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Fall 2003 The Ecological Landscaper Newsletter

Fall 2003 The Ecological Landscaper Newsletter

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Published by: Ecological Landscaping Association on May 16, 2011
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The Newsletter of The Ecological Landscaping AssociationVol. 10, No. 3Fall 2003
The soilfoodweb
WHAT IS THE SOILFOOD WEB?
L
ife in the soil takes a multi-tude of forms, most ofwhich are undetectable bythe unaided eye. Theseforms range in size and kind frommicroscopic one-celled bacteria,algae, fungi, and protozoa, to largernematodes, anthropods, earthworms,insects, plant roots, and small ani-mals. These make up the communitycalled the soil food web. The soilorganisms decompose organicmatter, recycle nutrients and energy,and aid in the formation of humus.They convert nutrients into formsplants can use. In fact, all plants—grass, trees, shrubs, and agriculturalcrops—depend on the soil food webfor their nutrition. In turn, plantroots exude sugars and simpleproteins that feed bacteria and fungi.WHYIS THE SOILFOOD WEB IMPORTANT?The soil food web performs anamazing number and variety offunctions that contribute to soilquality, plant health, and the cyclesthat allow life of earth to exist. Thegreat majority of soil organisms are beneficial or benign to plant life. Therelatively few soil organisms thatcreate problems in the landscape are
Web
continued on next page
 within:
Editor’s two cents. . . . . . . . . . 2, 8Building soil systems. . . . . . . . 3Saving dirt. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5Nitrogen in the soil. . . . . . . . . . 6Humus. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7ELAnews. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10Conference. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11Gleanings. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17Resources. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18Events. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19Unclassifieds. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
The following is excerpted fromthe first installment of the EcologicalLandscaping Association’s Guide to Healthy Landscapes, Chapter 4,Developing Healthy Soil.
Energy flows in direction of arrows.Lengths of organisms givenin millimeters (25mm=1")= First-level consumers= Second-level consumers= Third-level consumers
Illustration modified from D.L. Dindall, 1978
Soil organisms and their role in decomposing residues
Celebrating our 10th  anniversary  year 
 
“Gramma said when you come onsomething good, first thing to do isshare it with whoever you can find;that way the good spread out whereno telling it will go. Which is right.” —Little Tree in
The Educationof Little Tree
, by Forrest Carter
The Ecological Landscaper
is published by the EcologicalLandscaping Association (ELA).Subscriptions are a benefitof membership in ELA. For moreinformation about ELA, contact:
ELA60 Thoreau Street, #252Concord, MA 01742-2456(617)436-5838
Or check our Web site at:www.ELA-ecolandscapingassn.org
(Members section password: elapost)
Talk to us. We welcome yourcomments, letters, articles, ideas,and opinions. Address all newslet-ter correspondence, submissions,and address corrections to: NickNovick, 6 Meadowbrook Lane,Ashland, MA 01721; (508) 881-1517(phone/fax); e-mail: ELBacktalk@aol.com.Send all other ELA business to theConcord address above.The ELA board meets throughoutthe year in various locations ineastern Massachusetts. All mem-bers are welcome. Contact us forspecific dates and locations.
ELA Board of Directors
President: Chris O’BrienTreasurer: Tom SheehanRecording Secretary: Sue StorerM.L. AltobelliChris OBrienNancy AskinCathy RooneyDon BishopTom SheehanAndrea KnowlesTom SmarrBob LeviteKathy Sargent-James MarzilliONeillNick NovickDiane SyversonBruce Wenning
Administrative Assistant:
Pat MacAlpine
Newsletter
Editorial Director: Nick NovickProduction Editor: Joy Buslaff
E
DITOR
’ 
STWO CENTS
 W
elcome to our soils issue.Understanding the basics of soils is fundamental to success in mostany aspect of landscaping. With the publication of ELA’s first volumein our Guide to Healthy Landscapes series, and with this season’ssoil-focused roundtable series, we thought we’d take this issue of thenewsletter to further probe some of the many aspects of soil. What wecurrently know about soil is still expanding; there are exciting newfrontiers, especially in the area of soil biology. While we can only scratchthe surface here, we hope you’ll find some new and useful informationin these pages.
 —Nick Novick
less likely to dominate a systemthat is also home to their predators.Biodiversity in the soil increases itsproductivity because the interactions between different types of soilorganisms greatly multiply the valueof their activities as individuals.Some soil organisms produce stickysubstances that aid in the formationand stability of soil aggregates,which are essential to good soilstructure. The soil food web con-tributes to the formation of humus,a mixture of complex organic com-pounds that resists further decom-position and stores carbon in the soilfor years. The more abundant,diverse forms of life we can nurturein the soil, the more fruitful, and self-sustaining our landscapes will be.While much remains to be discov-ered about the chemical nature andstructure of humus, its importance tosoil fertility remains undisputed.Ahealthy soil food web is essentialfor the long-term health of plants. Ithelps reduce or eliminate the needfor fertilizers, pesticides, and irriga-tion. The food web stores and cyclesnutrients necessary for plant health,and healthier plants are much lesssusceptible to insects and disease.The deeper and more developed rootsystems of well-nourished plantsallow the roots to access moisturedeep in the soil, making the plantsmore resistant to drought. Also, theorganic matter produced by soilorganisms helps the soil retainmoisture during dry periods.In addition to supporting healthyplants, the soil food web provides broader benefits, such as helping toreduce pollution and purify wateras it passes through the soil. Soilorganisms decompose organic com-pounds in manure and pesticides,preventing them from pollutinggroundwater. Because soil organismsincrease soil aggregation and poros-ity, they improve water infiltrationrates, reducing runoff and erosion.Although each organism in the soilfood web plays a particular role, thesum of the whole exceeds the parts.We can maximize the overall health,sustainability, and productivity ofthe soil by encouraging conditionsunder which all soil organismsthrive.By maintaining a thriving popula-tion of soil organisms, the other keyelements of healthy soil—good tilthand fertility—will develop over time.
 —“From the Ground Up: Site and SoilPreparation,” Volume 1 of ELA’s Guideto Healthy Landscapes, contains muchmore about soils, site preparation, and pesticides. To purchase a copy, contactELAat (617)436-5838.
The soil food web
continued from page 1
“Man—despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication,and his many accomplishments—owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.
 —author unknown
2
 
“An agricultural adage says the tiny animals that live below the surface of a healthy pasture weigh more than the cows grazing above it. In a catalogue selling composting equipment I read that two handfuls of healty soil contain more living organisms thanthere are people on the earth. What these beings are and what they can be doing is difficult to even begin to comprehend,but it helps to realize that even though they are many, they work as one.
 — Carol Williams,
 Bringing a Garden to Life
, 1998
Buildingsoilsystems
by Leslie Sauer
[ed. note: Although the techniques beloware presented in the context of larger-scale, re-forestation restoration projects,many of the ideas and principles can beusefully applied to smaller scale projectson a variety of sites.]
T
he objective in restoration is torestore the nutrient cycling andenergy flow of the historic soil system.First, work to protect existing soilresources and then explore techniquesto increase the overall biomass of thesoil and to foster the diversity ofnative soil flora and fauna.
RECOMMENDATIONS
Identify, protect, and monitorareas of native soil that are relatively undisturbed.
Most areas contain places wherethere is less-disturbed soil that canserve as rough models of local soilconditions. Studying the more natu-ral soils at the same time remediationis being documented in a disturbedlandscape will provide a standard formeasuring the success of differentapproaches. The natural sites alsoserve as propagation sources forlocally adapted microorganisms.
• Reduce local sources of soil contam-ination, including added nitrogen.
Evaluate local air pollutionimpacts, especially that of auto-mobile exhaust. Removing roadswherever possible is of paramountimportance, especially in morenatural areas. What is convenient,even to the restorer, such as easyaccess, may be lethal to the most jeopardized species. Educate thecommunity about regional air pollu-tion impacts. Many other manage-ment practices, such as pesticide use,also affect the realm of the soil. Themost popular herbicide, for example,glyphosate, which is often used tocontrol exotics, enhances conditionsfor bacteria but makes a poor sub-strate for the development of forestfungi.
• Recognize that the user isinseparable from the solution.
No treatment of soil will make itimpervious to compactions, erosion,and other such disturbances. Confineall use in forests and other naturallandscape fragments to designedtrails to minimize degradation fromfeet, hooves, and wheels. Prohibitionalone never is enough. Users willstay on trails to the extent that trailscreate the elements of satisfactionthat keep them there and provideaccess to desired destinations. Thegradual building of the litter layerand the absence of bare soil off thetrail are hallmarks of success.
• Minimize “working the soil.”
Despite a lot of knowledge aboutthe damage done to living systems by constant perturbation, there is stilla tendency to overwork soil. Beyondthe familiar structural damage, suchas that caused by working a heavysoil while it is wet or the erosion thataccompanies any soil disturbance,the soil’s level of microorganisms isalso severely affected. For example,plowing and any mechanical distur- bance to the soil will tend to fosterthe rapid growth of bacteria, whichin turn generate exopolysaccharides,which cause the soil to slump in rain.Other substances make soil hard towet, or hydrophobic. Cultivating soilis almost always deleterious to natu-ral areas and constantly resets thetime clock back to disturbance ratherthan allowing more complex, stable,and diverse soil systems to develop.We need to try new techniques, suchas planting new seedlings in logs orstumps, to avoid soil disturbancewhile enhancing survival. Anothertechnique is vertical staking—wooden twigs driven vertically intothe soil. Vertical staking serves toaerate and loosen the soil withoutdamaging the roots of existingvegetation, and it avoids the need tocompletely turn the soil. In addition,it favors the development of fungiinstead of bacteria because it incor-porates wood into the soil.
• Reevaluate the usefulness of current methods of stockpiling topsoil.
Harris, Birch, and Short (1993)describe the progressive impacts ofstockpiling, which is a frequentlyused method to retain a site’s topsoilduring construction. The first phaseis an instantaneous kill of many ofthe living creatures in the soil thatoccurs with the initial removal andstockpiling. During the next fewmonths there is a flush of bacterialgrowth as well as fungi but only inthe upper soil on the outside of thepile, the new “topsoil.” During thenext half year or so the soil stratifiesin layers. The primary distinctionsreflect the amount of oxygen in thesoil because of its depth in the pileor level of saturation with water.The developing layers consist of both near-surface aerobic and deeperanaerobic zones as well as a shiftingtransition area between them. Whenthe soils are restripped and replacedelsewhere, there is another instanta-neous kill of most living organisms,followed by a flush of bacterialgrowth.
• Experiment with alternativestrategies that better preserve nativesoil food webs when moving soil isnecessary.
Experiment with methods thatkeep soil horizons intact, such asmoving blocks of soil. Practitionersare using and modifying equipmentlike old sod forks and front-endloaders as well as developing newequipment, such as John Monro’ssoil mat lifter, for this purpose.
• Reevaluate the addition of organicmatter to enrich disturbed soils.
The continuous rain of airborne
3

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