Soil Health #1 1.

Goal of class: Introduce the soil food web, its basic components, and why it is important for a gardener and farmer to gain a deeper understanding of soil biology. 2. The Soil Food Web: The web of interconnected species that make up soil biology. Rather than thinking of soil health solely as a function of a lack or presence of certain nutrients, we will begin thinking about soil health as a more complex interaction between plants, the physical soil medium, and a whole chain of other organisms. a. Carbon: lies at the base of it all – all soil organisms feed on carbon supplied i. Organic Matter ii. Bodies of other organisms iii. Organism waste products b. Each soil food web has different organisms present 3. Plants are in control: much of the energy of photosynthesis goes not only to the production of leaves and stems, but also to a. Exudates: root secretions in the form of carbohydrates, sugars, and proteins, analogous to human perspiration. i. Awaken, Attract, and Grow specific bacteria and fungi living in the soil that feed on these exudates. ii. Occur in the 1/10th Inch surrounding the roots known as the rizosphere: contains bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa and larger organisms that compete for the exudates iii. Bacteria and Fungi: at the bottom of the food web, attract and area eaten by protozoa, nematodes, and larger animals for carbon to fuel their metabolisms iv. Waste: Nematode and Protozoa and animal excretion is in a form that is available to root absorption. b. Plants are at the center: control the food web for their benefit. Still not fully understood, but a plant can control specific numbers and types of fungi and bacteria that are attracted to their rizosphere by producing different kinds of exudates. i. Populations of bacteria and fungi: grow and ebb depending on the growth stages of the plant and its nutritional needs. ANALOGY: We can think of bacteria and fungi as little bags of fertilizers, holding nitrogen and nutrients that they have absorbed from the plants exudates and other organic matter which they feed off of. Nematodes and Protozoa consume them and spread the fertilizer by releasing the locked up nutrients and nitrogen as waste. Summary: soil life provides the nutrients the plants need to survive and the plants initiate the fuel cycle by producing exudates. 4. Soil Life Retains and Produces Soil Nutrients: a. Chemical Fertilizer: some is absorbed by plant roots, but most of it drains into the soil until it enters the water table.

b. Soil Organisms: lock up nutrients until they are released when they are eaten by predators  absorbed by plants  absorbed back by bacteria and fungi when the plant begins to decay 5. Soil Life Creates Soil Structure: a. Bacteria: produce a slime in order to be able to stick to things so that they do not wash away  binds other particles together. Fungal Hyphae similarly bind particles together through sticking to them. b. Worms, Moles, and Burrowers: search for food and provide passage ways for air and water to enter the soil. c. Soil Web Members: provide passages for air and water while simultaneously binding aggregate materials together. 6. Healthy Soil Food Webs Control Disease a. Quantity and Diversity Understanding soil health as the presence of a large quantity and diversity of bacteria. One Teaspoon: One Billion bacteria, 20,000 to 30,000 different species. This diversity and population controls diseases through competing with them for exudates, nutrients, air, water, and space. b. Each member plays its own role: the alteration or removal of a particular member alters the food web. Example: birds spread worms, and protozoa. Dung provides food for beetles, who shred plant matter and make it accessible to bacteria and fungi for further break down. Removal of mammals who provide this dung and you begin to run into problems. c. Fungi: Form protective webs around root systems acting as physical barriers to pathogens. Mycorrhizal Fungi establish a symbiotic relationship with roots, providing them with protection and helping with nutrient delivery. If the food web is in balance, these fungi survive to the benefit of the plants. d. Bacteria: . Bacteria coat surfaces, not allowing anything else to attach themselves (aerated compost tea). Leaves also create exudates, attracting bacteria in the same way as roots. 7. Nitrogen: Most important plant nutrient, basic building block of amino acids and life. Soil Food Web breaks down matter into Nitrogen available to plants NH4 a. Biomass of Bacteria and Fungi: nitrogen availability can be understood as a function of bacterial and fungal biomass in the soil since the soil food web cycles down nutrients until they are immobilized in bacterial bodies. b. Fungal vs. Bacterial Dominated: what soil scientists such as Dr. Elaine Igham noticed was that undisturbed soils contained much larger quantities of fungi, while those that were disturbed contained much fewer. Rototilled soils contained very small quantities of fungi. Annuals prefer bacterially dominated soil while perennials, trees, and shrubs prefer fungally dominated soils. c. Implications for the gardener i. Chemical fertilizers provide plants with nitrogen, but in the form of NO3, Nitrates, as opposed to NH4. Plants preferring fungal dominated soils cannot flourish on this diet. ii. Controlling the fungus to bacteria ration in the soil can be used to create environments favored by specific plants in the garden.

8. Effects of Chemical Fertilizers, Pesticides, Fungicides a. Alter the soil food web: i. Plants bypass microbial method of feeding themselves. Fungal and bacterial relationships do not develop when the soil food web is bypassed by providing nutrients immediately available to plant roots. Once you begin, you have to keep adding fertilizers because you have altered the bacterial populations. ii. Worms move away because they lack food and are irritated by synthetic nitrates. Worms are major shredders and their presence is vital to healthy soil. iii. Impact is widespread: not only is the nutrient system impacted, but as we talked about before, the soil structure deteriorates, impacting air and water circulation and retention, making gardening more labor intensive. iv. Rototilling: breaks up fungal hyphae, kills worms, and crushes arthropods. Destroys soil structure. 9. The Gardener: managing the soil food web makes gardening easier a. Cost: reduce the need for constant monetary fertilizer inputs b. Improve Soil structure through utilizing methods focusing on the food web as opposed to specific plant nutrient needs. Summing up: we are striving to move away from thinking about plants out of context – focusing only on their basic N-P-K nutritional needs, and focusing instead on the bigger picture – their relationship with a whole host of organisms that live in a symbiotic relationship with plant life. We are talking about an entire ecosystem, with one teaspoon of healthy soil composed of billions of bacteria, yards of fungal strands, thousands of protozoa, and dozens of nematodes. From this point of view, we begin to see a vastly complex interaction between all of these living organisms, and the idea that we can control a plants health through providing it with specific fertilizers at specific times becomes quite silly. The plant regulates its own needs at different times of its life cycle, and it does so masterfully and much better than we can ever hope to provide. What we can do is foster the soil food web through specific agricultural practices – compost, vermicomposting, the use of organic long lasting amendments, and not using chemical fertilizers, biocides, or rototilling. Written by Jacob Yufa