Have you ever walked through a forest or on a woodland trail and looked at the ground? If so, you probably noticed that it was covered in ground litter, softer than the path you were walking on, and the colour was dark brown. Now, compare this to your garden or lawn, or a natural walkway in your yard frequented by feet.
Sometimes we need to go back to the natural areas to remember what we’re missing. I do this often, and return home to remember that the grassy pathway from the front door to the backyard needs some compost tea and more grass seed. My husband asked “why bother? We’re just going to walk on it”, unfortunately, he isn’t wrong. Walking the same path over and over again will cause the grass to be trampled and not grow properly and the ground to become compacted. Compaction feeds the negative spiral to lifeless soil (aka dirt). Nothing grows in dirt. But because I think the feeling of lush grass under my bare feet is kind of luxurious I will bother to spray compost tea and spread grass seed. And I will continue to bother with compost tea because that’s what’s going to feed the microbes beneath and grass and keep it healthy and lush.
Soil is the foundation of life
If soil wasn’t available, your fridge would be pretty empty. From root vegetables to row crops that are eaten fresh and legumes and grasses that feed livestock, our entire food system depends on soil. Unfortunately, misuse and overuse over the last centuries has caused soil degradation and is directly impacting food systems. Soil degradation leads to fewer microorganisms in the soil to keep plants healthy and well supplied with essential nutrients.
The role of microorganisms
Microorganisms have many essential jobs in the soil. Beneficial bacteria and fungi break down organic matter, make nutrients available to plants and to create passageways to hold water. Higher trophic organisms (like nematodes) keep bacteria and fungi numbers in check; and act as food for even bigger organisms. Mycorrhizal fungi creates a network (imagine an internet network) between plants to transport nutrients to the plants that need them. In each of these cases, the plant “pays” the microorganisms in the form of sugar. When microorganisms aren’t present, the plant is what suffers. Adding fertilizer makes specific nutrients available in a plant ready form, bypassing the need for microorganisms. Unfortunately, it also puts a wedge into the plant-microorganisms relationship and the microorganisms eventually die because they’re not getting the food they need.
Healthy soil has a range of essential (and beneficial) microorganisms present. These beneficial microorganisms will protect plant roots from disease, retain soil structure to prevent erosion, build soil structure so the soil can retain water and allow oxygen to flow, make nutrients available to plants and more. Additionally, when the conditions are ideal for the plant present (i.e. grass) the unwanted plants (weeds) won’t be able to grow. This is what happens in a wooded area – ground litter feeds microorganisms which are connected to and protect the various plants, transporting nutrients, building structure to retain water and let air flow through and leaving the ground a little softer.
This is also why I will keep spraying compost tea on my lawn. Because feeding the soil, feeds the microbes who feed the plants.