Learning to love bugs in the soil

I saw a lot of lively grubs, ants, worms and centipedes the other day and it made me happy, because they were hanging out in my flower garden’s soil.

Not so long ago, all those bugs could have worried me, except for the worms. There’s a new movement underfoot in farm land now, so to speak, that encourages bugs in the soil.

In farm country, they call it the Healthy Soil initiative. Spearheaded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and sister agencies at the state level, the initiative aims at making soils a happy home for the microbes and bugs that flourished before we started large-scale agriculture.

Turns out we figured out how to grow lots of food with fertilizers and tractors but forgot how to make the soil itself help us.

The principles are simple. Plant a variety of crops. Disturb the soil less. Get a mixture of plants so something’s growing throughout the season. Keep the soil covered. Leave dead plants on the surface to feed those microbes and bugs the way nature intended.

In cities, the same concepts apply. Taking care of your soil keeps your grass and flowers happier – maybe even giving the plants you want a bit of an advantage over plants you don’t (otherwise known as weeds).

We’re pretty lucky in the city. It can be difficult for a farmer to leave plant matter like wheat straw on the field when harvesting everything helps pay the bills. In the city, it’s also a lot easier to use a product like Garden Green® compost to jump-start the process of creating healthy soil.

In my case, Garden Green compost was a big reason those grubs and worms were crawling around and burrowing in my garden. We had spread about an inch of it on top and raked it into the soil lightly, then planted a variety of native wildflowers. The result was a nice-looking flowerbed that was easy to weed and gave those natives a leg up.

And hey – all this happened on good old Lake Superior clay.

Even a lawn can improve soil. The old-fashioned fertilize-and-spray routine creates nice-looking grass, but only on the surface. For the most part, there are just some shallow roots poking into the soil a little bit under those lawns.

Mixing clover into your lawn will reduce the need for fertilizer and you’ll have a plant that tends to grow well during dry conditions without choking out your grass. Garden Green® can be spread in a thin layer to feed those microbes in lawn soil and leaving grass clippings to feed worms and grubs will start to create a happy ecosystem underfoot. There’s a good argument, too, for running your lawnmower over leaves in the fall rather than raking them, too.

Ultimately, you’ll have a lawn that stays greener longer during dry periods.

You’ll also be playing a part in cleaning the water that falls on our city landscapes

In the old days (before cities, roads and everything else that replaced forests and prairies), as much as 50 percent of rainfall would percolate through the soil into groundwater and ultimately into our creeks. A residential neighborhood reduces that to 35 percent, and central cities to 15 percent. Helping nature create a healthy soil in your yard through these techniques will absorb more of that water so our magical soil microbes can clean it up on the way to your neighborhood creek.

Turns out happy soil can lead to fewer weeds and cleaner water. Nice combination, eh?

Craig Lincoln, Environmental Programs Coordinator