The Dirt On Dirt!

In January Linda Paige and I began auditing the 2020 Master Gardener Class, which Sue Neville and Jeri Ronaldson are enrolled in. Linda and I signed up because there has been a seismic shift in how we ought to interact with our natural surroundings since we were trained

There is a revolutionary global movement taking shape in agriculture. The 20th century was all about chemical agriculture. Since WWII more than 80,000 new chemical compounds have gone on the market; many of which are used in agriculture. Lethal and explosive compounds developed by Germans led to new fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used by farmers. We have poisoned the soil, beneficial animals and insects, as well as ourselves. You read about it on a daily basis and hear about the alarming rise in cancer cases. We can’t go on this way.

To feed our country and the world the 21st century is going to have to return to working with nature. This means restoring what is known as the soil food web. The soil food web is the community of organisms living all or part of their lives in the soil. This thriving community embraces a wide range of microorganisms including microscopic bacteria, protozoa, algae, fungi and visible inhabitants including arthropods, insects, nematodes (the good ones eat the bad ones) and worms. This underworld is a complex living system in the soil and the soil food web explains how it interacts to form a symbiotic relationship with the environment, plants, and animals.

When the soil food web is balanced, plants benefit in a number of ways including: access to an abundance of nutrients, protection from pests and diseases, access to more water retained in the soil and suppression of weeds

You will be hearing more about this – a lot more. Sally Scalera, our outstanding UF/Brevard county Urban Horticultural Agent has taken courses from Dr. Elaine Ingham, an American microbiologist, leading soil biology researcher and founder of Soil Foodweb, Inc.

Sally started learning about the soil food web several years ago and is sharing her knowledge with Master Gardeners. We, in turn, will share with you but it is a process. You can’t go in one fell swoop from maintaining a landscape using frequent irrigation, fertilizers and other chemicals to having a balanced landscape where these are not needed. We’ll be indicating ways to ease into turning our sandy “dirt” into soil rich with micorrhyzal fungi, bacteria, protozans and other essential organisms that live in symbiosis with the plant kingdom, so that plants get what they need from the soil and, in turn, the soil’s inhabitants, get what they need from the plants.

You can see why I’m having difficulty deciding what to include in this month’s issue. When compiling lists of what to plant and what to do in a particular month I’ve always relied on the UF Master Gardener training I had years ago, on information gleaned from other sources and from my own gardening experience. The UF IFAS (Institute of Food and Agricultural Science) website provides trustworthy information, which is updated periodically. However, they have not yet taken on the soil food web, so I’m presenting old ideas mixed with newer ones. You may enjoy doing some research on your own. 10 Steps to Gardening With Nature by Carole Ann Rollins and Elizabeth Ingham is the book that got Sally going.

The schematic below leaves out a lot but gives you an idea of what goes on underground when a tree is in a healthy relationship with the microbiome beneath it.

illustration courtesy of Heidelberg Farms

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