Organic Chemistry; Soil Key to Coaxing Lawn off Drugs

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 13, 2007 | Go to article overview

Organic Chemistry; Soil Key to Coaxing Lawn off Drugs


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Organic" is becoming a byword of our times. Even so, for Hal Seitz, a local garden and lawn care professional, too many people opt for what he calls "a magic bullet" - the choice of synthetic chemicals that promise instant results.

He defies anyone not to find organic as an easier, better and cheaper approach. All it takes is patience - and some work.

Mr. Seitz scoffs at the idea that chemical-free lawns and gardens belong only to green zealots and eco-freaks. A 43-year-old devotee of so-called natural principles applied to tending the earth, he grew up in an apartment in Silver Spring. Most days, he can be found tending his plot in the all-organic Virginia Avenue Community Garden near the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast, where he grows nearly all his own vegetables.

"I'm not some tree-hugger. I'm just an old gardener," he says, belying his skill at coaxing life from belligerent ground without relying on chemical weedkillers. Chemicals can be harmful to humans and animals even indirectly when leached through soil into the water table.

Mr. Seitz works under the name of District Cityscapes for clients as far away as Howard County and as close in as the 7-Eleven store at the busy corner of Maryland Avenue and Eighth Street Southeast, where seemingly no plants would grow. He discovered his talent almost by accident when he took a job on an organic vegetable farm in West Virginia in the late 1980s.

"Instantly, eating those things, I became so much healthier," he says. The secret - an obvious one - is taking proper care of the soil, first by what he calls "sterilizing" it.

"Not sterile in the clinical sense," he explains. "You get the soil as free of roots and weeds as possible. Pull weeds out by the roots, and they are gone forever."

The general principles employed in caring for a garden can be transferred to a grassy lawn where, again, the first rule is having healthy soil.

In place of synthetic chemical treatment, Mr. Seitz recommends organic soil enhancers that come from TurfPro USA, a Central Florida firm, and those sold by Purple Mountain Organics in Takoma Park, Md. TurfPro is advertised as being able to "free up soil nutrients, making them readily available for uptake by plants."

"The big thing about going organic is to build the organic material," agrees Derek Thomas of Thomas Landscapes, a Master Gardener who services the Washington area with his Waldorf, Md., firm. "Get compost in the soil and do that by top-dressing the lawn in the spring and fall. That way, the lawn becomes self-sustaining and resistant to disease."

The fall is best, he says, because that is when "grass plants are growing new rhizomes and stolons for the next year. It is happening below ground, and we don't see this. They are getting plumped up. Most people do the opposite of what they should. Then we can do a secondary, much lighter, application in the spring."

(Rhizomes are white running roots that poke up through the soil to become green blades in the sun. Stolons are stems near the surface of the ground that produce fresh plants from buds on their surface.)

He names a ComPro product that he calls "black gold" as "the best organic composted material money can buy."

"What people don't understand," he says, "is when they have a lawn, [they] put in and add organic material but never think to add it again. Instead, they go to a synthetic regime that kills the Chesapeake Bay."

A product that breaks down over time is best, he says, enabling the plant to extract nutrients slowly. The content of anything synthetic is likely to be too liquid - watered down - and can soak in too much, resulting in overkill; the plants can't take it in.

"Plants are like humans; when we are healthy, we are less prone to infection, and we get that way by following good rules of nutrition," Mr. …

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