Zoo offers assistance with sustainable lawn, garden practices

9/21/2012

The weather has not been pleasant for agriculture this year. High winds, high temperatures and a lack of water have made things difficult. Finally, we are getting a reprieve from the heat.

The weather has not been pleasant for agriculture this year. High winds, high temperatures and a lack of water have made things difficult. Finally, we are getting a reprieve from the heat.

Recently I was discussing with a friend how excited I was that the temperature was in the 80s. Then I realized it is September! Temperatures aren't at record highs, but they are still well above average. And studies have shown that this means hard times to come. Warm summers lead to increased plant growth during the fall and winter. This increase in growth puts a strain on the soil the plants depend upon. Soils are delicate and complex and too much growth at the wrong time depletes the soils of the things plants need for the next growing season.

Agriculture is a complicated business and the science behind it is linked directly with ecology and biology. Like all living things on the planet, crops are interlinked with natural ecosystems. Crops are affected by the weather patterns, by the local animals that assist with pollination and by the very soil itself. Whenever any part of this system is altered, there are potential effects to our agriculture. One of the most important components of an ecosystem that determines if crops will be fruitful is the soil the crops grow in, and the nitrogen cycle that plants depend upon.

Soil is not simply dirt and gravel; it is a complex system of organic and inorganic substances, fungi, bacteria and other animals. This system allows for plants to grow and thrive and is far from simple. There are varying viewpoints as to whether or not soil is a renewable resource. It does not take as long as oil to be created, but it can take more than 1,000 years to create just one inch of soil.

When we look around, we can see that we are surrounded by crops. If there are crops, then how could the soil become depleted? Science has made it possible to successfully grow crops where before they could not with a process called nitrogen fixation. A key part of soil is the nitrogen cycle: animals eat and defecate, bacteria and fungi decompose the waste into ammonium, and other bacteria convert the ammonium into nitrate, plants take up the nitrate and grow, then animals eat the plants and on goes the cycle. When lots of plants grow in one area and then are taken away to cities and other locations for food, the cycle is broken as nitrogen is removed from the soil.

In the past, this would deplete the soil and make the land barren. However, in the early 1900s Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out a process called nitrogen fixation. Simply put, they figured out how to make ammonium in a lab. This caused the Green Revolution and gave us our fertilizers that we use on our lawns and crops. This was a boon for the world's food production, but like all things in a system it had some other effects.

Nitrogen does not simply stay where it is placed on the ground. When too much nitrogen is in the soil it will be leached into the ground and nearby water supplies by rain. This leads to an increase in algae in bodies of water. Also high levels of nitrates can be toxic to young animals and people. The world is a complex place and everything we do can lead to repercussions in other (sometimes unforeseen) areas. This is why both agricultural and ecological scientists try to improve our knowledge of our world so that we can implement sustainable practices. To help prevent nitrogen run off and leaching, simply avoid putting too much fertilizer on your lawn and use natural compost instead of fertilizer when you can. Composting reuses organic materials, thereby avoiding adding to landfills, and helps perpetuate a natural nitrogen cycle. Very often, a natural solution is a simpler and more effective solution.

Lee Richardson Zoo is happy to assist with sustainable practices for your lawn and garden. Here at Lee Richardson Zoo we have a lot of herbivores and herbivore excrement makes some of the very best compost. We lovingly refer to this product as Zoo Doo. Zoo Doo is rich in organic material to add micronutrients, increase aeration, reduce compaction and bring new life to your tired soil.

You can purchase some Zoo Doo by calling 276-1250 or emailing zoo.department@gardencityks.us. The cost is $5 for a large bag, $25 for a bobcat bucket load if you have a truck, or fill your own bucket for a buck. Zoo Doo is available year-round and helps the earth and your local zoo.

Keep up with what is happening at Lee Richardson Zoo at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.

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