SoilKeepers and the Central Virginia Wildlife Habitat Cooperative are enterprises of the Center for Natural Capital. The Center distributes profits from these enterprises to StreamSweepers – this year working on river cleanup projects in the Clinch, Middle, and Hazel Rivers of Virginia.
For the first time, SoilKeepers will offer year round mowing services in Central Virginia to clients interested in turnkey grasslands management services. Ecological mowing means the clipping of turf to provide both a beautiful lawn and healthy grass plants that can thrive in healthy soils without or with very little fertilizer and weed control inputs.
SoilKeepers can only provide science-based services with information about your soil. This is why for most of our clients, with authorization to provide services, we provide a free soil chemistry test (below) from Virginia Tech. The results from this test provides information such as cation exchange capacity and soil organic matter, necessary to determine the most cost effective way to improve the health of your yard. Sometimes a soil biology test, providing information about levels and types of fungi and bacteria, can also be helpful. With information from these test(s) in hand, we create a yard/estate/farm improvement plan (below) that lays out a seasonal approach to greater landscape health.
SoilKeepers custom mixes solid amendments (compost-topsoil blends) with liquid amendments (beneficial bacteria-amino acids/sugars – plant available nitrogen compounds) based on test results to achieve a goal for 6-8% soil organic matter, generally with a bacterial trending soil ecosystem. This level of organic matter is needed as fuel in the form of humus for the soil organisms to feed the plant roots the ~ 150 lbs. nitrogen per acre needed for the grass plant to thrive. A bacterial soil is generally preferred because grasslands evolved in a bacterial dominated ecosystem. Forest ecosystems, on the other hand, are fungal dominated ecosystems.
Much of the soil in Central Virginia has low percent organic matter and sub-optimal populations of beneficial soil organisms. Compost applied to the ground surface at 1/2 inch or less per application can, over several seasons, heal these degraded soils by restoring humus. Organic matter found in humus can last many decades or longer, providing a constant source of fuel to the soil organisms to feed the plant roots. SoilKeepers is the only company in Central Virginia that specializes in compost topdressing and utilizes a machine to precisely meter compost.
Using a seed species that evolved in a shade, partial shade, or full sun ecosystem to match the yard’s solar aspect is a very important aspect of the low cost maintenance of healthy grass. Growing species needing full sun in a shaded environment will not only have poor germination but will also struggle to survive. Aeration is also critical because many pathogenic soil organism species are anaerobes – they prefer low oxygen environments. The use of soil pesticides to kill pathogenic organisms and plant herbicides to kill weeds over many years increases soil pathogens, creating a self perpetuating loop requiring ever greater amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides for the grass plant to grow. Recent research has shown that healthy soil even with low pH can nevertheless provide all the nutrients a plant needs by manipulating exchange of sugars for nitrogen in what is called the rhizosphere (the microscopic area around the plant root).
In not wanting to have perfect be the enemy of the good, SoilKeepers does use amendments such as lime, to bridge a situation where the soils are healing but not yet healthy enough for adequate nutrient exchange between the plant and beneficial bacterial at the root zone.
Some ask why the focus on native plants? It is actually a good question because non-native plants can thrive – for a while. And sometimes that is all a client is concerned with. So again, in wanting to be practical and serve our clients, we will suggest native plants when they might be appropriate for a particular location and available and affordable. Native plants tend to last longer than non-native species and provide more societal value in terms of food and cover to native animal species.
Leaving some room for other species in our yards, estates, and farms is a generous gift to nature and to future generations. We work with homeowners and landowners and seed company staff to select species suited for a particular location. Through SoilKeepers Rapidan Area Wildlife Habitat Cooperative program, our work includes projects to reclaim a forest floor overrun with invasive species, adding greater species diversity to a wetland, and to the creation of meadows, in full sun and partial shade, ranging from a few hundred square feet to 10 or more acres.
Some landowners are interested in increasing the species diversity and soil health of their pastures and hay fields. With our wildflower seed drill, we can overseed existing forage.
Our SoilKeepers staff (in orange vests below, weeding a facility) is trained to recognize native plants and invasive species.