As most of you are probably already familiar with, the University of Connecticut is home to the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory. This lab is staffed by Dawn Pettinelli, the manager, and myself, the technician. We also have a few part time and student employees throughout the year that help with the receiving, spreading, and sieving of soil samples; among other things. We offer an array of tests designed to help homeowners, community gardeners, farmers, etc… maximize the efficiency of their soil to produce the greatest yields in whatever plant or crop they are growing, from silage corn to turf. We can test for soil organic matter content, textural fractionation, soluble salts, Nitrogen, and Carbon. We also provide tests for plant tissues and corn stalks. However, our most vital and popular test is the Standard Nutrient Analysis. This is a relatively comprehensive test that allows us to make limestone and fertilizer recommendations. We check the pH, add a buffering agent and then retest the pH. From there we are able to determine the soils capacity to resist the change in pH, this allows us to make an accurate and precise limestone recommendation, in lbs/1000 square feet, or lbs/acre, depending on the desired crop production. The second part of the Standard Nutrient Analysis is the actual nutrient content. Soil samples are analyzed for micro and macro nutrients; Potassium, Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Aluminum, Boron, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Zinc, and Sulfur. Samples are also screened for Lead. Using the nutrient results, we are able to make fertilizer recommendations based on what is being grown. We give results in N-P-K format, and also provide organic alternatives.

We get calls year round from customers asking if they can submit a soil sample, and the answer is always yes! You can submit a soil sample any time of the year, we receive soils from throughout the country (although we have to be careful of areas under certain quarantines). Generally, it only takes around a week from when we receive a sample for us to send out the results. As you might imagine, Spring is an extreme exception. We are so busy and backed up with thousands of soil samples right now, we are expecting a 3 week turn-around time. We understand that everyone is eager to get their hands dirty and work on their lawns and gardens, but waiting until Spring to submit soil samples isn’t the best idea.

sample1

The current line of samples waiting for analysis. J.Croze

We often recommend that customers take and submit soil samples in the Fall! Soil sampling and testing in the Fall is better for all parties involved. For starters, we offer a discount on the Standard Nutrient Analysis, if you submit 10 or more samples we only charge you $8 per sample opposed to $12. However, there are more practical reasons to submit a Fall soil sample. It’s easier! The soil is generally going to be easier to work with in the Fall than after a wet Winter during the first few weeks of Spring. This will help you obtain soil samples that are a more accurate representation of the area you are interested in. Every year around this time we get dozens of zip-lock bags that are filled with soaking wet soil, dripping everywhere. A Fall soil test also allows you more time to think about what amendments you might want to use, and is the perfect time to apply limestone and fertilizers in preparation for a busy and productive growing season. Applying limestone in the Fall ensures that it has enough time to raise your soil pH to whatever the optimum range is for what you plan on growing. My personal favorite reason for submitting a Fall soil sample is that we are less busy! You’ll be happier because your results will only take a few days, and we’ll be happier because the phone won’t be ringing off the hook with customers wondering where their results are! You can obviously submit a sample whenever your heart desires, but I advise you to consider sampling in the Fall. For those of you currently waiting on results, I appreciate your patience! Happy gardening!

-J.Croze

 

lime-bag-homedepot

Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

ph-meter

pH Meter

-Carol Quish

Once again I was fortunate enough to attend the International Meeting of the ASA, CSSA, and SSSA this time held October 21-24 in Cincinnati, OH. This year’s theme was ‘Visions for a Sustainable Planet’. I’d thought I would share a few of the ideas and research discoveries that I found particularly interesting or enlightening.

Our opening keynote speaker was Heather Hanson from the World Food Program USA who shared with us some thoughts on ‘The Real Dirt about Ending Global Hunger’. I bet you didn’t know that there are more hungry people in the world than the combined populations of the United States, Canada and the European Union – that’s more than 870 million people (1 out of 7). Or, that more than 2.5 million children die from malnutrition each year and those who do live are more likely to suffer from lifelong developmental and physical difficulties. Ms. Hanson laid the situation out well plus emphasized the need for attacking hunger on a global basis. Sooner or later it is going to impact all of us whether because of political unrest, economic instability, depletion of resources, pollution or climate change. 

Another prophetic speaker was Dr. Daniel Hillel, a renowned scientist and international authority on sustainable management of land and water resources. His timely topic was ‘Considering the Future of Agriculture and the Environment in a Changing World.’ Our world is changing quicker than most imagine because of population growth, consumer demand, climate change and the political unwillingness to base policies on science rather than on emotion. Our soils support all life on earth – including us. If we lose the ability to grow food, we die. Dr. Hillel highlighted the importance of wise soil management in lieu of changing climatic conditions and a society detached from the land.

Talks at the conference are typically15 minutes in length, just enough to whet your appetite and to make you want to find out more. An interesting talk by Dr. Donald Davis of the University of Texas gave some insight into why as the yields of many crops are increasing, their nutrition value is decreasing. Basically this is because breeders are selecting for plants with higher biomass which translates into more carbohydrates and possibly water but with the same amount of nutrients as the old variety. He and his research team looked at a number of crops – and found that as yields increased, the concentrations of minerals, vitamins and proteins in most vegetables, fruits and grains decreased. A most interesting point he brought up was that up until this research, many blamed the decrease in nutrients in produce on the depletion of nutrients in the soil over time. He showed that it is not the soil to blame for lower nutrients in many edible plant parts but instead it is caused by the plant (genetic dilution) itself! Backyard gardeners can grow older, more nutrient dense varieties.

Dr. Paul Ebner from Purdue University spoke on antimicrobial use in livestock production. I bet you didn’t know that the United States produces 15,000 TONS of antibiotics for livestock use each year! Not only that, but the antibiotics are not just used to make animals well but to improve growth efficiency. He noted that antibiotics are poorly absorbed by animals (maybe 10% or so) so the rest is just excreted and then where does the manure go? This is a major source of agricultural controversy that needs to be addressed because of the very real threat of creating antibiotic resistant bacteria that can make us humans ill. More research is needed and more precautions as well. Some studies have indicated effects of antibiotic-laden manure on important soil microbes.

Silicon is all around us. In fact, it is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, following oxygen. It is found in soils, rocks and dust particles in various forms of silicates or silica (silicon dioxide). Dr. Joseph Heckman from Rutgers University believes it has long been an overlooked yet essential plant nutrient and organized an afternoon-long symposium on this ubiquitous element. It has recently been designated by the Association of Plant Food Control Officials as a plant beneficial substance.

 Of particular interest was Dr. Lawrence Datnoff’s (Louisiana State University) presentation on silicon’s suppression of plant diseases, both root and foliage ones. Also silicon was shown to suppress diseases caused by fungi, bacteria, nematodes and viruses! It seems that the suppression of plant diseases improved as the silicon concentration increased in the plant. What is not clear yet is whether this effect is due to a mechanical effect or a cellular one so more research is needed. Also, it was noted that suppression occurred when the supply of silicon to the plant was continuous rather than interrupted. At any rate, I am going to try applying some potassium silicate to my cucumber plants in hopes of having less of a problem with powdery mildew next year.

Fountain Square

Yes, I did get out for a short bus tour of Cincinnati. Here’s a picture of Fountain Square where the opening shots for WKRP Cincinnati were taken and murals at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Best ice cream in Cincinnati – Graeters coconut!

Mural at the Center for Cincinnati Museums

Soil-fully yours!

Dawn

Pile of earthworms. Urbanext.illinois.edu

The soils supporting our home lawns, vegetable and perennial gardens are improved by the presence and activity of earthworms. They are considered beneficial in the plant world. Earthworms move through the layers of soil creating tunnels for water and oxygen to reach the plant roots and channels for root growth. Their movement increases drainage and reduces compaction. Often called “nature’s rototillers”, earthworms feed on organic matter, bacteria, fungi and small soil particles in varying depths depositing their castings, or feces, in other horizons effectively turning the soil over. Castings are rich in nitrogen and nutrients easily absorbed by plants. Their feeding aids decomposition of organic matter, aerates soil, creates good soil structure and develops humus. The Rothamsted Experimental Station in England has done research finding as many as 250,000 earthworms per acre. That is a lot of subterranean work happening! Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to recognize the benefits of earthworms. His last book written in 1882 is on the worm biology and behavior. His discoveries of earthworms are still being seen today.

Often after a rain, earthworms come to the soil surface then re-enter the ground head first. Some scientist think the worms come to surface for air if the ground is saturated. Others believe chemicals in the rain are inhospitable by changing pH and chemical amounts from acid rain. Still others think since the surface is moist, the worms come to the surface to mate. Earthworms are negatively affected by drying out by the sun therefore most surfacing happens at night. The action of tunneling back into the ground squeezes the worm leaving a pile of castings above ground. The casting look like tiny round balls piled up in a pyramid up to two inches depending on the size and type of the worm. Casting piles normally go unnoticed unless the turf is cut exceptionally short like that on golf course greens and tees. Home lawns should be cut to a height of at least three inches. Wet piles can stick to mowing equipment gumming up the blades and gears. The piles are easily dispersed once they dry.

Earthworms breathe through their skin. Oxygen is absorbed by mucous on the outside surface of the worm where it is transferred to the internal organs. This is called a gas exchange. The circulatory system of the earthworm contains five hearts or aortic arches. They pump fluids to blood vessels and capillary beds throughout the body circulating back to the hearts. The earthworm’s digestive system starts with its wide opening of a mouth that its throat or pharynx protrudes out of grabbing organic matter, soil particles and all that they contain. This food is swallowed down to a storage area called a crop. The food then moves to the gizzard where it is ground up by strong muscles and tiny stones and grit swallowed by the worm. Once the food is sufficiently ground, it moves to the intestines where digestive juices extract nutrients and some are absorbed by the worm. Excess digested food is then excreted as worm castings. It is these castings that are rich in nutrients readily available for plant roots to pick up. Earthworms don’t have eyes but are sensitive to light, vibration, touch and chemicals. They want to be in darkness and will move away from the light.

Chemicals added to lawn and garden can kill the earthworms. Preferred pH levels are neutral to 6.6. Adding lime in large doses can be too shocking of a change in their environment. Many earthworms will move to areas with better suited conditions or they may just die. Some insecticides and fungicides have lethal effects on earthworms. Researchers have also found earthworms within chemically treated soils to contain up to 20 times the toxin levels than the soil the worms inhabited. Stored toxins built up in the earthworms could then be passed up the food chain to animals using the earthworms as food.

Earthworms are classified as animal invertebrates. They are in the phylum group Annelida, meaning segmented worms.   Each segment contains four tiny setae or claw like bristles used to move through the soil.  Worms are hermaphroditic;  each worm has both male and female parts with the male pores located on the outside of the animal. Earthworms are not self fertile. They need another worm to mate and reproduce. Each worm is fertilized in the mating process called cross-fertilization.

The most common earthworms found in Connecticut are Lumbricus terrestris, called the Night Crawler, and Lumbricus rubellus called Red Worm. Night crawlers are known to venture deep into the soil in permanent vertical burrows. The will come to the surface to feed also. Red worms prefer to live in a manure pile or area with high organic matter. Both of these earthworms originated in Europe and were introduced to North America unknowingly on plant material, ship ballast, wheels and shoes of immigrants. Native earthworm finding are very rare. It is not known whether native types were wiped out by glaciers scraping the earth or if the new earthworm invaders displaced the old. Different theories exist. What is known is that the earthworms that are present today are many, active and busy decomposing and recycling organic matter in rich new topsoil.

There are some invasive worms originating from Asia that are causing problem in some areas of North America. They are such fast consumers of organic material they are changing the layers of soil and eliminating the forest floor called ‘duff’. Some birds nest in the duff areas to raise their young. Insects and animals that also reside and feed in the fast disappearing habitat are also finding it hard to live. The effect of the exotic worms in the local habitat really is upsetting the ecological balance. Some populations that depend on the areas the worms are ruining might vanish forever. Research is presently being done but much more needs to happen. So does education of the general public. Some fishermen are using invasive worms for bait, then just dumping the leftovers on the ground. They are unknowingly spread the invaders. ATV and off-road enthusiasts also can pick up soil, worms and eggs in tire treads, then depositing them far from the initial infected site. Hopefully in the not too far future, more information and education programs will be available. Keep watching!

-Carol Quish

 

Last Saturday, the Connecticut Community Gardening Association (with a little help from their friends at UConn, CT NOFA, SSSSNE, Knox Parks, New Haven and Bridgeport Land Trusts, and Hartford Food System) held a free showing of ‘Dirt – The Movie’ at the Berlin Peck Public Library. For those not familiar with CCGA, they are a small organization whose mission is to promote and support community gardening in Connecticut. I got involved with this volunteer organization several years ago and am presently serving as secretary. Our website is www.ctcommunitygardening.org.

We know of at least 44 towns and cities in the state with active community gardening programs and one of CCGA’s ongoing projects is to maintain a list of them so folks looking for some community gardening space can find out what is available to them. Community gardens can be found in big cities like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport as well as small towns like Guilford and Mansfield. They provide many CT residents with a source of nutritious and inexpensive food as well as a sense of community that culminates in interaction among various community groups and a source of pride in the neighborhood.

Community Garden in Willimantic

CCGA has held educational conferences in various locations throughout Connecticut for a number of years now but this year we decided to offer a free movie screening in Berlin and perhaps in other parts of the state as well. ‘DIRT – The Movie’ deals with a topic near and dear to all gardeners’ hearts – Soil! The movie was inspired by the book, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan. For too long we have been taking the earth beneath our feet for granted. The soil nourishes all forms of life including our own. It is a living, breathing ecosystem and this thin covering over the earth’s surface needs to be appreciated and cared for so that it can continue to sustain the life of future generations of plants, people and animals.

This wonderful movie helps us reconnect to the soil. Real people talk about their relationships with the soil, relate how the neglect and abuse of the soil can lead to societal, economic and environmental problems, and then they offer us hope because this living, renewable resource can be brought back into a productive state through our actions and awareness. Several of the viewers who came to the screening were amazed that soil could be such an interesting topic!

Soil from outwash plain in CT

A few facts to consider about our soils:

Soils are natural bodies composed of minerals and organic materials, liquids and gases, and countless macro and micro-organisms.

Like plants and animals, soils also have a classification system called soil taxonomy. The highest level is called a soil order; the lowest level is called a soil series. In the United States, there are at least 23,000 soil series.

Soils have unique chemical, physical and biological characteristics which affect the type of life they support both above and below ground, and which determine the appropriate use for that soil.

There may be more microorganisms in a cubic foot of healthy soil than there are people on earth!

Erosion of soils is a worldwide problem. We need healthy soils to grow our food. It is estimated that worldwide 24 billion tons of topsoil are annually lost to erosion!

If you get the chance, see the movie. Do a little digging on your own to find out more about soils and how to treat them with the respect and care they deserve.

“A thin layer of earth, a few inches of rain, and a blanket of air make human life possible on our planet. These essential resources must be available to provide the good life for our children and for future generations.” John F. Kennedy

Dawn