Teaming with Microbes – A Book Review

In Book Reviews, Soil & Gardening by James0 Comments

When I first set out to read this book I have to admit I wasn’t overwhelmed with excitement. I knew it was information I needed to know, but a book on soil biology never sets off the “must read” meter in one’s mind. Thankfully plowing through (pun intended?) 200 pages of text book soil biology nomenclature didn’t turn into the drawn out yawn I anticipated. The book at first glance looks very text bookish, but in reality it’s a very reader friendly stroll through the world of soil biology. Anyone who grows any kind of plant from a tomato to a fully fledged multi-species veggie farm or grass farm should know the information inside this book. The title as you may have noticed is a play on the words teaming and teeming. Through this book you’ll learn the importance of teaming with microbes, in order to have your garden teeming with microbes, and as a result have the healthiest and most abundant plants one can hope for.

The Basics

As you may or may not know, there is more life below the earth’s surface than above. The majority of this subsurface life consists of you guessed it – microbes! It is this complex network of life which is called the soil food web. And it is this soil food web that makes up what is often referred to as fertile soil, or fertile land. The absence of the soil food web results in what many people know as infertile or barren land. It doesn’t mean that land or soil can never be fertile or produce again, it simply means it’s missing the soil food web components. As you probably are aware there’s basically two schools of thought in agriculture (with variations of course) the organic school which is completely pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, and chemical fertilizer free, and the other school which uses all of the above or some combination.

When you opt to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides you are opting to work more, spend more money, and produce inferior plants. The soil food web does not exist when you apply these methods. Whatever soil food web was there before you started using them will quickly die off or move away. As mentioned in the book “An acre of good garden soil teems with life, containing several pounds (about 1 kilo) of small mammals; 133 pounds of protozoa; 900 pounds each of earthworms, arthropods, and algae; 2000 pounds of bacteria;  and 2400 pounds of fungi.” These are the workers. The interplay between them produces the nutrients your plant needs to reach its full potential. They keep the bad bugs in check, along with the weeds. If you have a healthy soil food web the only work you need to do is feed it with new compost or compost teas a couple times per year. In addition there is never any need for rototilling which is still a practice many organic farmers believe is necessary. The history of rototilling is quite interesting, which the book covers, but the short story version is in the past when people were homesteading and working new land for the first time rototilling was necessary to establish crops in forest soils which are more fungi dominated rather than bacteria dominated.  The forest soil food web is dominated by fungi, however crop plants prefer a more bacteria dominated soil. Once your soil food web is established and tailored for what you’re growing turning the soil over will destroy large parts of the food web and leads to compacted soil as the fluffy soil will collapse and compact more and more with each watering. There’s more than a few books written on this topic for any gardeners interested in the topic. A classic one is called “Plowman’s Folly” by Edward Faulkner – it’s on my reading list.

What’s the Deal with NPK?

If you’ve ever bought fertilizer or have read a book on gardening or plants you’ve surely come across NPK. The N stands for Nitrogen which helps the plants grow. The P stands for Phosphorous which helps roots grow and develop. The K stands for Potassium which is vital to overall plant health. This is a layman’s explanation of course, but essentially NPK are the building blocks for plants. Without the presence of NPK plants cannot grow. Chemical fertilizers post the NPK numbers on the bag so users can get the desired ratios. “Users” is a good term, because using chemical fertilizers becomes much like a drug habit – it’s expensive and you always need more to get the same results as before. When you use chemical fertilizers you kill or drive away the microbes in the food soil web that control pests and weeds, which leads to the next dependency of herbicides and pesticides. In addition,  most people grow veggies for health – having to wash toxic chemicals off your harvest before consuming it not only adds extra work, but many times acts as a zero sum game as most people don’t properly clean the veggies with the proper soaps to remove the residues, and some of them cannot be removed because they penetrate the thin skin on some fruits and veggies. To top it off they all act as pollutants to the environment. If you’re working with a healthy soil food web there is never a need to worry about NPK, as the plants determine what they need and produce an environment with exudes from their roots to make an interplay with the microbes to get the perfect ratio for that individual plant species. Plants don’t need to worry about getting their next fix, and you don’t have to worry about the guilt associated with being a plant drug dealer!

The Plants are in Control

Understanding the concept that the plants are in control is the first key in understanding  how the soil food web operates. Most people think that plants just take up nutrients through their roots and that’s the end of the story. In reality plants take in energy from the sun which results in photosynthesis which creates energy which is used by the plants to produce chemicals they secrete through their roots. The secretions are called exudates. These exudates are in the form of carbohydrates and proteins.

From the book: Amazingly, their presence (exudates) wakes up, attracts, and grows specific beneficial bacteria and fungi living in the soil that subsist on these exudates and the cellular material sloughed off as the plant’s root tip grow. All this secretion of exudates and sloughing-off of cells takes place in the rhizosphere, which can look like a jelly or jam under the electron microscope, contains a constantly changing mix of soil organisms, including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and even larger organisms. All this “life” competes for the exudates in the rhizosphere, or its water or mineral content. 

It’s the plant created and controlled rhizosphere which dictates the environment of the soil food web. It’s the life of the soil food web that creates not only an atmosphere for plant nutrition, but it creates good soil structure – soil that’s able to hold water and nutrients. This is why turning over soil is unnecessary and counter productive once you’ve established a healthy web.

Who Are the Players?  

A continual drama is unfolding in the soil food web so you may be curious about who these actors are. It starts with the plant. As I mentioned above the plant produces exudates through its roots in the form of carbohydrates and proteins. Various forms of bacteria and fungi are attracted to the exudates. The bacteria and fungi attract protozoa and nematodes who feed off them. Their excretion is taken back up by roots as nutrients giving the plant the properly mineralized NPK they need. Arthropods keep the protozoa and nematods in check along with providing nutrient rich minerals for the plant roots. Also their burrowing creates tunnels in the soil that allows for oxygen to enter the soil and helps to create good soil structure. The arthropods are eaten by small mammals who transfer beneficial microbes via their feet and excrement. Another key player and very important player is the worm. Worms like arthropods create soil structure and their excrement called vermicasting is perhaps the most nutrient dense byproduct of anything in the soil food web. (For more on worms read my book review on “Worms Eat My Garbage” posted in the book review section) Everything works together and plays a crucial role in maintaining a healthy soil food web. If you’d like to know more details about each of the players and exactly how they benefit the plants and one another it’s all in the book, and it’s written in an easy to understand language so you’ll come away with a solid understanding about the roles they all play.

What’s in the Book?

The book is structured into two parts. Part one covers the basic science. It introduces what the soil food web is, how it functions, and all of the players and how they function and interplay with one another. Part two discusses how you can apply the soil food web science to your yard and garden. The appendix includes the 19 fundamental rules for soil food web gardening. I’ll list them here:

1. Some plants prefer soils dominated by fungi; others prefer soils dominated by bacteria.

2. Most vegetables, annuals, and grasses prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form and do best in bacterially dominated soils.

3. Most trees, shrubs, and perennials prefer their nitrogen in ammonium form and do best in fungally dominated soils.

4. Compost can be used to inoculate beneficial microbes and life into soils around your yard and introduce, maintain, or alter the soil food web in a particular area.

5. Adding compost and its soil food web to the surface of the soil will inoculate the soil with the same soil food web.

6. Aged, brown organic materials support fungi; fresh, green organic materials support bacteria.

7. Mulch laid on the surface tends to support fungi; mulch worked into the soil tends to support bacteria. 

8. If you wet and grind mulch thoroughly, it speeds up bacterial colonization.

9. Coarse, dryer mulches support fungal activity.

10. Sugars help bacteria multiply and grow; kelp, humic and fulvic acids, and phosphate rock dusts help fungi grow.

11. By choosing the compost you begin with and what nutrients you add to it, you can make teas that are heavily fungal, bacterially dominated, or balanced.

12. Compost teas are very sensitive to chlorine and preservatives in the brewing water and ingredients. 

13. Applications of synthetics fertilizers kill off most or all of the soil food web microbes.

14. Stay away from additives that have high NPK numbers.

15. Follow any chemical spraying or soil drenching with an application of compost tea.

16. Most conifers and hard wooded trees form mycorrhizae with ectomycorrhizal fungi.

17. Most vegetables, annuals, grasses, shrubs, softwood trees, and perennials form mycorrhizae with endomycorrhizal fungi.

18. Rototilling and excessive soil disturbance destroy or severely damage the soil food web.

19. Always mix endomycorrhizal fungi with the seeds of annuals and vegetables at planting time or apply them to roots at transplanting time. 

Final Thoughts of a Wannabe Farmer 

This book has a lot to offer. It’s written so any novice can grasp the soil biology concepts and walk away with enough knowledge to start successfully working with the soil food web. I didn’t have any interest in working with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or any other “cides” before I starting reading this book, and after completing it I can clearly see why this is the better choice. It wins hands down in the arenas of economics, sustainability, and overall quality production. What more could you want? Nature has been getting it right for billions of years, and as much technological progress man has made he’s yet to come up with a better system for growing plants than the soil food web. Less money spent, less work invested, better and more abundant end product, and the peace of mind knowing you’re not contributing to polluting the earth, in fact if you’re farming on a large scale or raising pastured livestock you are healing the earth. What greater honor as a steward of the land could there be?

Buy the book via Amazon by clicking HERE (It’s an affiliate link so I get a little kickback if you buy. Thanks!)



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