Compost tea can quench your lawn's thirst this spring

ctruman@herald-leader.comMarch 20, 2014 

Spring is here, and for Storey Slone that means it's time to mix compost tea.

Slone works in organic lawn care for Dave Leonard Tree Specialists. Compost tea is a lawn application that contains plant growth compounds and beneficial microorganisms that condition soil without the use of man-made chemicals.

Leonard, a well-known Lexington arborist, said he was drawn to lawn care after seeing a cluster of red oaks with leaves curled up "just like a fist."

The culprit was the toxic turf chemicals being used in the area, he said.

"I asked, 'Which would you rather have, dandelions or red oaks?'" Leonard said.

Organic lawn care can be a little more expensive than the standard fertilizer with a sock of chemical weed and pest control, but it also has a different focus, Leonard said. A base price for the Leonard program is about $65 per thousand square feet per treatment, plus $55 for soil amendments (first year cost only).

The number of visits varies according to the program selected.

While some Lexington-area lawn care companies offer an organic program as an option with or without add-in chemical weed control, at the Leonard company — which offers two all-organic lawn care plans —organic lawn care is the preferred route.

Organic lawns can take several years to fully establish, but the goal is to feed the soil for the long term, with probiotics that help aerate the lawn and reduce compacted soil. Nourishing the soil helps the lawn squeeze out pesky intruders such as nutsedge, the wide-bladed weed that seems to tower over grass immediately after mowing. Also, it helps give grass deeper roots so that it can withstand weather stresses, Leonard said.

Nutsedge thrives in poorly drained, compacted soils, Slone said.

"A lot of these yards are just sterile," Leonard said. "We know for longevity you want an organic lawn. ... If you improve the soil you get a better lawn. Spraying it with a quick-release fertilizer does not improve the soil."

In addition to improving the lawn's safety for people, pets and trees, an organic lawn also prevents harmful chemical runoff into sewers.

The Leonard company's compost tea is brewed in a 700-gallon mixer and includes beneficial bacteria like those found in probiotic beverages and yogurt.

"It's all of the organisms that naturally thrive in soil," Slone said. "These organisms are going to thrive and multiply in the soil and start to do a lot of that work for you, increasing drainage and aeration and pathogen resistance."

If customers need weed control, Slone says she can provide organic herbicides. A certified organic land care professional, she recommends that homeowners do not use herbicide around trees unless it's an organic herbicide.

In addition to the compost tea and organic herbicides, organic fertilizer is offered.

The fertilizer does not provide "an immediate flush of green ... so that there should not be much risk of leaching, and little to no risk of burning the grass," Slone said.

The company can also add in clover for lawn overseeding, which creates a white-dappled look in spring like that seen at Ashland, the Henry Clay estate. A bonus is that the clover provides extra nitrogen for the lawn.

"In the long term what we're looking at is creating an ecosystem that's naturally more self-sustaining," Slone said.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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