Book review: Collaborating with microbes

“Teaming with Microbes,” written by Alaska-based writers Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, still reigns today as a staple epistle to farmers and gardeners everywhere.

A dense yet page-turning read, it will open the mind and eyes of any gardener and introduce them to the microscopic wilderness at their feet and in the soil.

Collaborating with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, revised edition

The book reveals the true extent of an environment that we usually can’t see – and that we use or abuse when we garden, with no gray areas in between!

Originally published in 2006, the authors chronicle the intense soil science research of one Dr. Elaine Ingham – whose pioneering (pun intended) work in the 1980s led to a whole new understanding of what it means to be a gardener: whether it’s growing food, landscaping or nurturing perennials.

The bottom consciousness that fuels “Teaming With Microbes” needed to be heard in the 1980s, as it did a decade ago when demand for non-chemical organic foods exploded.

In fact, interest in organic food and gardening grew so strong that the authors printed another edition of the book in 2010 – updated with more information for the voracious pesticide-free gardener (and the edition that forms the basis of this review).

But is it a book that still applies to gardeners and the world at large?

The answer: yes! Throughout the pages, this cleverly worded read makes you realize that there is a fathomless soil food web in your garden, as fragile as any other living ecosystem around you.

Whimsical, idiosyncratic language is intertwined with dense, scientific descriptions of large fish microbes chomping on tiny fish microbes, fungi chomping on insects, nematodes chomping on everything… and so on and so forth.

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What the crazy-dog-eat-dog-soil jungle makes you realize: If you kill one thing, you might kill off everything else – even the natural goodies for your garden that you want to keep!

A rare look at nematodes under the microscope – just one of many tiny species described in Teaming With Microbes that are responsible for the fragile soil web that cares for your plants.

Sure, fertilizers work exceptionally well for some plants, although you’ll learn that not all of them do. It has also been revealed that pesticides and herbicides artificially alter the soil environment, affecting the soil’s innate robustness and health – in addition to making your food potentially toxic and unhealthy to eat.

Although it describes an alternative to chemical gardening, the book does not shy away from referring to the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers when they ARE needed. Their motto: “Use them sparingly – and remediate the soil immediately afterwards.”

Yet Lewis and Lowenfels’ book is full of theories seemingly diametrically opposed to chemicals, which can lead to confusion. You can see that the authors try not to stir the pot with political or cultural views against big chemical companies like Monsanto (most likely for fear of lawsuits).

Says Teaming With Microbes: Spray if you must, but be prepared to remedy the chemical fallout through a healthy soil structure—and by working with the microbes of your garden’s soil food web. The fewer chemicals the better – always.

Nevertheless, a small nod to the proper use of chemicals helped spread this anti-chemical gardening bible far and wide. It manages to give the hard facts about ecological awareness and the impact on your garden – without sounding too far “left”.

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A quick book in two parts

The book is methodically divided into two parts. The first: highly scientific, designed to flood your mind with the most complete, most accurate understanding of the soil food web possible, and how it relates to plants.

I found myself quite confused by some of the thick scientific concepts – filled with words like “photoheterotrophs” and “basidiomycetes.” But if you’re a really passionate gardener, you’ll sink your teeth into these terms, knowing that they’re an important part of the bigger picture.

Close-up of an earthworm, one of the easier-to-pronounce names of soil organisms in the book – a very important part of the soil food web, but certainly not the only living thing to look for and care for in your garden!

Even the authors admit that the first part might be hard for you to get through, but they encourage you to dig into it. Don’t try to go any further!

Even if you’re not interested in science, give it a try. You will find that the language is presented in a relaxing, refreshing way to make it easy to understand.

The second part is all about applying this food web perspective to your garden, perhaps the juiciest part of the book. When they’re done, good gardeners will ask themselves: If we chemically destroy the things we don’t like, what other countless useful things could we be wrongfully keeping away from our plants?

If any gardening book pushes you into the throes of a gardening dilemma, this is it – and it can turn you into organic, sustainable gardening forever. If not, it will still make you think differently, and in a good way.

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“Teaming With Microbes” informs us that the more complete and unchanging your garden’s soil biology is, the more it will take care of itself for eternity.

It comes with a disclaimer: getting to that point may take a lot of hard work at first, but you will have the most enriching garden for life.

Interesting facts you will find in the book:

Plants have more control than we think – and we have to deal with chemicals a lot less. Plants transpire (as we do) to attract good microbes or repel pests, and they do so without our help. A strong food web that takes care of your garden doesn’t form at all if plants have easy access to free, easy nutrients from fertilizers. Nutrients, pH, soil structure, color and drainage are not enough to sustain plants. The soil should also be alive with microbes, insects, fungi and more. While insects, bacteria, fungi and even snails can be sources of disease and damage, they are still crucial for supplying and retaining nutrients for plant roots. The best part: the more bugs you find in your soil, the better!

Are you an organic gardener yourself? Then I definitely recommend that you read this book.

Collaborate with Microbes available on Amazon

What are your thoughts on “Teaming with Microbes” – and how has it influenced your own methods of chemical-free, eco-conscious gardening?

Comment below on your experiences! I’d like to hear from you.

And if you like gardening books, then some other book reviews might appeal to you:

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