A book review


Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web (Lowenfels, Jeff and Lewis, Wayne; Timber Press, Portland, OR; 2006)

Now, here is a useful book. There was enough handy information that even a seasoned organic gardener like myself could still glean a few kernels of wisdom from it. Here’s the spoiler: “Rule #2 holds that most vegetables, annuals, and grasses prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form and do best in bacterially dominated soils. Rule #3 points out that most trees, shrubs and perennials prefer their nitrogen in ammonium form and do best in fungally dominated soils.”

I also want to use the word “exudates” in a sentence now. Or at least in cocktail conversation. Cocktail conversation that does NOT include compost tea.

Forget about the idea for a second that the average human has a hard time with the concept of a “web.” Maybe it’s New Math (I certainly was a product), but most fields of study are linear in nature, and thus webs are kind of hard to conceptualize. That said, to team with the teeming trillions found in a tablespoon of soil is the stated purpose of this book. They have detours, they kind of get caught up in a few reductivist, or at least quantitative, digressions into these trillions…but I suppose that was important, considering the subject matter.

Here’s the rub, kids: soil is a living thing, or at least the host to trillions of living things. If you did not know that before, then you are probably not a gardener. Most folks know there’re earthworms in the soil. But there’s more to love than your average red wiggler.

There were a couple of things that stood out (i.e., annoyed the crap out of me) while reading this. One: “spouse”=”wife,” we get it. That your wives weren’t that keen about your raids of the pantry for brewing compost tea is your business: don’t lump the rest of us in that category, mainly because there are a lot of single gardeners out there, and there are a lot of wives who garden (ahem.). And two: doesn’t this whole compost tea-brewing obsession seem to any of you to be, well, the graying of your average basement beer brewer? Maybe it’s my particular demographic, but most beer-loving boys I know got into beer-brewing about age 25 or so, or at least when they had their first basement. I also thought the authors were showing their true colors (or at least their woo-woo bona fides) by giving us instructions to make our own fish hydrolysate by adding papain (aka papaya peptidase). Yep. Right there on the top shelf of MY pantry.

And the whole don’t-use-manure-in-your-compost thing because of (eeks!) E. coli. seems really like a lawsuit-avoidance tactic. Your average Nelly Nag down the road is not fed the same gut-turning crap your commercial Bessie is, so I would think this is a bit disingenuous on the authors’ part.

But the biggest apostacy of course is the throw-your-tiller-away dictum. Yes, we now fully understand how continued, twice-yearly tilling breaks the long strands of fungal hyphae. Hmm. Understood; understand. However. If one is to throw down the gantlet like this, I suppose I would’ve appreciated an alternative. My own little circle of hell here is clay soil. Before the tiller, in creating my garden beds, I was out there with a 10-lb. mattock. (Granted, I was a breastfeeding stay-at-home mother at that time so I felt my yin was way off my yang and I needed a butch-ifying outlet. This is also the time I took up with a chainsaw. But enough about me.) So yes, the only time I get out there and chop up the soil is when I bust the sod for new garden beds. Scraping the grass away daintily at the rootline was a hobby I could enjoy in my small city lot. Now, well. Manifest destiny.

And that brings me to the best line(s) of the book: “The organisms in the compost you apply…will spread life as far as they can. It is microbial manifest destiny.”

Eat or be eaten, kiddos. Go out and feed the eaters.

(and thank you, Carol, for your book club!)

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9 responses to “A book review

  1. Up early, checking for your review… very interesting, especially coming from someone as organic as you. Watch for the post late this evening with the round up of all reviews. Thanks for participating!

  2. Great post. I was thinking the same thing about the whole “no dig/no tiller” thing. I don’t have a tiller, but whenever I have to make a new bed, I have to double dig to get anything even remotely workable out of my crappy clay soil. And I was actually wondering how you would respond to the “no manure” thing…I’m glad you did. I thought the same thing.

    Oh, and I loved this:
    “(Granted, I was a breastfeeding stay-at-home mother at that time so I felt my yin was way off my yang and I needed a butch-ifying outlet. This is also the time I took up with a chainsaw. But enough about me.)”

    Oh, I have SO been there! The first spring after Sarah was born I was out there chopping down a badly placed maple. I think it was a seedling that the former homeowner just left there. Granted, it wasn’t a huge tree…maybe 15 feet tall, but it was oh-so-satisfying to hack it down!

    Have a great day!

  3. Soil is endlessly interesting. Doing what I do, I have a close realtionship with the soil, examining it for hydric characteristics. I’ve seen blue soil, grey soil, black soil and white soil. Not only do they look different, but they smell different too. I’ll check out my library and see if they have this book. I’d love to learn more, especially about compost tea. Never tried that. As for the tiller thing, well I think the husband would cry if I said no more spring tilling. He loves it so.

  4. Meredith, what is it with men and the small internal combustion engine? My husband showed zero signs of being a gearhead until we moved here. I will probably still use the tiller to make new beds (once they’re made, I have no need to retill). Do check out the book. Aerated compost tea is what they recommend, mainly to get the critters down into the ground (without tilling).

  5. “This is also the time I took up with a chainsaw.”

    *GRINS*

    Let me know when you start welding, I may have a few garden arches for you to do up for me!!!

  6. I am also in the clay soil club. I suspect clay soil could be amended by just layering organic materials and letting the microbes do their thing, but it would take too long. That wonderful old-growth forest humus isn’t created in a year, or five years.

  7. Hi Folks,
    Hope you don’t mind a defense of the book review comments!

    1. Rototilling has no scientific basis. It was ‘invented” by an English barrister who believed roots ate soil. It was a good idea to break up virgin soil of the forests when homesteading, but once the ratio of bacteria and fungi is bacterial. Simply put: it is a bad practice. Sure, you have clay…who doesn’t start out having to “get a garden ready soil-wise? Putting organic material on top and even planting in that the first year or two or even three is all you need.

    The comment about men and engines made me laugh. Rototillers are like motorcycles for guys who are not allowed to ride motorcycles. It is all about power. But this is not enough to justify the carbon loss, the hydrocarbon loss and the sweat involved for a practice that simply isn’t supportable.

    As for substitute to tilling, I thought we said, drill holes, pull a board over the soil…. If you must disturb the soil do it in as small an area as possible. You don’t have to plow deep if you are planting seeds or starts and you have good soil.

    When you rototill clay and organic matter you do not get as good soil as if you let nature do the work. You get patches of soil with no air or water flow. No tunnels, microscope or otherwise, to allow water and air to circulate. Sure, it can be done, but its work and the ultimate results may take 5 years, but the benefits are higher and last for the rest of the garden’s life…not so with rototilling..

    Ah, but how people cling to the idea that tilling is good. It has been drummed into every organic gardener by gardening magazines whose main source of income is the ads from tiller manufacturers.

    I will reexamine the use of the word “spouse”….used, incidently, because my wife prefers the term…(I now pronounce you Man and wife was the old marriage phrase). Sorry its use was so annoying, but as you can see there was a rationale. And, if I am being honest, I may have wanted people to know that Wayne and I are not married to each other!

    As for manures, I AM an attorney, but that is not why we push our no manure bias. It is simply too risky and not necessary t use them. In addition to the many pathogens, we don’t like the antibiotics, mny of which have a negative impact on the composting process. I guess I was not clear in the book.Sorry! However, if you know what you are doing when composting and keep the pile above 130 for long enough and know where you stuff comes from (ie chemical cows or organic ones), it becomes safe…..all I know is I don’t want E. coli and salmonella on my compost any more than I do my spinach!

    As for compost teas, making them is not for everyone. However, if you can get access to some, it is the easiest way to get biology back in the soil….I never made beer. Too much work and the wait was too long, but I can see how making teas can become a passion for some. Me? It takes me 5 minutes to start a batch…thelongest period of work is the 10minutes it takes to clean the machine! But is isn’t everyone’s cup of tea….

    So, my two cents. This is a neat thing about blogs…..when in history could an author try and rehabilitate his reputation so quickly.

    I don’t normally read blogs, but if you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them. I would love to met you all someday!

    THANKS FOR READING TEAMING!
    JEFF LOWENFELS

  8. farmer, vet and feeder of all animals

    So did you like it or not šŸ˜€
    By the way—I tilled part this year and heavily mulched part. We will see and I will tell you what I think. I think the “no-till” part just means you have to wait a bit longer for soft soil but then it is very very nice. We have a spot where they dumped tree shreds 3 years ago—it’s nice there now (but at the edge of the road so useless except for slight excavation purposes) So maybe 3 years from now the un tilled side will actually be the best (shrug)

  9. Thanks, all, for your comments.

    I should state again that I do recommend the book, as it has a lot of things in it that I’d bet the average bear just doesn’t know.

    Some have claimed the book was a bit guilt-inducing. I really don’t know many gardening manuals that are not, frankly. With complete sincerity, I can claim that I was already doing the three big things (composting, mulching, making compost tea) with the exception that the tea I made was non-aerated. I’m not aiming for a gold star: I just knew that clay soil needs to get a lot of humus into it.

    As it is, I will probably not ditch the tiller I have. I really do have a lot of property, and layering new beds with mulch seems really wasteful considering all the other plants that could use it (because, as I have claimed many times, there is never such a thing as too much compost or mulch; there’s such a thing as a temporary surplus only).

    As for manure in compost: I agree about being judicious, but hey, if you have a neighbor with horses and a big pile beside the barn, make friends with him/her. It’s cow poop and factory-raised poultry poop you need to be concerned about. I do use my chickens’ bedding, as well as the poop with some bedding from the school’s sheep. Neither are fed or injected with anything wacky; the sheep don’t have worms. I do wish I had a horse, or had the courage to go ask a neighbor or two ONLY because manure is great to jumpstart a cold compost heap. I do confess that I am an impatient composter, and cannot imagine waiting a year to use the stuff, but I have never ever checked the temperature of a pile with a thermometer!! I will say that the newest pile I have going out there looks like a snow-covered volcano: the top is completely clear. It’s obviously hot enough so I must have done something right.

    This book didn’t make me feel guilty. I immediately saw my husband doing a McGuyver thing and hooking up tubes and pumps to make tea. I understand more now about bacterial versus fungal colonies, and which plants could use which for greater happiness. I appreciate what they have to tell me.

    My only real criticism is it’s geared toward suburban small-lot gardeners, and, well, I’m not; I have bigger problems based on the fact that I have a lot more land.

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