Teaming with Microbes: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews

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

  1. 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.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Maxamillion September 17, 2010, 4:44 pm

I feel like if your a lazy person your not gonna want to read this book. This book is probably more beneficial, than the learning how to quit smoking. It all depends on what you smoke. Im just sayin if you really want to learn about how to make your plants thrive, it takes a little investing. In the end it all pays off, as long as you follow the rules. I would recomend this book to any gardener who grows TLO (true living oraganics) if you didnt know. You might not know me but take the advice from someone with experience. Happy gardening!

Joel July 20, 2010, 4:08 pm

Okay, so you have trouble getting mulch to your garden beds, including paying for it and transporting it. You also have weeds springing up where you would need mulch. I think I can help!

Try cutting the weeds and leaving them in place.

The weeds are, themselves, mulch. So are any cuttings from plants you intend to have growing there.

There are potential downsides. Maybe plants will re-sprout from the root, or the aerial portion will contain enough water to produce seeds before it dies. Either you’ll develop a knack for the time & place to cut them (ideally, for most species, just below the surface, as they’re beginning to flower…but I’m with you in not being on top of things), or you’ll develop a thick layer of mulch a lot sooner.

Cuttings from deciduous trees are also great. If a neighbor trims a ficus or similar, I tend to steal the pile they leave on the sidewalk. Not very heavy, for the amount of space they cover, and you can’t beat the price.

patrick April 24, 2009, 12:33 pm

as humans,if not on purpose,we have practically destroyed the mother.if we have time to sit on our asses swilling wine we have time to do our part to help repair the damage we have done.we need to get is time to stop using petro chemicals and making some rich,as we continue to destroy what beneficial life is left in the is time to get back to basics.think about where that wine came from……..cheers

Brooke Heppinstall January 28, 2007, 7:17 pm

Ok. I just backed up and read your first review. Why’s everybody in a snit? Understanding the science behind healthy soil is great, but,only a few garden Nazis have it in them to check off every little thing in the perfect garden check list. Is that a run-on sentence? Do we care?

Perhaps a little more liquid human nutrients, a glass of merlot, perhaps, is missing in these fellows lives.

Don’t sweat it. You did a good job on the review. Mulch is a wonderful thing if you have 1)money, 2)time,3)helpers. Double digging is ok if you’re in great physical shape and it’s not over 70f in the sun. And you already know how I feel about turning compost. If George Clooney will show up in his Speedo once a month and do it for me I’d be in gardener’s heaven. Otherwise, will you pour me some more whine?!

Jenn January 28, 2007, 12:23 pm

Heh. I’m still working on fine-tuning the ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ ingredients of my compost pile… and turning it? um.

But I’ll still be getting a copy of this to read, because frankly, the science fascinates me. I loved biology in high school.

Kathy Purdy January 28, 2007, 11:02 am

Mary Ann and Annie–It’s obvious to me I didn’t make myself clear, because I do think this is a good book. Please read this post for my further attempts at elucidation.

Annie in Austin January 28, 2007, 1:28 am

Oh Kathy – you sure know how to pull your readers into your post! The book is still on my list, but your review has made wonder about the authors.

Am I getting this right? They first behaved badly, describing their actions as “we carpet bombed our lawns….strafed their weeds with a popular broadleaf herbicide…. commercial fertilizer…etc.”. Then they see the light! Now, like former smokers who feel it their duty to teach everyone else how to quit, the authors give prescriptions as to how to make perfect compost?
If you never smoked, do you need to buy a book on how to quit?

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Mary Ann January 27, 2007, 11:18 pm

Good grief! I am so with you. I am not gonna fine tune the flippin compost. And I am not going to make the tea. Iced tea for me. Long Island Iced tea for me but not the garden. Thanks for the fine book report. You saved me tons of time and money……….

Your pal,

Carol January 27, 2007, 10:03 pm

Great post. Well written, as usual. And I haven’t forgotten to list you first on the club post, since you weren’t fooled by my “mystery” plant last week.