Choosing Fertilizer: Chemicals vs. Bacteria

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Choosing Fertilizer:
Surprise—Chemicals Are Bad

It’s an Underground Food Web

The soil beneath your feet is a complex habitat comprised of an intricate food web. According to the book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, most soil life is in the first four inches of soil. Microbial geneticists have measured a billion bacteria, several thousand protozoa, yards of fungal hyphae, and a few dozen nematodes in the average teaspoon of garden soil. In one square foot of good soil live up to fifty earthworms. Each of these living organisms consumes and produces, and in good soil, they consume bad elements and produce good elements. The plants on the surface of the soil are the beneficiaries of this intricate food web.

Bacteria Good, Chemicals Bad

But, why do I want bacteria in my soil, you might ask. Well, good bacteria and even fungi have nitrogen and other nutrients in their bodies that they take in from root tips and other organic matter. When larger protozoa and nematodes eat the bacteria and fungi, the larger organisms digest some nutrients but excrete the excess waste as carbon and other nutrients the plants need. Furthermore, bacteria produce a slime that binds together soil particles. Worms then come along and create spaces within the soil that allow air and water to enter and exit the soil. When chemical fertilizers are used, not only does most of it drain unused through the soil to lower layers the roots cannot access, but also the bacteria and fungi, both good and bad, are affected, disturbing the soil balance. Nutrients released from soil organisms, however, are released slowly and absorbed easily by the roots. Moreover, when there are no chemicals, worms work organic matter into the soil, which decays and provides even more nutrients in the process. But what about the bad bacteria? Well, the fact is that the good bacteria compete with the bad bacteria for nutrients, air, water, and space; therefore, the more good bacteria in the garden soil, the fewer bad bacteria because the good bacteria outcompete them. There are fungi and bacteria that even produce vitamins and antibiotics that prevent plant diseases

Soil Does Not Need Chemicals

Chemical fertilizers upset the delicate but vital balance of the soil. If a plant is receiving “free” nutrients, it will by-pass the natural method of obtaining nutrients, and then fungal and bacterial relationships will not develop. Thus, a degenerative cycle begins as the bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa disappear, followed by other beneficial members of the food web that feed on them, such as earthworms. The earthworms also leave because they are irritated by the synthetic nitrates in the chemical fertilizers. When the earthworms are gone, the soil structure declines, watering problems develop, bad bacteria flourish, and then a gardener feels the need to use more chemicals. In my next post, I will start explaining how to use worms and wormcasting tea to help good bacteria thrive.

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