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Poor soil and what you can about it.
If you live in Alberta, soil problems are common place. Geologically much of our province is an ancient sea bed and has fine particulate sedimentary rock formations and deposits close to the surface. The result is a large area with marginal to poor soils with heavy clay being the most common problem soil type.
Most soil problems can be fixed with simply procedures and the results can be amazing for your lawn, trees or garden. Understanding that you can't have a great lawn with a poor soil foundation is the first step.
The Root of the Problem
In Central & Southern Alberta, much of the province is cursed with heavy clay soils, low in organic mass and moderate to high in salt carbonates and alkali.
This clay soil has low available nutrient value, low microbial
activity and usually has terrible water retention or drainage.
Hardpan clay soil has fine sticky particles that prevent water from penetrating and absorbing into it. It is also very hard for grass to grow good healthy roots in hard clay soils. Kentucky Blue Grass lawns are particularly susceptible as they have weak shallow root systems that struggle in clay soils.
Stunted roots will dry quickly in hot weather and stress the lawn. You can often see dead patches in sodded lawns 2 or 3 years after the sod was laid. Most landscapers and homeowners will simply slap the sod down over bad clay soil and hope for the best. It looks OK the first year when it's being watered daily. For the first summer it can survive on the water layer between the clay soil and sod layer until the winter when the dryness and cold kill the weak stunted root stock that was unable to penetrate deep enough for survival.
Some of the most productive farms in Alberta have had to condition their soil over time by regularly adding amendments and working the soils to increase organic mass and break up the clay. Over time regular plowing and introduction of waste plant matter plowed back in help to break down the hard structure of the soil and mix particles of organic material into it, this organic matter allows water to penetrate and air to get into it. With lawns that usually never happens and often we are taking away the clippings which rob the soil of any new organic mass.
In many cases lawn problems are related to specific soil conditions, yet lawn care companies and lawn care services often resort to blaming the problems on the grass itself. Many promote the over use of fertilizers and herbicides which in a lot of cases are making the situation exponentially worse.
Clay, Evil Clay....
Sticky, gooey, slimey stuff, or gumbo as we called as kids. This heavy clay soil turns concrete like when dry. Clay is the bane of most gardeners in Alberta.
How do you know if you have a clay soil problem ? see the picture to the left, if you can take some of your soil, moisten it and form a lump that keeps it's shape, your soil is clay. Don't be fooled because the soil may be black.
Even a small portion of clay can contaiminate your top soil. This usually happens when foundations are dug and the clay brought up gets mixed into the yards soil. Have you ever bought "screened loam" from a garden centre or bulk supplier and it's looks very nice when dropped off, but as soon as it gets wet it turns to gumbo.
Have you wondered where they get the dirt in the first place ? farmers fields you may guess, nope, you would be wrong. 99% of it comes from those big piles scraped off of new developments. The problem is the big earth stripping machines can take that measly 1-2 inches of good top soil and mix it with 6 to 10 inches of clay substrate ruining it as soil. screening it makes it look nice, but the clay is already in it and can't be separated, it usually has just enough black or brown soil to colour it so it looks like good soil...but it's NOT.
Clay soils are difficult for lawn owners. They tend to be poorly drained, have low to no organic composition, are dry and low in fertility because most of the soil minerals are locked up chemically due to the abundant presence of sodium, carbonates and other alkali agents. Clay soil compacts very easily and becomes hard.
Our native grasses and especially our weed species have adapted to this soil type and flourish in it, yet our lawns with exotic imported grass species and garden plants often struggle in the hostile soils we have here.
Kentucky Blue Grass is a great example, it is one of the most salt and alkali intolerant grasses anywhere, yet is the most popular grass species in our Alberta lawns, especially in lawns derived from sod.
So if your lawn is high in Kentucky Blue Grass (KBG) and I would bet most of everyone reading this with an urban lawn has a KBG lawn it's only a matter of time before you start to have problems with it.
KBG lawns can do Ok for anywhere from 3 to 8 years depending on your soil, after that the lawns starts to deteriorate at a rapid pace. The use of lawn fertilizers, especially chemical based one common at most stores will actually speed up the death of your lawn. These chemical based fertilizers will upset the chemical and ph balance of our soil type quickly.
Much of this soil related problems can be reversed or brought back into balance with the addition of some basic soil amendments or treatments. Many are not costly and easy to facilitate even for home owners with only basic knowledge and equipment
Symptoms and Causes
With clay soils, water does not penetrate into the soil. When it rains the water soaks into the first 2 inches and no further as the clay swells up and forms a barrier that keeps the water on the surface, the rest runs off into the street and cannot be stored for dry weeks.The lack of water absorption and retention also means that little or no air (oxygen) is getting into the soil as well. This means critical living soil organisms cannot survive and prosper.
KBG lawns require a lot of resources, they strip mine the soil of nutrients in 1 to 2 years and the soil becomes unproductive and unable to support the lawn . Adding fertilizer is not the answer, it will only add 1 or 2 critical components, usually nitrogen which will simply overstimulate the grass to grow further stripping the soil of critical nutrients at a rapid pace, eventully the lawn burns itself out. The soil becomes lifeless dust.
Once the soil has been rendered infertile and devoid of organic material, waste matter does not break down because there are no organisms left alive to feed on it. This is often why grass clippings will never be digested by the lawn robbing it of desperately needed organic materials. Soil low in organic material will not retain water well and has nothing to feed nitrogen fixing microbes needed by the lawn to prosper. At this point the ants move in as the soil is ideal for them, dry and easy to tunnel into. If you have a large number of ants in your lawn, it's usually as sign that the soil is dead or near to it. Ant's like dry soil without too many roots in it.
A weed, dew worm or ant infestation can usually be traced to soil deficiencies and simply treating the symptoms is not going to fix the root problem.
Dew Worm "Problems"
Case in point is the so called "dew worm problem".
Worms are GOOD for soil period, they digest organic matter, aerate the soil and their droppings are invaluable. So why are people always talking about dew worms as if it's a big problem ?
The real problem is the clay layer under the thin veneer of top soil under your lawn. The worms are bringing to the surface.
The worms are coming to the surface to escape excess water in soil after a lot of rain. Often they surface to collect any organic waste they can find in the lawn thatch. This usually happens because the soil has no organic material in it for them to feed on.
They are often drawn to the layer of partially decomposed thatch on the lawn to ingest.They would stay deeper almost all of time if there was plant matter in the soil for them to eat. Lack of moisture is the other problem, these worms need moist soil, clay is usually dry below the first 2-6 inches.
The worms bring clay up from deeper below in the soil substrate when they surface on the lawn. The moist worm castings of clay dry out to form hard little pellets or lumps on the surface. These lumps don't breakdown easily an ruin the lawn's surface area.
The problem is not that worms are living there, they are just doing their job. The problem is the clay lumps. The soil under the lawn and lumps can be treated with clay doctor which will quickly break down the clay into a granular loam that absords into the lawn easily. Click here to find out more about Clay Doctor.
Clay Doctor Soil Modifier - Cutting edge soil science
We offer a range of soil treatments and services to fix your soil. We have a few processes that will fix most soil issues quickly and with reasonable costs.
Clay Doctor is a soil modifier that works thought the process of ionic transfer. This product is simply miraculous how well it works and how quickly it can change your clay soil to loam. Clay Doctor is reasonble cost wise, but it is not a do it your self product .
Mistaya Land & Water will need to do the application as special application equipment and knowledge is required.
With lawns that have serious or long term soil problems Clay Doctor can have amazing results the first season. The treatment is permanent and follow up clay soil treatments are not required.
Intensive treatments require the use of specialized equipment and knowledge. Once the major initial treatments are done, follow up treatments to improve other aspects of the lawn like increasing Microbial life and addition of organic mass can be done by homeowners .
The clay amendments will breakdown the strong ionic electrical (sodium) bonds in the clay that make it sticky. The process is a natural geological chemical process where Calcium ions or other componants in the soil conditoners replaces Sodium ions and frees it up to be naturally dispersed in the soil.
Once the clay has been treated, it's unlikely you'll need to treat it again. The soil will become softer, more loamy and hold water better, no more sticky clay lumps, dry patches and excessive soil compaction. Thatch should breakdown quicker and the lawn should become thicker as the roots can penetrate deeper into the soil.
In the end the soil will be looser and sandy like, not sticky and gooey when wet. Now you can address the other issues like building up organic mass and soil microbe health.
Click here to find out more about Clay Doctor Soil Modifier