A healthy lawn starts with a healthy soil

A healthy soil can be defined as one that contains biological, chemical and physical properties to promote a healthy lawn.  A healthy soil provides a full range of functions such as nutrient, carbon, and water cycling.  A healthy soil does not wash away during storm events.  From a biological and chemical standpoint, a healthy soil can be built by adding organic matter, nutrients, and lime.  From a physical standpoint, a healthy soil is one that is not overly compacted and can infiltrate water for plant use.   In summary, a good soil is the foundation of a healthy lawn.  For a lawn to grow well, a lawn needs soil with good texture and some key nutrients, and the right pH level (i.e., acidity/alkalinity balance).

The first step in determining if you have a healthy soil for growing turfgrass is to conduct a soil test.  While testing for organic matter may cost more, the recommendations that the lab provides may be inexpensive and easy to implement.  Soil tests can help guide homeowners on how to care for lawns by providing the appropriate application of nutrients as well as lime that will promote healthy lawn growth.  A soil test will also provide guidance on how to adjust the levels of pH and how much organic matter is in the soil.  Most importantly, soil testing has proven to be an environmentally responsible practice that will ensure that homeowners are “feeding” their lawns in an environmentally friendly and “green” way.  When fertilizing, it is important to follow the proper fertilizer application recommendations.

Throughout New Jersey many developments are being constructed on farmland, and little attention is paid to the health of the soil prior to seeding.  As a result, homeowners may be unaware that their soil composition is unhealthy.  When soil composition is compromised whether through compaction or nutrient deprivation, the soil will not allow for the penetration of water and fertilizer.  These conditions can result in water waste and runoff.

East Greenwich Township Lawn Renovation Project; Salvatore Mangiafico, Rutgers Cooperative Extension

In 2010, the New Jersey Water Savers partnered with Brickman Group to renovate two lawns in East Greenwich Township in a healthy and sustainable nature.  The lawn renovations consisted of cultivating the soil to a depth of 8 inches (20 cm) to relieve compaction, amending with compost and chemical amendments according to soil tests, and reseeding.  One renovated lawn included the installation of a SMART irrigation system, and the other was completed without an irrigation system.  The demonstration sites were completed in 2011.  Both lawns were recreated to demonstrate the importance of soil quality as well as for processes related to water resources like rain infiltration and runoff prevention.  It is important to note that the cost to renovate just one-acre of property can range from $25,000 to $35,000.    

Although the demonstration sites were one extreme, other soil conditions easily can be corrected through the addition of organic matter and the use of creative solutions.  These corrections do not always need to be expensive.  In fact, sometimes adding organic amendments to the soil or rotor-tilling the soil can help improve the soil composition.  Other cost-effective approaches may be to change lawn areas into alternative landscapes of native vegetation. 

Perhaps, the best resource to help identify the issue is to conduct a soil test.  The basic soil fertility test at the Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory on the G.H. Cook Campus analyzes the acidity (pH) of the soil and the levels of important macro-nutrients for plants—phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg)—as well as a handful of important micronutrients—including copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), iron (Fe), and boron (B).  Additionally,   if a homeowner indicates the types of plants being grown, recommendations for the amount of lime and fertilizer that should be applied will be included with the results.  Soil testing is recommended every three years.  If there are nutrient or pH problems in your soil, testing every year may be better.  The Soil Testing Laboratory is a resource available to the residents of New Jersey and Rutgers University researchers.  Another great resource is to work with the local Rutgers Cooperative Extension County office to help you understand soil test results.  Experts such as these can help homeowners select the right fertilizer, compost, as well as other “soil amendments.”  They can also advise about aerating compacted soils.

How to collect a soil sample ~ www.greenspade.com

Checking soil texture ~ www.tlc.howstuffworks.com

Here is what municipalities can do to help homeowners address soil health:

  • Provide information to homeowners on soil pH—flyers, web materials, RCE Fact Sheet FS635, etc.

  • Offer soil testing kits at Municipal Hall.  Provide educational programming on interpreting results.

  • Contact the local Rutgers Cooperative Extension County office with questions on NJAES soil testing results.   


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