Soil: The Living Lawyer of Earth

The soil in your garden and landscape should be a living layer of earth. That’s not a platitude – it’s a fact. It should be packed with microbes. A teaspoon of good soil should contain literally billions of beneficial bacteria, thousands of protozoans, and miles of micorrhizal fungi. Billions of bacteria and miles of fungi? In a teaspoon? It may sound like fiction, but it’s true…if you have good soil!

These organisms and larger life such as earthworms create a soil food web, devouring small bits of organic matter in the soil, converting it into nutrients. Plant roots can then take in those nutrients to produce leaves, stems, flowers, fruit and seed. Good healthy plants can fend off disease and destructive insects. The absence of these microorganisms and larger organisms such earthworms, result in compacted, lifeless soil. Lifeless soil, of course, cannot sustain life.

A recent non-scientific study in one Gulf Coast community not only indicated that “take-all patch” was common in the sampling, but that all the lawns tested had compacted soil. In fact, a sampling trowel broke during the testing because the soil was so hard.

Solving the compacted soil problem

The absolute best way to give your soil life again is to simply add organic material. You don’t need complicated chemicals and fertilizers. You don’t need “inoculants.” You don’t need humates. All you need is simple organic compost. Organic compost contains all the microorganisms needed to inoculate soil, and also contains nutrient-rich material which will not only decompose slowly, but will also feed all the tiny animals in the soil. Here are some typical ways to bring your soil back to life with microorganisms.


Spread organic compost evenly throughout the yard about ¾ inch deep. If you can’t do it yourself, hire a landscape crew to do it. Many of them will also pick up the compost for you as well, if you pay for it beforehand. After spreading, if you feel it looks unsightly, hose it down into the lawn or take a broom and sweep it down.

Do this twice a year – once in the mid fall around the end of October or beginning of November. Add it again about mid-April. These are optimum times to compost your lawn. However, compost can be spread on turf anytime.

If you’ve got St. Augustine grass, compost is about all you’ll need. You don’t need to dethatch. If you mulch your grass clippings, you probably don’t need to fertilize. If you’ve got weeds, you don’t need herbicides either. In fact, man fertilizers and herbicides actually kill soil organisms. St. Augustine grass is so aggressive and responds so readily to the microbial-rich compost that in a matter of months it will force out most, if not all, weeds. With a high level of microbes in the soil, the grass will develop deep roots and will become more resistant to insect and disease damage.

For Landscape Plants

Spread compost two to three inches deep around plants about a two foot radius for shrubs and less for perennial flowers. For beds, spread evenly the same depth. Again, herbicides and pesticides are not necessary and can actually harm the soil organisms. Spread compost two to three inches deep around plants about a two foot radius for shrubs and less for perennial flowers. Trees generally do not need to be composted.

For vegetable gardens

Spread six inches of organic compost six to eight inches deep throughout the garden. Then either mix it into the soil below or simply leave it on top and set plants in it.

Remember that compost is not mulch. They have two completely different purposes. Compost enriches the soil, and feeds all the organisms beneath the surface. It is made of fine particles of decomposed organic material, generally what will fit through a 3/8 inch screen.

Many gardeners make their own compost. However, they find they never have enough homemade compost, so they purchase more from a reputable compost provider. In order to find a compost operation near you, see this website:


Poison Ivy

Poison ivy, poison ivy
Late at night while you’re sleepin’
Poison ivy comes creepin’, around

Measles make you bumpy
And mumps’ll make you lumpy
And chicken pox’ll make you jump and twitch

A common cold’ll fool ya
And whooping cough can cool ya
But poison ivy, Lord’ll make you itch

– The Coasters

Despite the strong sexual metaphors, the last line is a true one, to anyone who’s ever been exposed to poison ivy.

When I was a kid, I used to handle poison ivy with impunity.  When everyone else was afraid to get close to it, I reveled in the fact that I was immune to urushiol.

Then came that one time. I was fishing along a slow moving, chocolate colored Louisiana bayou. The day was still a little cool (what we here along the coast call cool which, as you know, is anything below 80 F.) Insects were buzzing, a slight  breeze rustled the bald cypress needles just coming out of their winter nap, and white, shape-shifting clouds scudded through the almost violet spring  sky.

You know where I’m going with this. I leaned back against a large live oak and closed my eyes. When I opened them, the sun was going down. I didn’t catch any fish that day. By the time I reached home, though, I had caught something else.  An inescapable itching crept along my neck, and down both arms.  Welts began to appear. Voila. My immunity had disappeared.

So it is with urushiol.  A person may go for years being immune to it and then become allergic to it. Conversely, a person can be allergic to it in the past and then becomes immune to it.

Urushiol is found not only in poison ivy, but also in poison oak and poison sumac.  Their Genus name (Toxicodendron), means “poisonous vine”. Two of the three (poison ivy and poison oak) are prevalent along the Gulf coast. As for poison sumac, there are various interpretations of its range. Several descriptions put it east of the Mississippi, while others place it solidly all along the coast.

There are other members of the family, some which may surprise you. Cashews, mangos, smoke trees, marula and several others are included. All have varying levels of urushiol.

Poison ivy (and its brothers) are taking to warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide like pigs take to slop. Their leaves are growing bigger. I’ve seen some poison ivy in Texas with leaves as big as my hand, and there are reports that some can get as large as a pie pan. Not only is the plant getting bigger, the urushiol is getting more potent.

The moral, I suppose is, if you’re going to get out in the garden, learn to recognize these plants. There’s plenty of information on the internet about them. Experts will tell you that If you’re working where one of these three brothers are living, wear long trousers and long-sleeve shirts. And gloves.

Of course, we who live along the Gulf Coast are aware that all that advice is given by people who live in cooler climes. For most of us, t-shirts and blue jeans tend to be more appropriate. Gloves are not a bad idea though.

If you must get rid of it, put it in the garbage, not in green waste or your compost pile. Don’t burn it. The urushiol. The fumes can carry urushiol and you can inhale it. If you think it’s uncomfortable on your arm, think what it would be like inside your body.


Gulf Coast Gardening

Organic gardening along the Gulf Coast

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