Life webs

 A rain-soaked spider web in Lyttleton Gardens.

A rain-soaked spider web in Lyttleton Gardens.

After you've been looking after a productive garden for some time, a wonderful thing happens: you get to the point where you are confident enough to sift through the myriad of information (and misinformation) out there, and realise that you have understood living systems enough to trust yourself.

My personal "aha" moment happened after reading a book by Jeff Lowenfels entitled Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web. I was intrigued by the term soil food web. I'd heard of food pyramids and graphs, but was drawn to the idea of a food web. It makes so much more sense. After all, all living things are inter-connected and inter-dependent. We've lost sight of that a little bit, often choosing a more symptomatic approach to many issues.

I looked into the person who initially came up with this term. It was Elaine Ingham, Doctor of Soil Microbiology at Colorado State University. The Soil Foodweb Institute, founded by her in 1996, has been helping conventional farmers 'rehabilitate' their soils, and switch to growing organically and regeneratively. She worked extensively in this field in Australia, and started the Australian branch, Soil Foodweb Institute (Australia).  The Soil Foodweb International website contains a huge amount of free information and research in the field, which I really recommend to anyone interested in the science of growing things.

Without getting to scientific about it all, it's important to remember that soil is populated by squillions of living things, which directly or indirectly depend on plants and plant roots to obtain food. In turn, plant roots depend on them to eat. Bacteria and fungi make nutrients bio-available to plants by converting them to a form plants can eat. It's a swap system!

Synthetic nutrients are plant fast food, as they are already in a bio-available form. So, what happens when we feed our plants synthetic fertilisers? Well, essential living things like bacteria and fungi move out. They are no longer needed by the plants and don't like the salts in fertilisers. In turn, there is no food for earthworms, and their predators, and their predators' predators, and so a mass exodus happens. All life in the soil disappears. The web of life is broken and plants become junkies, fast food junkies. The soil becomes "dirt" as Elaine Ingham puts it. Lifeless, erosion-prone dust.

This is why growing regeneratively is so important. You are a custodian of all the living things in your soil. Feeding your soil homemade compost, worm castings and aerated compost teas makes sure there is food for everyone in the web, with very little need for external inputs. Try not to disturb it too much, as the earthworm will aerate it for you. Pitchforks are relatively worm-friendly if used appropriately.

Let's get something straight though, the process of building living, healthy soil takes time and patience. Keep piling on that organic matter and remember you are feeding many living things, which in time will multiply. After quite some time, all that work pays off and you will have to do less and less, as the web will be complete and self-regulating. What a wonderful, joyful prospect that is for a budding grower of things.

 Soil food web diagrams from the Soil Foodweb International website.

Soil food web diagrams from the Soil Foodweb International website.