One of the most misunderstood aspects of growing plants is their amazing relationship with many different types of soil microbes. The key is to create a hospitable environment for the microbes that you do want and they will consume or out-compete the microbes that you don’t want. In addition, they will convert your raw organic nutrients into more plant-available versions. The best part is that they will work for just a little food and no rent.
How do we get the microbes we want? First, you need to get some really small tweezers. Just kidding. Fortunately, most good microbes breathe air just like us. They are known as aerobic organisms. Amazingly enough, most of the organisms that are pathogenic (to both plants and humans alike) are anaerobic and thrive in the absence of oxygen and in principle are destroyed by oxygen. The other amazing thing is that these organisms exist all over all around us. They are the primary workers when I make my compost. In fact, one of the only places you won’t find any of these good microbes is in a field being cultivated with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, as they are somewhat fragile, and the chemicals and tilling kill your little buddies. This results in needing more chemicals and you can see what happens there…dead dirt.
So where do we get these friendly little worker bots? Properly made compost is the number one source. There are a jillion products out there that claim to be the ‘ultimate’ microbe inoculant, but most have less than 20 species of microbes, while good compost has between 20,000 and 40,000 species of good microbes. It’s this “soil food web” that produces the most benefit. In test after test by researchers like Dr. Elaine Ingham and many others, they consistently find that good compost beats all the cultured products across the board on benefits. The key is to make sure your compost was made aerobically. This can be as simple as turning your pile every 2-3 weeks or by using a blower and pipes like we do on our big compost piles.
Now the last component to understanding these microbes is to look at their carbon to nitrogen ratio. Most living things on this planet need both of those elements and they need them in a specific proportion to each other. The gardening rule of thumb is to look at your microbe feedstock as greens (nitrogen) and browns (carbon). If you make your compost pile from roughly half grass or green leaves and the other half brown leaves your microbes will have a balanced diet. OMG, I have to worry about my microbes eating well now!? you might be thinking. No problem… our little robots are advanced and they will deal with whatever you give them, but they might out-compete your plants for nitrogen if you give them too much carbon. For instance, on my lawn this fall we just mulched the leaves with the mower, but I know the microbes would have to use a lot of nitrogen to break down that carbon and they will rob it from my grass if they have to.
To counter this I used Paonia Soil Co Dynamic Dressing compost and the higher nitrogen Bomb Dressing organic fertilizer. It doesn’t take much. I used about 70 lbs for 1.5 acres, and I won’t have to feed all next summer while enjoying less water usage, no pathogens, and an amazing-looking lawn. It basically comes down to this, “Feed your microbes and your microbes will feed your plants.”