The Permaculture Podcast

    Episode 1213: The Soil Food Web with Jeff Lowenfels


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    My guest is Jeff Lowenfels, co-author, along with Wayne Lewis, of Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, which recently released a revised edition. He was recommended as a guest by Dr. Doug Tallamy of Bringing Nature Home.

    Located in Alaska, Jeff writes a weekly gardening column for the Anchorage Daily News, without missing a single week in more than 30 years. This makes him, according to the Garden Writers Association, the longest running garden columnist in the United States.

    His work is important because whether you are a gardener, farmer, attorney, or Permaculturist, who works with the earth, you need to have an understanding of the soil food web and the inter-actions and inter-relationships of the life in the soil. Building soil builds life.

    We spend our time together discussing the importance of supporting this system, continually marveled at it’s productivity and efficiency, starting with the smallest members: the bacteria, archaea, and fungi. We need to support this system. Organic processes: mulching, composting, and compost teas, are the way to go.

    If you would like to learn more about the soil, I highly recommend Jeff’s book, Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. It is now a part of my standard permaculture library.

    If you have questions or comments that arise from this episode, contact me: show (at) thepermaculturepodcast (dot) com or at the voicemail line: 717.827.6266.

    Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web
    Mycorrhizal Applications
    Dr. Elaine Ingham
    Rodale Institute
    Paul Stamets

    Articles and Studies on Compost Tea
    Tea for Trees
    Enhancing Phyto-nutrient Content, Yield, and Quality of Vegetables with Compost Tea in the Tropics
    Promoting Plant Growth with Compost Teas (PDF)
    The Grass is Greener at Harvard
    The Myth of Compost Tea
    The Myth of Compost Tea Revisited
    The Myth of Compost Tea III
    The Myth of Compost Tea IV


    1. August 6, 2012    

      Great podcast. Jeff Lowefels’ book really changed the way I garden. I’m now a big proponent of the ‘nourish your soil’ method of gardening. It just makes sense.

    2. April 21, 2014    

      Another great interview, loved it. Just bought his book and loving the information it in. Will be buying his newest book after I finish this one. He basically explains the science behind organic growing.

    3. RLM McWilliamsRLM McWilliams
      October 8, 2015    

      According to Dr. Elaine Ingham, all compost and compost tea MUST be aerated – to prevent the harmful organisms that proliferate in anaerobic situations, AND to foster the growth of the beneficial organisms (bacteria, protozoa, etc) that thrive in aerobic situations. Far beyond the nutrient content of compost or compost tea, the value of good compost or compost tea is to innoculate the soil with these beneficial organisms.

    4. RLM McWilliamsRLM McWilliams
      October 8, 2015    

      According to Dr. Elaine Ingham, all soils everywhere on earth have sufficient nutrients for plants to thrive. Not just nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K), but all 42 elements now recognized as being necessary for plants – not just to ‘grow’ but to resist pests, withstand weather stress… in short, to thrive.
      The problem is that many of these nutrients are not in a form available to plants. This is where the soil food web comes in. The plants feed the microbes, even ‘farming’ them by adjusting, in some cases, the exudates given off by their roots to grow the kind of organisms that will provide that plant with whatever nutrient it needs. (Didn’t Bill Mollison say ‘Everything gardens.’?)
      Appreciate Lowenfels, but the concept of taking and amending soil is… not quite accurate. Plants harvest sunlight and combine it with carbon to create biomass (along with varying amounts of other elements). Sunlight and rain are the prime things we need to ‘add’ for our plants to grow. IF the soil food web has been damaged, or is not the right mix for the plants/crops we want to grow, then adding these organisms and making sure that they have sufficient food to thrive is important. After that point, there may be no need to bring in ‘amendments’. In permaculture, the on-site sourcing of mulch, mimicing Nature, comes from natural leaf drop, animal cycling of vegetation, and ‘chop and drop’.
      Animal manures were used to grow food – NOT because ‘we had them’, but because simple observation shows that many kinds of plants thrive in soils with heavy to medium amounts of herbivore manure. Our ancestors knew that the moving herds were followed by a rebound of the growth of vegetation, since humans were human. Later, this knowledge was used to foster, then intentionally grow, food plants. Some people may find it impractical to garden with animals, but NO ecosystem in nature lacks animals (visible animals, not microscopic or near microscopic!) . Though most now have a fraction of the species and numbers they once did. Habitat distruction, pollution, in some cases overharvesting, and a mistaken idea that all animals in an ecosystem ‘compete’ for limited resources has brought this sad situation about. Ignorance of the many synergisms between animals and between animals and plants – and the invisible life forms – is contributing to further degredation of rangelands and other ecosystems.
      Lowenfels tranisiton from true ‘better living through chemistry’ believer to a respect for the way plants evolved to thrive mirrors the journey many have made. However, this interview let me know that I can skip his books. Plants grown on chemicals rarely if ever, match the resiliance to pests and weather stress that naturally grown plants in living soil have – because they lack the benefit of a myriad of synergisms between the soil food web and the plants- from trace and micronutrients, to defences againt pests and diseases alluded to by the micrograph he mentions early in the interview.
      Our built in guide- developed through millions of years of R&D – to nutrition in food is: flavor. If not blocked by things like smoking, or fooled by things like refined sugar, MSG, or other food additives, flavorful food is our best guide to nutritious food.
      Thank you, Scott!

    5. David N QuanDavid N Quan
      September 14, 2016    

      Compost tea seems like a solid concept to me. As a microbiologist, compost tea is a simple version of a bioreactor that results in the growth of innoculated microbiota. With such systems, YMMV with the compost you add, the mixing dynamics of your specific compost tea system, whatever water you add, the temperature at which your tea is brewed, and how long your brewing is allowed to happen. Good luck to all.

    6. Bob HamburgBob Hamburg
      December 7, 2019    

      Infusing / charging biochar with anaerobic digestion effluent gives a long-term, full-spectrum fertilizer and soil amendment. A couple days stirring the effluent into the biochar certainly kills all anaerobic microbes and assures that all the nutrients will be taken up by the biochar.

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