Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition Info

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“A breakthrough book. No comprehensive
horticultural library should be without it.” —American
Gardener

When we use chemical fertilizers, we
injure the microbial life that sustains plants, and then become
increasingly dependent on an arsenal of toxic substances. Teaming with
Microbes offers an alternative to this vicious circle, and details how
to garden in a way that strengthens, rather than destroys, the soil food
web. You’ll discover that healthy soil is teeming with
life—not just earthworms and insects, but a staggering multitude
of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms. This must-have guide is
for everyone, from those devoted to organic gardening techniques to
weekend gardeners who simply want to grow healthy plants without
resorting to chemicals.


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Reviews for Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition:

5

Apr 15, 2010

(This review was originally written for The Garden Bloggers' Book club)

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 (This review was originally written for The Garden Bloggers' Book club)

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. ...more
0

Feb 14, 2016

Should be required reading

This book should be required reading for every gardener. It is a guide to nurturing plants the way Mother Nature intended, through cooperation with the natural order. The symbiotic relationships that plants have with their neighbors and dependents is a beautiful system that will inspire us all to be better stewards over whatever land we take into our care.
5

February 11, 2013

Great! I am looking for a sequel that studies Microbes and their effets on digestion. After all isn't digestion just an internal compost?
5

May 28, 2013

I really enjoyed this book and will work to implement many of the ideas in this book into my own yard.

Here are a few things I wrote down to remember:

A mere teaspoon of good garden soil contains a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa and a few dozen nematodes. Pg. 19

Root exudates are in the form of carbohydrates (including sugars) and proteins. Amazingly, their presence wakes up, attracts and grows specific beneficial bacteria I really enjoyed this book and will work to implement many of the ideas in this book into my own yard.

Here are a few things I wrote down to remember:

A mere teaspoon of good garden soil contains a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa and a few dozen nematodes. Pg. 19

Root exudates are in the form of carbohydrates (including sugars) and proteins. Amazingly, their presence wakes up, attracts and grows specific beneficial bacteria and fungi living in the soil that subsist on these exudates and the cellular material sloughed off as the plant’s root tips grow. Pg. 21

Soil life provides the nutrients needed for plant life, and plants initiate and fuel the cycle by producing exudates. Pg. 22

The nets or webs fungi form around roots act as physical barriers to invasion and protect plants from pathogenic fungi and bacteria. Bacteria coats surfaces so thoroughly, there is no room for others to attach themselves. If something impacts these fungi or bacteria [chemical fertilizers] and their numbers drop or they disappear, the plant can easily be attacked. Pg. 24

In general, the least disturbed soils had far more fungi than bacteria while disturbed soils (rototilled) had far more bacteria than fungi. Agricultural soils have fungal to bacterial biomass of 1:1 or less. Forest soils have ten times more fungi than bacteria. Pg. 25

Soil structure is a key characteristic of good growing conditions. If there is adequate soil structure, there is ample drainage between aggregates, but also plenty of plant available capillary water. The air circulation necessary for biological activity is sufficient. And perhaps most important, if there is adequate soil structure, this is space for soil biology to live. Good soil structure withstands torrential rains, the drying of desert-like droughts, herbs of animal traffic and deep freezes. Water and nutrient retention is high. Life in and on it thrives. Pg. 39

Vermicastings- The worms digestive enzymes unlock many of the chemical bonds that otherwise tie up nutrients and prevent their being plant available. Thus, vermicastings are as much as seven times richer in phosphate than soil that has not had been through an earthworm. They have ten times the available potash; five times the nitrogen; three times the useable magnesium and they are one and a half times higher in calcium. All these nutrients bind onto organic matter in the fecal pellets. Pg. 98

Look at the benefits of earthworms. They shred debris so other organisms can more readily digest them. They increase the porosity, water-holding capacity, fertility, and organic matter of soils. They break up hard soils, create root paths and help bind soil particles together. They cycle nutrients and microbes to new locations as they work their way through soil in search of food. With all these benefits, isn’t it strange to count the gardener as one of the predators of the earthworm? Rototilling destroy worm borrows and reduce or even destroy earthworm populations by cutting them up into pieces that don’t regenerate. And the gardener who uses chemical fertilizers is literally throwing salt on the wound; these chemicals are salts that irritate worms and chase them out of garden soils. A noticeable worm population is a clear sign of a healthy food web community. Pg. 101

Another way to figure out what kind of nitrogen a given plant will prefer is to consider how long it lives. If it is only going to be in the ground for a season (vegetables and annuals), then you know the preferred form of nitrogen is nitrate and more bacteria in the soil. Green mulches promote bacteria (like grass clippings). Anything in the ground for more than a year (trees, shrubs, perennials) prefer ammonium and higher numbers of fungi. Brown, dry leaves bring more fungi.

Lawns- Aerate every 3-4 years in the early spring, then put down a thin layer of compost or compost tea.
...more
4

Aug 16, 2015

What a phenomenal book! Soil science for lay people, soil science for chemistry-phobes, soil science tailored and sifted for direct usefulness for gardeners. Lowenfels and Lewis do not shy away or dilute the science. They use the words, they draw the symbols, they do the math. But they simplify. They explain. They cut out the extraneous information that overwhelms would-be agronomists like me who literally had all the credits for an environmental science degree save chemistry, and walked without What a phenomenal book! Soil science for lay people, soil science for chemistry-phobes, soil science tailored and sifted for direct usefulness for gardeners. Lowenfels and Lewis do not shy away or dilute the science. They use the words, they draw the symbols, they do the math. But they simplify. They explain. They cut out the extraneous information that overwhelms would-be agronomists like me who literally had all the credits for an environmental science degree save chemistry, and walked without one. Thank you, authors! I want to shake your hands and kiss the moist, rich soil by your feet.

The book is organized into a section on how different plants absorb different nutrients and water from soil, differently; a section on how roots and soil components interact with different soil fauna; and practical how-to's to apply this science to your garden and compost. Building soil is the best way to sequester carbon and to create healthy agro-ecosystems for the entire community connected to them. This book fills the niche of "how" with more precision than the generally vague, throw-it-all-together compost and permaculture books out there, without losing the experiemental home gardener spirit.

Here are The Soil Food Web Gardening Rules (though I push the whole book-- theory to practice at its finest):

Rule 1: Some plants prefer soils dominated by fungi; others prefer soils dominated by bacteria.

Rule 2: Vegetables, annuals and grasses prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form and do best in bacterially dominated soils.

Rule 3: Perennials, shrubs, and trees prefer their nitrogen in ammonium form and do best in fungal dominated soils.

Rule 4: Compost can be used to inoculate beneficial microbes and life into soils around your yard and introduce, maintain or alter the soil food web in a particular area

Rule 5: Adding compost to the surface of the soil will inoculate the soil with the same soil food web in the compost.

Rule 6: Brown organic materials support fungi while green supports bacteria.

Rule 7: fresh, green mulches tend to support bacterial populations; aged, brown mulches support fungal growth.

Rule 8: Mulch laid on the surface tends to support fungi while mulch worked into the soil tends to support bacteria.

Rule 9: If you wet and grind mulch thoroughly, it speeds up bacterial colonization.

Rule 10: Coarse, dryer mulches support fungal activity

Rule 11: Sugars help the bacteria multiply and grow while kelp, humic and fulvic acids and phosphate rock dusts help fungi grow.

Rule 12: Depending on the compost and the nutrients added, you can make teas that are fungal dominated, bacterially dominated or an even ratio of both

Rule 13: Compost teas are very sensitive to chlorine and preservatives in the brewing water and ingredients.

Rule 14: Applications of synthetic fertilizers kill off most or all of the soil food web microbes.

Rule 15: Stay away from additives that have high NPK numbers

Rule 16: Immediately follow any chemical spraying or soil drenching with an application of compost tea

Rule 17: the roots of conifers as well as hardwood trees including birch, oak, beech, and hickory form mycorrhizae with Ectomycorrhizal fungi

Rule 18: Shrubs and softwood trees form mycorrhizae with Endomycorrhizal fungi.

Rule 19: Rototilling and excessive soil turning destroys or severely damages the soil food web.

Rule 20: Always mix endomycorrhizal fungi with the seeds of annuals and vegetables at planting time or apply them to roots at transplanting time. ...more
4

Sep 17, 2007

I recently have renewed my garden from a giant dog potty to a place where one can sit and enjoy the scenery. This slim book is packed with information about composting, undersoil critters, and the benefits of renewing the earth. With lots of pictures and clearly written for the beginning gardener, this is a terrific guide though the science of dirt.
4

Mar 01, 2010

The book is informative and readable with great illustrations. The soil science is rudimentary, but the discussions of the soil food web are well done. Some of the taxonomy is a bit dated but good enough for non-specialists. The section on actively aerated compost tea is excellent and that on compost is quite adequate. I do have some quibbles with the pH recommendations and think the authors may have given too much weight to the pH buffering effects of both bacteria and fungi. Maximum nutrient The book is informative and readable with great illustrations. The soil science is rudimentary, but the discussions of the soil food web are well done. Some of the taxonomy is a bit dated but good enough for non-specialists. The section on actively aerated compost tea is excellent and that on compost is quite adequate. I do have some quibbles with the pH recommendations and think the authors may have given too much weight to the pH buffering effects of both bacteria and fungi. Maximum nutrient availabilities tend to occur at lower pH ranges than those given in the book as optimal for gardens. Nevertheless, I think the authors have opened a new way for gardeners to see the soil and given additional reasons for applying organic methods to gardening. I look forward to exploring the concepts introduced in the work in more detail. ...more
4

Jul 25, 2009

I think most of us see soil as the neutral backdrop against which all the "action" of plant growth takes place. Far from it, the ground beneath us is a veritable metropolis of creatures frenetically eating each other and producing valuable nutrients for their neighbors and plants. That this ecosystem has been so wholely ignored and decimated by modern industrial agriculture is frightening. Never fear though -- these microorganisms, neatly summarized here in short chapters for the soil science I think most of us see soil as the neutral backdrop against which all the "action" of plant growth takes place. Far from it, the ground beneath us is a veritable metropolis of creatures frenetically eating each other and producing valuable nutrients for their neighbors and plants. That this ecosystem has been so wholely ignored and decimated by modern industrial agriculture is frightening. Never fear though -- these microorganisms, neatly summarized here in short chapters for the soil science newbie -- are resilient and plentiful. We can reintroduce the fungi and protozoa, bacteria and arthropods that are the building block of biodiversity to bring health back to our soils. The book is geared toward the home gardener, but I'm curious about how to apply these ideas might be applied on a large scale. ...more
5

Aug 11, 2012

One of the most important books I've ever read. It's not easy for a nonscientist to understand quickly, partly because a certain amount of chemical and biological terms are needed (Latin and Greek helped me, but not everyone has the benefit of a thoroughly anachronistic education), but also because the sequence of ideas are not always sequentially presented in a paragraph. All the same, the book presents fairly recent research by Dr. Ingham of Oregon Sate U. on the tiniest critters beneath your One of the most important books I've ever read. It's not easy for a nonscientist to understand quickly, partly because a certain amount of chemical and biological terms are needed (Latin and Greek helped me, but not everyone has the benefit of a thoroughly anachronistic education), but also because the sequence of ideas are not always sequentially presented in a paragraph. All the same, the book presents fairly recent research by Dr. Ingham of Oregon Sate U. on the tiniest critters beneath your lawn, flowers, or vegetables, and how you can put those millions of workers on your side instead of addicting them to the wrong kind of nitrogen or chopping them up with rototilling. And if that last sentence sounds like woo-woo New-Age nonsense to you, that's why you need to read the book. ...more
5

Sep 30, 2007

i love a book that gets me to think of bacteria and fungi as little bags of fertilizer. and then along come the protazoa and nematodes to release that fertilizer as manure right in the root zone, or the rhizosphere. love it. my inner ecology/farm nerd gives this book two green thumbs up. if you garden, you should read this book.


5

June 11, 2018

Everything a humble grower needs to know in regards to the biology in soil.
5

August 17, 2019

Suitable for form 6 microbiology for science students...
5

Aug 31, 2018

Amazing information for any gardener or anyone interested in how plants grow.
4

May 10, 2010

I have taken quite a few college science courses, which made the reading pretty easy but I have a hard time seeing a personal without this background get through some of the stickier sections in the book. Teaming with Microbes provides excellent detail and microbiology background. There philosophy has a “going green” approach which I appreciate and wish to try on my own future lawn and garden, although I am not sure how well things will take in the short growing season up in northern North I have taken quite a few college science courses, which made the reading pretty easy but I have a hard time seeing a personal without this background get through some of the stickier sections in the book. Teaming with Microbes provides excellent detail and microbiology background. There philosophy has a “going green” approach which I appreciate and wish to try on my own future lawn and garden, although I am not sure how well things will take in the short growing season up in northern North Dakota! The authors gave insight to inexpensive ways to create my own compost tea as well as “checking for critters” contraptions. The authors have a personal touch through their “voice” which appears throughout the fairly short 180 page book supplemented by just enough colorful pictures to support the text in my opinion. I do feel that more stats and evidence would strengthen their argument, but I am eager to try their approach with the helpful and practical tips provided at the end of the book for easy reference. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning the biology about the soil food web as well, the benefits of “teaming with microbes”, and creating your own natural, healthy garden and lawn. If there really are no mistakes in gardening, and merely experiments I highly recommend taking a chance on this book! ...more
4

Jul 30, 2011

This is a great intro to the idea of gardening as a form of eco-system management instead of chemistry. The rules they lay out and explain can be incorporated by anyone regardless of climate. However, since they are located in Alaska all of the examples given are based on a more northern climate. I'm in Texas and we are in the middle of an extreme drought, so some of the advice about lawn care (i.e. grass) makes no sense to me at all right now. I'm not wasting any water on grass. So you may need This is a great intro to the idea of gardening as a form of eco-system management instead of chemistry. The rules they lay out and explain can be incorporated by anyone regardless of climate. However, since they are located in Alaska all of the examples given are based on a more northern climate. I'm in Texas and we are in the middle of an extreme drought, so some of the advice about lawn care (i.e. grass) makes no sense to me at all right now. I'm not wasting any water on grass. So you may need to do additional research for techniques specific to your region and climate. ...more
5

Jul 05, 2015

I started this book just before taking a college level soil class, and it ended up being a great supplement to the class material. I learned quite a bit about the importance of microorganisms and how to aid their proliferation with compost tea. This book completely changed how I look at my own yard/garden, and how I will manage it moving forward.
5

Oct 04, 2015

The more life there is in the soil, and the greater its diversity, the better it is for the plants, for the ecosystem, including the gardener. This much I knew. But this amazing book goes so much further: it talks about bacterially or fungally dominates soils, pH levels, and which type of plants plants prefer which. A lot of science, brought down to the gardener's perspective.
4

Jul 30, 2013

Great detail on the soil food web (although I thought the authors were a little too phobic of composting manure and that it was weird they'd learn this much about ecosystems and still want to kill their dandelions... but those are very minor complaints given that they made things like mycorrhizae and archaea accessible and entertaining enough to loan this book to your neighbor).
4

Mar 15, 2014

Really comprehensive.

You probably can pick up everything in this book on the internet in a few hours (and I probably have). But, reading the whole book makes it sink in.
5

Feb 13, 2018

A must for any gardener

A book to save the planet! But also help grow a great garden and do so organically. What else is left to say...
3

Dec 27, 2017

Very good information! Just a little hard to read. Some parts of the book were over my head.
5

Apr 17, 2018

Fascinating, readable book that opened my eyes to the soil food web - the organisms that make soil alive, and that feed plants and, subsequently, us. Groundbreaking book for me.
5

Aug 09, 2019

This book is amazingly helpful for creating an environment for plants, trees grasses etc. I am a budding gardener and this book explains the soil food webs and what is really necessary for growing beautiful things!
2

Nov 17, 2019

What do you do with a book that you think has important information but does almost nothing with that information?

Unfortunately, I think I have to choose between 2 stars and 1 star for this book whose first section is full of a lot of interesting soil information and whose 2nd part is the biggest letdown since The Neverending Story 2.

Yes, there's interesting and helpful information in Part 1, but Part 2 has some major issues. The biggest one is simply that there are no citations. If you're going What do you do with a book that you think has important information but does almost nothing with that information?

Unfortunately, I think I have to choose between 2 stars and 1 star for this book whose first section is full of a lot of interesting soil information and whose 2nd part is the biggest letdown since The Neverending Story 2.

Yes, there's interesting and helpful information in Part 1, but Part 2 has some major issues. The biggest one is simply that there are no citations. If you're going to recommend practices as more effective than existing practice, you've got to at least point to experiments that you've done yourself if not published, peer-reviewed studies.

And it's one thing to say that you have a novel idea that's running ahead of academic journals, and that's why you can't cite good studies, but ultimately the grand practical ideas of the book are compost and compost tea. Mulch also gets a shoutout and a shout-down, because the authors don't think mulch is as good as compost.

So your most sophisticated idea is inoculating soil with compost tea, which has existed in the current form for decades, but there are NO appeals to published literature on the results? Could it be because studies are scarce and contradictory? Sure looks that way to me, when I try to find studies proving the benefits of compost tea. Where field trials have shown no benefit, proponents say that the tea was brewed incorrectly or applied for a purpose that it wasn't intended for. To me, that sounds like a No True Scotsman kind of situation. The authors ought to have rigorously tested their own brew for specific benefits.

This level of rigor is a bare minimum for me. The authors can talk about how you can see the microorganisms in the brew under a microscope, and I don't doubt it. But that's not the same thing as proving that spraying those microbes through the air onto the dry and sun-bleached surface of a leaf or on the ground will result in beneficial colonization, and how much benefit are we chasing, considering that this requires so much freaking work to do? 2% increase in yield compared to no inoculation? More?

I'm not anti-compost, and I'm not necessarily anti-compost-tea either, but I have to admit to being disappointed that a thorough review of the annals of soil science didn't inspire the authors any more than to do compost and soil inoculations. Everyone was already doing that, dudes. There are so many more ideas out there that come directly from consultations with expert soil scientists, like what the North Dakota farmers and ranchers are doing with diverse cover crop mixes for soil improvement and organic matter retention. Cover crops are not mentioned even once that I remember in this book, even though Part 1 talks often about how root exudates attract and feed microbes in huge numbers.

To me it feels like they've done a little with a lot of information, and that's disappointing. ...more
4

Jul 14, 2019

I recommend this book as the first book to read of Jeff Lowenfels' trilogy -- Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition, Teaming with Fungi: The Organic Grower's Guide to Mycorrhizae, and Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web. This volume is the most readable (less technical) and gives comprehensive information on the soil food web that is foundational to the other two volumes. Good book -- it may change the way you choose to I recommend this book as the first book to read of Jeff Lowenfels' trilogy -- Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition, Teaming with Fungi: The Organic Grower's Guide to Mycorrhizae, and Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web. This volume is the most readable (less technical) and gives comprehensive information on the soil food web that is foundational to the other two volumes. Good book -- it may change the way you choose to garden. ...more

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