The soil food web is the ecosystem that fosters a mutual relationship between plants and the community of beneficial microbes, like fungi and bacteria. Much like the systems of the human body, every part plays a role.
In a healthy soil food web, plants communicate with microbes in the soil by releasing hormones and other chemical signals to the microbes. The microbes receive these signals and respond, either by feeding the plant or defending it against disease by digesting minerals in the soil. At the end of the microbes’ life, the plants are able to absorb the nutrients from the decomposing microbes.
Unfortunately, conventional growing practices have made the soil devoid of microbes and caused the soil food web to become unbalanced. Here are a few ways:
Plowing or tilling
Tilling is the act of plowing or turning up the soil after each growing season. It’s a common practice for both commercial farmers and home growers alike. This practice releases carbon in the atmosphere, exasperating the global climate crisis. On a smaller scale, tilling destroys soil structure – killing essential microbes and negatively impacting plant vigor and yields.
Use of chemical pesticides has also had a major impact of Earth’s soil food web. While designed to eradicate invasive pests, pesticides have been proven to cause a decline in beneficial insect and bird populations. This major imbalance in the ecosystem impacts life above and below ground. By deteriorating the soil’s natural defenses, plants become even more vulnerable to pests, as well as diseases and stressors like drought and flooding.
Inadequate growing environments
We won’t argue that the ideal way to grow is directly in the ground, in living soil rich in beneficial microbes. Unfortunately, most native soil has a depleted food web. Soil can be reinvigorated with time and the right nutrients. For those who want to get growing quickly, container growing is a great alternative. But traditional growing containers can pose problems of their own. When growing in plastic or ceramic pots can prevent air flow. They can also cause dry pockets and root binding. That is not only bad for your plants, but also creates a constricted environment for life below the soil’s surface.
Here are some actionable steps you can take to implement regenerative practices in your garden.
Select the ideal growing environment.
If you’re going to grow above ground, there are alternatives to plastic, ceramic, and wood containers that not only are more beneficial for the soil but also are more affordable. Fabric pots and beds are made from breathable material that provides better aeration and air pruning for healthier roots. This allows the plants’ root systems to share space and nutrients. Fabric pots and beds ensure optimum moisture retention, eliminate dry pockets, and create the ideal environment for cultivating essential microbes.
Choose the right soil.
Soil itself can provide essential nutrients for microbes and plants alike. Nutrients from soil particles can be harvested by microbes like fungi and bacteria. Those microbes make the nutrients available for the plant to absorb.
Common soil ingredients include moss, sand, vermiculite, perlite, pine bark, and compost. The exact mixture of ingredients required depends on what you’re growing. Getting the mixture right is critical for plant success. Read more here about our recommendations on choosing soil.
Want to find the best soil for your region? Talk to your local garden supply retailer. Here are some retailers we recommend.
Feed your microbes.
When soil is rich in beneficial microbes and the soil food web is well-balanced, growers don’t need to use pesticides at all. A balanced soil ecosystem provides protection to plants from attack. It also acts as natural deterrent for weeds.
Feeding your microbes can at first seem complicated, because different species play a variety of roles during each phase of the growing cycle. Our line of Microbe & Plant Food line was designed to simply the process and alleviate the guess work for you. To see what products to use at each growth phase, check out our Feeding Chart.
Take the no-till approach.
Fight the urge to turn your soil or yank out plant roots after the growing season. Instead, chop off your plants at the soil line, allowing the roots to compost in the soil. By avoiding the intentional disruption of the soil, microbes will feed off the composting roots and later provide those nutrients to your next cycle of crops. Not only is this better for the soil food web and the environment, but it also saves you money on labor, fertilizers, and soil media.