It probably would have taken me a lot longer to get around to reading Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web if Carol hadn’t suggested it for the Garden Blogger’s Book Club. Partly because I would normally wait until my library got a copy, instead of buying it brand new. Partly because my attitude was, “I already know we need microbes in the soil. Duh, that’s what compost is for.” Ah, but little did I know how little I knew.
Fine tune the pH of your compost? Who knew? Paramecia and amoebas, those one-celled creatures you study in high school biology, part of the soil food web? Who knew? Speaking of high school biology, I remember learning about the nitrogen cycle, and just as these authors state (p. 48), it was taught as a chemical process. I remember hearing about nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but the rest of it was all chemicals. If anyone knew that biological processes were involved every step of the way, they sure weren’t writing high school textbooks. That’s when the light bulb went on for me: thanks to the electron microscope, among other things, organic gardeners now know why compost works, and not just that it does work.
And what’s been learned will (or should) change what you do in the garden. But are you ready for this:
Rototilling and and excessive soil disturbance destroy or severely damage the soil food web. They are outmoded practices and should be abandoned in established garden beds.
For the record, we don’t own a rototiller. And I’m not into double digging on a regular basis. But I hate, I really hate edging my bed with a spade, or digging a hole for a new perennial, and hitting a knee-busting, shoulder-jangling rock. So whenever I start a new bed, or edge an established one, I remove rocks when I find them, even if it means digging a lot deeper or wider than I originally intended. I’m not talking about pebbles, mind you. I’m talking about stones as big as my open hand, and bigger.
And then I wonder how I’m going to weed without disturbing the soil. I know, I know, if I kept my beds mulched I wouldn’t have all these weeds. But I didn’t get them all mulched, and I do have weeds–so now what? Pull weeds and massacre fungi?
Why haven’t I been mulching?
- Trouble getting enough of it to cover all of the beds. “Trouble” includes transporting it and paying for it.
- Difficulty getting it on the beds. “Difficulty” includes finding the time and having the physical ability. Let’s face it, I’m an overweight weakling, and backache is my middle name.
Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis maintain that teaming with microbes is much easier than the “old” way of gardening. Well, in their former way of gardening
we carpet bombed our lawns with a megadose of water-soluble, high-nitrogen fertilizer and watered like crazy; then we strafed their weeds with a popular broadleaf herbicide. Next, we attacked our vegetable gardens and flower beds with a bag or two of commercial fertilizer and leveled them with a rototiller until the soil, the color and texture of finely ground coffee, lay as smooth and level as the Bonneville Salt Flats.
My lawn care regimen (past, present, and the forseeable future) consists of
- Getting one or more children to mow the lawn.
So when I start reading about finetuning my compost pile, cobbling together a compost tea brewer, making sure the brewer is cleaned immediately after use, and making sure the tea is applied within four hours of manufacture–I start to hyperventilate. It just seems like too much attention to detail for my present circumstances.
What I’m trying to say is, this book could be guilt-inducing–but I don’t think the authors intend it to be. They want you to feel liberated, and enthused! They are compost tea geeks, scouring the garage sales for aquarium filters, snitching their wives’ cooking molasses to make the perfect microbe brew. Have at it, boys! It is so. not. me.
I do have a compost pile. And I make sure someone else turns it at least once a year. But I don’t stockpile ingredients in order to make sure I have the right ratio of green to brown, so I can’t imagine adding or subtracting items to favor fungi or bacteria. Maybe someday. Right now I just want to have more of my beds weeded and mulched by the end of the next gardening season than I did at the end of this one. Once I achieve that level of enlightenment, this book will be waiting on my shelf, ready to take me higher.