A wide range of good and bad organisms lives in the soil. Collectively referred to as the soil food web, they are critical to the health of your garden.
A few years ago, only a handful of people in the country had heard the term “soil food web.” Now it’s cropping up everywhere, and gardeners are wondering what on earth it means. The term was coined by Dr. Elaine R. Ingham, president of Soil Foodweb, Inc. (www.soilfoodweb.com) in Corvallis, Oregon, and it refers to the relationships among the wide range of living organisms found in soil. The soil food web is similar to the food chain, except that the typical food chain is linear, while the soil food web works from the premise that everything that can eat or be eaten is involved in a cyclical relationship.
Soil is composed of two parts: minerals, which make up the nonliving portion of the soil, and the food web, which includes minute creatures, also called soil biota, which bring the soil to life. Soil biota come in many forms. Some help to build healthy soil and support healthy plants, and these are considered beneficials. Others can cause many problems for gardeners, from root rots to blights, molds, and mildews, and are considered pathogens. Both have a legitimate and important place in the growth and decay cycles of the natural world.
In the garden, we prefer to boost the growth of the beneficial biota and suppress as many pathogens as we can. When we improve soil tilth, texture, aeration, drainage, and nutritional content by feeding our garden compost and other amendments, we tip the scales toward the helpful soil biota. When these beneficial biota thrive, the soil food web functions smoothly, and our plants flourish. Here’s a brief introduction to the cast of critters that create the soil food web and make the soil come alive.