Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


Soil microbes better than rototilling

2017-05Lowenfels-Endomycorrhizal fungi

Endomycorrhizal fungi spores are ready to grow into plant roots, carrying nutrients and moisture. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

Published May 7, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Soil microbes, no rototilling key to next generation of gardening”

By Barb Gorges

Twice in the space of a month this spring I heard rototilling renounced for the sake of keeping soil microbes healthy.

One speaker was Jeff Lowenfels, garden columnist and author from Alaska who spoke at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens/Laramie County Master Gardener spring lecture series. The other was Ron Godin, recently retired extension agronomist in western Colorado, speaking at the Wild West Gardening Conference in Cheyenne.

There are a billion microbes in a teaspoon of healthy soil. The interactions of the whole community of microbes is a giant web of who eats whom and who feeds whom.

Basically, decaying plant material feeds microbes and in turn, microbe “excrement” feeds plant roots.

Microbes include nematodes, bacteria, fungi and protozoa. There are some bad actors, but in general, everything balances and plants grow. For example, prairies and forests have self-sustaining soil microbial communities—no synthetic, chemical fertilizers or pesticides are required.

But when European farmers landed in the New World, they opened things up with the plow and have continued to plow ever since. Regular plowing (or hoeing or rototilling) disrupts the soil microbes. They can’t do their jobs. Farmers repaired damage somewhat with applications of manure and compost. But then came the 20th century’s inventive use of nerve gas left over from World War I as insecticide, and leftover nitrogen-based bomb-making materials from World War II became the perfect fertilizer.

Except that it wasn’t healthy for the microbes.

2017-05 Lowenfels-Ectomycorryhizal fungi

Ectomycorrhizal fungi grow close to the surface of roots and grow webs around them carrying water and nutrients. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

Synthetic fertilizers starve the microbes in a way and pesticides kill off beneficial organisms, causing the need for a never-ending cycle of synthetic fertilizer and pesticide application. This was great if you owned stock in the large chemical companies, but bad when you understand the side effects including health issues animals and humans—especially farmers, because the chemicals get into drinking water and food.

 

Lowenfels happily dispensed advice on garden chemicals for years until someone sent him two electron microscope photos, one of a fungus that had trapped a root-eating nematode, and the other of a nematode happily chomping a tomato root unimpeded.

In the first photo, the plant was secreting a substance that attracted the fungus, which in turn attacked the nematode. In the second photo, the fungus was missing due to the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

After his conversion, Lowenfels wrote three books. He said the essential one is “Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web,” coauthored with Wayne Lewis. You’ll notice the play on words in the title–healthy soil is teeming with microbes, and you’ll be teaming with them.

Put away the rototiller

First, put away your rototiller. It’s still handy if you are turning your lawn into a pollinator garden, but otherwise, annual rototilling is detrimental to the soil microbe community. Godin said this advice translates to farming as well.

It will take time to undo the cultural tradition of breaking soil down into a fine, clump-less and smooth expanse of dirt. But there are two reasons for disturbing the soil as little as possible, even in a vegetable garden.

First, every time you dig into soil, you bring up weed seeds, most of which require light to germinate. You just made more work for yourself. Cut weeds off at the soil surface rather than digging them.

Second, microbes feeding your plants and fending off bad stuff can’t function if you break them up. Keeping them intact means less work for you, less fertilizer spreading, less watering since healthy soil holds water better. Pesticides are a last resort for serious problems. Re-inoculate your soil with microbes soon after.

In windy Cheyenne, there’s also a third benefit to not tilling your soil into fine dust: microbes “glue” things together and the resulting clumpy soil doesn’t blow away.

2017-05Lowenfels-Glomalin--green stain--coating with spores

In this electron microscopic view, Glomalin, stained green and coated with spores, is produced by a group of common soil fungi. It coats soil particles like super glue, sticking them together in clumps. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lowenfels.

To plant seeds or transplants, make an opening just large enough. The roots will find their way without the soil being “fluffed.” Healthy soil has lots of air spaces already. Then mulch.

 

Godin’s rule is 100 percent cover, 100 percent of the time. Cover for large gardens or farms could be annual cover crops later mowed to form mulch. In small gardens use leaves, grass clippings and compost.

Replace chemical fertilizers

In the years chemical fertilizers have been around, studies show fruits and vegetables have dropped in nutritional value. It’s due to the missing micronutrients soil microbes used to pull from decomposing plant material and mineral soils. Synthetic fertilizer is incomplete.

Traditional organic gardening recommends digging compost into the soil, but  Lowenfels says digging breaks up the soil community. Better to side-dress plants, leaving the compost (or mulch) on the soil surface where microbes will get at it and break it down. It works on the prairie and in the forest—there’s no 100-year-old pile of dead grass, leaves or pine needles.

Lowenfels said there are three different groups of plants in your yard. Perennial flowers, shrubs and trees want their nitrogen in the form provided by fungally dominated soils. The compost that promotes this is the brown stuff (mixed with a little green): dry leaves, bark, wood chips, twigs, branches—like the forest floor.

Annuals, including vegetables, prefer their nitrogen produced by bacterially dominated soil. This is green stuff (with a little brown), grass clippings, freshly picked weeds (without seeds) and fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps.

The prairie, like your lawn, falls in between. It appreciates finely shredded brown fall leaves and thin layers of green grass clippings.

Brew compost tea

Compost tea, compost soaked in water, is another way to inoculate your garden with microbes and feed them too. If compost and compost tea smell ugly, that’s anaerobic activity. You need aerobic activity—more air.

Lowenfels gives directions for making a bucket into “a simple actively aerated compost tea brewer using aquarium pumps and air stones.” Fertilizing your plants, and yes, your houseplants too, is as easy as watering them.

While chemical companies made their fortunes keeping our soils addicted to their products, new companies are offering to aid us in bringing our soils back to health. They are building better compost tea brewers. Labs can estimate your microbe population. Our local independent garden centers will sell you mycorrhizal fungi in powdered form you mix with water.

This new era of catering to microbes has gone mainstream. Lowenfels reported that at the 2016 Garden Writers of America conference, none of the tradeshow vendors was pushing synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

For the last 35 years, my husband, Mark, and I have cared for our lawn and garden without a rototiller or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. We mulch the garden and use natural lawn fertilizers. I look forward to adapting Lowenfels’ ideas to step it up.

[If you are also adapting to the new era in gardening, let me know how it is going. Contact me at bgorges2 at gmail.com.]

More information:

Besides “Teaming with Microbes,” his first book, Lowenfels has also authored:

–“Teaming with Nutrients, The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition”

–“Teaming with Fungi, The Organic Grower’s Guide to Mycorrhizae.”

 

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Garden gifts: books, magazines, classes

2016-12-garden-mags-barb-gorgesPublished Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Holiday gifts for the gardener on your list.”

By Barb Gorges

I asked members of the Laramie County Master Gardeners for their top picks for gardening magazines and books to give you ideas for gifts for the gardeners you know.

Gardening conditions in Cheyenne are somewhat unique so advice from these publications must be taken with a bit of local knowledge:

1) We have alkaline soils so ignore advice to add lime and wood ash;

2) We are officially in USDA plant hardiness zone 5 but microclimates can be harsher or milder;

3) Our average annual precipitation is 15 inches. Even if you run your well dry, you can’t reproduce a wetter, more humid location, which some plants require, like somewhere else in Zone 5—say southern Iowa.

MAGAZINES

Most of the magazines recommended are available at local bookstores. Discounted multi-year subscriptions and back issues are available online.

We are lucky that Colorado’s gardening climate is close to Cheyenne’s, making our local choice The Colorado Gardener (www.ColoradoGardener.com, free at outlets, including the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and online, or $18/5 issues/year delivered). It is a full-color, tabloid-style, 16-page newsmagazine. In addition to articles and a calendar of Front Range garden-related events, even the advertising is informative.

Another option is Rocky Mountain Gardening (www.RockyMountainGardening.com, $24/4 issues/year). Previously known as “Zone 4,” it covers Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. It was recommended by Catherine Wissner, horticulturist at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office, and several other respondents. Topics in a recent issue included hellstrip gardening (the hot, dry strip along the curb) and frost blankets (written by a Smoot, Wyoming, gardener). Wyoming is well-represented in the news section.

Judy Kowrach was one of two people who endorsed Garden Gate (www.GardenGateMagazine.com, $20/6 issues/year). With no ads, it is full of tips, plant profiles and design ideas. Despite its Iowa origins, much of the information is applicable to Cheyenne. Even without a subscription, you can sign up online for its free eNotes.

Kim Parker and several others listed Fine Gardening (www.FineGardening.com, $29.95/6 issues/year). It does a splendid job of inciting people to commit acts of gardening. I like their warnings on which featured plants are officially classified as invasive in which state and their scientific plant name pronunciation guide. And their deep website full of free garden and plant information.

2016-12-garden-design            I couldn’t come up with an issue of Garden Design (www.GardenDesign.com, $45/4 issues/year), but looking at a preview copy online, it also is sumptuously photographed. Its price reflects the 148 ad-free pages per issue. And its website is also full of free information, even for non-subscribers.

Finally, Rodale’s Organic Life (www.RodalesOrganicLife.com, $15/6 issues/year) is the latest incarnation of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming. In 1978, that publication printed my interview of a man who built a better bluebird house. These days, think of it as the organic version of Better Homes and Gardens—mostly lifestyle, little gardening.

BOOKS

2016-12-garden-primer-rodales-ultimate-encyclopedia            My primary garden book, recommended to me several years ago by Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, is The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch (2008, Workman Publishing, 820 pages). Written by a gardener from the cold climate of Maine, it covers every aspect of organic home gardening in well-organized chapters, but with an index for quick consultation.

Another option is Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (2009, www.rodaleinc.com, 720 pages). Earlier editions have been on my shelf for years. It’s a tad more technical, but both this and The Garden Primer are good how-to guides and problem solvers.

2016-12-peterson-kaufman-insect-guides            Tava Collins recommended National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders (1980, Alfred A. Knopf, $20) for help identifying garden friends and foes. Similar guides are available in the Kaufman and Peterson field guide series.

Collins also recommended three books written by Colorado gardeners: Rocky Mountain Gardener’s Handbook, John Cretti (2012, Cool Springs Press); Rocky Mountain Getting Started Garden Guide, John Cretti (2015, Cool Springs Press); and Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West, Marcia Tatroe (2007, Big Earth Publishing).

For special gardening techniques that will work in our area, these next two were recommended.

Marie Madison cited The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits and Edible Flowers by Maggie Stuckey and Rose Marie Nicholas McGee (2002, Workman Publishing).

Susan Carlson, who I interviewed a few months ago about straw bale gardening, apprised me of a new edition of her favorite book: Straw Bale Gardens Complete: All-New Information on Urban & Small Spaces, Organics, Saving Water – Make Your Own Bales With or Without Straw by Joel Karsten (2015, Cool Springs Press, $24.99).

If your giftee’s interest is in growing native plants that attract pollinators or in identifying plants on the prairie, try these. Keep in mind the definition of “weeds” depends on the situation.

2016-12-weeds-of-the-west-rangeland-plants            Carlson listed Rangeland Plants: Wyoming Tough by Smith et. al. (2015, publication B-1265) It is a free download at www.wyoextension.org/publications or $8 at the Laramie County Extension office, 307-633-4383.

Richard Steele found Weeds of the West (Western Society of Weed Science, 2012, $34 at www.wsweedscience.org) to be particularly useful while manning the “Ask a Master Gardener” table at the farmers market this fall.

Collins mentioned the classic Meet the Natives: A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, Trees and Shrubs: Bridging the Gap between Trail and Garden by M. Walter Pesman. It was revised by Denver Botanic Gardens staff in 2012 and republished by Big Earth Publishing.

2016-12-undaunted-garden            The author of one of my favorites, The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty (2010, Fulcrum Publishing), Lauren Springer Ogden, is a firm believer in “the right plant in the right place” and is the originator of “hellstrip” gardening. Her photography is inspiring. She speaks often at garden events on the Front Range.

Her book would be a good accompaniment to the next two books, helping you to pick appropriate local plants to interpret their lessons. These books are about planet-friendly landscape gardening.

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (2015, Timber Press). This may be intended to introduce landscape designers to more natural, sustainable plantings. But you can apply the advice to your own yard, such as using groundcover plants instead of shredded bark mulch everywhere.

2016-12-garden-revolution-planting-in-a-post-wild            The other is Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (2016, Timber Press). Proponents of the “right plant in the right place” too, the authors have designed this book to help you understand their premise: that with knowledge of your eco region and local habitat, you can plant a garden that will evolve over time with a minimal amount of assistance, i.e. chemicals and labor.

LECTURES AND CLASSES

One option: Give your favorite gardener tuition for the 10-week Master Gardener class beginning in January. For more information, call 307-633-4383.

Or give them tickets to the spring gardening lecture series Laramie County Master Gardeners is offering in conjunction with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Call 307-637-6458.