The Circle of LifeThe soil food web is comprised of all the beneficial and parasitic organisms living in your garden, from the birds that eat the earthworms to the bacteria that eat the decomposing roots and other organic matter. All these organisms are affected by each other as they grow, reproduce, and die - whether they are eaten by something bigger, or are decomposed by something smaller. These creatures living in the soil can increase the soil nutrient levels, buffer the pH, and improve the soil quality enough that you may not even need to add any fertilizer at all! The soil food web has additional benefits to your plants beyond soil nutrition, including resistance to certain pests and diseases, better water retention, and insulated soil that decreases summer heat stress and winter freezes.
Feeding Your Soil, Not Your Plants
When selecting and applying fertilizers, the best long-term benefits can be achieved by making decisions to feed and protect the whole soil food web, and not just the plants that you’re cultivating. This is best done with organic fertilizers, whose ingredients provide organic matter, sugars and other nutrients for the creatures living in the soil. Additionally, the fertilizer is in a form that the microorganisms can break down to provide ions for the plants to absorb.
Finally, organic fertilizers have lower concentrations of nutrients than conventional fertilizers; this allows you to improve your soil gradually, which prevents the soil microorganisms from being shocked or killed by the sudden change in the soil chemistry that a higher concentration would cause. Organic matter is perhaps the biggest requirement for a healthy soil food web. The term “organic matter” refers to a mélange of several components. Each plays different roles in the soil. Fresh plant residues or organic materials are un-decomposed plant matter or manure that are incorporated into a compost pile or directly into the soil. These materials initially break down and release nutrients quickly, during which time they are called active organic matter. The microorganisms contributing to the decomposition process are also sometimes counted as part of the organic matter. After the active organic matter has broken down into fully aged compost or humus, it is called stable organic matter. At this point, the rate of decomposition is slow and stabilized, and is in a form that is easier for plants to use.