Book Review: "Teaming with Microbes"

Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 220 pp., $24.95)

by Susan Mulvihill

If you’re looking for a book that will help you transform your garden, I’ve found it. I recently finished reading Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 220 pp., $24.95) and can’t wait to change some of my longstanding gardening practices.

I’ve long maintained that we gardeners take our soil for granted. It’s just there. We buy plants or start them from seed, and just plant them into our gardens without realizing our soils need a little bit of TLC.

We also were taught long ago that we should rototill or turn over our soil at the start of each garden season. Little did we know we were disrupting the established soil structure that helps air and water to move through it. Yikes.

I’ve been an organic gardener for many years now but fully understand that many folks use chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides in their gardens. While I knew these products were bad for the environment, I really didn’t realize the harm they were doing to the network of microorganisms in our soil (which the authors refer to as the “soil food web”).

As an organic vegetable gardener, I often use organic fertilizers for certain veggie crops. It turns out this isn’t necessary.

In “Teaming with Microbes,” the authors divide the book into two main sections. In the first, they take the reader on a fascinating exploration of the types of “critters” that are in our soil -- most of which we are unable to see without a hand lens or fancy microscope.

I got to learn about bacteria, archaea (really cool microorganisms that often live in inhospitable environments and play a key role in the nitrogen cycle within soil), fungi, algae and slime molds, protozoa, nematodes, arthopods (critters like spiders and beetles), earthworms, gastropods (snails and slugs), and reptiles, mammals and birds -- all of which play a vital role in the health of our soils. How cool is it to learn something completely new and to see images of each of these?

The second part of the book breaks down how you can apply what you learned in the first part to make your gardens grow better than ever.

The authors first explain what compost, mulches, compost teas and mycorrhizal fungi do for the soil and plants. Then they discuss the specifics of this as it relates to maintaining your lawn,  trees, shrubs and perennials, and growing annuals and veggies.

They’ve even included a garden calendar so you know what to do when.

Lowenfels and Lewis maintain that by discontinuing the practices of turning our soil over each year and using chemicals, and by applying compost, mulch, compost tea and mycorrhizal fungi, our gardens will be healthy and productive. And, if you haven’t realized this yet, this means less work and less expense because we won’t be rototilling or shoveling our soil and we won’t be purchasing expensive fertilizers and chemicals. Wow.

I heartily recommend everyone read “Teaming with Microbes” to gain a better understanding of the amazing soil food web out there and the far-reaching implications it has to change our gardening practices. We have everything to gain from it!