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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Feeding the Soil that Feeds Plants

Feb 29, 2012 11:19AM ● By Mike Murray


Soil teems with a diverse community of microscopic organisms known as the soil food web. In a healthy ecosystem, one teaspoon of soil contains up to a billion individual organisms, performing tasks that support both plants and the species that depend on them. As these organisms eat, grow and move through the soil, they foster clean air, healthy plants, and clean, moderate water flow.

It’s important to nourish and protect the soil food web, which includes a range of creatures from one-celled bacteria and fungi, to earthworms, insects, and plants. These organisms transform nitrogen and nutrients from organic matter, making them available to plants. The plants, in turn, release food into the soil to attract the beneficial bacteria and fungi that coat their roots, prevent disease, and cycle nutrients. The soil food web decomposes toxins, manure and organic matter while aerating the soil and improving water retention.

The most active time for the soil food web in New England is late spring, when temperature and moisture levels increase activity. Some species of organisms are active in the winter, however, especially in the water melting underneath the snow. Other species thrive in drier conditions.

Activities such as irrigation, pesticide use and soil turnover change the complexity and structure of the soil food web. Every chemical based pesticide, fungicide, herbicide, and fertilizer can harm or kill some of the beneficial life that exists in the soil. Construction and years of neglect can also leave soil severely depleted of necessary organisms.

The best way to begin a lawn or garden improvement program is with a soil analysis that measures the chemical and physical characteristics of the soil. Test results reveal the pH levels and amount of organic matter in the soil. Testing also measures calcium, potassium, magnesium, and the ability of the soil to hold nutrients. Soil analysis can be repeated to measure progress as the food web is replenished with such substances as organic fertilizers and compost tea, a promising new technology that involves extracting organisms from high quality, tested compost during a 24-hour brewing process.

Nothing improves soil like compost. It’s full of the life and organic matter that make for a thriving, healthy soil environment. Compost should come from a reputable dealer and have no offensive odor or weed seeds. Just a ¼ to ½ inch layer spread over a lawn or garden makes a huge difference in repopulating the busy community of organisms that call the soil their home.

Mike Murray is the owner of Organic Soil Solutions in Woburn. For more information call 781-937-9992 or visit