The Importance of Garden Soil Microbes
Have you ever looked at a pile of dirt or soil and wondered what’s happening inside? What makes healthy soil…well, healthy? The answer is as complex as dirt itself. Soil usually contains a whole mix of things, including organic plant material, gasses, and living organisms. The garden soil microbes create a rich environment for plant growth by working together.
Unfortunately, people have left large swaths of land and soil in a bad way. In the last few decades, we’ve lost a considerable amount of natural topsoil in the United States and many states (and individuals) are scrambling for a remedy. The answer is to get back to basics. In this case, “microbes” are as basic as you can get. They’re some of the fundamental building blocks of healthy soil, and purposefully introducing them may solve several soil-related issues we face.
Whether you’re looking for a way to restore large areas of farmland or just want to keep your personal garden healthy and thriving, follow along for a look at these tiny, yet critically important, microbes.
What Are Garden Soil Microbes?
In the most basic terms, microbes are microscopic organisms. They’re living things but are far too small for humans to see with the naked eye. Instead, we examine them through microscopes. There are a few different types of microbes found in soil.
- Fungi – Fungi aren’t quite as numerous as bacteria, but they’re an important part of healthy soil. They keep certain root diseases away from plants, aid in the carbon cycle, and break down tougher organic material. Other types of microbes break it down further.
- Bacteria – Bacteria are far and away the most numerous microbes found in soil. Tens of thousands of bacteria live in a small pinch of soil. They’re crucial in nutrient cycling and carry out the last of the decomposition efforts.
- Nematodes – Nematodes are microscopic worms often found in soil. Some types of nematodes are harmful to plants, while others help rid plants of disease and other harmful nematodes.
- Protozoa – Protozoa feed on bacteria. Given how important bacteria are to the soil, that might seem like a problem. Instead, it’s necessary. They keep the bacteria population thriving by preventing overpopulation and stress on the nutrient supply line. Protozoa also produce nitrogen as part of their digestive process, and nitrogen is vital to healthy soil.
There are other soil microbes beyond those listed above, but that’s a snapshot of the different types of tiny organisms needed for healthy soil.
What Are the Benefits of Garden Soil Microbes?
Now that you know what types of microbes (ideally) live in soil, do you need them? The short answer is yes. Microbes are an essential component of healthy soil. They perform several beneficial functions.
Nutrient cycling is the process of moving energy between living and nonliving things. Animals and plants consume nutrients, organisms like microbes aid in decomposing animal and plant material, and nutrients and energy return to the environment. Nutrient cycling keeps vital nutrients and minerals like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in soil and the environment. Plants then reabsorb those nutrients through their roots and the cycle continues.
Any massive interruption to that cycle leaves soil unhealthy and unable to sustain life, grow crops, or keep up with the demand we place on the soil. Even practices like tilling can significantly impact the cycle, but microbes are hugely important in its upkeep.
Several types of microbes, including nematodes, fungi, and some bacteria, ward off disease from plants and their root systems. Certain types of fungi have proved incredibly beneficial for fighting off pathogens affecting corn, for instance. Other types of microbes form protective netting around plant roots, effectively protecting them from harmful diseases and pathogens.
Maintain Normal Growth
Because microbes help move nutrients through the soil and fight off diseases, they play an important role in growth. They handle conditions that would otherwise stunt or cause frozen growth in crops and other plants. This is particularly important for food crops, as slow growth spells disaster for the harvest season.
How to Add Garden Microbes to Soil
If you’re dealing with overworked and underfed soil, there’s still hope. Soil science is ever-evolving, including the study of microbes. Certain things invite microbes into your soil, however, and they’re a great place to start. If you’re looking to create healthier soil and a welcoming environment for beneficial microbes, follow these tips.
- Plant Cover Crops – Cover crops have several benefits of their own. They slow down erosion, which is a major problem in many areas, limit weed growth, hold needed moisture, and increase nutrient content. Depending on your area and what you’re trying to do, cover crops include things like rye, buckwheat, clover, winter wheat, alfalfa, and others.
- Avoid Chemical Pesticides – Many commercial pesticides contain fungicides, herbicides, and other harsh chemicals. They’ll destroy your microbe population and ultimately harm your soil in several ways.
- Use Compost – Compost is one of the best ways to introduce microbes. They’re already a vital component of the compost itself, and you’ll introduce them into your soil at large during the fertilization process.
- Avoid Tilling – There are several no-till methods for farming these days. Tilling is incredibly harmful and disruptive to the soil, and over-tilling leaves large areas barren and unable to replenish lost nutrients and moisture. It increases erosion and disturbs the delicate nutrient cycle mentioned earlier in the article. Without it, new plants won’t grow easily, well, or perhaps at all.
- Keep Soil Moist – Moist soil and moderate to warm temperatures are ideal conditions for most microbes. If you’re hoping to grow crops or any type of plant, you won’t get far with dry soil, anyway.
Microbes are only one component of soil health, but they’re important to consider as you care for your property. If you’re interested in learning more about sustainable farming practices, including maintaining healthy soil, check out the Sustainable Farm Conference brought to you by Stoney Creek Farm. You’ll learn how to grow food, compost, and so much more. We hope to see you there!