What is the soil food web?
Healthy soil is soil that is teeming with an incredible diversity of life. The interconnected life that spends all, or part, of its life in the soil is called the soil food web. Organisms in range in size from microscopic single celled bacteria, algae, protozoa, and fungi, up to more complex nematodes, and larger bugs, worms, and plants that are visible to the naked eye.
The soil food web is integral to a healthy soil structure and, in turn, to growing healthy plants. As the soil organisms move, eat, grow, and die they cycle soil nutrients, suppress diseases in the soil, and improve water and air movement within the soil.
As gardeners and farmers, one of our most important jobs (if not the most important job) is to support and grow a healthy, diverse, and thriving soil food web. In turn, these organisms will ensure that our plants have all the nutrients, water, and oxygen that they need.
What does the soil food web do?
1. Nutrient cycling
A healthy soil food web will reward you (and your plants) with healthy, productive soil. Caring for your soil’s food web is definitely worth the effort. When the organisms in your soil are working in unison they will cycle nutrients and minerals into the right form and the right quantity to match your plants needs. The life in your soil knows to retain nutrients when plants are not growing rapidly.
2. Drainage and air flow
The soil food web is key in building soil aggregates and managing the flow of water and oxygen through the soil.
3. Removal of pollutants
And last, but by no means least, the soil food web helps to break down toxic compounds and purify water. Experts agree that the more diverse your soil’s food web, the more effective it will be in removing toxins and pollution.
In a nutshell, a healthy soil food web is essential for thriving plants and happy gardeners!
Top 5 tips for protecting the soil food web
There are many simple changes that every gardener can make to support and enhance the life in the soil. Here are our top 5:
1. Limit soil disturbance and tillage
Imagine your soil food web as the interconnected strands of a spider web. Break one thread and the whole spider web will break. Much the same is true with the soil food web. If the delicate fungi strands are broken, or the earthworm tunnels destroyed, by digging and tilling, then this will impact and damage the entire soil food web.
No dig gardening practices are becoming common place among many gardeners and farmers. If you’ve not converted yet to no dig, why not set aside a trial bed or two this season?
2. Restore overly compacted soils
As with most living systems, the soil food web needs just the right amount of moisture and air to thrive. Compacted soils inhibit the flow of water and air. Restoring compacted soils promotes better drainage and air flow. This ensures that each part of the soil food web get the moisture and air they need. Tips for loosening compacted soils.
3. Mulch regularly
Mulching simply means adding compost, leaves or other organic matter to the surface of your soil. Mulching goes hand in hand with no dig gardening. It is easy to do and should be part of any gardener’s routine. Mulching not only adds valuable organic matter but is also an excellent way to suppress weeds. A thriving soil food web will draw the mulch down into the soil where it is needed.
When weeding and clearing areas, try to allow leaves and plant material to decompose in place. And remember, beneficial soil microbes accumulate in the root zones around healthy plants. So, where possible, leave the roots of plants and weeds undisturbed in the soil.
4. Avoid pesticides, herbicides and non-organic fertilizers
Store bought chemical and synthetic fertilizers are often attractively labeled, and heavily promoted by the companies behind them. And yes, they do feed plants. But, because they are sulfate (salt) based, they actually serve to kill off the soil microbes, destroying the healthy soil structure that our plants need and prefer.
Simply put, using these chemical fertilizers in the garden effectively creates dead soil, resulting in plants that become dependent on more and more of these fertilizers simply to survive. This is a dangerous and unnecessary cycle. And, if you grow vegetables to eat, also increasingly considered an unhealthy one.
5. Plant a diverse garden and practice crop rotation
Growing a range of plants and practicing crop rotation has been shown to greatly increase the diversity of organisms in the soil food web. This increase in biodiversity translates to greater nutrient availability and soil fertility.
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