Did you ever wonder why good healthy soil smells so wonderful? You can thank actinomycetes (ac-ti-no-my-cetes) for that. But don’t worry about how to pronounce it. Just know they’re living microorganisms that help stabilize decaying organic matter and are responsible for giving soil that heavenly earthy smell.
On the other hand, if you did learn how to pronounce it, just think how impressed your friends and family would be! In Rachel Carson’s classic book, “Silent Spring,” she describes in prophetic detail how soil undisturbed by man or chemicals is teeming with life, microscopic organisms that work symbiotically with each other and with the plants and roots to provide an efficient and highly sophisticated infrastructure. Collectively, these microorganisms allow flora and fauna above and below the ground to thrive naturally.
In the most recent book for gardeners on the science of soil, Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis shed new light on, until recently, a mysterious world. Their book, “Teaming with Microbes; A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” digs into soil in a most enlightening and entertaining way.
How strange that for so long, many gardeners and even industry professionals thought that bacteria, fungi, and protozoa in the soil were a bad thing! Although there are certainly good and bad versions of each, we now know that there are many very good living organisms in soil that has not been tainted by overuse of chemicals.
Only since the invention of the electron microscope, have soil scientists been able to fully study and understand the symbiotic relationships within the soil. Since then, we’ve learned that a single teaspoon of garden soil can contain over a billion bacteria. We discovered that plants attract bacteria and fungi to their roots so that protozoa and nematodes will eat these single-celled organisms, and then excrete the excess nitrogen in a form that feeds the plants.
The bottom line is that all plants do better in soil that is alive with beneficial soil microbes. Yet until recently, we didn’t realize just how much we were doing through conventional gardening practices to promote a soil environment that was anything but alive. The implication of these facts soon became clear. Using high-salt, dehydrating, chemical fertilizers can kill fungi and bacteria at the base of the soil food web and impacts larger members as well.
In our eco-friendly garden, our best asset is healthy soil. That means feeding the billions of beneficial microbes and other subterranean creatures the diet they need to thrive and multiply. Organic matter sums it up but specifically compost, aged manure, mushroom compost and leaf mold is a good place to start.
“Applying herbicides, pesticides, nemacides, fungicides, and all the other “icides” are practices that hurt the natural order — that complicated but elegant linking of food chains, from the single-celled organisms all the way up to man.” as Lowenfels and Lewis point out.
What all of this new science means is that we have to make an adjustment to the way we work and play in our yards, gardens and landscapes. It is incumbent upon us to take into account the real science of the soil, and to consider the consequences of negatively impact the soil food web.
We live in a new era, from how we communicate to how we garden. It is up to each one of us to embrace the tools that have recently been made available through science (and books) to reduce and even eliminate the environmental footprint we have created. As you move away from feeding your plants to feeding the soil, you will be encouraged to know that gardening actually becomes easier. The natural balance in a healthy, sustainable soil food web makes for healthier plants that look great and are more pest and disease-resistant, too.