Tuesday, January 30, 2007
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!)