Growing Grass the Ancient Amazonian Way

Biochar soil amendment is helping one California contractor keep lawns greener while reducing dependence on water and fertilizer.

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Most turfgrasses need two things to grow: water and sunlight. Fertilizers can help. Aerating can help. Good soil is tremendously important, but often overlooked. Fortunately, that's starting to change.

More landscape and lawn care contractors are looking for ways to achieve the lawn care results their clients are looking for while also reducing their dependency on fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Disciplines such as smart irrigation and integrated pest management (IPM) are helping contractors to do that—as are "natural" or "organic" soil amendments that help improve soil vitality.

One example is a product called CoolTerra, an organic soil amendment produced from plant matter that's designed to significantly improve water-holding capacity, plant quality and landscape resilience. The result is decreased water use, increased turf density and decreased nitrate runoff. Landscapes can also be maintained with less fertilizer, the manufacturer points out.

The secret is the charcoal, and we're not talking BBQ

CoolTerra is a type of product that's known in scientific circles as biochar. As Wikipedia describes, "Biochar is a name for charcoal when it is used for particular purposes, especially as a soil amendment. Like most charcoal, biochar is created by pyrolysis (thermochemical decomposition) of biomass."

To create biochar, you essentially cook agriculture waste into a stable form of carbon. The ancient Amazonians reportedly did this thousands of years ago. Today, the CoolTerra product is made by cooking a variety of raw materials including coconut shells and wood chips. That resulting biochar is then treated through a proprietary process where the ph/acidity level is adjusted to where it is ideal for the ground. The pores are also opened up so it can better hold onto water and nutrients.

Popular in agriculture, biochar is starting to find a home in landscape management and lawn care. "It's great to use around shrubs and trees, when seeding a new lawn or putting down sod," says Wes Bolson, head of business development and public affairs for Cool Planet, the California-based manufacturer of CoolTerra. It's also effective on existing lawns. "You'd first want to aerate the lawn, then spread out the CoolTerra product and rake it in. Half of it will get right down into the aeration holes. Next you'd want to really soak it with water. But after that initial soaking, it holds onto water and nutrients very well—at the root level."

Bolson says biochar, and particularly the CoolTerra product, can also help with carbon sequestration, which is the capture and storage of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—which is a big deal to those environmentally conscious clients who are concerned about climate change. "It stays in the ground for 2,000 to 3,000 years," Bolson points out. "It's like a woodchip sponge."

Skeptical contractor becomes a believer

Kathy Oswald, owner of KO Landscapes in Camarillo, CA, started using CoolTerra this past June. The intense California drought and ensuing watering restrictions prompted her to give it a try. “I was a bit skeptical at first, though,” Oswald relates. “It does take a while for it to work. But now we’ve done about 35 applications and have been very pleased with the results. When I drive by our properties today, they are verdant green.”

Oswald says she could start to see a slight difference on properties roughly one week after the initial CoolTerra application. The full benefits became more noticeable around the six-week mark. Thus, as a contractor you have to temper your expectations and remain patient, and make sure the client is on that same page. As the old saying goes: Good things come to those who wait.

Good things also come to those who properly irrigate. “It’s very important that a given property’s irrigation system is functioning properly,” Oswald points out. “So the first thing we do is check out a property’s irrigation system. We work with the irrigation techs from other landscape companies that are also servicing our properties; we don’t want to step on any toes so we just work together. Any problems are noted before we do our first CoolTerra application. It’s so important to have the best, most efficient irrigation coverage you can in order for this product to work. And we need to be able to use our spiker to core through the ground. If the ground is hard-panned, we tell them to irrigate it.”

Roughly 85% of KO Landscapes’ revenue comes from commercial accounts and HOAs, with the remaining 15% coming from high-end residential. “We also do staging for movie sets and real estate agents,” Oswald points out. Thus far, Oswald has been offering CoolTerra applications to all of her clientele—and a wide variety have been taking her up on it.

“When you get down to it, this product just makes sense,” Oswald says. “When you’re laying new turf and go 80/20 (80% soil amendment and 20% CoolTerra), you see a difference in the grass. We use it for plants as well. We’re planting with CoolTerra, always. Once it attaches to the roots, it makes a huge difference.”

KO Landscapes also applies CoolTerra to existing lawns—often as a subcontractor for other landscape companies. “We have all of the necessary equipment to apply it efficiently,” Oswald says. First of all, they use a slicer to cross-spike as opposed to aerating. “This gets the CoolTerra product in the ground a little bit better,” Oswald explains. The slicer attachment is driven by a compact tractor. “With the seeder,” Oswald continues, “it’s a grinder. It’s heavy enough that when you put the CoolTerra product in the seeder, it grinds through. The seeder is 6’x3’ and about 4 feet high. We also attach that to the tractor. Finally, we have a rake that we attach to the tractor. So the tractor basically does all the work on our larger projects, which makes it more efficient.”

How the typical landscape contractor can implement

As pointed out, a product like CoolTerra can be used around trees and shrubs, flower beds, and on new and established lawns.

Along with a potential reduction in fertilizer needs, the big selling point is water savings. Contractors could easily paint a positive ROI picture for clients with respect to the money they likely will save on their water bills.

Bolson says that with the CoolTerra product, it is generally a one-time application. This should be fairly easy for most contractors to incorporate into their lawn care regimen. Of course, aeration is also an important step on established lawns, so that needs to be taken into consideration too.

Currently, contractors can purchase CoolTerra in three different ways:

  • On Amazon in a 10-quart box size (more suited to home gardeners, though)
  • 1.5-cubic-foot Landscape Bags for normal residential-type jobs
  • 1.3-cubic-yard Super Sacks for larger commercial jobs; would probably utilize a tractor and spreading attachment to apply

Options two and three are currently handled directly by Cool Planet. "We would like to set up a good distribution channel to help us sell our product, though," Bolson points out.

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