In the first two posts I covered how important it is to balance the mineralization in the soil in order to be able to grow the kinds of plants we want to grow, and then how to increase organic matter in soil the way nature does it.
Now I want to get into the third part of this soil health triangle, the soil food web.
This refers to the life in the soil, especially the bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms, and the insects and other small animals.
The plants are part of this too since they have a tremendous impact on the soil.
If you had x-ray, microscopic vision and could see what’s going on in the soil food web in this forest, you would see that many of these trees and plants are connected to each other through a network of fungi called mycorrhizal fungi.
Even if you don’t have x-ray vision, you can sometimes find the mushrooms, which are the fruits of these fungi.
The fungi bring water and nutrients directly into to the plants roots. They also protect plants from root-feeding predators. They do this in exchange for carbohydrates and other food sources which the plants give them in return.
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Phil: In the first two videos, I talked about how to balance our soil fertility, so that we can grow the kind of plants that we want to grow and then also how to learn from nature to bring organic matter in to our gardens. The third video is about the soil food web and that's really about the organisms living in the soil, whereas organic matter was more about that when they're dead, when plants and animals and organisms are dead.
This is more about when they're living. So it's bacteria and fungi and earth worms and insects and animals and even the plants are part of the soil food web too. If you had x-ray, microscopic vision and could look down in to the soil here, you would see a web of fungi that are going between all of these different trees and attaching the trees together, what the fungi do, is they effectively extend the root system of the trees and they go deep into the soil and far in to the soil. They bring water and nutrients to the trees. They also wrap right around the roots, that's where the connection occurs and they protect the roots from plant feeding organisms.
And then the trees in return, they manufacture carbohydrates during photosynthesis and they send that carbohydrate down to the fungi as food. So it's a real borrowing system. Even if you don't have microscopic visions, although I can't see any right now, you can sometimes see the fruits of these fungi, which are mushrooms. So the mushrooms come up and that's kind of the fruits and that's one way that the fungi spread themselves.
Even more interesting to me than that border, although that's really cool, is that the trees can actually share probably water, certainly nutrition, and probably even knowledge with each other through this fungal network, so they things through the fungi to each other to help each other out.
And then there are bacteria in the soil, there are proteas in the soil, they will have slightly different roles, but they're all… they all do important things for the community and they're very inter-dependent. They all consume each other and relate to each other and sometimes help each other. Some of the things they do are they… as I said, they feed plants, they protect plants, they breakdown organic matter, so they take that mulch that falls from the trees or the animals or everything that’s dead. They turn it into a kind of a mulch and then eventually in to a humus.
It takes some of them, taking nitrogen from the air and convert in to a form that plants can use. Some of them take toxins in the soil and make them non-toxic anymore.
Any kind of role that we need in our human communities happens in the plant communities. Taking up the cabbage and being the doctors and all things like that, all… -- there is all different roles, the organisms have to play in the soil. In the forest, the conditions are pretty nice for these microorganisms, for these fungi and bacteria and all these little guys is pretty good.
In our gardens, often not so much. We've had a lot of maybe construction work in our gardens, maybe we have a lot of compaction from equipment, lawn mores, kids running around and playing soccer. We have a monocultures that, the lack of diversity causes issues, may be we have… some one is used chemical fertilizers or pesticides in the past, which really decimates that soil food web. And so in our gardens, we may not has as abundant of a soil food web as healthy as diverse of the soil food web as naturally occurs here in the forest.
So in our gardens, we may to do something to introduce this, microbial diversity back in to our soil. The first way and arguably definitely one of the best ways to do it is compose, which I talked about in the organic matter section. A lot of people know composed is organic matter, which is good, its nutrients, which are good. But it's also just important… it's a way of growing and multiplying beneficial aerobic microorganisms, bacteria and fungi. If you have good composed that smells good, that was made properly and you have a good beneficial organisms you can bring in to your garden and immaculate your garden with those organisms.
So that's the one thing to do, but we don't usually have as much composed around, especially good composed as we would like. And so in that case, there are other things you can do, either to supplement the composed or even if you don't have composed to bring is like microbes in to your garden. I started off this post talking about micorize a fungi that are in the forest here.
You may very well not have them in all that… in abundance in your garden. And so there are ways that you can propagate them from healthy tree roots, but you have to know a lot of about how to do that properly, it takes some time. For me, the best thing to do is just to go and buy a small amount of them, you can buy them as an inoculants. And then every time you are seeding or planting anything, you put a little bit of fungi on the roots around the seeds and you're going to get them in to your soil that way. Otherwise, you can culture a lactic acid bacteria, which is something it's very, very useful bacteria for your soil.
But again, to me, and I like doing the homemade stuff, but sometimes it makes sense, there is a mosquito in front of the lens makes sense to buy a product. So there is a product called the effective microorganisms, you can buy from usually $15 to $30 depending on what kind you get. Bring that in to your soil, it's going to bring a bunch of different fermenting microbes, including, but not limited to lactic acid bacteria. And they're going to provide many benefits to your garden, to your soil, to your composed pile and to your plants.
Another one is composed tea. It's a little more work to make a good composed tea, but if you can do it, what you're doing there is your bringing in a huge ray of… tens and thousand of different species of microorganisms in to your soil, whereas the EM is just a few really important microbes, composed tea has many different microbes.
And the cool thing about the EM, which is effective microorganisms and the composed tea is, you can also spray them on to your plants and inoculate the leaves, where they can feed the leaves, the plant right through the leaves and protect the plants from diseases like that leafs seems to have. So there composed is the best, but there are other ways that we can bring in these inoculants in the garden.
Of course, we also need to stop the killing of our soil, which is hard on microorganisms the compacting, the chemical use, the pesticide use and we also have to make sure we provide them with a good home. So that means we need to water the whole soil, not just drip irrigation to the plants, we need to give water to all of these microorganisms.
We need to give them mulch, a nice leaf layer and organic matter in the soil, so we need to do what I talked about in the first video, which is balance out the nutrients just to make sure they have the proper nutrient ratios in the soil. So we need … all the things I've been talking about, we need to do, not just for the plants, but for all of these organisms in the soil.
Okay. We’ve made it back to our cabin, alive although we do have some lights on our legs. But I hope you've enjoyed these three videos in these Smiling Gardner Academy, I get in to a lot of these inoculants on how to activate your own EM, so that it really brings the cost down to like $1 to $2 per litter, how to make a special kind of compose called Bokashi with EM, how to brew your own composed tea, how to get your own indigenous lactic acid bacteria. So all kinds of cool inoculants to improve the soil food web and of course composed in too, the price as I said goes up Monday night.
So if you’re thinking about that, may be have a look at it, other than that I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Even further, plants can exchange food and other substances and probably even knowledge with each other through this fungal network.
There are also microscopic bacteria and protozoa in the soil food web performing similar functions. And indeed, insects and other small animals contribute, too.
All of these organisms are very much interdependent, each having specific jobs to do.
They may have roles such as feeding and protecting plants, fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, decomposing organic matter, improving soil structure, cleaning up toxins, and a list of ongoing tasks similar to what any human community needs taken care of.
In the forest, the conditions are pretty good for these organisms, which is why they are generally abundant.
In our gardens, maybe not so much.
Our soil has taken more of a beating over the years from construction work, tilling, compaction, monocultures, maybe even chemical fertilizers and pesticides that destroy soil structure and the soil food web. Even organic fertilizers can cause major issues if used improperly, which may be more common that not.
So in our gardens, we may need to do something to reintroduce the biological diversity to the soil.
We’ve already discussed compost, and that is one of the best ways to do it, provided you can make or buy good quality, nice-smelling, aerobic compost.
Most people know that compost provides nutrition and organic matter, but just as important is that it provides a huge, diverse array of microorganisms - and if it’s good compost, it’s good microorganisms.
But we often don’t have enough good compost around, and while it would be prudent to find or make at least a little because it really is the best option, there are a few other options that can help tremendously regardless of whether or not you use compost.
I started off this post talking about mycorrhizal fungi in the soil food web. There are ways to propagate them yourself from healthy tree roots which already have them, but by far the most time-efficient method is to buy it as an inoculant and use just a pinch every time you plant or seed.
You can also culture your own lactic acid bacteria, which is a useful thing to do, but in my opinion much better is to spend the $15-$30 to buy a product called effective microorganisms (EM) or another similar brand, to supply a small group of very important fermenting microbes to the garden.
And then for maximum diversity, although you need a little more knowledge and experience to do it right, is to brew your own compost tea to extract and then multiply the tens of thousands of species of beneficial microbes from quality compost.
An added benefit of the EM and compost tea is you can also apply them to plant leaves where they will feed and protect plants above ground.
I should mention there are many other inoculants making their way onto the market in the last 20 years, a few of which I’ve tried but most not. Here I’ve mentioned the most important.
So compost, mycorrhizal fungi, EM and compost tea are some of the best ways to improve the health of your soil food web with a diversity of beneficial microorganisms.
Of course we also need to stop most of the tilling, compacting and chemical use if we want them to stay around. And we also need to provide them with a healthy habitat.
That means watering the whole soil and mulch, not just the plants. It means ensuring the soil has sufficient humus and mulch and plants, even during the fallow season. It means balancing out the minerals in the soil in order to give the microbes the tools they need to create good soil.
In the Academy, I cover the soil food web and all of these inoculants in more detail, including how to activate your own EM so that is costs less than $2 per liter, how to use it to make a special kind of compost called bokashi, how to brew your own compost tea, and even how to culture your own microbes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these three lessons. It’s been a real treat to put them together for you here in the jungle.