Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Growers Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis and Teaming with Fungi: The Organic Growers Guide to Mycorrhizae by Lowenfels alone are two must reads for the modern gardener. Incredibly well researched, these books provide an extensive overview of soil food webs and microbial life, as well as advice on what gardeners can do to help turn their gardens into thriving food webs or ecosystems.
Teaming with Microbes tells the story of the whole soil food web. From the smallest bacteria, algae, and fungi to the arthropods that feed on them, all the way up to the mammals that eat the arthropods, soil life and all of its impacts are examined. Special attention is placed on bacteria and fungi as primary decomposers, who begin the process of breaking down complex nutrients into plant available forms, and how at each level of the food web more nutrients are changed into usable nutrients for plants.
The story doesn’t end in just describing all of the players in the soil food web. Lowenfels and Lewis go into details on the interconnectedness of soil food webs; from symbiotic relationships to predation and everything in between. How terrestrial plants co-evolved with fungi and bacteria is presented in detail (terrestrial fungi and bacteria are much older than terrestrial plants). This coevolution is evident by the way plant root exudates contain chemicals to attract beneficial kinds of bacteria and fungi. The entirety of the soil food web, and the authors make it clear it is a web of interconnectedness, not a chain where one organism is prey for successive organisms, is explained in great detail. You learn relationships in the web such as a nematode may eat bacteria, a different species of nematode may cannibalize that species, and after that nematode dies they are consumed by bacteria. All of the organisme in this soil web and their metabolisms break down organic matter and nutrients into forms that are accessible to plants.
Perhaps the most valuable part of teaming with microbes is when the authors go into how to manipulate the soil food web for the specific types of plants you are growing. While some bacteria and some fungi are important for all plants, some plants prefer bacteria dominant soil and some prefer fungal dominated soil. Getting the right proportion can be controlled by the kinds of compost, compost tea, and mulch you apply. An example is that trees and shrubs prefer fungally dominated soil. A compost tea that is more fungal in nature can be used, as well as mulching with wood chips, as fungi will be present to break down the lignin and cellulose in the wood, which is hard for bacteria to do. Using a greener mulch, like alfalfa meal will help soil to be more bacterially dominant. This is good for plants such as annuals and veggies.
While this summary is brief, Teaming with Microbes is much more informative and practical. The book is actually fun to read too, and there is occasional humor through both of these books.
Teaming with Microbes is a useful and engaging read, and Teaming with Fungi proves to be equally informative and practical. Mycorrhiza (or the plural form mycorrhizae) are fungi that form symbiotic relationships with most terrestrial plants (there are several plant families that don’t form these associations). The mycorrhizal hyphae extend well beyond the plant roots with which they associate and break down nutrients and provide them to the plant in exchange for carbons and sugars that the plant gets from photosynthesis. These fungi can live in or on the roots of the host plant, and often ward off harmful fungi. There are numerous studies outlined in the book of how inoculation with these fungi can improve yields, drought tolerance, increase growth, and provides a wide array of other benefits.
After reading Teaming with Fungi, I immediately bought a mixed species inoculant for all of the plants we sell at the nursery this year. We will inoculate seeds, seedlings, and cuttings alike. The earlier a plant is inoculated, the better its growth and health. Inoculation can also benefit lawns, agricultural fields, and much more.
I am currently waiting to get another book by Lowenfels from the local library, Teaming with Nutrients. I’m sure it will live up to the high standard set with the other two books. I would consider both of these essential reads for any serious gardener!