Teaming with Microbes: Take 2

– Posted in: Book reviews

Oh, dear–I’m afraid I didn’t do a very good job reviewing this book, because people are getting the wrong impression. I was in the midst of writing a very long comment to rectify the situation, and decided it would make a better post instead. First of all Mary Ann Newcomer commented:

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. . . . Thanks for the fine book report. You saved me tons of time and money

Soon after, Annie from The Transplantable Rose remarked:

. . .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?

To answer Annie first, here is another quote further down on the same page as the “carpet bomb” quotation:

Don’t misunderstand us. At the same time we were also practicing what we considered to be an “appropriate” measure of environmental responsibility and political correctness. We left the grass clippings on the lawn to decompose and tilled fallen leaves into the garden beds, and occasionally we let loose batches of lacewings, ladybird beetles, and praying mantids–our version of integrated pest management. We composted. We recycled our newspapers and aluminum cans. We fed the birds and allowed all manner of wildlife to wander in our yards. In our minds we were pretty organic and environmentally conscious (if not downright responsible). In short, we were like most home gardeners, maintaining just the right balance between better living through chemistry and at least some of Rachel Carson’s teachings. (p. 11)

In essence, there were two things they didn’t understand: that when it comes to plants, all forms of nitrogen are not the same. And that disturbing the soil is harmful to the creatures that are living there.

I think the information being presented here is something every gardener should know, and that every soil science class should teach. (And I agree with Carol: there are some excellent science fair/homeschooling projects in there. Every Master Gardener class should try them, too!) But I was also trying to point out that just as some people are hemerocallis nuts and others can go into great detail regarding minute differences in colchicum cultivars (ahem!), these guys are now really into making the best compost and compost tea on the planet. But not all their readers will be. I mean, their list of Soil Food Web Gardening Rules has 19 items on it. Hello, guys, let’s keep it to 10! I’m sure they tried to whittle it down to what they feel are the most essential, basic principles, but they’ve still got too many basics for the average joe. In the introduction they advise

You might be tempted to skip right to the second part of this book, but we strongly discourage doing so. It is essential to know the science to really understand the rules.

That is their inner geek talking. To me it is like saying, “Before you can really grow a daylily, you need to know the names of all the botanical structures and the genetic history of the species from which modern cultivars have been bred.” Eventually, you just might want to know all that. But not the first time you plant a daylily.

I don’t consider myself the average joe, but in practice, at least, I’m still lightyears behind where they’re at, and, let’s face it, feeling a little bit guilty about it. And I think the negativity both Mary Ann and Annie picked up on was the ambivalence I feel when reading this book. I’m not even mulching; how can I worry about whether the mulch I do put down is fungally dominated or bacterially dominated? I don’t even manage a thorough spring cleaning in my house, much less my garden, and I’m supposed to clean the compost tea brewer right after it’s done brewing? Oy vey!

But if you’ve already earned your Master Composter’s certificate, or even if you’re not as vulnerable to horticultural guilt as I am, this could be the perfect book for you to further your gardening knowledge and skills. Again, let the authors speak:

For too long, for too many gardeners, everything we needed to know came in a bottle or jar and all we had to do was mix with water and apply with a hose-end sprayer: instant cooking meets home gardening. Some hobby. Well, we want you to be thinking gardeners, not mindless consumers who react because a magazine or television ad says to do something. If you really want to be a good gardener, you need to understand what is going on in your soil. (p. 15)

Isn’t this what so many garden bloggers have said they wanted, a garden book that treats them like intelligent human beings? To put it another way, this book is not the least you need to know to partner with the soil food web when gardening, but the most you’d want to know (short of becoming a soil scientist yourself). For most of my readers, I think that is a good thing.

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.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Stuart February 13, 2007, 12:04 am

Wow! I think I’m going to have to read this book now. You’ve all really piqued my interest.

Kathy Purdy January 31, 2007, 9:07 pm

Thank you, Tracy. Anyone reading my reviews, please read the other ones, too. They are all listed at Carol’s website.

Tracy January 31, 2007, 12:41 pm

Firefly: I think you’ll find when you read the book that the authors are not nearly as prescriptive as you may think. The first half of the book describes the chemistry and biology (with pretty darn readable text) and the second half describes the primary methods they recommend to achieve various results. (Those results make sense if you’ve read the first half of the book.). At no time did I feel as if the authors were preaching or trying to state hard-and-fast rules – that just was not the tone of the book. I believe they say several times that these methods *could* be used, not that they *must* be used.

As for the digging, it all makes a lot of sense when you read the book. Nowhere do they talk about not digging up rocks, or that the digging of animals is any better or worse than other digging. I think the main idea they were trying to get at was to minimize digging. I also think they were mainly concerned about the traditional idea that an established vegetable garden needs to be rototilled every year. And I’m sure they would say that if you DO disturb the soil, you should add compost, mulch, etc. to restore the soil food web. Actually, this is all the same stuff that Lee Reich says in his book Weedless Gardening, the only difference being that Teaming with Microbes describes the “why” behind it – the biology.

I think you’ll see when you read the book.

firefly January 30, 2007, 3:06 pm

? I said quite clearly I hadn’t read the book. My comment was not addressed to the book or its authors in hope of an answer, but to Kathy’s concern was that when she removes rocks she has to disturb a lot of the soil to do so, and to my own sense that many of these prescriptive writings are not entirely based in human or Nature’s reality.

I feel compelled to point out that, having set up several garden beds in the past year that required sod removal, I am in no way advocating shoveling large tracts of land. For the next set of beds, I smothered the lawn with newspaper and bark mulch.

However, since Mr. Lowenfels has surfaced, I’ll ask: when skunks dig for grubs in a lawn, they can make huge pits. When squirrels bury food they can move a lot of soil and expose plant roots (and they don’t stop with one hole, either). That must also “impact” the soil ecology, but what exactly makes that better than digging out a rock with a shovel?

I look forward to reading “Teaming with Microbes” — right now I’m in the middle of “Ecology for Gardeners” by Steven Carroll and Steven Salt — but in terms of my own experience, I have read quite a few very detailed books with lots of must-be-done programs in them, and in the final analysis, when Nature has the last laugh and reality reduces the management program to rubble, it’s the best laid plans of scientists that often turn out to be the biggest “no-no.”

The problem is that once someone persuasively sets these ideas in public memory, any truly scientific process that contradicts notions has a hell of a time changing course.

My father, who was a research chemist involved in pesticide development, could certainly attest to that.

Kathy Purdy January 30, 2007, 7:08 am

Hi, Jeff–
Thanks for stopping by. I also noticed that the commenters who had the most negative reaction had not read the book. It must be I didn’t clearly distinguish my reactions reading the book and the value of the book itself. There is a lot of information there to be–er, digested and it’s certainly not Soil Food Web for Dummies. The sum total of the techniques described in the book are something to aspire to. Armed with a better knowledge of the soil food web, all we can do is start from where we are and continue to modify and improve our gardening practices in the right direction.

Jeff Lowenfels January 30, 2007, 1:27 am

Hi folks,

I am happy to answer questions re “Teaming with Microbes” and suffer the slings and arrows of disapproval, too! 🙂

A few comments. First, we did not mean to suggest you had to tweak your compost pile or use compost tea! You can and, we think should, but you don’t need to. We gave three ways to return the biology to the right state. Our experience with gardeners here in Anchorage is reflected by your comments. Some will, some won’t go to tea or compost…but mulch ,we were quite sure, was available to everyone and its use required a minimum amount of work.

As for disturbing the soil….sounds like a sore spot with a few. That is ok, but I didn’t make up the science. Double digging and rototilling are remnants of the Rodale days. Who were the biggest advertisers in their magazines? Bare soil is a big no-no and rototilling and double digging end up wasting valuable carbon and impact the microbial life. And, both practices destroy those wonderful tunnels made by the animals Firefly doesn’t want to get tickets from the police. (I don’t think Firefly read the book!). I don’t think we suggested you couldn’t remove rocks!

The comment on self mulching was right on the mark. The book explains why…or at least tries to do so! 🙂 and since it is hard to do with annuals and row crops, suggests what would provide the very same kind of microbiology. This is what part two is about.

Again, if you want to ask questions, just fire away!

Jeff Lowenfels

firefly January 29, 2007, 2:12 pm

I’m ambivalent about books that advise you not to do things in the garden like weeding or digging because any disturbance is bad. After all, earthworms and other insects, moles, voles, groundhogs, squirrels, skunks, and even birds are out there tunneling, digging, and scratching up the soil all the time — are they getting tickets from the Dirt Police? There’s a matter of degree there that ought to be addressed. Digging up a rock in your back yard is not the same as tearing up all the topsoil in the Great Plains with a plow.

I also think it’s sort of foolish to believe that just because science has analyzed the contents of soil we can therefore come up with some kind of perfect program for management. I’ve read elsewhere that the best soil amendment is self-mulch — that plants are used to feeding on their own leaf litter — and so combining things into compost would seem to run counter to that whole idea.

There’s no end to the imaginable restrictions. I’m working on satisfaction with the “good enough” performances.

This book is/was on my list of things to read, but I appreciate the heads-up about the level of detail in it. Now I won’t be so inclined to obsess when I finally do start a compost pile.

Annie in Austin January 29, 2007, 12:23 pm

So their motion was not a 180º turn? Your second post does make a difference. Thanks, Kathy, because I was getting the impression of reformed junkies selling their story to Oprah! Although this is obviously not the case, they still sound like guys with a lot of time on their hands!

We were longtime members of the Field Museum in Chicago, and had the privilege of seeing their Soil Exhibit even as it was being constructed.

I look forward to reading the book, and continuing the underground adventure!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Brooke Heppinstall January 28, 2007, 6:35 pm

Ah, well. There’s some real personalities involved in this book. I’ll have to back up and read your first post on this. I must tread carefully here.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t please all the garden nannies out there who are watching to see who’s finally thrown in the towel and blasted an errant weed or two with their secret bottle of. . .weed killer! I feel guilty enough having NOT turned my compost pile last spring. I didn’t do it in June, July, or (gasp!)August either. Tough.

My back hurts just thinking about how hard I work trying to please every garden nanny on the planet. And trying to keep up with your own garden AND run a small nursery leads to aspirin abuse.

My idea of compost tea is to throw a shovel full of compost into a drywall bucket, toss a handful of alfalfa meal in, and fill it up with pond water. I’ll let it sit for a couple of days, strain it into another bucket and add some of the ensuing ‘tea’ to my watering can.

Dirt Diva Two

kerri January 28, 2007, 3:53 pm

This has been a fun read 🙂 I like compost, but am not too far into the soil science aspect of it yet….too many other things to think about….like what I’m going to grow. However, I can see all the points you’ve made!

Carol January 28, 2007, 1:55 pm

You do know how to stir things up, even if it isn’t compost. I shall include both posts in the GBBC round up!