Connecting the Dots

image: Bergen Community College
image: Bergen Community College

I was excited when I opened the February issue of LAM and saw an article on soil biology from James Sotillo (Sotillo, James. 2015, “Life in the Dirt”, Landscape Architecture, February, p. 58) where he describes what is needed in terms of healthy soil biology for projects to be ultimately healthy and successful. As a designer I have been guiding my clients on the importance of good soil biology. As a contractor, I have been custom blending and using Liquid Biological Amendments (LBAs) for the last year; I’ve been amazed by their efficacy. I have talked to a lot of people about what I’m doing, but there it was in LAM from a qualified person with serious experience and credentials to speak on the topic.

One of my essential network contacts, Leighton Morrison of Kingdom Aquaponics, had pointed me toward the article. Morrison had told me about the work Sotillo was doing on a field test for biomass. He also told me about a class on using the new field test equipment at Bergen County Community College (BCCC) in New Jersey; I wanted to know what the connection was between Sotillo and the school where the class would be held. After all, one of the important issues for us in the Education and Practice PPN is facilitating the connections between schools and practitioners and I wanted to discover how this connection happened.

A couple of emails and phone calls later I was speaking to Dr Judith Fitzpatrick, PhD who was instrumental in developing the new technology. Judith holds multiple patents in medical and biological diagnostics and holds a PhD in Microbiology from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and a B.A. in Chemistry and Biology from Seton Hall University. Fitzpatrick told me that academia just hasn’t addressed some issues and methods that are being worked in third world countries, where research is more likely funded by government than chemical companies. She suggested I search Google Scholar for papers on soil biomass and I found over 2 million papers on the subject.

Most, if not all, of the biomass studies use a soil bioassay test as I do in my practice when I am documenting existing conditions prior to any design work. The tests, however, have an accuracy of plus or minus 20%, which is a fairly big swing. In addition, her early research on soil biomass showed that there were not any papers documenting work that had correlated soil biomass and crop yields. In spring of 2013, when she first heard Sotillo speak at an event sponsored by her sustainability club, Sotillo mentioned that a bioassay takes a week or two to return. Sotillo really wanted to have a field test that could give him the information he needed on the spot. Bioassays can tell you a great deal about problems you may observe on site in terms of plants, erosion, and more.

image: Bergen Community College
image: Bergen Community College

Fitzpatrick reflected on it, and by fall of 2013 she was researching and experimenting with rapid assay test techniques with the help of her students. Fitzpatrick works with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) students under a grant that is aimed primarily at minority students. After further experimentation, her research resulted with some success.  In January 2014, she called Sotillo to let him know that she had found a way to measure biomass in the field. It took another year of beta testing on different kinds of soils as Sotillo tried the method on projects across the US.  The method was developed into a field test kit product.  The kit is now available on the open market and has continued to be developed with additional functions included in the kit.

Currently, Fitzpatrick spends 5 to 6 hours every Saturday in the lab with students. Their conversations are broad, providing opportunities for social bonding while they also enjoy being productive. The students are interested in issues of sustainability, and are engaged. Fitzpatrick stated that her students were eating lunch with her one day recently; they began talking about other tests they could develop to optimize the test kit. She discussed chemical test strips and how the machines that make them cost $50,000. One student became hooked on developing a cheaper means of making test strips. He took an inkjet printer apart and 6 weeks later showed how he could use it to produce test strips for fungal assays. While students are not involved in manufacturing, they are doing research and enjoying their work in the lab. Sotillo occasionally visits the lab to speak with students and also stays connected with many of them and their work through email contact.

Bergen County Community College, as part of its STEM program, holds a research summit every semester. Three students from BCCC are chosen at each summit to go on to present at Rutgers STEM summit. “It isn’t brain surgery,” says Fitzpatrick, “but it’s useful.” She says that is part of the joy of working with Sotillo; “He sees uses.” Obviously the students pick up on that interest, too. The college has found that there is a 40% increase in retention with the students who are doing lab research. It stands out when they can include their participation in research on their enrollment and scholarship applications. They are proud that their research can be invaluable to the people working on issues related to sustainability and the environment.

Currently, the students are looking at various questions concerning the use of Liquid Biological Amendments (LBAs). Previous studies have shown that fertilizing with organics produces higher crop yields, but it is not known exactly why. Likewise, when using compost tea, one form of LBA, is it the microbes in the tea or something else in the soluble organic matter? Does a healthier microbial community in soil produce a better root that overwinters better? In the summer, microbial count goes down as nutrient cycling delivers that nutrient to the plant; we think the count goes down as the nutrient cycling moves microbes into the plant, but we don’t have the research to back up our ideas. We have hypotheses and we have things we’ve observed over time on projects, but right now we don’t have research that supports them. These are some of the questions the students are tackling now.

I could not resist putting a bug in Fitzpatrick’s ear for a possible future experiment. One of the effects of LBAs on soil is to increase pore space and the amount of water held in the soil. This can increase infiltration rates while keeping water available to plants. I’d really like numbers on the effect on infiltration rates when using LBAs, again I know what I have observed, but I need serious research and it always comes down to the numbers doesn’t it? For that same reason, we need to know the associated time period in which we would expect to see infiltration increase before we can convince municipalities to trust the science. This is something every green infrastructure project can and should implement. Research and statistics will aid in convincing stormwater managers to choose strategies like LBAs within their projects. Through their work, they could potentially reduce costs and increase soil biological performance; all while shining the light of success on their practices. I’m hoping an enterprising student will be interested in researching soil biological performance using LBAs in the future to increase the success of landscape projects everywhere.

image: Bergen Community College
image: Bergen Community College

Bergen County Community College is now hosting The Soil Health Institute – the Infield Digital biometer class is the inaugural program. The class is taught by Sotillo, Fitzpatrick, and E. Brady Trexler, PhD. Trexler holds a PhD in Biophysics and Neuroscience from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and a BS in Biochemistry from North Carolina State University, where he was a Barry M. Goldwater Scholar. The college continues to obtain stellar press for their efforts as well. Sotillo has given public talks at the college, creating an opportunity for taxpayers to benefit from their contributions. I’ll be in that first class because I think the field test is invaluable, and well, OK, I admit it… it sounds like hanging out in the lab learning great stuff with Fitzpatrick, Trexler and Sotillo is going to be a blast.

by Hilary Noonan, ASLA, Education and Practice PPN Co-Chair

One thought on “Connecting the Dots

  1. Lisa Cowan, PLA, ASLA March 31, 2015 / 4:22 pm

    Great article – both for the soils information and the engagement of students in finding ways to improve soil and plant performance! “The method was developed into a field test kit product. The kit is now available on the open market and has continued to be developed with additional functions included in the kit”. Can you provide the name of the kit and where it is being sold?

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