There is a world beneath your feet, or, if you avoid stepping on your garden soil, beneath your hands. Bacteria hide from hungry protozoa in tiny soil pores the protozoa are too large to enter. Fungi trick nematodes by releasing an attractive chemical that draws the nematode near. The fungus then extends a hypa that enters the nematode’s body absorbing its nutrients. Somewhere along the way of reading Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis’s, Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, I began to care about the daily dramas of these microorganisms.
A book whose cover photo is three different types of bacteria may not be your first choice for casual reading. Somewhere around chapter 6, “Algae and Slime Molds,” I considered putting the book down and picking up Harry Potter for a third read. I have argued that garden insects are difficult to connect with. Their appearance and behavior are far removed from our own. If this is true, microorganisms might as well be from a different planet. It is this gap between the importance of microorganisms and our understanding of them that the authors bridge in Teaming With Microbes.
As gardeners, we know how important good soil is. My permaculture teacher, Larry Santoyo, says, “gardening is really soil management, shit grows in good soil.”
But what is good soil? It is not the lawn or cornfield soaked with herbicide, pesticide, fungicide and synthetic fertilizer, all which kill soil microorganisms. Instead, it is an interconnected web teaming with life.
One teaspoon of good garden soil contains 1 billion bacteria consisting of up to 30,000 different species. The same teaspoon contains several yards of fungal hyphae, 100,000 cells of algae, several thousand protozoa (that can each eat 10,000 bacteria a day), 50 nematodes and a few larger arthropods. The lifecycle of these organisms is what keeps our soil and therefore our plants healthy. Yet, how many of us know how to keep these organisms healthy?
Teaming With Microbes is divided into two sections. The first looks through the microscope at the life of these microorganisms. If you have never seen a SEM image of a nematode the book is worth picking up just for that.
If reading about the digestive process of amoebae does not appeal to you (but I do encourage you to be open to it) you can skip to the second section. This section is a practical guide on how to apply soil food web science to yard and garden care. The authors focus on three methods:
Mulch / Cover Crop
Each of these methods will be explored in depth in future posts. For now, know that the authors break down these methods in a way simple enough for anyone to follow.
Supporting the soil food web results in healthier, more nutritious plants and ultimately less work for the gardener. Remeber all that life in the one teaspoon of good garden soil? Those microorganisms fertilize, till and perform pest control for you.
Teaming With Microbes concludes with a walk through a forest. I think of the giant sequoias in my home state. These trees are the largest living trees by volume yet no one ever added Miracle-Gro to them. They are instead supported by a complex web, unseen and mostly unconsidered. If the soil food web can do that, what’s a few basil plants?
Pick up a copy of Teaming With Microbes from your local library or purchase it by clicking on the image below.