citrus trees is either a reputable store or local nursery. You do not need to purchase both male and female plants, because bees will naturally pollinate them.

When picking your fruit, Mr. Andrews recommends you clip the fruit off the tree rather than yank it. This helps the tree and the fruit, as without the ripped peel, the fruit will last longer! Remember, citrus plants are not like other fruit trees, you should leave the fruit on the trees to fully ripen. Therefore, don’t pick immediately!

If you want to read more and learn about planting guides, check out our blueberry planting guide here.

 

Types of Fungus in Your Lawn

Are you seeing potential signs of fungus in your lawn? Fungus spread through spores and typically thrive in environments with poor airflow, excessive moisture, and low light conditions. This is why after a rainstorm, where clouds are prevalent and grounds are wet, you may notice signs of fungus. According to Graham Simmons, Director of Turf Grass Operations for Woerner Farms, ”Rainy and cloudy weather are prime conditions for fungus.” Below is a list and photo examples of common types of fungus to watch out for in your lawn.

Dollar Spot

Are you seeing patches of brown grass, no bigger than a silver dollar, scattered around your lawn? Dollar spot fungus, characterized by its namesake, may be to blame. This type of fungus can occur on most warm and cool season varieties of grass. In addition to the “silver dollar” type patches, signs of dollar spot fungus can also be found on your leaf blades.

According to Mr. Simmons, “On the leaf blade itself, an hour-glass shaped legion would be indicative of dollar spot.” A fungicide that notably prevents and exterminates dollar spot fungus is Heritage with active ingredient azoxystrobin.

Gray Leaf

Example of Gray Leaf Fungus

If you have noticed browning grass blades in your yard, your lawn may be under attack by the gray leaf fungus. The gray leaf fungus is characterized by dark gray or brown patches and spots on leaves and grass blades. It is common in the summer months and is mostly found on St. Augustine grass.

According to Mr. Simmons, conditions that encourage it are mostly standard, ranging from wet and cloudy weather to excess nitrogen on your lawn from fertilizer. The good news is that this kind of fungus is pretty easy, predictable and preventable. As Mr. Simmons says, “You can just about count on this fungus appearing every summer during wet periods.” Types of fungicides that are best for prevention and extermination are Daconil with active ingredient chlorothalonil and Banner Maxx with active ingredient propiconazole.

Brown Patch

Example of Brown Patch Fungus

A smaller version of the dollar spot fungus, brown patch fungus is characterized by large brown patches across the lawn. Brown patch fungus is referred to by two names. In cool seasons grasses, like kentucky bluegrass, it is called “brown patch.” When found in warm season grasses, it is referred to as “large patch.”

According to Mr. Simmons, “The large patch can be several feet in diameter, can be irregularly shaped or a circle. Inside of the circle will be green healthy grass, almost like smoke rings.” Brown patch fungus typically occurs in the fall and in the spring while your lawn is transitioning either into or out of dormancy. Some fungicides used to treat brown patch fungus include Heritage and Daconil.

Fungus In Your Lawn

Are you noticing patches of dead grass scattered across your lawn? Or maybe blades and leaves of grass are turning brown. Whichever, these may be indicators of a fungus takeover.

What is Fungus?

What exactly is fungus? Well, it’s not just the mushrooms and it actually has a lot more to do with your soil health than you would think. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, fungus is defined as, “any of a kingdom (Fungi) of saprophytic and parasitic spore-producing eukaryotic typically filamentous organisms formerly classified as plants that lack chlorophyll and include molds, rusts, mildews, smuts, mushrooms, and yeasts.” As noted in that definition regarding the lack of chlorophyll, fungi differ from a plant in that they require a host and do not undergo photosynthesis.

Dollar Spot Fungus

Instead, fungus actually thrive in dimly lit conditions. Fungus spread through spores and typically thrive in environments with poor airflow, excessive moisture, and low light conditions. This is why after a rainstorm, where clouds are prevalent and grounds are wet, you may notice signs of fungus. According to Graham Simmons, Director of Turf Grass Operations for Woerner Farms, ”Rainy and cloudy weather are prime conditions for fungus.”

Just like bacteria and insects, there are harmful fungi, but there are also beneficial fungi. According to Mr. Simmons, some of the harmful fungi can cause various effects ranging from an unsightly lawn to a lawn decline and potentially death. On the flip side, in conjunction with soil bacteria, they can contribute to organic matter and break down harmful substances in the soil. 

How to Get Rid of Fungus

If you are aiming to rid your lawn of fungi, Mr. Simmons recommends you take a holistic approach. “The best practice is to take a multi-step approach and not rely exclusively on chemicals. If there is a way to prune some bushes to create better airflow or prune a tree to provide more sunlight, do that in conjunction with fungicide treatment.” Fungicides are obviously the most common treatments and they come in two kinds: preventative and curative. Like its namesake, preventative fungicides are sprayed before the appearance of fungus to prevent fungus from growing. Curative fungicides are sprayed after the fungus has attacked your lawn and are relatively effective in eliminating fungus.

These treatments come in another two forms: contact and systemic. Contact treatments work on whatever it sticks to once sprayed. Systematic treatments, as Mr. Simmons refers to as the better option, is absorbed by the plant and then translocated throughout the plant. Mr. Simmons cautions against repetitive use of fungicides saying, “When applying fungicides you do not want to spray the same one back to back to back, rotate your mode of action so you do not build up a resistance in the fungus. Just because you applied the product and it cured it, it is not a good thing to spray the same spot.”

Soil Health is Key

As previously mentioned, soil health plays a major role in preventing these problems in the first place. Mr. Simmons explains, “Anything that will do damage to your yard is going to have a better chance at doing it if your lawn is unhealthy. By maintaining a healthy soil, your lawn will be less susceptible to disease, and it will be set up better to recover from it. General soil health which equates to plant health means that you should see less chance of disease and a quicker recovery.” And a regular lab-based soil test can help identify and correct any abnormalities in your lawn.

Checking Your SoilKit Results

After you have registered your kit, collected your sample, and mailed it in, checking your SoilKit results is the next and most exciting part! You will receive an email notification with a link to view your results. The link will take you to your SoilKit dashboard. From there, you can view your results and easily see your organic matter level, key element levels in your lawn and product recommendations to purchase. Alternatively, you can visit soilkit.com and login to your account. This will take you to your dashboard where you can access your results. 

Registering Your Kit

As simple as the process is, you may encounter some complications. If you have not yet created an account, when you click on your results link, the system will prompt you to do so. But what if you have an account but have forgotten your password? If this happens, type your email and click the “forgot my password” button. This will prompt SoilKit to send you an email with a link to reset your password. Then, voilà, you are done! 

If you have waited several weeks to access your results, your link may have expired.  This is a security feature. Never fear, though, the database saves all of your information so you can still access old results by simply logging into your account by navigating to soilkit.com.  Still have questions? Please ping our help icon at the bottom right corner of the home page and our friendly customer service team will be happy to help.

Thank you for using SoilKit!