Strong Roots Make Healthy Plants

Nature is quite proficient growing plants by herself. Unfortunately, man stepped in and introduced a variety of environmental assaults to hinder that. Everything from smog, water pollution, and runoff from urban sprawl has a negative effect on plant health. Sometimes a project site has such poor soil quality (and subsequently ill plants), it seems that the life in the landscape is hanging on by a thread.

The ‘shot-gun’ approach of applying copious amounts of fertilizer here and there doesn’t always work, and there are often more complicated problems. By focusing on healing specific parts of the plants, including the soil in which they are growing in, contractors will have an easier time coaxing a client’s project back to health, and will save money by saving time in repeat visits. This can be accomplished by strengthening all factors contributing to healthy plant life, not just one. Three important areas of alternative focus would be: strengthening the roots, applying mycorrhizal fungi, and providing a soil enhancement.

Root strengthening is obviously vital to a healthy plant. If the roots aren’t working right, the plant isn’t eating right. You can’t build a sturdy house without a good foundation, and you can’t have a healthy plant without good roots. There are an array of stimulants to help root structure and composition, and some products combine them for an optimum effect.

“Humic acids, sea kelp, and the wetting agent from yucca all help,” says Don Marx, PhD and chief scientist of Plant Health Care, Inc., located in Beaufort, South Carolina. “These elements have been researched by a wide variety of different parties, and each one by itself will increase root growth for plants.”

Plant Health Care combined these three elements and added beneficial rhizobacteria. The bacteria can stabilize atmospheric nitrogen and dissolve minerals of the soil that roots alone can’t dissolve - such as phosphorous, and produce plant growth regulators.

All these elements, Marx says, interact synergistically; that is to say, together. “They work together to dramatically improve plant growth,” Marx said. On the other hand, Marx continues, all of these elements are not necessarily dumped into the ground at once. He likens the process to being treated at the hospital. “At the end of the month you get a bill for the different procedures applied to you,” he says. “Each one has a different purpose, and they are put together to achieve a beneficial result. Along these same lines, we’ve worked out a treatment program that contractors can use for their different projects, for not all are the same.”

Marx says these treatments are especially good for the hard jobs where nothing else seems to work. These include plants in poor soil in urban development, intensively managed golf courses, and agricultural fields. They even help in mined lands undergoing reclamation.

Another beneficial element Marx has recently thrown into the mix is mycorrhizal fungi. These are tiny filaments that attach and penetrate between and within the outer cells of the roots of plants, and become extensions of the root themselves. This helps the plant by aiding in the absorption of water and nutrients while warding off bad fungi and harmful bacteria. Most plants are heavily dependant these fungi. Oaks, for example, would die without them

Editor’s Note:The highlighted statement contained inaccuracies as it appeared in the article.
The following statement is correct.

Dr. Don Marx & Plant Health Care, Inc. have focused on the development, application and commercialization of mycorrhizal fungal technology since PHC’s inception. During Dr. Marx’s 40 years experience with the USDA Forest Service prior to PHC, he researched the practical utilization of mycorrhizal fungi to improve forest generation and reclamation in the US and abroad, and has authored over 230 scientific articles. An internationally recognized authority in forestry, Dr. Marx is the recipient of the exclusive Marcus Wallenberg Prize (the Nobel Prize of Forestry), which was awarded by the King of Sweden (1991).

Whereas Marx has recently added these fungi to his offering, they are the total focus of Mycorrhizal Applications, Inc., in Grants Pass, Oregon. President Mike Amaranthus, PhD, points out that this specialized group of root-colonizing fungi have a beneficial relationship with an estimated 90% of the world’s land plants. They have been found in the earliest fossil records, and have been found on every continent except Antarctica.

“It is unlikely that there is any woody plant on the face of the earth that does not form a fungus-root in some part of its range,” Amaranthus says. He adds that it makes sense for contractors to bring this ancient process into today’s landscapes “to improve the survival, nutrition, and drought tolerance of plants. Most urban and suburban environments have been so heavily disturbed, the beneficial organisms in the soil have either been reduced or eliminated. These fungi are a natural way to allow plants to survive and thrive without the need for fertilization and pesticides.”

Amaranthus points out that while these fungi can be a big help in maintaining existing and starting new standard landscapes, there is also a marketing opportunity to go after jobs the contractor would ordinarily shy away from.

“Current construction practices can destroy 20,000 to 40,000 years of soil development with just one pass of heavy equipment,” he says. So how can the landscape professional improve soil conditions in new installations at highly disturbed sites? Most new construction sites are a formidable foe for plant establishment without intervention of good soil reclamation practices.

Amaranthus suggests that innovative contractors can actually go after these jobs. He says the time is quickly arriving when “green industry professionals must plan and develop a plan for soil reclamation as they would for site design. Creating a favorable below-ground environment is as important to the overall success of the planting as the plant selections themselves.”

In looking to the future, Amaranthus suggests that contractors should work with nursery owners to get these fungi introduced to the plants at an early age. His reasoning is that plants raised in most nurseries receive intensive care and feeding. But while the artificial conditions, high levels of water and nutrients and sterile soils at the nursery keep certain soil-born diseases to a minimum, and produce vast quantities of plants for sale, the situation changes when the plants leave the nursery. The high levels of water and nutrients, and the lack of the fungi discourage the plant from producing the extensive root system it will need for successful transplantation. The results are plants poorly adapted to the new environment. Introducing the fungi at the nursery level can create a root system that will set the plant on the path to hearty survival.

Moving from a direct strengthening of the roots to the introduction of fungi that serve as strengthening mechanisms, there is a third possibility: soil enhancement. This might be considered a substitute to traditional fertilizer.

The problem with the standard fertilizers, says William Torello, PhD, a plant physiologist at the South Amherst, Massachusetts-based EcoOrganics, Inc., is that they come with many problems. These include usage volumes, bulk storage, foul smell, seasonable effectiveness, and cost. But EcoOrganics offers a product that is derived completely from soybeans and is 100% natural.

This product, says Torello, “is efficient, odorless, and affordable. It’s a pure, powerful soil microbial enhancer and organic fertilizer.”

What are the benefits for lawn and landscape programs?

“Each lawn care and landscape professional faces similar challenges,” Torello says. “One such problem is the trap of commodity-itis.” How do I not appear to be a commodity business and provide something unique to my customers? These products are first-to-market products that will indeed generate a unique value proposition for your organization, while creating a real difference between you and your competition.”

In addition, Torello continues, “You will attract a good deal of press due to the environmental stewardship benefits that the products generate. The other benefits to you are that you can provide your customers with multiple product lines with multiple price points.”

“As labor efficiencies are critical for creating profitability, these products are easy to use and they can be quickly sprayed from a portable or spray tank, and can be quickly applied with a spreader, thereby saving the applicator a significant amount of time and the company a great deal of money.”

According to Torello, the liquid soluble/flowable spray applications avoid particle pickup during mowing and also increases response time. He adds that the product has the highest level of nitrogen availability, and the lowest C/N ration possible. The soybean fertilizer, Torello adds, “promotes thatch degradation plus water and nutrient holding capacities, and increases nutrient availability and disease reduction.”

These three alternative methods of soil enhancements may provide the solution for a challenging project. The one-size-fits-all method of plant rejuvenation does not always work, and it is helpful to learn about other ways of helping plants. Employing one or all of these methods may save you repeat visits to a project, thereby providing you with more time to take care of other business. Time, as we all know, translates into money. So keep these in mind when you plan your next landscape project.

You may very well find that by growing better plants, you will also grow your bottom line.