Category Archives: Fertilizer

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 4)

Pest and disease control

lawn-fence
The healthier your lawn is, the more likely it is to resist pests and diseases. Some pests, however, can be hard to avoid—particularly white grubs. Grubs are the larvae of beetles (primarily Japanese beetles and masked chafers) that develop in the ground. When the population of grubs is significant, you will start seeing brown patches in your lawn, particularly toward late summer. To make matters worse, grubs are a delicacy for some animals, such as skunks and raccoons. Sometimes the problem goes unnoticed until you see holes dug in your turf one morning. Grubs like sunny areas with moisture, and are not often found in shade or in dry lawns.

If you see brown patches in your turf, you can lift up a piece of turf where the brown patch meets green lawn and look at the roots to check. The grubs are white and C-shaped. It only takes about 10 grubs per square foot of lawn to cause visible damage.

If you catch the problem early, or if you see a large adult population of beetles,  Almstead lawn technicians usually perform a summer lawn treatment.  Although mid-summer and fall treatments are sometimes effective, June is the best time to prevent grubs from damaging your lawn.

There is also an effective organic treatment for grubs which we use, which utilizes milky spore, a grub-killing bacterial powder. However, this only works on Japanese Beetle grubs and must build up in your soil over time to work. We can test your lawn to identify what type of grub is living there.

Other insects, such as chinchbugs, can be damaging to lawns. When you see yellowing patches, or grass blades that have been notched and nibbled, we try to identify the insect responsible and narrowly target it with the appropriate control.

Lawn diseases are usually fungal. Fortunately, they are not common. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to diagnose and can spread quickly. If you suspect your lawn is suffering from disease rather than insect damage, it’s wise to have a sample taken and analyzed in order to determine the right treatment.

The best prevention for lawn disease and pests is maintaining the health of the lawn. A well-nourished, watered, well-mown lawn becomes a self-sustaining system that is hostile to predators.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 3)

Weed Control

weeds

There is no universal definition of a weed. You may be content to see clover among the grass stalks in your lawn, while someone else reaches for the Roundup. Some people carefully scrutinize their lawns and remove any undesirables with tweezers while others are content as long as the weeds are green. Is it enough to eliminate the crabgrass and broadleaf weeds and leave some clover mixed in your lawn? Or do you want a lawn as luxuriant as a golf course green?

Frankly, having a completely weed-free lawn is setting the bar rather high, and will require frequent application of weed control products. Since most herbicides are synthetic, a totally weed-free lawn is not compatible with an organic-only care philosophy.

There are two major categories of weed control: pre-emergent and post-emergent. The pre-emergent treatments prevent seeds from germinating. This helps control weeds like crabgrass, which begin from seed each year. There are several kinds of synthetic pre-emergent products available. Pre-emergent herbicides won’t do much to get rid of plants like dandelions that overwinter in your lawn and spread through roots.

Post-emergent herbicides target broadleaf weeds, such as dandelions, plantain and ground-ivy.  Some can be applied to the entire lawn; others are made to squirt directly onto the offending weed.  The herbicide will be absorbed into the weed and kill it off, roots and all. Be careful – it will kill anything it touches with leaves, including your annuals and perennials.

There are no comparable herbicides in organic care. Ideally, as you create a healthier environment for grass, it will become harder for weeds to compete. Weeds tend to thrive and out-compete grass in compacted soil—which is why annual core aeration is a good technique. There are organic vinegar-based  spot-herbicides that can be sprayed on weeds—but they can kill grass as well, if you’re not careful. Perhaps the best organic practice is to pull weeds by hand. There are several hand tools designed to remove weeds; just make sure you extract the entire root or the weed will grow back.

How often you apply weed controls depends upon your philosophy and your budget. Although pre-emergent controls are usually applied in early spring, the post-emergent controls can be applied as you notice the weeds appearing. You can just use them in the areas where weeds are apparent. They are usually applied when the lawn is dry; they need a few hours free of rain or watering. When Almstead provides lawn care to our clients, we typically offer two applications of pre-emergent herbicide in spring, and then follow up with monthly inspections, applying post-emergent controls as necessary.

Hand-pulling weeds is usually easiest when the ground is moist. If you intend to compost the weeds, make sure you turn your compost pile often and that it gets warm enough to kill the seeds (over 131 degrees). Otherwise, you’ll wind up cultivating them rather than killing them.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 2)

Fertilization

How you nourish your lawn depends a lot upon your “turf philosophy.” A wide range of choices are available, from totally organic to traditional synthetic products—and combinations in between.

turf

Whatever your philosophy on type of care, it’s useful to begin by having your soil tested. The cost is nominal and it’s easy to do: There are both mail-in and drop-off labs you can use. Once you have a soil analysis, you can fertilize with the products that are right for your property.

In fertilizing lawns, less is often more. Too many people (including landscapers sometimes, unfortunately) dump large amounts of products on lawns, without understanding what the turf actually needs and can absorb. The goal is to create a healthy lawn ecosystem, which will ultimately lead to less use of soil amendments. (See the earlier post about the value of core aeration and composting.) When you add too much of some synthetic fertilizers, it will either wash through the soil unused or actually damage the turf by “burning” the grass.

One of the advantages of organic products is that they are far less likely to damage turf. Organic fertilizers break down slowly and gradually release their nutrients to improve the structure of the soil. This means that it will take longer to see results from organic products; the soil improvements from organic fertilizers will ultimately lead to improved turf, but it could take a couple of seasons. In order to expedite this process, some organic lawn care specialists (including Almstead), “brew” Compost Teas that contains live beneficial microorganisms. This liquid compost can be used to add these organisms directly to the soil, offering a boost to the organic soil improvement process.

One of the questions I’m often asked is, “How much and how often should I fertilize?” This depends on your lawn goals, available time (assuming you’re doing it yourself) and budget. In general, 2 pounds of nitrogen is the right amount for per 1,000 square feet of lawn in our area, but soil testing may modify that proportion for your property. The rule of thumb for timing is to fertilize around Memorial Day and Labor Day—and that’s not a bad plan. We have many clients who are happy with the results of a twice-per-year fertilization program. On the other hand, more frequent fertilization visits allow us to narrowly target the growing cycle of the lawn and tailor nutrition to weather and conditions. So we also offer a six times/year schedule (organic, traditional or mixed). That level of attention usually leads to a lawn that looks lush, plush and close to perfect.

Patience and consistency are important in developing beautiful turf: your lawn won’t go from scrub to velvet in a single season. Consistent care, including proper mowing and watering, will help your lawn look great.

Planning for a Beautiful Lawn (Part 1)

Prepping and Mowing 

Having a beautiful lawn requires attention. Over the next few weeks, our blog will cover a few of the most important dynamics of creating lush, green turf.  We’ll begin with lawn prepping and mowing and then cover fertilization, weed control and pest/disease control.

Lawn2

Creating a healthy lawn is a process that starts with choosing the right grass seed for your location. The first thing to understand is: grass doesn’t grow in the shade. While some grass is more tolerant of shade than others, it will still need several hours of dappled sunlight in order to look good.  Often it’s possible to thin out trees to permit enough light to reach the lawn. If the area is permanently in shade, you might want to forget about planting grass there, in favor of ground cover, hardscape or mulch.

Several varieties of grass are commonly planted in our area; each has its own strengths and drawbacks. There is no “right” grass for all lawns. The right grass for you depends on your soil, sunlight and priorities: do you want a lawn that stays green into fall? Or grass that can take a beating from active play? Or a lawn that can survive with less water?

Kentucky Bluegrass is popular and durable but doesn’t like shade. Fescue and perennial ryegrass are also common in our area, and are more shade tolerant. Most lawns are planted with a mix of these grasses, and different grasses will dominate different areas of your lawn.

It’s often useful to begin your lawn program by checking for soil compaction. Try inserting a long screwdriver into the turf. If it doesn’t easily go in 6” deep, the soil is too compacted to encourage your grass to grow. You’ll want to use a core aerator to pull plugs from the soil and stimulate the roots to grow. This will also help to avoid thatch buildup. If you don’t use a professional for this task, rent or borrow an aerator: the spike shoes and hand tools you see advertised really don’t do the job.This is typically a fall activity, because the plugs may contain weed seed that you don’t want to encourage to grow.

Top dressing with a thin layer of compost in the spring will also get your lawn off to a good start. (This can also be done in fall.) Overseeding can help fill in bare patches.

One of the most important parts of lawn care is mowing. Proper mowing actually encourages your lawn to grow thicker and stronger, by channeling the growth energy into the roots. We recommend setting your lawnmower at 3” – 4”. Maintaining a lawn at less than that makes the lawn very vulnerable to drying out and scorching.

Many people are using mulching mowers now, too, which distribute the grass cuttings back into the lawn, where they decompose, releasing their nutrients back to the soil. Most experts recommend mowing about 1/3 of the length of the blade every time you mow. For mulching mowers, this will keep the cuttings short enough to sink back into the lawn.

Beating Heat Stress

We are at the peak of summer, and the weather can have a toll on your trees, shrubs and lawn. Extended periods of heat and humidity, along with bright sunshine, warm nights and inadequate rain can lead to summer stress on your landscape.

soaker-hose
Arranging a soaker hose to cover the critical root zone of a tree is a great method for the slow, saturated watering that’s best for trees.

Horticulturally speaking, the first place many people notice the effects of heat stress is on lawns, which have the good sense to go dormant and wait it out. We definitely recommend a combination of over-seeding and core aeration this fall to help rejuvenate your grass as the summer comes to an end. However, lawns are actually faring better than many trees, although the symptoms may not be as obvious.

Plants are constantly losing water through tiny holes in their leaves through a process called transpiration, and when it’s hot, the rate of that water loss increases. Add to that a lack of adequate rainfall, and the result is often stressed plant material. The problem facing trees is that they’re really big, and they do not have the luxury of going dormant in hot summer months, like lawns. Instead, trees have a lot of active leaves, so they lose a lot of water, and their roots are searching to replace that water in some pretty dry ground.

Trees suffering from heat stress face problems with producing new growth, healing wounds, and fighting against diseases and insects. If they’re stressed enough, they eventually run out of energy to support their existing growth and begin to decline (sometimes irreversibly). Newly planted (within the last 2 years) and mature trees are the most at risk for serious decline, and we’ve seen both this summer. Some trees that are most prone to heat stress and drought include Birches, American Dogwoods, and Japanese Maples.

dried-leaf

Signs of heat stress in trees tend to develop toward the top of the canopy first, so property owners don’t often notice it right away. They include smaller leaf size, leaf scorch (browning and/or yellowing), wilting, and sometimes loss of foliage (a particularly bad sign). 

 

So, What’s the Solution?

The best way to fight heat stress in trees is through a combination of proper irrigation, mulching, and organic soil amendments.

Irrigation:

Proper irrigation means focusing water on saturating the root zone of a tree. Sprinklers may be good for lawns, but they aren’t going to get the job done for trees. A properly placed soaker hose is a better solution. Treegators are ideal especially for young trees, which run a high risk of suffering heat stress. With a traditional garden hose, it’s also possible to set the flow to a trickle and move the mouth of the hose around to four or five different areas of the root zone over the course of the day.

treegators
Treegators are bags with tiny holes that slowly release water into the root zone of a tree.
Mulch:

A good line of defense against hot weather conditions is to apply a layer of mulch around trees and plants. Light colored mulches are better at reflecting sunlight and keeping the soil cooler in summer. Mulch also reduces evaporation of water from the soil and reduces the need to water constantly. However, to be effective, mulch needs to be applied correctly.

mulch

We recommend a depth of 2-3 inches of mulch for trees and shrubs. It should also cover a diameter of 3-4 feet around trees (to the tree’s drip line ideally) and not pile up against the stem or trunk flare. If you have any questions about mulching, please speak to your Almstead arborist.

Soil Care:

In terms of soil care, organic amendments increase a tree’s drought tolerance without spurring new growth that it can’t afford to support (which is the result of synthetic fertilization of heat stressed plants). Also, by using a soil needle injection method for applying soil amendments (as opposed to a soil drench), we can break up compacted ground and introduce better flow of nutrients, air, and water into the root zone. In addition to Almstead’s organic soil care services our arborists are always glad to advise you on irrigation practices, and we also provide watering services for plants out of reach of irrigation.

To formulate a heat stress survival plan for your trees (and shrubs, and lawn), please schedule a complimentary consultation with your Almstead arborist.

Preserving Old Trees During Construction – Part 1

Almstead was brought in to consult on preserving Sugar Maple trees — that are approximately 75 years old — during the construction of a new home in Riverside, CT. These beautiful old trees will definitely add to the value and aesthetic of the property once the construction is complete. In the meantime, it’s our job to make sure that they stay healthy and safe. In general, Maple trees have a high level of adaptability to environmental change.

We found major soil disturbance within the drip line of the tree caused by the blasting of ledge rock and the excavation for construction and the installation of utilities.

Over the course of the next year, Almstead will monitor the site and ensure that the trees are healthy, and looking their best, after the construction is over. In addition to consultation, our services will include root and crown pruning, fertilizations, soil amendments and air spading.

We will post photos and updates on this project here in the coming months.

construction-care

(Top ) Blasting of ledge rock was done in preparation for construction. You can see the fault line and exposed roots that have resulted from the rock blasting. 

(Bottom) Before and after root pruning — Almstead will be pruning the roots as well as the crown. We will also be treating the tree with cambistat growth regulators and custom fertilizations during and after construction to help preserve these trees throughout the process.

Worm Power

“I doubt that there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world.”   –Charles Darwin on earthworms

Most people know that earthworms are a sign of healthy soil. Worms process the soil, making it more tillable and creating better conditions for root development. Earthworm castings – the waste produced as they churn through the soil — are a buffet for beneficial microbes and provide nutrients that nourish roots. As soil improves and becomes richer in organic matter (think compost), the conditions become better for earthworms and the cycle of soil improvement continues.

earthworms

In addition to promoting healthy soil, scientists have evidence that earthworms actually suppress soil diseases. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station researched the effect of earthworms on vegetables grown in soil infested with soilborne plant pathogens. When earthworms were added to the soil, disease pathogens decreased by 50 – 70% and plant weights increased by 60 – 80% versus the control group. Though more research would be necessary to determine whether the worms directly destroyed the pathogens or if they promoted the presence of healthy microbes that populated and defended the root zone, the beneficial effect of worms on plant growth was impressive.

So how do we encourage earthworms to populate our lawns and gardens?

  1. Disturb the soil as little as possible, unless it is compacted. General tilling of the soil just disrupts the worms’ environment. Let them do the tilling for you.
  2. Keep the soil “sweet.” Worms don’t like acidic soil so amend the soil with lime, if necessary, to raise the pH. Worms also need calcium, which is usually absent from acidic soils. Your turf will do better with a higher pH as well as applying a spring or fall lime soil testing to see where it is required.
  3. Feed them. Worms thrive on decaying organic matter. In the urban landscape, we usually remove the leaf litter that nourishes worms. Adding compost and mulch, and leaving grass clippings, will provide them with what they need to thrive.
  4. Minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Chemical residues will slow the buildup of the worm population. Transition to an organic-based or organic lawn care program and incorporate organic soil and PHC programs into your landscape.

 

Soil Care at Almstead

At Almstead, soil improvement is a top priority of our arborists and technicians who care for trees and lawns. We custom-blend top quality compost for top-dressing both lawns and plants – providing a jump-start for your soil. We also custom-blend Compost Tea, which is alive with beneficial microorganisms. Compost Tea can be applied as a drench or soil injection, so the microbes enrich the soil without disturbing it.

It’s almost impossible for earthworms to move through compacted soil. In these situations, we use an AirSpade to remove areas of compacted soil.  We then backfill these trenches with rich compost. This loosens up the soil and gives a base camp for worms and beneficial organisms to gradually penetrate and improve the surrounding soil.  Your arborist can measure levels of soil compaction throughout your landscape in order to formulate a plan if needed.

soil-compaction

Why Leaves Change Color

Autumn is here and, as the Simon and Garfunkel hit song goes, “the leaves that are green turn to brown.”  In the New York Metro area, we are lucky to be treated to a fireworks display of autumn colors. Few places have the variety and intensity of color that we see in the foliage of the Northeast. Aside from entertaining us, nature also has another purpose in painting so many trees with these intense hues.

fall-leaves-2

Different fall colors occur for different reasons. The orange and yellow pigment (carotene and xanthophyll respectively) in leaves doesn’t suddenly appear – it has been there all along, only disguised by the intense green of chlorophyll. During the summer, trees use their leaves to make glucose, which gives them energy to use and to store for the winter. Leaves are solar panels for trees; the leaves of deciduous trees add tremendous surface area for collecting sunlight. Photosynthesis uses this sunlight, along with carbon dioxide and chlorophyll to manufacture glucose. As trees segue into winter, they can no longer replenish the moisture that evaporates from their canopies, so they turn off the tap and starve the leaves of water. As the green chlorophyll ceases production and fades, the yellows and oranges that have been there all along become visible.

Reds and purples come from anthocyanins that form when glucose is trapped in the leaves. There are theories about what benefit this provides to the tree. Some scientists feel this allows leaves to remain on the branches longer, providing the tree with added nutrients. Others think that as red and purple leaves decay the anthocyanins make the ground inhospitable to competing species.

Brown leaves contain large deposits of tannins, a waste product of photosynthesis.

When Color Change is a Warning Sign

Although color change is natural for deciduous trees, premature color change is often a warning sign. When trees accelerate the process of shutting off their leaves for the winter, it is usually in response to some stress such as disease or lack of water.

stressed-tree

Sometimes only a single branch will turn color.  This is a signal that the branch is injured or there is disease present. An arborist can determine the source of the problem and suggest recommendations to rectify it before it develops further or results in the loss of the tree.

— Ken Almstead, CEO

Leaves: Move ’em or Mow ’em?

All the beauty of autumn eventually lands on our lawns. Pleasant childhood memories of jumping into piles of leaves are quickly supplanted by the drudgery of raking them — or herding them with a leaf blower. Yet there is another option: mowing them.

If you have deciduous trees, you have leaves falling – often a lot of them. Whether you manage them yourself or hire someone to take care of them, it’s time for all of us to think about how (and where) we dispose of our leaves. Most of our communities here in Westchester have leaf recycling programs.  We put our leaves by the curb, either loose or in bags, and local government collects them. Some communities have a facility for turning the leaves into mulch or compost onsite while others truck the leaves away to larger facilities that are often hundreds of miles away.

The cost of leaf collection and disposal is causing many of us to question whether we’re spending money and squandering resources in order to get rid of something that is actually valuable – leaf mulch. Many communities are discussing whether to stop collecting leaves entirely, a move that would improve their budgets. (Leaf collection can cost a municipality hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Several university studies have demonstrated that mulching leaves in place does no harm – and may do a lot of good.  Mulching leaves returns nitrogen to the soil; lawns need nitrogen to be green.  If you currently apply nitrogen to your grass, mulching will allow you to use less.

Norman Rockwell: Grandpa and Me Raking Leaves
Norman Rockwell: Grandpa and Me Raking Leaves

Mulching mowers have become increasingly common both for do-it-yourselfers and for lawn care companies; these mowers were designed to return grass cuttings to the lawn where they decompose and return their nutrients to the soil. The mowers do a good job of shredding leaves as well, with the same results.

So how do you begin? Start mowing. Studies show that, even when mulch is piled 4 to 6 inches high, the lawns do well.  It’s safe to say that our lawns will usually benefit from as much mulch as all the trees in our yards can produce. If the mulch is so deep that the grass isn’t poking through though, it’s probably time to redistribute it.

As you probably know, different trees have leaves that differ in their chemical makeup, for example oak leaves are more acidic than maple. One of the benefits of mulching with a mower is that the leaves are shredded where they fall: beneath the tree that grew them and will benefit most from their decomposition.

One place where you may have to take out the rake (or the blower) is your perennial bed. If your bed is bare for the winter, you can wait until the first hard frost and then mow right over it. More typically though, our beds include shrubs or perennials that have attractive winter forms: for these locations, you’ll need to remove the leaves, shred them and then pile them back on. A thick layer of leaf mulch on these beds will help to insulate them from temperature fluctuations over the winter. It’s important to shred the leaves rather than leaving them whole, however, because a thick layer of whole leaves will inhibit growth.

Whether you choose organic or traditional lawn care, leaf mulching is a good strategy. The shredded leaves nourish, insulate, keep the grass greener longer, reduce the need for soil amendments, increase beneficial microbial activity and actually make the turf feel springier. So you improve your lawn, help the environment and save money.

–Ken Almstead, CEO and Arborist

Don’t Squash That Worm – He Works for Me

Every gardener knows the benefits of earthworms: they are little humus-creating machines that recycle organic material as they travel, aerating and enriching the soil as they go. Worm castings (excrement) –  and eventually the worms themselves  – decay and release nutrients back into the soil. Grass, plants and trees all benefit from the activity of worms.

It’s tempting to try and improve your soil by adding more worms — and there are plenty of places willing to sell them to you for this purpose. But soil that is inhospitable to your own worms is not going to be any more attractive to imported worms – and you wind up with some really expensive dead worm fertilizer.

workerworm

There are ways to make the soil more worm-friendly, and that can start a cycle of soil improvement. Aerating compacted soil can help to make a better environment for both your worms and your plants. In addition to core aerating lawns, our Almstead arborists also use compressed air (with a tool called an Air Spade) to loosen soil around tree roots or heavily compacted places. Tree and plant roots are able to receive more water through the aerated soil – and moist soil is also worm heaven. The other thing that worms (and plants) need is nutrition. That is one reason that we enrich soil with compost and leave a thick layer of mulch on top: the worms will eat the organic material and then recycle it through the soil.

Healthy soil is not just filled with earthworms – it also contains beneficial bacteria and fungi. All these organisms, along with the roots of trees and plantings, interact to perpetuate a cycle of healthy soil creation. Here at Almstead, we like to help this process with applications of Compost Tea — a carefully-balanced, liquid compost. We brew our Compost Tea from top quality leaf and twig compost and add organic nutrients like worm castings. We nourish the beneficial microorganisms with humates and fish oil to create a nutrient-rich liquid that helps to jump-start tree, lawn, plant (and earthworm) health.

Ken Almstead, Almstead arborist and CEO