Going Organic, Part 1; Minus Microbes


Recently, I have reached the conclusion that I don’t know squat about gardening–more specifically, soil. Seems as though soil is everything…literally. Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve caused an immeasurable quantity of collateral damage during my decades-long battle with the grasshopper population during their sporadic invasions.

I’ve been taught, as I’m certain many who garden are, that soil needs tilled regularly to remain loose enough to enable nutrients to permeate the area and allow for plant root growth. As it turns out, this is just not true. Roto-tilling and the repetitive application of pesticides, as well as steady treatments of chemical-based fertilizers are all chief causes of soil failure because these practices destroy the essential life within the soil; the microbes, of which I feel my garden and yard are mostly minus.

Pesticides have always been my go-to treatment for insect problems. For plant nutrition–chemical fertilizers. After reading “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web,” a most informative book by Jeff Lowenfels, and coauthored with Wayne Lewis, I now understand that these are not sustainable solutions on either front. With every obvious insect death, or improved plant characteristic above ground, there are countless failures along the surface as well as within the soil. Just because a plant responds favorably to a meal of concentrated nitrogen, doesn’t mean success. As a gardener steeped in conventional methods of feeding and management, until now I haven’t given much thought to what happens beyond the manufactured diet I provide for my vegetables, or the chemical bath I’ve been giving invaders of the six-legged variety…or is it eight? See what I mean?

I’m Convinced

It’s time for education; experimentation. After reading Lowenfels’ book, a great many things are now making sense. Disappearing grass, compacting soil, and newly planted trees that just struggle and die are tell-tale signs that something is wrong at root level. I’m ready to address these issues and rebuild my soil by adopting an organic approach to gardening and lawn care.

Apple tree. Three years, and still struggling

My lawn and trees are the worst, but my garden hangs on well enough. Probably because I add truck-loads of compost each year, reintroducing bacteria and fungi, but I inevitably face a fungal foe, or the result of an evil nematode beating me to my tomato crop, and eventually I succumb, and…treat…with…chemicals. This returns me to square one.

Microbe deficit?

Using Lowenfels’ book as my guide, I hope to begin the healing process of my soil, and I’m eager to share my personal experience as things progress. I strongly recommend reading “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web,” even if you’re content with your current gardening practices. It flows fast, and is easy to understand. For less than the cost of a hose-end sprayer filled with blue chemical fertilizer, I downloaded the kindle format and whizzed through it in only a few lunch hours.

Okay, first things first; lets see what there is to start with.

Trap Them Bugs

I need to establish a baseline so I can assess the damage caused from years of chemical applications. So, lets dig a hole, plant a quart mason jar, and see what kind of life (and how much) springs forth.


I get the feeling this will be the easy part; the calm before the storm. Waves of composting, mulching, turning, shoveling, and sweating are ahead.

With the traps set,  it’s time to wait a few days. It’s supposed to rain throughout the next week, and I don’t want to worry with tinting too many traps, so later on, when the weather is drier,  I’ll set a few more to ensure a good creature count. While the traps work their magic, I plan to read “Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardeners Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition,” the second book in a trilogy by Jeff Lowenfels.

Gardens past

I’m going to keep things simple for now. Garden first, yard next (we must prioritize). However, I couldn’t resist branching out to include one secluded spot.  A few hundred feet from our garden area is a pile of what remains of previous gardens. After cleaning each fall, we stack all the left-over organic material in a pile; not lasagna gardening, but rather a lasagna of gardens. Its simply been allowed to compost there, for years, untouched, until now. One trap had to go there. I’m curious what kind of life it will reveal. In a few days, we should know, and I’ll be excited to report on it. Until then, happy gardening, and if you decide to swap chemicals for a more organic approach, happy reading as well!  

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