If you’re a gardener who has high hopes of a good garden crop only to be disappointed by the results, you’re not alone. Believe me, we’ve been there plenty of times.
Maybe you’re frustrated with it. It’s easy to give up and brand yourself as having “a black thumb”. I’ve heard people say, “I kill everything I try to grow!”
But in reality, it’s a matter of not having the knowledge and knowing how to work with the soil to make your garden thrive.
We’re going to talk about the most critical component to any successful garden, THE SOIL FOOD WEB.
What Is the Soil Food Web?
In simple terms, it is a symbiotic web of living organisms that naturally occur in healthy soil. Left undisturbed, this web of organisms has an interdependent relationship which is quite remarkable really being that there are billions upon billions of these guys all acting together for a common cause; to create a habitat that supports a truly living soil. This process is just short of a miracle.
So, how can you become the caretaker of this soil food web? It’s not complicated. There are 5 simple rules, so to speak, that are listed which will start you on this journey right away and see amazing results year after year.
- Switch to a NO TILL method
- Avoid soil compaction
- Use only organic compost
- Apply mulch and other organic matter
- NEVER use synthetic fertilizers or add any chemicals
Okay, so this goes against the traditional farming technique that has been practiced for centuries. To understand why you should never, ever rototill, you need a basic understanding of what makes up soil.
Good soil is alive and teeming with billions of microscopic creatures. There are beneficial bacteria, fungi, microbes, and animal life that all work together below the surface to make the plants thrive. Plants are ultimately in control, because their roots have a symbiotic relationship with these organisms.
Tilling, however, destroys so much of the soil food web (the relationship between all the organisms, bacteria, and fungi under the surface) that nothing works the way it’s supposed to anymore. The plants that were once strong and healthy have lost the connection to everything that allowed them to grow well in the soil. Suddenly they’re prone to diseases and pests, or they just don’t perform very well.
The no-till method has gained a lot of popularity over the last several years, and with good reason. Farmers are getting better results without tilling.
Avoid Soil Compaction
Like tilling, soil compaction destroys those fragile microbes and other organisms under the surface. Once that happens, you begin to lose the soil food web. And that’s disastrous, leading to more problems and work for you.
Soil compaction happens quite easily. Heavy equipment, stepping on your soil, or pressing it down too hard when planting all mess with the balance of the soil food web. Avoid using any of those methods and be careful not to disturb your plants near the roots.
And speaking of not disturbing the roots, keep in mind that we can also inadvertently kill off parts of the soil food web by being too rough in the soil. When we plant, we get our hands in the dirt and move it around, making room for our seedlings, digging down deep.
While we have to create a space for new plantings, it’s important not to be too rough. Your goal should be to disturb the soil as little as possible, preserving whatever life you can so your plants get a good start.
Add Organic Compost
You probably know that compost is beneficial for your garden. But getting the right compost is important. It should be well-aged and rich in organic matter. If you’re not sure where to find it, The US Composting Council website allows you to search for suppliers in your state.
By adding organic compost to your garden soil, you help the natural processes of the soil food web continue to work the way they’re supposed to. Remember not to go crazy with mixing it into existing soil. Try to disturb it as little as possible.
We discuss the benefits of compost tea in this post.
Leaves and other mulches are important to add to your soil, along with compost.
Mulch is another important aspect of building up the soil food web. Aged leaves are one of the best things to put on the surface of your garden soil. When broken down and lightly wetted, they add carbon and feed the beneficial bacteria (dampening them speeds up the process).
Mulch is an essential part of the equation to reduce weeds from sprouting up.
Avoid Synthetic Fertilizers & Chemicals
Organic gardening is common now, but many times soil has been damaged by poor management in the past. Chemicals are often sprayed around houses and on lawns. If you’ve used any of these or don’t know what’s been applied to your area in the past, simply start with not using anything like that ever again.
Progressive gardeners have found that in the absence of toxic chemicals, soil is teeming with life, alive and active. They realize that all those chemicals have been causing serious harm by killing off the good guys that actually make the soil healthy and self-regenerating year after year.
When you kill off the bad guys you also kill off the good guys and this creates a series of events that are not so easily overcome. You see, the very thing in the soil that fights the bad guys has been eliminated as well and that means recovery will be a long time coming.
But the good thing is, it CAN recover.
Pay attention to what goes into your garden soil from here on. A good start is DO NOT put ANYTHING in your soil if you don’t know what it will do to the life underneath. After all, if it keeps killing off the essential lifeline your plants need to thrive, does that make sense?
Realize that the beneficial life forms, and there are literally billions under there, are the fighters that will take their task very seriously to keep the soil food web balanced. Once this soil food web is restored, it will work for you forever.
Learn More About the Soil Food Web
This is just a basic overview of the soil food web and what you as a grower can do to help it in practical ways.
The world of agriculture has come so far in discovering what lies beneath us. A half century ago we thought soil was just, well, dirt. But in the last 25 years alone, it has increasingly become the hot topic of interest among gardeners and agriculturalists.
There is an excellent book to help you learn how to restore the healthy beneficial biology that was damaged or destroyed and gain some insight on what exactly this involves. An excellent publication that has been simplified for use by those of who are not scientists (in other words, for us common gardeners) is called Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. It was written by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, both of whom have devoted a tremendous amount of research into this field for decades.
You can find it on Amazon Kindle or get the hard copy.
Dr. Elaine Ingham, a leading microbiologist who has spent over 40 years studying the role of the soil food web, wrote the preface on this how-to guide. You’ll find it extremely helpful in understanding your garden and what to do next. Her website has many excellent videos explaining this in more detail.
When we first got the book Teaming With Microbes, I wondered how much more we could learn. I thought that because we’re organic growers with years of experience and a pretty successful garden that we wouldn’t glean too much new information. Little did I realize how much this book would change my approach to gardening and forever alter the way I look at the soil.
Some of the benefits of the soil food web are:
- Increased harvest yields.
- Protection from pests and diseases (and we all have trouble with those).
- More moisture retention, so less need for water.
- Eliminate the need for fertilizers (and save money and time).
- Suppression of weeds.
- Protect against soil erosion.
- Carbon sequestration.
- Protection of insects and birds.
It’s important to remember that we’re always learning. Much of this information wasn’t available until very recently. We were blown away by what we learned. This is a must read for any gardener wanting to create a sustainable and healthy garden without chemicals.
Not only will you have a better garden, you’ll end up doing less work because the soil is going to do the work for you. The less we interfere, the better.
Although we have not used any toxic chemical sprays or additives in our soil, we are learning how to do regenerative farming and how to make any necessary improvements by following the simple soil food web gardening rules. Over time, we’ll learn more and be able to share our continued progress.
Remember, we never stop learning. We learn, we discover, and ultimately improve.