IN THE NEWS: The ‘Black Box’ Of Soil Microbes

“They do a lot of important things for us, directly or indirectly, and I hope they get the respect they deserve.” -Noah Fierer, Researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder

Written by Daniel Charles

A tablespoon of soil contains billions of microscopic organisms. Life on Earth, especially the growing of food, depends on these microbes, but scientists don’t even have names for most of them, much less a description.

That’s changing, slowly, thanks to researchers like Noah Fierer, at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Fierer think microbes have lived in obscurity for too long. “They do a lot of important things for us, directly or indirectly, and I hope they get the respect they deserve,” he says.

These microbes create fertile soils, help plants grow, consume and release carbon dioxide, oxygen and other vital elements. But they do it all anonymously. Scientists haven’t identified most of these species and don’t know much else about them, either, such as “what they’re doing in soil, how they’re surviving, what they look like,” Fierer says.

According to Fierer, they’ve been extremely difficult to study, in part, because most of them refuse to grow anywhere but in the dirt, “so we can’t take them out of soil and study them in the lab.”

Some scientists call the community of soil microbes a “black box.” You can’t see inside.

Fierer and other scientists, however, have come up with new ways to open up that box just a little. They collect samples of soil and extract all the DNA contained in that sample, from all the organisms living there. That’s a lot of diversity, even in a small sample. “Thousands of bacterial species can be found in a given teaspoon of soil,” Fierer says.

They study the DNA in each sample. They look, specifically, at a particular region of DNA that’s common to all living organisms. And by making a catalog of all the different versions of that region, they can tell how many different kinds of microbes live in that sample. They also can tell how common each type of microbe is. There’s a huge consortium of scientists, called the Earth Microbiome Project, using this approach to study soil microbes.

To continue as well to hear the audio and see the full transcript of the NPR broadcast visit the link below.


The Soil to Health Connection

“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” -Mahatma Gandhi

At Hendrikus Organics, we are committed to bettering the planet. Part of our mission includes educating people about the important connection between soil and our health. We have long believed that without healthy soil, there can be no human health.

The most obvious connection is soil’s link to plants, our forests, grasses, jungles, crops. Soil supports and nourishes all the plants that we – and our chickens, dairy cows and other livestock – eat. The materials we use to build our homes and clothe ourselves would not exist were it not for terra firma.

The earth’s blanket of soil and its substrate below plays the critical role of filtering and purifying the water we drink, our streams, waterways, and the lakes we swim in.
Our forests, grown, supported and nurtured by our soil, filter and clean the air we breathe, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen through photosynthesis and remove other pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. Trees moderate our climate, help cool our cities, remove dust particulates from the air, and help reduce storm runoff.

Soil is the ground we walk on, build on, travel over. It is the ground that feeds us energy, the electro-magnetic energy fed by the sun, that permeates all life through our soil. Soil connects to our lifestyle, in our interactions and enjoyment of nature, large or small.

Soil connects to our health, playing a role in medicine – bacteria in the ground that produces medications like streptomycin, a widely prescribed antibiotic; and cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant used to prevent transplant patients from rejecting new organs.
With the new gene sequencing technology and the study of “microbiomes” both earth and human, scientists are catching up to importance of the connections of the microbial communities in our soil and our bodies to our health.

The earth is alive. Ninety percent of all organisms on the seven continents live underground. Healthy soil is rich in bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, microarthropods – there can be anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon of dirt. In that same teaspoon, there are more microbes than there are people on the earth. In a handful of healthy soil, there is more biodiversity in just the bacterial community than you will find in all the animals of the Amazon basin. But finding a handful of healthy living soil is getting harder to do.

Thanks to commercial agriculture’s overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, along with a failure to add sufficient organic matter to the earth, the microbes that thrive in healthy soil have been rendered inactive or eliminated altogether. Thus soil has become unable to do what it has done for hundreds of millions of years, cycle nutrients and water for plants and animals and humans alike, as well as regulate the climate. Half the earth’s habitable lands are farmed and we are losing soil and organic matter at an alarming rate due to poor land management. Studies show global soil depletion, stagnation in crop yields and lower nutritional value in the food the planet does yield.

The development of sustainable agriculture is more than just a nice idea. Understanding the connection of soil to health amplifies how important restoring and revitalizing our soil is to our existence.

Good Soil Is More Than Just Dirt

“To forget how to tend the soils is to forget ourselves”. – Mahatma Gandhi

When a tiny seedling springs forth from the earth, it does so with all the promise of blossoming into a fruitful, healthy plant. If these saplings stand solidly in good soil, then you give them more than a promise – you give them life.

When you decide to place a seed in the ground in the hopes it will grow, do you wonder if your plant will get all the nutrients and nourishment it needs to help it yield its true organic potential? Does the soil just look as if it will do the job, or are you sure it can provide the 16 essential nutrients which the roots of your plants seek? Remember, what your soil gives your plants, is what your plants will give to you. Soil is more than just dirt, it is the essence of those green leaves, stalks and delicious fruits it helps bring forth. In other words, the success of your garden lies in the health of the soil.

Therefore, you cannot afford to plant in just any type of soil. When you turn over the soil with your gardener’s spade, can you smell the rich, earthy scent of good soil? Do the nutrients present in your soil make it dark and rich in color? This is the assurance that your plants are in good hands…uhhh…good soil.

The creation of good soil is done quite carefully. Soil is a combination of sand, silt, clay particles, water, air and microorganisms. Good soil is alive – it contains plant and animal matter as well as minerals. This is called humus, a part of soil that helps produce high quality, healthy plants. Good soil stores a lot of humus and organic matter to release to plants to sustain them. If the soil you are using is not rich in humus and organic matter, what is the soil nourishing your plants with?

If soil has not decomposed life, how can it create life?

The soil ecosystem is just as simple as any other – living and once-living organisms, such as earthworms, which exist in good soil, pave the way for plants to receive the nitrogen and carbon they need. The more organic materials you add to your soil, the more nutrients your soil has, which makes your soil more fertile. When it comes to good, bad and ugly soils, no gardener worth their soil is going to choose the bad or the ugly over the good, is he/she? You don’t want a soil that will rob your plants of the chance to be healthy and productive; you want a soil that can give your plants what they need.

Vegetables and fruits that are produced by trees planted in good soil are organic and mineral rich. These veggies are rich in essential vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting phytonutrients. They are low in calories, sodium, cholesterol, sugar, and saturated fat and help boost our immune system. Watery vegetables cultivated in good soil also provide a source of mineral rich water for humans. This means when you choose good soil to grow your plants in, you are choosing to garden, eat and live the healthy way.

You are also doing more than creating a healthier you; you are helping form a sustainable earth. How, you ask? Good soil helps regulate the earth’s temperature and many greenhouse gases. For example, soil removes the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it as soil carbon. It stores, conserves and filters our water. Together with plants, it keeps our air clean and provides the essential nutrients to our forests.

The Key to Soil Mastery: Become a Soil “Chef”

“No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” – Julia Child

Creating a healthy vibrant soil is akin to the art of cooking. Using the similarities in the craft of fine cuisine you will learn how to test and improve your soils, how to sweeten, spice, blend and mix amendments to improve the nutrient density and fertility. Become a Chef in your own garden and use this unique culinary approach to create soils that are catalysts for growing nutrient abundant edibles and vibrant, healthy plants.

To learn more join us for our seminar at the Northwest Garden and Flower Show Friday, Feb 9 at 5:45 pm / Rainier Room.

Purchase your tickets:

Visit our seminar page here for a map and more information about Hendrikus and Nirav. 

Clean Soil, Clean Water

“No clean soil, no clean water… No clean water, no clean soil.”  – Hendrikus Schraven

We’ve been drinking the same water since the dawn of time on planet Earth. No matter where you get your water, at some point in its journey that water has been filtered by soil.

The Water Cycle

It’s the original form of recycling. It rains or snows. That precipitation soaks into the ground where it’s either taken up by plants or flows onward to streams, lakes and the sea. It may also become groundwater, stored underground for centuries. Part of this process involves the ground itself acting as a filter. As the water moves through the various layers of soil, gravel and sand and its microbiology, it is cleaned by the soil. During that process, the water also helps restore soil to a neutral pH. But the system is breaking.

As surface water travels, it picks up whatever it flows through. This includes sediments, nutrients and contaminants. Likewise this water can bring pollutants down from the air. When this water enters healthy soil, the natural filtering system works at pulling these items from the water. However, increased contamination, pollution and sedimentation, along with the decline in healthy soils contribute to an overburdened and ineffective natural filtering system: too many contaminants and too little healthy soil.

Water that falls through air choked with industrial wastes is known commonly as acid rain. In turn, water flows over farmlands made toxic by chemical pesticides. Both these have the effect of leeching the soil of nutrients. Worse yet, such contaminated rainfall fails to neutralize the soil, and acidic soil fails to filtrate the water.

Interrupting the Flow

As urban areas have expanded, we’ve lost forests, wetlands, and undisturbed soils capable of managing stormwater naturally. Water that moves through a city picks up things like deodorants, drugs, paint, pesticides and pet waste; these pollutants are then deposited in the watershed. This take-up actually happens more efficiently in a city because the water picks up more speed running over cement surfaces than falling to a forest floor.

It’s not possible to produce healthy plant material and support a healthy biology without clean soil. Contaminated soil also affects its ability to produce healthy plant material, and support a healthy biology. With a population expected to boom to some 9 billion people by 2050, maintaining the health of our soils is more important than ever before.

Adding organic compost and nutrients back to your soil will immediately improve its structure in several ways. It will reintroduce nutrients your plants (and you) need. It will increase the amount of water your soil can hold, meaning less watering. And organic compost can even decrease contaminants in the soil by diluting them out. Even contaminants such as lead become less hazardous when compost is added to the soil. And ultimately, any water that falls on your remediated soil will make its way through the great recycling bin known as Earth, and we’ll all be that much healthier for it.

Grow an Indoor Vegetable Garden

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” – Audrey Hepburn

If you are limited on space or time, an indoor vegetable garden or herb garden may be just the thing for you. You may be surprised to learn that you can grow a variety of herbs and vegetables in your home. All you need is a bright window.

Getting Ready

First, make sure you have what you need to start growing. If you are going to grow leafy vegetables or herbs, you’ll need a window that gets at least 4 hours of bright light each day. If you plan to grow a plant that produces an actual vegetable, you’ll need a sunny window that gets at least 5 to 6 hours or more. You can also get a grow light to provide even more light for your plants if you wish, with 9 to10 hours being ideal for most plants.

You’ll also need an organic potting soil for your plants to grow in. This is preferred over bringing in soil from outside that may carry pests and diseases, plus pots need a lighter soil than what you find in your garden. Mix organic compost into your potting soil to provide both beneficial biology and extra nutrients for your plants.

Containers will also be needed to plant your garden in. Sizes will vary depending on each plant. Make sure the pots have adequate drainage as well as a saucer to catch draining water. For improved aeration and drainage, some small pebbles are a good addition to the bottoms of the pots. You should also consider some stakes or trellises for plants you may grow that need additional support.

QUICK TIP: Many pottery saucers are permeable so consider a non-permeable plastic tray between your floor and the saucer or pot so as not to damage your carpets or floors with moisture.

Selecting Your Plants

Now that you have your supply list, it is time for the fun part: choosing the plants. These are quite a few to choose from you narrow you list by deciding which ones you will enjoy the most and how many you will actually have time to care for. Start small. You can always add more later.

  • Root crops

Most root crops are too big to be grown indoors, but round varieties of carrots and radishes are just perfect for indoor vegetable gardens. Grow from seed in grow boxes and troughs, following package directions, and you should be harvesting fresh vegetables in a few short weeks.

  • Dwarf green beans and peas

Dwarf varieties of green beans and peas can also be sown from seed in the winter for a spring crop. Mulch them well and fertilize them monthly. They will do best with at least 8 hours of sun each day and may need a support to grow on.

  • Lettuce

You can enjoy fresh salad any time of the year when you grow your own lettuce. It does best in a south facing window, but if you have a grow light, you can grow it anywhere you like. Try arugula or any other type of leafy green you choose. Or try Swiss chard or spinach for a green you can also enjoy cooked.

  • Tomatoes and peppers

Both tomatoes and peppers will need a larger container, so give them at least a 3 to 5 gallon pot. They will need as much light as you can give them as well as a warm location, so try to keep them out of any draft rooms. These plants will do best if you can grow them from organic starts, not seeds.

Banana peppers, cherry peppers and chili peppers all do well indoors. Cherry tomatoes, as well as varieties such as Patio, Pixie, and Tiny Tim do well indoors. Keep in mind that tomatoes grown indoors will not get as big as those grown outside, but they will still be far more delicious than any that you buy in the grocery store.

You may need to assist with pollination a bit by brushing flowers with a cotton swab. This takes the place of the bees moving from flower to flower and helps the plants set fruit. Turn the plats regularly so each side gets plenty of light or your plants will start to grow lopsided as it reaches toward the sun.

  • Garlic and green onions

Fresh garlic and green onions are wonderful to have in your indoor garden and both are so easy to grow. Plant a nice head of garlic in an 8-inch pot of well drained soil. Water it every day and you can trim off the green shoots to enjoy in your cooking or in salads.

Green onions are even easier. Buy a bunch of organic green onions at the grocery store in keep them in a glass of water, changing the water daily. Trim and use the green part of the onion as you normally would. Once they get down to the last few inches, plant them in a trough of organic potting mix and keep them moist. They will continue to grow.

  • Herbs

Herbs are another easy to grow plant for your indoor vegetable garden. Start with organic plants that you can often find in your grocery store’s produce department. Pot them up in well drained organic potting mix and put them in an area that gets at least 4 hours of sunlight each day. Keep them moist but allow they to dry between watering. Poke your finger into the soil to see if they need to be watered of not.

Nearly any herb can be grown indoors, but a few to try include the many varieties of basil, the many varieties of mint, chives, rosemary, sage, cilantro, oregano, parsley and many more. With so many herbs, you could have a complete herb garden in your home and grow nothing else.

Bay laurel, known as bay leaves in the kitchen, make a lovely house plant that is useful as well. Bay laurel likes bright light without drafts and needs a rich, organic soil with plenty of organic matter to hold moisture. Consider a mulch to keep the soil moist, but don’t mulch right against the base of the evergreen shrub. Because a bay laurel can grow to 6 feet tall indoors, make sure you will have enough room for it. After a couple of years, you can start to harvest and dry the leaves to use in your cooking.

Have something smaller in mind? How about basil? There are many varieties and you can try several without taking up much space on your windowsill. Just keep the soil moist and give it at least 4 hours of sun each day. You can cut it as you want to use it and it will continue to grow. No need to wait 2 years to enjoy it.

Think about what you enjoy in your cooking. Do you enjoy fresh chives on your baked potato or oregano for your famous spaghetti sauce? You can grow your own, even if that’s all you can grow for now, and get tremendous satisfaction from doing it yourself. As you gain confidence in your abilities, you can gradually find ways to branch out and grow even more.

So, whether you want an herb garden, an indoor vegetable garden or a combination of both, you can do it easily with a little planning.