Friday, April 20, 2012

Garden Book Review: Teaming With Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web

Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, the authors of Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web© 2006, gardened for many years, as so many of us did, soaking their plants with high nitrogen chemical fertilizers, applying toxic herbicides, and pulverizing the soil with rototillers. 


But while doing some research to discover how certain fungal strands in the soil were able to trap nematodes and prevent them from entering tomato roots, they came across the writings of Dr. Elaine Ingham, a noted soil microbiologist. They applied the lessons about the soil food web that they learned from Dr. Ingham's writings to their own gardens. When they began to garden more naturally, they were amazed by the results. And so they decided to write a book to enlighten other gardeners about the soil that is teeming with life beneath our feet. 

I reluctantly begn adding compost and organic mulches to my lifeless clay and hardpan soil almost ten years ago, not really expecting it to make much difference. However, I soon became a believer when plants began to not only survive but to thrive. I have read many composting books over the years (Rodale's was my compost bible), but Teaming with Microbes gives the most thorough explanation of soil life of any book I have read. (The 2010 edition of the book has been renamed Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web© 2010).

 It is a valuable book to have if you are, or desire to be, a natural gardener.  It is very readable, written in language that the everyday gardener can understand. It is a small book with just 196 pages but packed with information for building healthy soils.  The book is divided into two parts. Part one explains the soil food web and the interconnectedness of all the micro and macro critters that are alive in healthy soils, beginning with the bacteria, fungi, algae, molds, protozoa, and nematodes. It goes on to describe how arthropods, earthworms, gastropods ( even snails and slugs!), reptiles, birds, and mammals are all part of nature's "team."  

The second part of the book explains how the gardener can restore and maintain soil health by practices such as composting, mulching, the application of "compost teas," and adopting a no till approach to gardening. Since tilling can destroy or damage the soil food web, they recommend the of application of organic mulches of 1 to 2 inches to the soil before planting instead of tilling.

In the chapter on compost, the book describes how to manipulate compost ingredients in order to obtain finished compost that is either highly fungal or highly bacterial. If the pile is built with more materials containing nitrogen (such as grass clippings and alfalfa meal: 75% green 25% brown ingredients such as leaves) the compost will be bacterially dominant and is good for annuals and vegetables. And a fungal compost would be constructed from materials with less nitrogen containing ingredients and more emphasis on the carbon containing brown materials (about 50% green and 50% brown materials). Fungal composts are good for perennials, shrubs, and trees. While it was fascinating reading, I'm not certain I really care to micro manage my compost pile that much! I think I will just continue to make compost as I always have. (I wrote about it here for my last year's Earth Day post.) It works for me.

I was pleased to see a chapter on the use of aerated compost teas, which are a fast and economical way to restore soil health. I tried brewing compost tea only one time, and although the process isn't very difficult, I'm not sure my batch of tea was good. It had a funny smell, and that's not good. Perhaps I should not have brewed it on a day that reached into the triple digits! Nevertheless, here are the directions for aerated compost tea written by Dr. Elaine Ingham, the authors' mentor, in an article she wrote for Fine Gardening if you care to give it a try.

And just an aside. When I first read the book a few years ago, I skipped over the part about rototilling, since it's not something I do. Then, when I reread the book a few days ago for this review, I was surprised to learn that the agricultural revolution began in 1700 England when Jethro Tull, a lawyer turned farmer, invented a seed drill that allowed seed to be mechanically placed in predrilled holes. Seed no longer had to be hand broadcast. He also popularized the practice of tilling soils, believing that plant roots had tiny mouths that ate the small particles of soil.  

I had never heard of Jethro Tull until, when on a garden tour several years ago, the home owner was explaining the virtues of a new Coreopsis named 'Jethro Tull': a drought tolerant, easy care, long blooming perennial. And he said that another thing that attracted him to the Coreopsis  was that it had the same name as his favorite rock band from the 70's, Jethro Tull. Well, I had never heard of either the rock band from the 1970's (which is apparently still performing today) or of Jethro Tull, the agricultural  inventor from the 1700's, but I do have Coreopsis 'Jethro Tull' growing in my garden. He has yet to make his appearance this year, but here is a photo from last April. (All that said so I could post a flower photo!)

Coreopsis 'Jethro Tull'
Today I'm visiting Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys to see the interesting books that other gardeners are reading this month. And since Earth Day 2012 is Sunday, I am also linking to The Sage Butterfly's  Earth Day Reading Project.

Remember to do something nice for Mother Earth!

16 comments:

  1. An excellent book and perfect choice for The Earth Day Reading Project! This book teaches us how to gently garden and do it well. And I love compost! Thank you for participating!

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    1. Sage Butterfly, I usually just borrow gardening books from the library, but this one has so much good information that I bought it!

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  2. Super review. I cannot believe you've never heard (of) Jethro Tull. I wonder if listening to the current version would help your plants grow.

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    1. I guess I am a very old Baby Boomer! Now I'm curious...I'll have to check out their music!

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    2. I think "Bungle in the Jungle" works best here.

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    3. Oh good...now I know two Jethro Tull songs...Bungle in the Jungle and Aqua Lung!
      I'm feeling more hip already!

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  3. Great review! I think I need this book. I like that they recommend no tilling, because tilling is difficult when you can have things growing all season long!

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    1. Thank you, Gale. Tilling would be difficult where plants are already growing! ;)

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  4. What a wonderful book to review! I have become more and more aware of my soil as a living substance - not just dirt! :) I would love to know more about the world that lives literally under our very feet. And I had never heard of making different types of compost for different results. Very interesting. I had been worried that my compost had a little too much green and not enough brown, but now I know that's good for nitrogen, which my roses should love! This book is definitely on my 'must have' list! Thanks for joining in.

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    1. Holley, My plants just get generic compost made from what ever I have on hand. Usually shredded fall leaves and grass clippings. Sometimes Starbucks coffee grounds to heat it up. As they say, "It all leads back to compost!"

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  5. So nice to read your review of this book, Dorothy. I am a keen composter, like you. I just bought ‘Teaming With Microbes’ a week ago. I haven’t started reading it yet. I am relieved that you find it very readable, even for the everyday gardener.

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    1. Denise, It's always nice to meet a fellow composter! I think you will find that the book has a lot of helpful information.

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  6. Thank you, Dorothy! I love no till approach. It just makes sense! And saves all that precious time!Composting is almost my hobby. This is second year already that I used my raised beds for composting. It works!

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    1. Tatyana, I had never thought of using raised beds for composting, but I can see how that would work...it would be like"sheet composting!"

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  7. Hi Dorothy, I am an avid recycler and believe in adding compost is hugely beneficial, and yet there is a lot I could still learn about keeping the garden healthy. This book sounds like a good learning tool and I like that it is written in a simple, not-too-scientific manner. I am curious though about what the author's consider is wrong with rototillers. It is not a practice I employ, but doesn't rototilling the soil just mix things up?

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    1. Hi Jennifer, The idea of "no till" was new information for me, too. Apparently tilling destroys the miles of fungal hyphae that exist in even bacterially dominated soils. And soil that is "alive" is occupied by bacteria and fungus...they are good guys in the soil. Their job is to feed the soil, which in turn feeds the plants. So in order to maintain a healthy soil food web, the soil should be disturbed as little as possible.

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