“Soil microbial activity.” It is a short phrase that seems to be on the lips of more golf course superintendents when it comes to talking about turf nutrition and plant health.

Some superintendents believe the phrase has more to do with organic products, which it does, but it also has a lot to do with “fueling the soil” to stimulate the existing microbial components of the soil profile, according to Frank Zamazal, director of agronomy and new business for GenNext BioTech LLC.

Joel Simmons, president of EarthWorks, says “it’s the feeding process that allows microbes to work at their maximum capacity.”

GenNext BioTech and EarthWorks offer products using carbon as the catalyst to stimulate existing beneficial microbes to enhance fertilization efficiency in turf, in addition to creating various plant health benefits, such as reduced thatch and the need for fewer inputs, including water.

GenNext BioTech’s product line offers is an extracellular enzyme complex stabilized with minerals with a soluble form of humic acid as its carbon base.

“Once the particular enzymes get into the soil, they don’t discriminate when it comes to stimulating existing soil bacteria, which creates a process to break down the urea into ammonia and then into nitrite and ultimately into nitrate,” Zamazal says. “So there is a uniform breakdown of nutrients stimulated by the existing soil microbes. The nitrogen is processed so the plants can take it in.”

Zamazal says the key is to develop a synergy between consumption and decomposition with carbon.

“When I talk about consumption, I’m talking about plant growth and the development of bio mass,” he adds. “When I’m talking decomposition, I’m talking about soil respiration – breaking down that organic matter to carbon dioxide.”

EarthWorks bills its Replenish 5-4-5 as a natural organic fertilizer that can be used for any turf or ornamental application without fear of burn or salt build up. The carbohydrates in the product, which contain carbon, provide a quick burst of energy to beneficial bacteria, and the humic acid complex provides a sustainable food source for long-term biological activity, according to the company.

“All we are really talking about here is the carbon-nitrogen ratio in the soil,” Simmons says. “It’s one of the most basic foundations in all of agronomy.”

But there is more to the equation than just putting down nitrogen and expecting turf to be healthy, Simmons says, noting that a constant dose of nitrogen will eventually burn out the soil by taking away available humus, which can lead to thatch growth and other problems.

“You have to understand that the biological piece of the equation is a major player here,” Simmons says.

He stresses, however, that he is not suggesting to any superintendents to not use synthetic nitrogen.

“We have [synthetic nitrogen] in most of our products and all of our programs,” he adds. “But we are always balancing the carbon to nitrogen ration.”

Zamazal believes more superintendents are beginning to understand the importance of having soluble carbon in the soil. He points to an Oklahoma golf course superintendent who maintains a low-budget course, which had poor water quality and soil. Zamazal says the superintendent was able to turn around the golf course by injecting carbon into the soil.

“More superintendents are realizing that you have to have available carbon to process nitrogen,” Zamazal adds.

It may be younger superintendents who are getting that message and the entire feed-the-soil concept more soundly, however. In general, most superintendents – young and old – are open to the concept, but there will always be superintendents who elect to do things the way they have always done them, Zamazal notes.

Simmons believes that more of the younger superintendents, those in their 30s, “instinctively” understand that healthy soil is the key for plant health.

“Maybe they are a little more open-minded to the environmental piece of it, although we’ve never sold [our products] for their [environmental] benefits,” Simmons says, noting that he has stressed the concept of “carbon-based fertility” since he began Earthworks in 1988.

Christopher S. Gray Sr., golf marketing manager of professional fertilizers for LebanonTurf, has noticed a growing group of superintendents who want to understand how to better manage the soil through feeding the soil. But these superintendents also need to understand that proper soil balance is something that has to be developed and will not happen overnight.

“Once you achieve that balance, that’s when you get a long-term payoff,” he says. “It’s short-term thinking versus long-term thinking.”

Simmons agrees, noting that it takes an upfront investment and patience on behalf of superintendents for the process to unfold.

“These are complex products,” he adds. “We have to explain why we do what we do because we know [our products] are more expensive. But they are starting to understand why we are doing what we are doing.”

Brian Galbraith, president of Humate International, has also been a long proponent of feeding the soil. Galbraith says the two most important components of soil are a high-energy organic material and a balanced, active microbial population. Feed the soil with low-salt, natural nutrients and you have an efficient, effective and eco-friendly growing environment, he says.

Galbraith, too, says his customer base of superintendents is growing. He began his company in 1988.

Read more: Talking soil management

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