It?s easy to look at soil and think that it?s just a bunch of lifeless dirt. In fact, healthy soil is teeming with life. One spoonful of rich soil can have about 10,000 microbes in it. Without those microbes, plants would have a hard time surviving. One way to look at feeding plants is that you?re really feeding the microbes in the soil, which in turn break down material into a form that plants can absorb. Here are a few tips for keeping the microbes in your soil fed and happy.
Carbon is the power lunch of choice for the microbes in your soil. They quickly gobble up organic material, which is anything that?s carbon-based. Autumn leaves, dead plant matter, twigs, and branches are sources of carbon. The bacteria and fungi that live on organic material are themselves food sources for protozoa and other tiny creatures, creating a food chain, which slowly changes your soil?s structure. When you take care of your microbes, they take care of the soil for your plants.
Most microbes live in the top several inches of the soil. When contractors build homes, they often scrap off the topsoil during construction, leaving subsoil behind. Also, soil that?s not protected by mulch or held in place by plant roots can erode away, exposing the hard, dry subsoil. This subsoil doesn?t have much organic material, and can?t sustain adequate microbial activity. You have to rebuild the soil?s microbes by adding organic material to make up for the loss. In flower and vegetable gardens, you can add compost, chopped-up leaves, grass clippings, or mix in a garden soil that?s rich in organic material, such as Miracle-Gro® Organic Choice® Garden Soil. It?s made of 100 percent organic compost, sphagnum peat moss, and poultry litter. Mix it in with the soil in your garden, and you?re giving your microbes the nutrients they crave.
In nature, microbes in the soil are maintained by a steady supply of organic material. In forests, leaves fall every year; grassland soils are replenished by plant stalks that die back in the fall. Yards and gardens often are created on disturbed sites, and therefore need a little extra help. You can provide that by adding compost or other organic material every year. Keep your soil moist but not waterlogged, and protect it from drying out by mulching around plants. If you use mulch made from organic material, such as tree bark, it will slowly break down and feed the microbes in your soil. Productive soil has lots of tiny air pockets in it, which plants and microbes need, so avoid compacting your garden soil by minimizing foot traffic.