Soil Foodweb Inc.
Dr. Elaine Ingham

FAQ -- Frequently Asked Questions

What Are The Conditions That Cause Problems With Growing?
Pretty much any plant that is struggling to get the nutrients it needs from soil will be susceptible to attack by any number of things. It really doesn't make much difference what is chowing down on the plants, it is just whatever leaf-feeding insect happens to come along first and stake claim to the plants. The information nature is trying to send to you is that you have unhealthy plants. Something isn't right in the soil. Our question needs to be -- What is Wrong? It could be any of the following:

1.  Missing sets of organisms in the soil foodweb, so normal nutrient cycling is NOT happening.
2.  Toxic chemicals in the soil that are outright killing the plant, or killing the organisms the plant needs to be healthy.
3. Compaction zones which do not let water move deep into the soil (water will not move from soil of one density into soil if a different density), resulting in erosion, and anaerobic layer in the soil, restricted root systems not going as deep as they should.
4.  Anaerobic conditions resulting in loss of N, P, S development of extremely acid conditions in the soil, production of alcohol (the MOST plant toxic compound on the planet), formaldehyde and other anaerobic -aldehydes, and toxic phenolic compounds.

What Causes Problems?
Tillage is a big probability. Use of toxic compounds such as pesticides and inorganic fertilizers which kill the organisms that build structure in the soil so roots can go deep to find water, kill the organisms that protect the root systems and cycle nutrients for the plant, etc. Grazing without replenishing soil life after a bad season, or overgrazing, or over-trampling, etc. Heavy equipment. Well, I'm sure you know all the things that can compact soil. 

How Can I Fix Problems?
Please don't waste your time and money by using inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, or other toxic materials which might give a short-duration alleviation to the symptoms of your problems. The problem is a loss of life in the soil and that needs to be fixed. Using property made, AEROBIC (NOT stinky, not smelly, not black in color, but 70% coca chocolate color) COMPOST with all the right organisms present). Check to make sure it really is composted by using a microscope to see what organisms are present in the compost, and making sure they are the beneficial that are missing in your dirt. Well, if your plants have not been doing well, it must be dirt. If it really was soil, then the plants would be healthy.

Should I Use Annual Cover Crops When Growing A Rotation of Tomatoes, Garlic, and Brassicas?
The thing to do first off is to get a sample of your soil to someone close by who can assess your soil with respect to biology. If there isn't anyone you know close by, the go to the "Identifying Organisms" tab on this website and it will give you an address to send your sample to.

I suspect with the disturbances, such as the tillage regime and the lime that are commonly used, that you pretty much have just bacteria in the soil, but I really don't want to make assumptions when it is so easy to know for certain. The rotation from tomato, to garlic, to brassica is classic, as each disturbance of the soil as you proceed through that sequence is from more fungal-requiring tomato, to slightly less fungal-requiring garlic, to much less fungal-requiring brassica. So that part works well. It is when you return to the tomato, that's when the problems are going to start developing, because going from brassica to tomato requires getting the fungal component back. No fungal improvement, the tomato will be stressed.

The cover crops being used aren't really the right ones. So step back, and think about why we plant cover crops. So... you need to reduce erosion by protecting the soil surface, out-compete weds, maintain the sets of organisms in the soil, give the organisms the foods to help maintain soil structure, increase OM (Organic Matter) in the soil (which means you have to have the right sets of organisms to do decomposition or the plant material just sits there). But the plants that are currently used for cover crops emphasize ABOVEGROUND biomass, not BELOWGROUND. Also, the current cover crops are ANNUAL plants, which means we have to disturb the soil TWICE a year to plant them and to harvest and till the aboveground biomass into the soil to hopefully make soil organic matter. Most, if not all the benefit from growing those cover crops is lost because the biomass is produced ABOVEGROUND instead of in the soil. You have to buy seeds every year. And the soil is disturbed twice each year, on top of the disturbance involved in planting and harvesting crops, and possibly tilling to kill weeds, thus killing many of the very organisms that need to be protected.

What Cover Crops Should I Use Instead Of Annual Cover Crops? Do I Still Need To Till?
Here is a suggestion: Instead of annual cover crops, grow a mix of 25 or more perennial cover crops that are short. Perennial, so you only buy seeds once, possibly planting fall germinating plants once and sprint germinating plants once, and then they seed themselves for the next several hundred years. Perennial, so you don't have to disturb the soil to plant them each year. Stop killing soil life! Short plants, but plants that cover the soil surface so the the soil surface is protected throughout the ENTIRE year. You don't harvest these plants in the spring time in order to plant the crop, you till up furrows where you plant your seed, but the rest of the soil is left un-tilled.

You can see why you want to choose short plants that can be driven on so the plants don't die when you drive on them to plant the crop. But you don't have to then go out and till to get rid of the weeds, so there's less damage to the soil again. The short cover crop doesn't interfere with the cash crop being grown, just make sure the short cover crop is shorter than the cash crop. no more mowing, no more tilling, or harrowing to get rid of weeds. The perennial plants supply nutrients to the soil organisms, who make the enzymes to pull N, P, K, S, etc. from the rocks, pebbles, sand, silt, slay and organic matter. So the criticism of the cover crops taking nutrients away from the cash crop is a lie, or, is true only if farming in dirt, not soil. If decent sets of microbes are NOT present, then yes, cover crops will compete with the crop and nothing will grow well. But with proper sets of organisms in the soil, nothing will be nutrient-limited. Make sure the balances of microbes are correct, to control the balance of the different forms of nitrogen. Make sure that will be correct for the plant you want to grow.  

Remember that all these plants should be connected belowground by mycorrhizal fungi. Thus, all plants are healthy or all are sick if they don't have the mycorrhizal connection. So, planting into summer cover crops won't work if the strips you plant the garlic into aren't prepared. All of that non-decomposing cover crop plant material inbetween the strips you till will be a real problem, so you have to get the right biology into the soil to do the decomposition. And why make biomass aboveground that is then a problem to get it to decompose and get into the soil? Plant things that will make ROOT biomass, not aboveground biomass. If you have plants that grow mostly roots, way deep, then you don't have to do the work to till aboveground plant material into the soil. And when you till anything into the soil, you kill the very organisms that you need to do the work for you. When you harvest garlic, or any root crop, you do have to dig them up. BUT ONLY the strip that they are in, not the entire field. Yes, you have to mark your rows, but really, that's not difficult, when you  consider all the other reductions in work you get from letting the organisms do the work for you. So think about this, and as you do, I'm sure other questions will arise. So ask again, but try to incorporate this different way of farming into everything you grow -- strawberries, garlic, tomatoes, whatever.

Do Earthworms Consume Organic Matter?
Red wrigglers consume bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes. Earthworms are not decomposers. They do not consume organic matter. They physically take bites out of organic matter, but the way worms obtain nutrition is to crush the organisms growing on the surfaces of organic matter, and then take up the "juice" released from the crushed organisms. Therefore it is more a question of what organisms are growing in the food materials you place in the worm bin. Organic matter placed in the bin will be inoculated with what is already in the bin, but will also come with additional organisms on the surfaces of the added organic matter. The requirement then is to make sure the set of organisms that will combat, compete with, and consume the disease organisms are enhanced in the worm compost, and in the compost tea.

What Needs To Be In My Vermicompost, Thermal Compost and Compost Tea?
Compost must be aerobic. The resulting tea made from the compost must remain aerobic. The disease organisms to you want to combat in your growing systems require reduced oxygen conditions to thrive. When these organisms arrive on a plant surface, and there are no competitive bacteria or fungi to prevent them from growing, when all the exudates the plant releases are not being used by a resident community of bacteria and fungi, then the spores of the disease germinate rapidly, rapidly proliferate and cause a thick biofilm to be built up, so then the disease can flourish in the reduced oxygen condition it develops. 

Our purpose with the compost tea is to make sure the layer of competitive organisms is already present BEFORE the disease spores arrive. Make sure that all the infection sites on the plant are already occupied by something beneficial. Make sure all the exudates the plant releases are already eaten and turned into beneficial organisms. Once you understand these things, then hopefully, you can understand that getting coverage is critically important. If the compost has the massive diversity of AEROBIC organisms in it that will wake up and grow while the tea brews, aerobically, then those organisms will be sprayed onto the surfaces of the plant, in order to protect, through these multiple interactions, the plant from being colonized by the diseases. Thus, there is no one "recipe" that is always going to work, always going to be the "right one". Life doesn't work that way. I'm sure you have noticed that there is never just "one way" to deal with a situation. Therefore for me to say, here's the one and only recipe would be mis-leading, inaccurate and false.

The compost must contain the organisms needed, and that means the compost must be aerobic, many different types of organic matter must have been used in order to have the diversity of organisms in it so the plant will be protected. Pick up a handful of worm compost, and look at the structure. If you hand moves easily into the compost, if you can see visible aggregates and air passageways, if the smell is that of a rich forest floor, if you can see thick fungal hyphae, then the worms are working to develop that great compost. If you have trouble pushing your hand into the compost, if the compost is slimy, if no visible aggregates or air passageways are present, if your hand leaves a smeared surface as you push your hand into the compost, if the smell is "swampy", sour, foul, if you see only very thin, spider like threads that easily break as you lift the compost out, then you don't have the organisms that will help protect your plants.

Do not over-feed your worm bin, and do not overfeed your compost tea. More food is not "better", and too much food means the organisms use up oxygen in the tea brew too fast, and the wrong sets of organisms grow, and would be applied to the plant surfaces. Less is better, especially in the hot summer when organisms grow faster, and use up oxygen faster. Thus, the recipe for the tea has to change as seasons change. Small scale, medium scale, large scale.....doesn't really matter, the point is to get great sets of organisms growing in the compost and then extract them and grow them in the tea. Watering cans, hand-held sprayers, whatever size spray rig you have -- just make sure to not kill the organisms with the choice of pump used. If you need help with the choice of pumps, on the east coast talk to and on the west coast talk to 

Bottom line: Don't overfeed your worm bin. No more food going into the bin than the worms can use in three days when temperatures are high, and 4 to 5 days when temperatures are getting cooler. Make sure all food is used up before adding more. You won't kill the worms if they don't have fresh food, but you will either force the worms to leave the bin, or kill the worms if the bins are too high moisture and go anaerobic. Make sure you are putting balanced food into the compost and into the tea. In the compost, woody and juicy green materials should be balanced about 50-50. Fungi grow on the woody materials and bacteria grow on the greens. 

In the tea, since it is usually fungi and protozoa that are lacking in the soil, and on the leaf surfaces, use the amounts of compost suggested in the Compost Tea Brewing Manual or on this website for the gallon size of your brewer, and add something like 0.01% of the water volume of additional foods, such as humic acid (that you extract from the compost), fish hydrolysate, kelp, steel ground oats, brans of various types -- all of which should increase the fungal biomass in either your compost or teas. In the hot summer months, reduce that amount by half what you would use in cooler months. This time of year, when things are hot and dry, don't overdo the foods in the brew, and maybe don't add any additional foods.

Check your compost using a small microscope. There's probably someone close to you that can help you do that if you can't do it yourself. Make sure the beneficial organisms are in the compost you make. Then, look at a sample of the tea. Do a little testing and see which food resource gives you the best results. Then, use that tea recipe, as it is best for your worms, your foods, your climate, and your conditions.

Okay? The tea manual gives you the STARTING point to initiate your own determination of what is best. Nature cannot be treated like a machine, one recipe will not work in more than a very few places. You have to do observation of what gives the best results. It is likely though as you protect the plant from attack by one fungus, protection from other disease fungi will also occur, as the mechanisms of protection are not that specifically targeting against one species, but rather, to altering the habitat on the leaf, petiole, stem, bark, etc. And please, remember, apply extract to the soil, because you need to stop the disease organisms from multiplying in the soil and in the litter layer, and in host plants surrounding your cash crops, or roses, etc. The spores are coming from someplace. Get rid of the disease there, and the problem will be less on your prized plants. Put up barrier plants to catch the spores before they get to your roses, if the problem is coming from your upwind neighbor. Help reduce the problem that way.

Can we see Arbuscules with the scopes we use?
Finding those UV pencil lights can be hard. The only place I know to buy them are on optical websites, but I haven't looked all that much. If you have the UV pencil light, you do not need to stain, because the ACTIVE arbuscules produce auto-flourescence. If you don't have the UV light, then you need to stain the roots, and it is difficult to get good results.

Choose the fresh, young, not-aged roots. Aged roots will be more colored, and the more "suberized" (meaning colored compounds deposited in the root), the less likely the roots will have active mycorrhizal colonization. If there is a little yellowing of the roots, it is probably ok. Soaking in the acidified water may well help to clear the roots. Labs that do this kind of work use concentrated KOH solutions, and heat, to clear the roots, but it is not good for the average person to do that kind of work without direct training from a trained person. So, picking just young roots is the best thing.

Wash the young, white roots gently. Soak in acidified water (a cup of water with 1 to 2 drops of vinegar in it) for about 3 to 5 minutes with gentle stirring. Rinse in clean water. Place in india ink, or artists black ink for 15 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the age of the roots. The easiest way to tell how long this really needs to stain is to check the roots every 10 to 15 minutes to see if the fungi in the roots have taken up the stain at all. And you can't see the fungi until they take up the stain, so fun times.

If the stain gets taken up by the root cells, and the plant roots will eventually start to take up the stain, then you need to clear that stain with the acidified water, so just the fungus remains dark color. Actually, the fungal tissue will be a ghost-like grey, usually, while the plant root cells will be faintly grey.

Maybe is someone wants endo-mycorrhizal colonization information, the easiest thing is to send the samples of roots into the lab.

Earthworm's Eat Microbe Juice
Earthworm digestive systems are almost strictly aerobic.  Occasionally aggregrates can be anaerobic in the middle, but the outsides of the aggregates have to have aerobic organisms to chew up the anaerobic products made by the anaerobic organisms.  The worms will die if the low pH acids, phenols and toxic gases made by anaerobic organisms reaches their digestive system surfaces --- so worms will try to escape from the worm bin if conditions become anaerobic.

Worms obtain their nutrients by crushing the organisms they get when they take a bite of soil organic matter or plant material. Thus, worm food is actually microrganism juice produced by crushing the organisms to release their internal cytoplasm.

Human digestive systems are typically acid and enzyme based (i.e., stomach acids, bile, pancreatic juices) which decompose the foods ingested and masticated into small bits in the mouth. Strong acids are only produced in anaerobic or facultative anaerobic conditions. That means, reduced oxygen levels in mammalian digestive systems, and thus quite different from what occurs in a worm's digestive system.

The over-arching principle that nature uses life to do the conversions of nutrients from one type of food to another type of food for different organisms remains true. It is critical however, for us to understand that very different conversions of foods occur in aerobic and anaerobic conditions. From a practical point of view, we need to understand how to control how oxygen diffuses into different habitats, and whether that oxygen will be desired, or not, for the results we want to see. In soil, we have to build structure and manage water content to grow the plants we want. That means managing soil life correctly.

Are roots of vegetables longer when there is life in the soil?
Yes they are. In chemically maintained management systems, soil life is killed and then the dirt compacts rapidly, as it rains or the dirt is irrigated. Compaction forms at 2 to 4 to 6 inches typically, which selects for weeds, as they flourish in those conditions. Tillage is then "required" to break up that compaction, except that tillage slices, dices, crushes, and destroys soil life, the very things that would build soil structure, if they were allowed to stay alive.

The transition back to healthy soil require time to return the beneficial organisms to the soil. Let them build microaggregates (bacteria using their glues), and macroaggregates (fungi using the filaments they grow), break up the compaction and thus allow roots to grow deeper into the soil. So, for trees, shrubs, grass, veggies, etc., roots grow much deeper into the soil too find soil water, soil nutrients, and stop erosion.

How to deal with stunted and aborted growth due to glyphosate-contained straw
Breakdown of any of these toxic chemicals requires organisms that can do the job. That the glyphosate has not broken down, and you continue to have impacts on the growth of your veggies suggests several possibilities.

1.  There's more than just glyphosate that was used on that straw. Solution: Search for a source of bacteria and fungi that can break down the additional toxics in that material. You checked your soil for chemistry, now test your soil for biology. Is there something missing, biologically speaking, in the soil? Does your soil lack the organisms to decompose these toxic materials? Apparently so, since they aren't getting decomposted.

2.  Somehow the needed species of microorganisms are getting constantly killed and thus aren't being able to do their jobs in the conditions present. This could be an effect of drift of toxics from a neighbor, or maybe too much tillage and disturbance of the soil. Plant barrier shrubs and trees that will intercept drift from neighbors, talk to your neighbors using toxic chemicals and see what can be done to shift them.  Within your own property, minimize or stop tilling and disturbing the soil.  Review all your practices and see what might be harming that all important soil life.

3.  Send samples of your soil and compost to a lab for analysis and see what isn't there.

Conditions for worm composting
The people to look into for worm composting info are: Mary Appelhof (her book "Worms Eat My Garbage" from Flowerfield Press in Kalamazoo, MI), Clive Edwards (Ohio State University), Norm Arancon (University of Hawaii, Hilo). And for the most part, Darwin's treatise on worms is, in many ways, still the best we have. Worms are strict aerobes; they do not tolerate anaerobic conditions and will leave the bin, if possible, when conditions become anaerobic. Many times, when the bin is too deep, the worms will stop moving deep into the bin, because the bottom half of the bin becomes waterlogged and anaerobic.

Lactobacillus, Yeasts, Photosynthetic Bacteria, and Biodynamic Preps

It is easy to get lactic acid bacteria, particularly species of Lactobacillus, growing. Getting diversity there is a bit more difficult. Probably a minimum of 12 species of lactobacillus are needed to be able to deal with many temperatures, moisture, acid content, etc. More than 12 species would be even better. Use the microscope to see how many species are present.

Yeasts are easy too ---- check out the local wine-making store, or small bakery that still uses real yeast to raise their bread.  Plant surfaces harbor many species of wild yeasts.  Finding the good yeast species is a bit of work however.  

The photosynthetic bacteria are the hard ones.  Purple, Photosynthetic, Non-sulfur-producing Cyanobacteria (PPNC) are difficult. They can survive IN DORMANT STATE without sunlight, but they don't reproduce rapidly without sunlight. They have a slight ability to use some complex foods (thus not needing sunlight) in anaerobic conditions, but they aren't able to grow much without sunlight.  

The PPNC are usually in field water added to pots of organic matter at the start of the decomposition process to make bokashi.  Thus, probably not going to be in a pot made with treated city water, as the chlorine, chloramine, or lack of salts will kill the cyanobacteria.  As I recall, Higa emphasized the importance of these cyanobacteria in causing disease-suppression of club-root in cauliflower.  Thus, EM should have these PURPLE bacteria.  And if these purple bacteria are present, they are really easy to see when using a microscope.  

In all the cultures of EM anyone has ever sent to me, I have only once seen the purple, filamentous cyanobacteria present.  That was from a batch the person kept OUTSIDE, with a bubbler going in the preparation.  The person would add additional plant material to the bucket every so often, could see that there was a succession of organisms that grew after addition of fresh material, and would not use the material until the smell, and color (purple tinge) was "right".  And they got some absolutely fantastic and very consistent benefits.  

I very much want to know why that was so good.  But first, you have to know what the biology is in the soil, so when the prep is added, what is being changed?  Are those added organisms competitive with diseases?  Why isn't one application enough to permanently end the problems?  Why do the diseases and pests keep coming back so that an application has to be done once a month through the growing season?  Is there toxic chemical drift happening that often through the growing season?  Or is the prep killing the beneficials along with the diseases, so the effect of the prep is really just a pesticide effect?  The is no competition left to control the diseases, so the diseases organisms come back really fast?  Why can't the beneficials recover as fast?  Um, no beneficials left after application?   So much to yet figure out. 

Not to say that preps that act like pesticides are bad things, as long as the person using that sort of prep understands what they are doing, and replenishes the beneficials that were killed along with the diseases and pests that were killed. Understanding what is going on is so very important, so that the right management is performed. 


How long are hormones active and present?  The hormones in any plant material are easily extracted, but keeping those hormones intact is hard.  As soon as any microbial growth occurs, hormones are probably gone.  

Hormones are reasonably complex carbon compounds, with lots of 5 and 6 carbon rings, double-bonds, and nutrients elements complexed into that structure.  These compounds will be consumed by bacteria and fungi probably within minutes, certainly within a few hours.  Thus, preservatives like vinegar need to be used to prevent microbial growth and keep the hormones from being consumed.  

Vinegar is acetic acid, and so it doesn't much matter if you use cider vinegar, or rice wine vinegar, or Japanese knotweed vinegar........ it is the concentration of acetic acid that is critical in shutting down microbial growth. There are, most likely, other preservative compounds in these different vinegars, which may or may not contribute to what you want.  Testing would be required. 

Minimum microbe content would be preferable then, in preps made for the purpose of getting effects caused by the action of the hormones.  If your purpose is to have a hormone effect, do not let microbes grow.   

If your purpose is to inoculate beneficial organisms, then let the organisms grow.  The only hormone effect here would be the effect that the hormone would have serving as food for the specific organisms that can use those hormones.  Hopefully, the hormones would select for the organisms you want.  

Biodynamic Prep Materials

Steiner gave examples of materials that could be used for preps, and as I recall, did not suggest that these were the ONLY materials that could be used.  If you use nettles to make the prep, then it should be called nettle tea or prep 50 something (sorry, can't recall the number).  So, if nettle does not grow in your part of the world, you would use a similar plant, with similar compounds in the leaves and stems to make a prep that should behave the same as nettle tea.  Testing required.   

Steiner always gave the conditions required to make preps, and knew, as did Pfeiffer, that starting materials for the preps would vary as people in different climates and places used their methods.  So, use of different vinegars should not be a problem, just make sure that the conditions for production are met, and then test the end product to make sure it does what that prep is supposed to do.  

A Biodynamic group in Brisbane, Australia do exactly that.  I'm sorry but it has been a long time since I worked with them, so I don't recall the name of the group, but they list some 200 Biodynamic preps that they make, and the effects that they have seen from using them.  So maybe that information is still on their website and we all don't need to re-invent the wheel.........   

Eliminating and Converting Turf

Question:  How do you convert areas of healthy tuff (presumably with good soils) into perennial and grass-based naturalistic plantings? what are the best practices to eliminate turfgrass cover without damaging the soils? Would you recommend any of the following to achieve this: 1) skimming off the sod with a sod cutter, 2) shallow tilling, or 3) herbicide applications. 

Answer: Sod cutter, mix grass and perennial seeds into the compost, treat with compost tea just before (like the morning of) applying the compost to the soil.  If any compaction issues, rake the compost into the soil surface.  If hte compaction is deeper, then consider the damage to any biology by tilling deeper to break up that compaction.  

But, when you consider that there would be no compaction if the soil had a healthy set of organisms in it, then clearly, that compaction layer is nature trying to tell us that the "soil" isn't really soil, it is dirt.  And there aren't many beneficial-to-the-plant organisms left in that soil.  So........ tilling to get the beneficials deeper into the soil to to the job of preventing the compaction from forming again is going to result in better results faster, than hoping that the organisms will be able to move deep into "enemy territory" and be able to establish conditions for the plant that is beneficial.

I would avoid the herbicide applications, since that will leave a chemical residue that requires organisms to be able to combat that toxic chemical along with dealing with any other disturbance.  

If the organisms can be shifted from the strongly bacterial condition that allows weeds (rapid germinating, rapid growing, requiring nitrate almost exclusively, rapid production of many, many seeds which disperse far and wide) to grow better than any other set of plant, to more fungal (still bacterial-dominated soil, but with the correct balance of fungi that select against the domination by weeds), then there will be little need for those herbicides.  

Thus, testing the soil is critical as this shift is undertaken.  If the fungal biomass does not manage to establish, then the herbicides may be needed for a time, until that beneficial fungal community can be established.  Usually it is fairly easy to get this shift to occur, if there is a source of these beneficial fungi available to you.  Good compost, with lots of fungi, is needed.  

Remember, there is --- probably --- more than enough bacteria in that turf soil already.  What is lacking are fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and microarthropods.   Thus, the compost you would choose need to be EXTREMELY high in fungi, protozoa and nematodes to achieve the balance needed as rapidly as possible.  

Make sense?  


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