Think about burrowing down under the rich, fertile earth, as an earthworm perhaps. The cool humus holds you close, and provides everything you need to thrive, including different bacteria, fungi, plants, minerals, moisture and nutrients. This is the best case scenario for our little friend. No pesticides, herbicides or other chemical or physical disturbances.
The soil in a healthy ecosystem has over 30,000 taxonomic varieties of microorganisms. Two of the most important classifications for plants include bacteria and fungi. Plants rely on a vast array of bacteria and fungi for both health and defense. These relationships are symbiotic, meaning that they benefit both the plants and the microorganisms.
Bacteria in the soil not only provide nutrients for plants, but also suppress disease. In exchange, plant roots secrete fixed carbon into the soil and feed their bacterial counterparts. Soil bacteria can can trigger defensive plant behavior or even act as a sort of “vaccine” for local plants. Plants can choose which bacteria they want more of by secreting specific foods for that organism. There is even evidence that the effects of beneficial bacteria can endure across plant generations. Does any of this sound familiar? Maybe like a human digestive system, or immune system?
When we use pesticides or herbicides, we create an imbalance. Nature does not tolerate a void. Something will always fill it. The few pathogens that survive face little competition. They proliferate, giving rise to pathogenic communities that are resistant to future chemical applications. Sound familiar? Think antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Fungi: The mycorrhizae (the mycelium, or vegetative part of a fungus) increase the nutrient absorption of a plant an amazing 100 to 1,000 times. Mycorrhizae release powerful enzymes that help dissolve tightly bound soil nutrients including organic nitrogen, phosphorus and iron. They also help their host plants access more water. In return, the plants give the fungi carbohydrates, vitamins and enzymes. It is hard to imagine, but true, in one thimbleful of healthy soil, you can find several MILES of fungal filaments. Mycorrhizae also help plants communicate. Think of them as telephone wires transmitting information, quickly, from one plant to another. To communicate, they secrete soluble chemicals that warn neighbors of herbivore attacks, alert each other to threatening pathogens, communicate about impending droughts and even help plants recognize kin. One study in 2009 documented a fungal network that wove its way through an entire forest, with each tree connected to dozens of others over distances of almost 70 feet. Mycrorrhizae can benefit trees, vegetables, herbs and even grasses (think your lawn). One exception of a plant family that doesn’t use mycorrhizae is the mustard family (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, mustard, rapeseed).
How can I create my own healthy soil ecosystem, you might ask? Excellent! Because I have some tips for you.
Elaine Sheff has been studying medicinal plants since 1987. A Clinical Herbalist, she is a graduate of both the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. Elaine is a certified instructor of Fertility Awareness and Natural Family Planning, a safe, effective birth control method used to avoid or achieve pregnancy. She has a clinical practice providing herbal consultations for individuals with health concerns. Elaine is a bestselling author and teaches herb classes throughout the United States. She is the co-founder of Meadowsweet Herbs and the co-director of Green Path Herb School in Missoula, Montana. You can often find Elaine in her garden, homeschooling her children, or cooking gluten-free.