If you were to step into an average backyard in South Portland and take a really close look at what’s under your feet – you’d likely see grass and dirt. Maybe an earthworm, if you’re lucky. That dirt, however, is more than just dust or minerals; it’s a potential home for a thriving ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms.

In a single teaspoon of healthy soil, there are between 100 million and 1 billion bacteria, every single one of which is playing a key role in combating climate change, protecting Casco Bay, and helping lawns and gardens look lush and healthy.

South Portland’s new fertilizer ordinance, combined with the pesticide ordinance of 2016, are designed to set standards in our city that will build healthy soils, and accordingly, a healthier ecosystem for our neighbors and families. These ordinances require citizens and businesses to rely on organic processes and materials in our landcare strategies instead of propping up plants with a cocktail of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Luckily for us all, it’s easy and affordable to start managing land with organic principles in mind and will yield major results for our community in both the short and long term.

It all starts with soil. The key to building healthy, active soil is to treat it like a living thing – it needs water, it needs to be fed, it needs to be protected from the elements, and it needs to breathe. With the right conditions, healthy soil should be able to provide all the nutrients and disease protection that lawns, ornamentals, and gardens need to thrive – with no additional fertilizers or pesticides needed.

As those 1 billion bacteria reproduce, eat, die and decay, they leave behind essential nutrients for plants like grass, ornamentals, and vegetables to grow. The nutrients that healthy soils provide to plants are the exact same nutrients that synthetic fertilizers provide, but they are naturally in balance, eliminate the risk of run off, and pose zero danger to human health and well-being.

Easy things to do to improve soil quality include leaving grass clippings on your lawn to breakdown and return nutrients to the soil; making sure your soil is covered by mulch (leaves or seaweed are great and free) as much as possible to avoid erosion and to create a protected microclimate for the community of soil bacteria; add compost, leaves, or grass clippings to your lawn and garden to feed the microbial life.

A great place to start is by taking a soil test (cheap and easy to do through the University of Maine) to see where your yard is at in terms of biological activity and nutrient availability.

Not everyone is so lucky to have land to care for – as residents of South Portland, we’re privileged to have lots of green space, old and majestic trees, cherished parks, and access to a healthy and thriving waterfront. Taking care of the land at our homes and in our public spaces is a worthwhile endeavor for us all – and it all starts with the soil.

Keep an eye out in the Sentry over the next several weeks to learn more about South Portland’s new ordinance and other resources to learn about organic land care in our community.

Our Sustainable City is a recurring column in the Sentry intended to provide residents with news and information about sustainability initiatives in South Portland. The Sustainability Office is located on the first floor of city hall. Follow the Sustainability Office on Instagram and Facebook @soposustainability.

Alex Redfield is program director of Cultivating Community and a member of the Landcare Management Advisory Committee. He can be reached at [email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.