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Q & A : Soil Foodweb Information

Please click on a question to find out more...

How can organism dominance be changed?

Most simply, inoculate the organisms that are missing and feed the organisms that are low in number.

Bacterial foods are green, high in easy to use sugars and nitrogen, such as green grass clippings, cover crops, and legumes.Sugars such as molasses, syrup, plant extracts, compost made with high green content or with manures or compost teas made with bacterial-dominated compost maintained AEROBICALLY!Be careful to tie up all the manure N in the bacteria or plants can be burned.Do not use immature compost or smelly compost – it’s not compost if it stinks.

Fungal foods are brown plant material high in cellulose, lignin, tannin, woody, fibrous material, straw, sawdust, compost made with woody materials.

Bacteria and fungi immobilize N and other nutrients in their biomass and this process must be finished before compost is placed near plant roots.No anaerobic material should be placed near a plant, as the alcohol produced under aerobic conditions will kill plants.But the immobilization process must be finished, or the bacteria and fungi will stress plant growth by “winning” in the fight for N, P, etc. from plants.

Those soil organisms that make N available for plant growth are the predators of bacteria and fungi.Low numbers of protozoa, which are bacterial-feeders, nematodes which feed on both bacteria and fungi, earthworms or microarthropods which feed on fungi can be enhanced by improving the biomass of bacteria and fungi, their food groups.Interactions of bacteria and their predators (protozoa and bacterial-feeding nematodes), or fungi and their predators (fungal-feeding nematodes and microarthropods) produce as much as 80% of the plant available N that occurs in the soil.

If bacterial or fungal foods such as cover crops, residues or compost can’t be obtained or grown, commercial products are available to “jump start” fungal or bacterial growth.If spreading organic matter is difficult, compost tea can be prepared and applied through irrigation or sprayer systems.Foliar disease can be controlled through the use of bacterial-dominated teas, while soil diseases and nutrient cycling are best dealt with through the use of a fungal dominated compost tea.

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What do different plants need?

In early successional soils, bacteria are greatest in numbers and biomass.As organic matter builds, soils become more and more fungal.Late successional systems are strongly fungal-dominated.Typical ratios of fungi to bacteria observed in healthy systems requiring few or no inorganic chemical inputs are:

Bacterial-dominated plants (most row and vegetable crops, annual plants):

  • Lawn Grass 0.5 to 0.75 Broccoli 0.3 to 0.5 Kale 0.3 to 0.7
  • Carrots 0.5 to 1.0 Corn 0.7 to 1.2 Wheat 0.75 to 1.1
  • Lettuce 0.5 to 1.0 Tomato 0.8 to 1.0 Tobacco 1 to 3

Fungal-dominated plants

  • Grape 2 to 5 Rhododendron 2 to 10 Pine 50 to 100
  • Kiwi 1 to 5 Alder 5 to 100 Conifers 100 to 1000
  • Apple 10 to 50 Deciduous trees 10 to 100

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When and how to add fungal or bacteria food?

Fungal foods should be placed on the surface of the soil while bacteria foods should be mixed into the surface of the soil.Realize that many soil organisms are killed by ploughing and compaction of soil, because soil structure is destroyed.A mineral crust may develop, decreasing water infiltration, water holding capacity and root penetration.The benefit of mixing food into the soil and growing a burst of bacterial biomass may not offset the detrimental effects of tillage.During periods of optimal moisture and temperature, bacterial foods should disappear rapidly, within 6 weeks if soil organisms are diverse and healthy.Fungal foods may take longer, 6 to 16 weeks for a healthy foodweb to do it’s job, unless fungi are well inoculated and rapidly growing.If the original plant material remains identifiable, some part of the foodweb is lacking and needs to be added.

Monitor soil and compost organisms on an annual or semi-annual basis to make certain the right numbers and functions are present.Monitoring in the fall allows assessment of the appropriate management through the fall, into the spring when it is easiest to improve the fungal community.Organic matter additions, either as compost or as cover crops, decompose rapidly during the winter, even under the snow, if the soil Food web is healthy.Soil organisms growing in organic matter produce metabolic heat and will increase soil temperature in the spring.As some cover crops decompose, inhibitory compounds can be produced, so the initial flush of decomposition needs to be finished before planting the next crop.Checking the soil Foodweb in the spring allows assessment of whether beneficials are growing, or if problems are developing.Assessing the foodweb in mid-crop growth is also useful, especially for VAM colonization, pathogens or pest problems.However it is difficult to do much to help the current crop at mid season, and this information is more useful for determining what management is needed for the next crop.

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