Down to Earth - Alive and Kicking

Kim Stoddart explains how to nurture microbial life for the health and vitality of plants, person, and planet...
Worms in soil
The role of microbial activity and healthy balance in the soil has parallels with the healthy gut bacteria in your stomach

Healthy, well-composted soil is the heart and soul of an organic growing system. Get the soil right and you are well on your way. Yet we know so little, still, about the amazing world, the ecosystem, packed full of creatures and microbial activity that lies beneath. Symbiotic relationships between plants, fungi and creatures are miraculous, marvellous and highly efficient in equal measure. Nurturing our soils and the natural vitality of life within is important on so many levels.

From an environmental perspective, it is an incredibly positive action to take. As well positive action to take. As well as helping to combat the risk of soil erosion and increase biodiversity, microbial-rich, less disturbed soil is better placed to hold onto carbon as the Netflix documentary Kiss The Ground brought to the public attention so succinctly last year. There is also increasing research into whether microbial-alive soil feeds into the nutrient density (nutritional value) of crops grown overall. In the case of mycorrhizal fungi, it binds itself to plant roots to help nourish them with food and water.

As Merlin Sheldrake, who has provided us with an extract from his fascinating book, Entangled Life explains: “Today, more than 90% of all plant species depend on mycorrhizal fungi. They are the rule, not the exception: a more fundamental part of planthood than fruit, flowers, leaves, wood or even roots. Out of this intimate partnership – complete with co-operation, conflict and competition – plants and mycorrhizal fungi enact a collective nourishing that underpins our past, present and future. We are unthinkable without them, yet seldom do we think about them. The cost of our neglect has never been more apparent. It is an attitude we can’t afford to sustain.”

As extremes of weather continue to hit hard, there has been more awareness about the need to build resilience in our growing spaces above ground. Greater risk of pest and disease is one threat, more volatile weather, with risk of drought, flooding or strong winds another. The natural world holds many of the answers, with greater biodiversity through working with nature as a firm ally. Yet, the same applies below ground also as the more we can allow natural ecosystems to develop and grow, the more resilience will be provided therein, whatever the weather. From better structure that can absorb and hold water for longer in the case of flooding or drought scenarios, to complex systems of life that work together to offer more robust, supportive growing conditions overall.

The role of microbial activity and healthy balance in the soil has parallels with the healthy gut bacteria in your stomach and interest in probiotic and prebiotic food that can aid wellbeing and vitality. Ultimately, a sickly sterile soil does not make healthy growing conditions for a plant. Fertility is key, but the myriad of creatures within offer exciting natural rewards. It’s time to welcome them in with open arms.

How to nurture microbial activity in your soil:

Compost Well
As well as improving the structure and fertility of your soil, this precious all-rounder helps to nurture microbial activity. An annual application (in spring) of compost will help feed existing microbial life in your soil, as well as boosting communities of life within. Additionally, some mulching throughout the year is also beneficial with materials you have to hand (grass clippings, comfrey, leafmould...). Consider also adding some biochar. It has long been made in the Amazon by indigenous tribes to improve the productivity of their soil, and enables soil microbes to shelter in the particles.

Don’t Disturb the Soil too Much
The less you dig and mess with the soil, the better as far as the life beneath is concerned. More information on no-dig here.

Think Longer Lasting
Perennial plants are also useful as they better enable the symbiotic relationships between plants and fungi to flourish over time.

Use ground cover
Cover crops in and around other edibles help improve the soil structure and create attractive habits and
relationships for microbial activity with plant roots. Bare soil is more vulnerable to the elements so try and keep it covered as much as you can all year round.

Natural and Pesticide Free
We want to encourage life below not destroy it so natural, organic gardening goes a long way in doing so. There is also plenty of evidence to suggest artificial fertilisers can suppress mycorrhizae, as plants become lazy and abandon these natural symbiotic relationships when a free diet of artificial junk food is added.

As gardeners, we need to understand the importance of soil fungi in particular - how they function and how they support the nutrient network below ground. By knowing more, we can encourage and support these mycorrhizal fungi, for the ultimate benefit of our plants' health and well-being. So, for more information on mycorrhizal fungi and how they function, we recommend Merlin Sheldrake's book, Entangled Life.