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I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4

Friday, March 25, 2016

All Gardening Efforts Begin with the Wee Little Creatures of the Soil

All Gardening Efforts Begin with the Wee Little Creatures of the Soil
         Man’s efforts to improve the soil disrupt its microbes and structure, killing and driving away the life that makes it fertile, adding needless toxins while having a paradoxical negative effect.
1.    Chemical fertilizers have little effect on the soil’s fertility, but a powerful toxic effect on microbes and larger soil creatures, while passing through into the water table.
2.    Insecticides temporarily kill anything that moves, allowing the worst pests to come back without the beneficial bugs that do the actual permanent work of keeping destruction at bay.
3.    Fungicides repeat these errors and kill off the most powerful tool of decomposition and fertility – fungus.
4.    When the chemical solutions have been applied and have done their damage, the gardening centers claim the solution is – apply even more of the same toxins. Walk through the aisles of bug killers and fertilizers and try to detect the fragrance of spring. Instead, the odors well up and make a sickening stench.
If all life on land depends on the soil, then we want the first 12 inches of soil, the root zone, to be as fertile, aerated, and moist as we can. Fortunately, the Creating Word fashioned an intricate system of dependencies that accomplish that goal. We can enhance that activity by doing less, to let Creation do more, tilling the earth harmless as doves, wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16.


Justus Liebig and NPK
          One man inspired the chemical revolution in the 1840s, by measuring the impact of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) on plant growth – Justus Liebig. His concerns were based on fears of famine, something he experienced as a boy, but his later results, about problems with NPK, were overlooked and the chemical fertilizer industry never looked back in regret.
          My aunt asked her husband to fertilize the roses, my grandfather’s specialty. My uncle reasoned that double the fertilizer would be twice as good and administered the potion accordingly. Due to osmosis, the concentration drew the water from the roses and killed them all. At best, the rose fertilizer would pass through the root zone, having the same effect on microbes and larger creatures, and enter to water table. Too much phosphorus in the water leads to many bad effects and the chemical is much lower or even zero in commercial fertilizer at gardening centers today.
          Gardeners want fertile soil and would rather save money and labor in fostering that change. In addition, the ideal is to keep those changes locked into the root zone, and that can be done by reducing labor, costs, and soil-churning. Back to nature really means honoring and observing God’s Creation in the garden.
Fungus and the Trap
          Science teachers told us that humans are different from animals in our use of tools. Animals do not use tools. And yet, one gardening writer was stunned to see a photo of a fungus trapping and killing a nematode, using a triggering device to enclose the creature. That began Jeff Lowenfels’ journey from professional chemical gardener to toxin-free gardening - and publication of Teaming with Microbes.
          In the old days, before cell phones and grape-flavored apples, gardeners ignored the microscopic creatures and bragged about their earthworm populations. Like Darwin before any significant microscopic discoveries, we all knew about those tiny microbes, but gave them little significance in our quest for the perfect garden. But nothing compares to the lowly fungus in its role as a provider of useful chemicals for the plant.
Soil Logistics, Better Than Walmart’s
          The genius of America is the logistics system, which allows goods from all over the world to arrive at our stores and be purchased at low prices. The work of the fungus is parallel to our logistics and yet works without our knowledge or planning. We can only make it better or worse. Although microscopic, fungi have the ability to extend their influence far beyond their initial size, by growing and reaching out with the hyphae, growth tubes that end in a tip that can dissolve any organic leftovers.
          In contrast, the tiny bacterium, small enough to fit 500,000 within the period at the end of a sentence, cannot grow beyond its size and can only travel on a film of water. The fungus can travel meters by growing, but it must have carbon to grow.
          Fungus cannot makes its own carbon, but must have carbon. Plant root hairs provide the answer to this dilemma, and that solution is so astonishing that every gardener, sceptic, and atheist should consider this junction between plant and soil, this Vanity Fair.
Therefore at this fair are all such merchandise sold: as houses, lands, trades, places, honours, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms; lusts, pleasures, and delights of all sorts…(Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress, Vanity Fair)
We now know that the root hairs signal for the ingredients needed by the plant, various compounds and water, exchanging carbon in the swap. The abundant carbon in plants is the medium of exchange and enables the fungus to travel by growing, find the requested supplies and bring them back in liquid form.
          One teaspoon of soil contains yards of delicate fungal strands, so the folly of tramping down soil or rototilling it should be clearly seen. Gardeners have known that the soil becomes infertile by stepping on it, but the reasons why were not so clear before this advent of fungal research. The seeds that fell on the paths, in the Parable of the Sower, were easily snatched up because they could not germinate and take root where foot traffic hardened the soil (Matthew 13).
          Fungus is not only powerful in its growth, but also in its ability to break down organic matter. Bacteria make a start in decomposition, but fungus attacks the toughest cells, like wood and bark, and reduces the complicated chemicals to ones needed and demanded by the root hairs of the plant. The hyphal tip makes the fungus similar to the giant subway drilling machines that cut through the earth with a cutting and smashing device in the front.
Letting the Fungi Work
          Creation gardeners can allow the fungi work to feed their plants in several ways.
1.    The soil should be left undisturbed, as much as possible. Stepping stones in the garden help prevent compaction. Avoiding the rototiller is also important, not only for the fungi, but also for the soil creatures affected by being osterized.
2.    Fungi love wood, so using log borders and shredded wood mulch will provide an abundance of food for all soil creatures, fungi in particular.
3.    Avoiding fungicides (rose spray for blackspot) will spare the innocent bystanders that will die, a problem greater than blackspot itself.
4.    Leaving the fertilizer bags at the store and relying on organic methods will also have beneficial effects on everything living in the yard.
Mind the Soil-Food Web
Rototilling; spraying with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and miticides; compacting soil; removing organic material from lawns and under trees —all these human practices affect the soil food webs in your yard and gardens. Once a niche is destroyed, the soil food web starts to work imperfectly. Once a member of a niche is gone, the same thing happens. In both instances, the gardener must step in to fill the gap, or the system completely fails. Rather than working against nature the gardener had better cooperate with it; and this, as we shall see, does not require a lot of hard labor— not if the gardener understands and teams up with the soil food web, letting its members do the work.
Lowenfels, Jeff (2010-09-10). Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition (Kindle Locations 1517-1520). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.

          Tiny specks of life seem insignificant, unless we are infected with them – strep, pneumonia, etc. The ability of bacteria to multiply is phenomenal. One cell can become 5 billion in 12 hours, but they are dependent upon water, both for survival and movement. Since 500,000 bacteria can fit within a period at the end of a sentence, a big trip for one bacterium is not impressive. Worst – or best of all, bacteria serve as food for many creatures.
          Bacteria are usually the first organism imagined when the subject of decomposition is raised. Unlike fungi, they do not have a chemical drill to puncture tough membranes and draw out nutrition. Instead, bacteria use osmotic movement through their cell walls to obtain what they want. Bacteria and fungi share in the chemical breakdown of organic matter so the root hairs can feed. The grass clippings on the surface of a garden cannot feed plants directly, but once they are attacked with mold and bacteria, then digested by earthworms, the final product— an earthworm casting— is easily absorbed by the plant.
Helping Bacteria
          Bacteria are powerful in their numbers and contribute a lot to gardening:
·       Fixing (creating) nitrogen compounds that can be used by plants, since nitrogen itself cannot feed the plant.
·       Breaking down the complex chemicals of organic matter so plants can ultimately feed upon what was too complex to feed upon at first.
·       Attacking the simple sugars while fungi attack the complex cell material.
·       Feeding the earthworms, who turn their soil-organic matter-bacteria food into castings perfect for plant use.
·       Holding a vast amount of organic food in the top foot of soil, serving as a recycling supply of nutrition for all creatures.
          The protozoa in the soil are much larger than bacteria. They can be seen with the naked eye while an entire city population of bacteria can hide within the dot of an eye. They have an unusual relationship, because the protozoa give the bacteria room to grow by devouring many of them. If the bacteria grew without competition, they would use up their food sources too fast and become a larger population with far less to eat. This is counter-intuitive for humans, because the sight of crowded grocery stores before a hurricane only drives more to empty the shelves of food, water, Pop-tarts, and flashlight batteries.
          The Creation becomes more apparent as we consider the relationship between the microbes. Fungi and bacteria play large roles in the breakdown of organic matter for other life-forms. The balance of nature we learned from science classes is really the complex engineering of the Creating Word. Although that seems more apparent at the larger scale of life, this balance is already essential and impressive among the microbes. By eating the bacteria, the protozoa exchange and hold onto the simple forms of organic matter. The primary ones of interest are the nitrogen combinations that the plants need, but all the chemical combinations are important and contribute to the health of the soil, the growth of plants. Leaving the soil alone allows the microbes to flourish and hold a Fort Knox of ingredients for plant life. The greater the biomass in the soil, the more water and minerals are held in the top foot of soil where almost all roots feed – even tree roots. Taproots dig much deeper and tree roots search below for water, but most of the nutrition for all land life is in that top twelve inches of soil.
          Microscopic nematodes first awakened the Teaming with Microbes author about relationships in soil. He saw a microscopic photo of a fungus springing a trap on the nematode, to kill and devour its tiny visitor. And yet, other fungi attract nematodes with a chemical lure and stun them into staying for lunch. Nematodes add to the balance of soil creatures. They are rich in nitrogen, the building block of protein and the green of the garden. They feed on plants, bacteria, and fungi. Everything living in the soil is food for another creature while feeding on other living things.
Two Wee Little Creatures of the Soil
          Soil life includes microscopic life of many types, which are briefly summarized here.
1.    Springtails are the most numerous creature on the planet, yet most people have never heard of this little insect, which can barely be seen. Springtails feed on plant decay and serve as food for other creatures. Since springtails feed on leaf litter, their presence as food attracts higher level creatures, which also serve as food higher on the menu. Leaf litter left alone will be attacked by fungus, springtails, mites, and earthworms, so a pile of leaves will always be a cafeteria for birds looking for those creatures and many more drawn to the moisture, food, and shelter of decaying leaves.
2.    Mites are joint-footed (arthropods) and related to spiders. They have no qualms about eating springtails.
Two common arthropods, mites and springtails, are alone responsible for recycling up to 30% of the leaves and woody debris deposited on a temperate zone forest floor. Teaming with Microbes. p .

          I have often made the point that people talk about gardening without knowing the name of the most numerous creature on earth, the springtail insect, which is all over the yard, helping with decay and serving as food. Man-made cures for the garden have a devastating effect on the entire soil food web: fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, springtails, and mites. A poison aimed at a given pest or fungus will eradicate the soil populations that manage one another so successfully, as if they were engineered from the beginning to do so. The ocean of life in the soil was not made to cope with manufactured fertilizer. Instead, God created something designed to fertilize the soil and offer many more benefits, night and day – the earthworm.