Your Living Soils

By Mike Lorenc, Conservation Garden Park

When we look out at our landscapes we tend to see our plants: grass, trees, shrubs and flowers.   But take a better look at the ground our plants are anchored in and we’ll find an entire world of microorganisms living right under our feet.

Healthy soil is directly related to a healthy landscape. In fact, investing time into improving your soil might be the single best thing you can do for your landscape and everything living in it. You might think dirt and soil are the same, but they’re quite different. Dirt is just dirt, but soil is teeming with life. Insects, bacteria, fungi, earthworms and more exist in soil, and the more life it has, the healthier the soil.

Healthy soil makes for much healthier plants. Microfauna are the main organisms to begin the process of breaking down organic matter. Broken down organic matter leaves behind humus (no, not hummus. One “m” and pronounced “hyoo-mus”). Humus is the glue that binds soil particles together, creating channels for deeper water penetration and air flow into your plants’ root zones. Yep, roots need air too. Microorganisms convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which your plants can use. Encouraging soil microbes in your landscape can provide a large source of nitrogen, decreasing your need to use store-bought chemical fertilizers.

There are many plants that even develop a beneficial relationship with the fungal microorganisms living in our soils. The rootlike structures on Mychorrhizal fungus act as supplement roots, taking up nutrients and water for plants and receiving sugars from the plant in return. Some microbes even attack the bad microorganisms that cause disease, keeping your plants from getting sick.

Protecting the soil environment in which these beneficial microorganisms live is a worthwhile effort. Here are some basic things we can do to protect what is living in our soils and encourage more in the future:

Amend, amend, amend

A few inches of compost, wood chips, chopped-up leaves, finely cut grass, or other organic matter piled on the soil’s surface is the most important step. Microorganisms eat organic matter, and this is their food source. Soil covering also reduces compaction—important because compacted soil is a difficult environment for soil microbes.

Stop tilling

Tilling disrupts soil structure that microbes have built and tears up the “soil food web” created by beneficial fungi. Tilling also brings buried weed seeds to the surface, where they can germinate and make weeding a much bigger chore.

Go easy on chemical fertilizers

Chemical fertilizers can kill microorganisms in your soil, which creates a need for more fertilizers—perpetuating a problem you’re trying to solve. Using Less fertilizer and more compost is a better way to create a healthy soil ecosystem.

Healthy soil microorganisms help plants be more able to handle stress and resist disease. They make nutrients more available, improve soil structure, and reduce the need for chemicals in our landscapes. There is also recent research to suggest that soil microbes are responsible for enhancing our mood at a similar level to anti-depressants. Microorganisms are the real un-sung heroes of our landscapes, and we can make some simple changes to help them out.