Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis breaks down soil biology and its importance into something that they lay-person can understand. This book will open the reader's eyes to the abundance of life that exists in healthy soil and why that life is essential to healthy plants and ecosystems.
This book did more to help me understand what's going on in the soil under my feet than any other single resource. The authors do a great job of presenting what could potentially be a very dry subject in an easy to read but still very informative way. Their sense of wonder regarding the intricacies of the soil really comes across in the writing.
"Instead of Pay It Forward I prefer Plant It Forward" ~Howard Story / "God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools." ~John Muir
I share your views and thoughts on this book, Michael: 10 out of 10.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."-Margaret Mead "The only thing worse than being blind, is having sight but no vision."-Helen Keller
Teaming with Microbes, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
I give this book 9 out of 10 acorns
When approached with the concept of growing organically, conventional gardeners may be struck with an uneasy feeling: you mean, just let the weeds and bugs and dirt run rampant, out of control? All the rot and locusts and who knows what all- have their way? That must be such a horrifying thought, to leave it to chance in that unknowable wildness. I could imagine a conventional farmer, such as my grandfather thinking: what, then, am I to do? If I just let the place go wild, what is my purpose? This book gives the answers. To venture into the microcosm is to forever view differently our role as caretaker of the soil. After being so introduced to the world of the beneficial organisms and their eloquent processes, and how to encourage and farm them, how could anyone opt to go the chemical route?
This book does not start well. There are any number of things liable to alienate me, and advertising, for various reasons, is one of them. This book's preface tells you very little, but boils down to an advert for someone's business. Everyone has to eat, but paying to be advertised at tends to piss me off. My initial suspicion was that this was a book written on the basis of someone else's knowledge as commercial advertising. The declaration on the title page that the use of one particular term is not intended to endorse a commercial entity became suspect on the first page of text.
That said, I came to this book (via the library) in an effort to better understand the interactions between plants and those organisms even I generally don't see, and the inorganic fraction they live in, a complex interface involving all the kingdoms of life itself. Having read Rachel Carson, I needed no persuasion of the disadvantages of exterminating the microbial portion of the soil I'm trying to encourage plants to grow in. It does get better: the book is not one long plug, although that is an occasional component. That said, as someone who knows how advertising works, some of it is quite subtle.
This is not a Permaculture book, although there are clear indications the authors have been partially influenced by it. It's a gardening book. Much of what is written is this book will be useful to both Permaculturalists and to more conventional gardeners, especially those wishing to move away from the use of artificial chemicals, but it's more aimed at the latter group. Many of the techniques described and recommended will already be familiar to Permaculturalists, and you need to be prepared to pick up only useful nuggets in a pile of pyrite.
The authors argue that the rhizosphere ecosystem starts with plants (I've heard it argued that the organisms that really run the world are arthropods, but there is no point in getting into what turns into a circular argument). Root exudates are, they argue, key to this part of the garden ecosystem, attracting and supporting billions of other organisms, from viruses and bacteria on. Most of these organisms are dependent, at one level or another, on sugars made by the process of photosynthesis, but healthy plants are, in turn, dependent on complex mutual arrangements with organisms below the soil surface. There is competition down here (in some ways it's still unrestrained total warfare, with the deployment of a massive array of chemical and biological agents, and plenty of death traps for the unwary), but the overall health of the system is dependent on numbers and diversity. The principles of trophic cascade work at the micro level as well as at the levels at which we can readily monitor it. Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and diversity is one key to strong links. The observant will note that we are talking about a web, not a chain, but even cutting one link in a web will deform it, and cut enough links and it will eventually fall apart.
The science in the first section is basic, but it does explain why you need to keep your perennials separate from your annuals. They need different soil conditions, dominated by different micro-organisms, which require nitrogen in different forms. The section on soils does not go into much more detail than that found in many books on gardening, taking it beyond the remedial level, but not very far. It probably teaches you what you need to know, but not much more.
I started learning about a fifth of the way through the book, when it started talking about cation exchange capacity. My tendency to think about soil purely in terms of plants led me to think about factors such as pH in terms of the needs of the plant, but it's more accurate to think of it in terms of the conditions required by the fungi and bacteria the plant lives in a mutualistic relationship with: it's more about supporting the microbial ecosystem in which the plant grows than directly supporting the plant. This is where it starts getting interesting.
The book discusses the various roles of bacteria and fungi. Both are essential, and many are pathogenic, but different plants require different balances of fungi and bacteria. These may well be related to the problems some people have with hugelkultur. The wood component requires fungi as symbionts and to break down the lignin in the pile, but most annual plants require a soil dominated by the bacteria that feed on the compost and other nitrogen-rich components of the pile. This implies that hugelkultur will probably work much better with perennial plants than with annual ones.
Algae and slime moulds, unrelated groups of organisms, are also discussed. These tend not to affect gardeners, but are also important parts of soil ecosystems, and I can have hours of fun watching the growth of a surface slime mould in its swarming phase.
Protozoa, on the other hand, control bacterial populations, and many consume nematodes. As much as 80% of the food a plant eats comes from nutrients exuded by protozoa after they consume bacteria and fungi attracted by compounds exuded by plant roots. Various species of nematodes range from those that eat plant roots – thankfully a minority – to detritivores and predators. They also release ammonium into the soil.
A diverse arthropod population is also a clear indication of healthy soil. Populations of earthworms can be huge, although forest earthworms tend to be smaller and fewer in number (because the main food of earthworms is bacteria), and shift and aerate vast quantities of soil, as well as making nutrients available for plants: worm digestive enzymes make many minerals more biologically available. Note that Eurasian forests have a different relationship with earthworms (which evolved in this ecozone) than those in the Americas (where they are introduced and a pest in native forests). Many slugs and snails are part of the systems of decomposition in the soil, although a few are a problem. They tend not to become a serious problem unless the rest of the local food web is species impoverished.
Having dealt with the underlying principles, Part 2 moves on to how to apply this knowledge. It covers some – fairly basic – survey techniques (there are invertebrate sampling methods that are not destructive, although they may be selective and take more time). The techniques described here work, but for those who are serious there are books (EDIT: I've reviewed one here: http://www.permies.com/t/55688/books/Studying-Invertebrates-Philip-Wheater-Penny#464356 ), other resources, even entire suppliers who will provide you with equipment and at least the books to learn how to use it. To be fair, it's possible to spend a great deal on money on such things (and I'm the kind of person almost as likely to be found with a butterfly net as a pair of binoculars). In general, however, I disapprove of destructive sampling. It's probably one thing in a back garden, at least at a population level, but may be a completely inappropriate habit to get into in an evolving forest garden.
Knowing what's there will allow you to make some inferences about the rest of the ecosystem, although some of this will be clear from the vegetation and some basic soil sampling. Once you have this information, you can move on to remediation: most of this uses techniques most permies will already be familiar with, and may be using anyway.
In this sense, I think this is a weakness of this book from a Permaculture perspective. Half of the book covers the nature and extent of the soil biota, and this is interesting in its own right. It them teaches you basic sampling techniques, and advises you to do things that are just basic good practice. To some degree understanding the needs of the soil ecosystem depending on what you're trying to achieve is a good thing; this applies to making different types of compost, but most of use make compost based on what we've got. To a point you can segregate or obtain materials, and use different types of compost on different soils, but that's only practical to a degree (how many of us have access to that much alfalfa meal?). There are whole books on compost, and this one only gives a quick – if quite technical – overview. There are useful nuggets of information here, but it's mostly covered better elsewhere. (EDIT: There is a review of the companion volume, Teaming with Nutrients, here: http://www.permies.com/t/55686/books/Teaming-Nutrients-Jeff-Lowenfels#464331)
I skipped the chapter on lawns. I never expect to have one of those. A meadow, maybe, but not a lawn. In many ways this emphasised another of the book's weaknesses from a Permaculture viewpoint: it's aimed at the gardener. There are things the permie can learn, but the book is oriented more towards converting the artificial chemical gardener to more organic methods. There is what seems to be good advice in relation to vegetable gardening but, again, these are typically normal Permaculture practices.
The book goes on to give guidance, mainly aimed at the gardener, about applications of composts, compost teas (in particular, and perhaps to excess), mulches and so on. What's not clear is where the recommendations about guidance rates are coming from, whether they are based on experience, or being made up off the top of the authors' heads.
This book in has made me think further about the role of annual plants in forest garden ecosystems. Given that annual plants tend to require and support bacteria-dominated soils, and perennials tend to require and support fungi-dominated soils, this is further reason for the separation of annuals and perennials. This does not obviate the need for the breeding of shade-tolerant annuals, since there is a certain degree of shade in gaps and clearings. A permaculturalist may have several landraces, each more or less tolerant of shade, some perhaps limited to only one glade. The exception to this may be peas and beans. Bacteria are capable of handling forest soils – there are roughly the same number in forest and grassland and garden soils – but the change in biomass comes from increases in the mass of fungi in forest soils. It occurs to me that we could sequester a lot of carbon in fungal biomass by creating the right forest soils (and this is a subject near the top of my reading pile).
This is not a bad book, but it's also not a great book. It's worth a read, but it's one to borrow from the public library and make accessible to others. The really useful information that you may find yourself coming back to is contained in books that really should be on your personal shelves. I'd shove it under the noses of my neighbouring conventional gardeners, but didn't get a lot out of it.