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Magic Microbes for Healthy Plants

Magic Microbes for Healthy Plants

Originally published on Skunk Magazine on April 21, 2020.

By James Driskill

Hey Skunk Mag readers, I’m James and I want to throw some love toward our teeny tiny friends that work so hard to make our lives easier and our plants stronger. I’m talking about the little fellas that are hidden in our soil and everywhere else for that matter. In nature, plants depend on microorganisms to thrive and in many ways the microbes depend on the plant as well. A plant will use a substantial portion of its photosynthate energy to send exudates, or carbon chains (sugar), out through its roots in order to attract microbes like bacteria and fungi. The type of exudate that the plant sends is a sort of signal that attracts a certain type of microbe. The microbe can then provide the plant with a nutrient resource that it needs in exchange. They’re like itty bitty butlers ready to go gather up whatever the plant needs in exchange for some sweet goodies. They are indeed magic microbes for healthy plants.

Plants and “micro-beasties,” The Rev likes to call them, have been working together since the beginning. We know that plants need the entire soil food web in order to fully express themselves and reach their full genetic potential. And diversity is key! We want to make sure that we have a very diverse colony consisting of many different kinds of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, arthropods, and so on. Having this provides a multitude of benefits such as….

Nutrient Cycling

1) Nutrient Cycling: Bacteria and fungi will break down organic matter and store nutrients in their bodies. Bacteria are then eaten by protozoa who are, in turn, eaten by nematodes (nematodes also eat fungi). The nematodes are now storing a large number of nutrients in their bodies. They are eaten by earthworms and arthropods. This goes on and on throughout the entire food chain but what is great for our plants is that these nutrients are released back into the soil as an available food source through what Elaine Ingham calls the poop loop. (You can imagine, lol).

Of course, it is possible to supply synthetic nutrients that are available without the need to be broken down into ions. However, this can come with a few concerning problems, especially for the environment and its long term health. Fostering a healthy rhizosphere, or root zone builds soil structure and quality and can limit or replace the need for added fertilizer. Link

Pathogen Suppression

2) Pathogen Suppression: A healthy rhizosphere will leave little to no chance for opportunistic pathogens to cause problems. The biology present in a healthy root zone will outcompete “bad guys” for infection sites and in many cases, the “good guys” will either eat the problem organisms or they will release antibiotics to kill the invaders. The same is true for the plants above ground surfaces. Beneficial microbes can cover every part of the plant’s stems, leaves, flowers, etc. and provide robust protection from pathogens. Its own team of bodyguards, hye-yaa!!!

Abiotic Stress Tolerance

3) Abiotic Stress Tolerance: Not all stress comes from pests and diseases. Fluctuations in temperature, humidity, water availability, and so on, negatively affect our plants. Many microbes can provide certain tolerances to these environmental issues. And let’s be honest, these things are hard to control and we all make mistakes.

It is, therefore, important that we try to encourage the harmony between plant and microbe using conscious growing techniques that take advantage of the natural symbiotic relationship that exists between them. This means we should avoid any practice that damages or destroys beneficial microbes. This may not be possible for everyone. So, at least limiting our destructive practices while simultaneously doing things that support the microbial community will ultimately provide us with healthier plants and a cleaner environment for us all. So throw some extra bacteria and fungi in the soil and watch your plants grow with the confidence that comes from knowing that you’re not alone and that we can all grow together. Buy into magic microbes for healthy plants.

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