An Investment in Sustainability
Non-Toxic Lawn and Garden Alternatives from the Experts
by Martinique Davis
May 10, 2010 | 970 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Here in Western Colorado, with winter’s smothering white veneer rapidly vanishing under spring’s warmth, thoughts inevitably turn to the sun-kissed days of summer. Anticipation of leisurely backyard afternoons spent with family gets homeowners moving on the tasks of spring cleaning. Those chores often bring trips to the local hardware store for chemical-laden fertilizers, pesticides, and other landscaping supplies.

Conventional lawn and garden care techniques dictate the use of such products, many with bold-typed warning labels that caution consumers about toxic ingredients.

But having a beautiful lawn and garden does not require your outdoor spaces be dosed with chemicals – potentially toxic substances you wouldn’t want your kids or pets playing around. The following local landscaping professionals offer tips and product advice appropriate for caring for all corners of your yard and garden in a manner that’s better for the environment, your family, and your backyard.

Frannie Major, Colorado Master Gardener
San Juan Landscapes, Telluride
Tips for: Flower beds

“One of the biggest challenges we are faced with as gardeners in this area is a nutrient-poor soil,” says Colorado Master Gardener and Telluride’s San Juan Landscapes’ garden manager Frannie Major. Poor quality soil combined with other hurdles, such as soil compaction due to new construction, oftentimes makes it difficult for new plants to gain a foothold and can cause older plants to struggle.

The most common means of attacking the nutrient-deficient soil dilemma is dousing garden areas with nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers, which temporarily provide plants with nutrients they need to grow and thrive. Most inorganic fertilizers do not replace trace mineral elements in the soil, however, gradually leading to further soil nutrient depletion.

Major says that improving the soil tilth, or the soil's ability to support plant growth, by amending the soil with fertilizers made from organic compounds has proven to be a much more effective means of dealing with nutrient deficiencies in area soils.

San Juan Landscapes uses Yum Yum Mix, an all-purpose organic fertilizer and soil conditioner from the Soil Mender company, to provide fertile growing grounds for new plantings and to help boost health in established perennials in area gardens. Yum Yum Mix is natural, organic, and safe for family, pets, and wildlife. It is also free of animal products, petrochemicals, and sewage sludge.

The key components that make Yum Yum an effective soil amendment, Major explains, are the sugars found in its alfalfa meal and dry molasses, which help encourage microbial growth, and the rock materials found in the green sand, rock dust and rock phosphate, which create different particle sizes in the soil to help improve drainage. The mix’s other major nutrients come from kelp meal, alfalfa meal, and cottonseed meal, which provide nutrition for the growing plants.

San Juan Landscapes gardeners top off this plant “feast” with a layer of organic mulch to help aid in water retention. Major notes that as the mulch breaks down, it ultimately provides another source of nutrition for the plants. Dan Zaugg, Owner
Modern Landscaping, Ridgway
Tips for: Lawns

A lush, vibrant lawn is considered by many to be the pinnacle of a well cared-for landscape. But that lawn loses its luster when its emerald sheen comes from considerable doses of chemical-based fertilizers and vast quantities of water.

Dan Zaugg, owner of Ridgway-based Modern Landscaping, has discovered a product that boosts lawn and garden health without the unsavory after-effects typical of conventional fertilizer products.

TerraPro is an organically approved soil amendment product from New Mexico-based Soil Secrets, which helps transform bad dirt into rich, organic topsoil. Zaugg describes TerraPro as a revolutionary product that utilizes such soil-building components as hunic acids and mycorrhizae to actually transform poor quality soil into a dynamic growth medium.

According to Zaugg, the humic acids found in the product help “build up” poor soils and retain water, while the mycorrhizae stimulates root growth. TerraPro can not only create healthier soils for plants to grow, but it can also lead to 30-50 percent savings in water consumption – which, during some dry southwest Colorado summers, can make all the difference in a landscape’s lasting vitality.

For Zaugg, using TerraPro ultimately removes the need to import rich topsoil to his landscape projects, while also allowing him to refrain from using petroleum-based fertilizers.

“Traditional fertilizers don’t do anything but trick the plant into believing it has what it needs to grow. This product actually creates healthy soil, which in turn creates healthy plants. It’s a whole different mentality,” he says.

Rather than starting with a foundation of shipped-in topsoil, Zaugg now exclusively uses TerraPro as the nutritional underpinning for new lawn and garden installments. The humic acids and mycorrhizae together allow roots to reach deeper into the existing soil for nutrients and moisture, creating all-around healthier plants and landscapes that actually require less irrigation. Kris Holstrom, Owner/Grower
Tomten Farm, Telluride
Tips for: Vegetable gardens

It is difficult enough for novice vegetable growers to procure a decent crop at high altitudes, what with short growing seasons, wild temperature swings, nutrient poor soil, and sporadic rainfall. So dealing with pests on top of all of that seems downright demoralizing.

Kris Holstrom, of Tomten Farm outside of Telluride, has been through it all during her 20 years as a high-altitude vegetable grower, and she offers some heartening advice for those hoping to produce some edibles for their summer dinner plates.

“The best fertilizer is a farmer’s footprints,” Holstrom says, regurgitating an old farming maxim that insinuates attention is more valuable than any product or gardening technique out there.

To begin, local vegetable growers must start with a good foundation: A nutrient rich soil in which their crops can flourish. Healthy soils produce healthy plants, which in turn are more resistant to pests and infection. But automatically adding an all-purpose fertilizer to amend a garden’s soil isn’t necessarily the best solution, Holstrom says. She first recommends having your garden’s soil tested (the CSU Extension office can supply at-home soil tests for around $20).

“If you know what’s in [the soil], you’ll know what you need to add – and what you don’t,” she says.

Even plants grown in ideal conditions can be susceptible to pests and disease, however. And Holstrom has some simple solutions to clear up crop infestations.

Noticing a bug problem before it explodes often makes for more successful outcomes. At Tomten Farm, gardeners are often so in-tune with the farm’s plants that they notice bugs right away, often simply removing them by hand.

For bigger infestations, Tomten uses a garlic-hot pepper spray; and for the most tenacious pest problems she uses a special organic product made from neem, a natural insecticide found in the bark of an Indian tree.

Of vegetable gardening at altitude, Holstrom says, “It’s all about being mindful of what’s actually needed, and what’s not.”

970/728-1412 John Buerger, Owner
Alpha Naturals, New Castle
Tips for: Trees, shrubs, other landscape features

Last summer, residents in Telluride’s Lawson Hill development discovered some unpleasant neighbors hiding out in the surrounding forest. Many of the neighborhood’s trees were infested with the spruce budworm, a nasty insect that can ultimately lead to a forest’s demise.

Rather than watch their trees slowly die at the hands of a nearly invisible invader, the Lawson Hill Homeowners’ Association took action. They hired John Buerger, owner of Alpha Naturals, Inc. in New Castle, Colo., as their first line of defense against the invasive bugs.

Unlike most pest removal specialists, Buerger uses a method that allows resident pets and children to remain outdoors while infected trees are treated. In fact, Alpha Natural’s weapon of choice isn’t an insecticide at all; rather, it’s a completely non-toxic, all-natural blend of compounds that makes tree sap unpalatable to insect pests while also reenergizing the soil.

According to Buerger, the real reason why forests have been massacred by different pests in recent decades, most notably the bark beetle, lies at the roots of the forests where soil has degraded and elements like phosphorous and nitrogen are low. The impacts of development and compounding air pollutants in rain and snow have caused soil microorganisms to die off. Trees and plants that depend on such microbes to deliver their nutrients then become imbalanced, which in turn makes them more susceptible to insect infestation.

Feeding the soil with a natural soil amendment blend that jump-starts microbe activity leads to healthier individual plants, and ultimately to a more robust forest ecosystem.

Alpha Natural’s blends contain all-natural ingredients obtained from different carbon sources, in essence sweetening the plants they feed. Many insects that have become forest problems, like Tent Caterpillars and Spruce Budworms, cannot digest elevated sugar levels (because they don’t have livers.) Thus, trees treated with Buerger’s method become less appetizing to liver-less pests, who soon move on to less-sweet pastures.
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