The lone voice of horticultural reason

Great Winter Leisure Reading: Fascinating Book on Soil

 Teaming with Microbes – A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web
By Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis Timber Press 2006 $24.95 US

Healthy soil—soil that will do more to keep your annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs stress- and disease-free and flourishing than every fertilizer, fungicide and pesticide on the shelves of the grandest garden center—is teaming with life. Macroorganisms, such as earthworms and insects, combine with a staggering multitude of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that have as big a say in how well your plants grow as do you.Ninety-five percent of your success or failure as a gardener relates to your soil. Soil is to gardening as water is to fishing—the amount of fun you’re going to have on the weekend depends on what’s living in the medium. Here, at last, is one book that gives gardeners an advanced understanding of the astonishing, magical world of sex, violence, sharing, peace, joy, community building, treaties, treachery, life and death that takes place underfoot across every square inch of your garden.

The term “soil food web” refers to the interaction of these organisms, which feed on one another and in so doing provide an environment in which plants grow and prosper—particularly if you do your part. As the book points out, when we use synthetic chemical fertilizers, we injure the microbial life that sustains healthy plants, and thus begins the cycle of reliance on an arsenal of artificial, synthetic substances. After conveying a thorough understanding of the workings of the soil food web, Part 2 of the book explains how to foster and cultivate the life of the soil through the use of compost, mulches, and compost teas.

Why we need to create and maintain healthy soil, and how to do it, is what this book teaches. Rather than reading like a university textbook, however, the authors eschew horticultural geek jargon and overly technical language. Wonderfully written in straightforward, friendly prose, this book conveyed to me more useful gardening advice in the first half-hour reading than the university soil science class I took in the ‘90s.

Some of this may be due to the fact that it is only very recently that a more advanced understanding of the science of soil has come to light. All the newest research and advice is in these pages. But the soul of the book captures much more than the workings of soil. Teaming with Microbes is thought provoking and forward reaching; the authors (each a longtime gardener and esteemed garden writer) are setting forth a bold new vision of how we must view our gardening habits from this day forward. I predict this book will become a mainstay of college horticultural programs around the world.

Click on the Table of Contents page for a thorough review of content. The title of the final chapter—No One Ever Fertilized an Old Growth Forest—gives an inkling of what’s in store.

This is the book that shows us how we all should garden, for the benefit of ourselves, our fellow creatures and the entire planet. Highest recommendation.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener