Here’s the Dirt On Engineered Soils

Dirt gets a bad rap.

When you’re looking for gossip to spread, you’re “digging up dirt.” Extremely stupid people are described as being “dumb as dirt.” If you’re the country band Florida-Georgia Line, you spin your tires on dirt.

But did you know that the right dirt can help reduce carbon emissions, conserve water, melt snow, or even make it easier for a child in a wheelchair enjoy the outdoors?

Engineered soils are a new group of products which enable property owners to solve a variety of problems. Read Custom Soils, a division of the A.D. Makepeace Company in Wareham, is the leading engineered soil blender in New England. Engineered soils can be defined as a precise blend of tested soil components (organic and inorganic) designed for a specific purpose.

Golf professionals have known about this technology for decades. In fact, the development of soil science got a huge push from greenkeepers (or golf course managers) who began to study different soil types and best practices for growing grass in the early 20th century. This research led to the development of sand-based soils and sand topdressing practices that are used on golf courses everywhere.

The soil that supports the grass growth on a modern golf course is mostly made from sand that is blended with specific amounts of screened loam and organic matter, like mature leaf compost.  Even the sand in a bunker is a special blend of coarse and fine particle sizes that make the sand “dense” and this makes it more  “playable” — the difference between  chipping  out of the sand trap or getting stuck in it. Proper fairway topdressing with sand improves the movement of oxygen and water into the soil and reduces the soft, spongy playing conditions that golfers dislike.

Dirt certainly makes a difference to the Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots players. Both teams have incorporated engineered soils into their playing surfaces. At Gillette Stadium, it’s on the practice field. At Fenway Park the grass grows almost entirely in sand; with no organic matter in the soil, the grass gets all of it nutrients through the irrigation system and surface applications of fertilizers. And when there is snow on the field in the weeks before opening day, the grounds crew at Fenway uses  a “black sand” product that warms up in the sun to gently melt the snow without chemicals.

Engineered soils make a difference in other arenas too. A rain garden or “bioretention swale” can be an attractive landscape element that is easy to maintain and effectively collects stormwater runoff and treats it as it infiltrates back into the aquifer. These drainage facilities require a properly engineered soil that helps to filter the water, sequester some pollutants and support wetland plant growth. Improperly done, these features are overgrown or barren, or become mosquito breeding grounds.

The new Everleigh Cape Cod (55+ apartments) on Communication Way in Hyannis features a large bioretention area which is an example of a rain garden done right with engineered soil.

Does your landscape plan include a costly asphalt or concrete path? Stabilized stonedust is certainly the more environmentally friendly surface, and it may be the more economical one as well. It comes in multiple colors to compliment the rest of your hardscape design. And if you believed this pervious surface would not meet ADA standards, think again. Some stabilized stonedust specifications can even allow for light vehicular traffic. And this element of a Low-Impact Design landscape will earn you LEED points. For a good example, take a ride on the Head of the Meadow Beach bike path in Truro, completed last summer using Read’s stabilized stonedust.

Those who are familiar with engineered soils sometimes think it’s all about roof gardens. These increasingly popular – or mandated – building features have a wide variety of benefits that have captured the attention of public building designers and regulators, in particular. According to the National Park Service, a green roof can improve stormwater management, improve air quality, reduce energy expenses for heating and cooling, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and more.

Speaking of regulators, while golf course superintendents and professional sports groundskeepers are two groups most familiar with engineered soils, permitting authorities are becoming more interested. The Cape Cod Commission’s design guidelines require developers to evaluate the use of unpaved parking areas and there is an engineered soils solution for that: FiberSoil ™ synthetic fiber can be blended into a planting soil and significantly improve the load bearing characteristics of the soils and the resiliency of turf, while minimizing soil compaction. You can park a fire truck on this grassy surface, even after a rainstorm, and there is no visible impact.