A Gardening Year

The adventures and misadventures of an heirloom gardener

Monday, January 22, 2007

Teaming with Microbes

After slogging my way through the last book I read, I was disheartened to read in the Preface to Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web that the first part of the book would be difficult to get through. I pressed on. Very science-y. An excellent sleep inducer. No joke. I did fall asleep while reading it one warm afternoon. But it was definitely worth it. Like the authors, I urge you to read the entire book and not just the second part which is the heart of the book.

Their argument boils down to one sentence: "No one ever fertilized an old-growth forest". Think about all the wild places you have ever seen, lush with growth. How did they get that way without the help of Scott's or Miracle-Gro? And if Scott's and Miracle-Gro are so superior, why don't our yards and gardens look better than those wild places?

The authors' thesis is that we should garden like Nature gardens, working with the flora and fauna in the soils rather than against it through the use of compost, organic mulches and actively aerated compost tea. Best of all, they provide precise instructions and call for materials that most of us have on hand anyways. No need for expensive ingredients or equipment!

I was thrilled to discover that I am not a "lazy composter" as I have always thought. Instead, I practice cold composting (not turning the compost), a method that produces the most "nutritious" compost! And what I jokingly refer to as "composting in situ", using the mower to shred up leaves and dumping them with the grass clippings onto my beds in the fall is actually a recommended mulch. As are the leaves I leave in my gardens over the winter. The only thing I am doing wrong is removing the leaves in the spring. And my deepest, darkest secret is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead of carefully working my compost into the soil, I just spread it on top. Again, a recommended method for amending the soil!

Of course, there are things that I have to do differently. Such as leaving the leaves on my beds. And even though I don't roto-till, I should still stop "loosening" the soil in the spring when I plant my seeds. The soil should be disturbed as little as possible. Planting in individual holes or narrow furrows is fine. I should learn to make and use actively aerated compost teas. Perhaps most importantly instead of throwing anything and everything into my composter, I should pay closer attention to the individual ingredients and their proportions, maybe go so far as to have different composters to make compost tailored to the needs of the various plants in my gardens.

This is a wonderful book that I will be referring to again and again. Thanks Carol for recommending it. My garden is forever in your debt.


At 10:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post and I am happy to read that the book was useful. I'm still working to finish it up, myself. I'll be including you in the "club post" next week.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Colleen Vanderlinden said...

LOL I was happy to find out that I'm not such a "lazy" composter, either. And ditto with the leaves in the beds and topdressing with the compost. All these things I thought I was slacking off on are actually good! Finding that out alone makes Jeff Lowenfels one of my favorite garden writers :-)

And, I totally agree with you....the whole book is worth reading, even if the first part is kind of tough.

Great post!

At 7:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm breezing through the first part--but then, I'm an admitted science-loving geek. I'm really looking forward to reading that I'm not a "lazy" composter, either!

At 12:49 AM, Blogger OldRoses said...

Carol, I love your "club posts"! You are so creative.

Colleen, isn't it great to find out that what you are doing is "right"?

Kim, science books are always difficult for me to get through, but I push myself to do it because I enjoy learning new things. This book was such an eye opener for me. The idea is so simple and obvious.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Sylvana said...

Thank you for this post! It was most informative and gave me lots of extra ideas for my garden. I pile leaves in the garden in the fall for insulation as snow is not always dependable, but I rake most of them out in the spring because they tend to suffocate many of my plants otherwise. I think next time I will just dig to find the plants and leave the leaves where they are!

At 12:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you are all so kind!! I am soooo glad you enjoyed TEAMING WITH MICROBES. It was a lot of fun to write and we think an important message.. I learned as much as you did!

Who knew? Rototilling...Rodale's mags had all those Troy and Mantis ads...Yeah, the first chapter is a pain (don't forget on 41/42 should be the more hydrogen ions the LOWER pH and more ACIDIC). Anyhow,I hope you got some of the sense of humor I snuck in when the editor wasn't paying attention...a rare moment at TIMBER PRESS...no wonder they do such a class job.

I love to give my talk on the soil food web. This is where the book came from.I had no idea it would take four years from start to finish. No wonder authors starve!. Anyhow, give me one hour and folks will be able to understand what you all will be talking about having read TEAMING!

Again, thanks for choosing the book and giving it a try. I hope to meet you all some time (may be at the Philly, CHicago, NE, NW and SF flower shows this season...the NYBG in March).

Oh, the Soil Food Web Rules in at APPDX are missing one very key rule: Never lend your copy of TEAMING WITH MICROBES to anyone. Make them buy the book!


Jeff Lowenfels

At 8:05 AM, Blogger Gardens-In-The-Sand said...

I enjoyed the book as well...

20 years I've been telling peeps their roto-tillers were bad... glad the published "authorities" have caught up with me!

While not a page turner like a murder mystery, I found the book difficult to put down.

It's interesting (if academic) to know why hay and wheat straw make better mulch on the vegetable garden than wood chips, which work great on the perennial beds...


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