Farmers and scientists are starting to get a much stronger grasp on soil health and how naturally occurring biological life & microorganisms in the soil benefits our plants in a number of ways. This microbiology also plays a large role in the nutrient cycles that are critical to supporting plant life and improving sustainability of our soils. This essential biodiversity interacts with the organic matter to unlock nutrients that can be easily absorbed by the plant, help with aeration and introduce more oxygen into the ground and aid with water retention in the soil itself. The vast numbers of microorganisms also form a very complex and unique symbiotic relationship with the plants including carbon cycling, removing toxins from the soil, suppression of plant diseases and a number of other benefits we are just beginning to understand.
The information below will focus on the positive microorganisms and how they work together with the soil, your plants and other microbes to benefit plant growth.This positive microbiology are also competing with negative microbes in our soils so the key to healthy soils is to promote an environment where more positive microbial life can support better plant growth and higher yields. In a natural ecosystem the positive biology working together can drastically limit any damage done by negative organisms, only when the positive biology is limited or reduced can the negative organisms step in and thrive. Read below to learn more about our living soil and how it can improve your overall plant health.
Bacteria & Actinomycetes
Beneficial bacteria in soil do the job of unlocking nutrients from the organic matter that your plants and other microorganism are not able to access on their own. The bacteria process this organic matter into more usable forms to help complete the nitrogen cycle. These living bacteria can number in the billions per tea spoon of soil and can measure up to a ton of weight per acre in healthy soils. These beneficial bacteria also break down harmful pesticides, pollutants and also have anti-fungal properties that slow or stop pathogens.
Positive soil bacteria can be defined by four basic groups. The nitrogen cycling family of bacteria form a symbiotic relationship with roots and convert nitrogen from the air and increase nitrogen in the soil by breaking down organic matter. Nitrate fixing bacteria convert ammonium into a preferred form of nitrogen essential to most plants. Actinomycetes work to break down hard to decompose organic matter like cellulose, they also produce a number of natural antibiotics that are used in modern medicine. Denitrification bacteria are a diverse group of phyla that assist in turning nitrogen oxides back to nitrogen gas or nitrous oxide, an important component of the nitrogen cycle.
Fungal biodiversity also plays a big role in a living soil ecosystem, these long threads or strands grow like roots but they improve plant growth instead of competing with the plants. Fungi like bacteria help with water retention, nitrogen and nutrient cycling and also decompose organic materials. The saprophytic fungi work to break down organic matter to create a fungi biomass and also can can break down carbon structures in some pollutants. Mycorrhizal fungi, endomycorrhizal fungi, and ectomycorrhizal fungi form a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of your plants, they seek out nutrients and phosphates and bring them to the plant along with supplying water. They can also protect plants from root feeding organisms and negative fungal diseases. Last but not lease soil fungi improve soil structure by aerating and creating more spaces for water retention. There are over 70K species of soil fungi identified but many suspect they number in the millions, don’t miss out on the benefits these symbiotic plants as the spider web out to improve your soil and root health.
Algae help with soil fertility, water retention & the loss of nitrates through leaching and drainage. Anywhere moisture and sunlight is available you should find active algae, they perform photosynthesis and pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere along with synthesizing their own food. Algae help your plants by binding soils, reducing erosion, root mass, plant stress, increasing water retention, aeration and when they die they add to the organic carbon footprint in your soil.
Nematodes are microscopic worms that live naturally in all soils. Nematodes in general get a bad name because of parasitic worms like the soybean cyst nematodes attack plant roots and can cause a lot of damage to farmer yields. There are a great many other nematode species that help your plants in a number of ways, many of them even attack and consume disease causing nematodes. They also contribute to plant available nitrogen, spread beneficial bacteria & fungi throughout your soil. More study is needed on the positive effects of nematodes but they do play a vital role in assessing their different populations. For example high numbers bacteria eating nematodes can indicate high nutrient cycling, while fungi feeding nematodes tell us the soil/food web is fungi dominant, low numbers of omnivorous nematodes mean pollution or toxins could be present and a high population of predator nematodes usually means your soil has biodiversity that can suppress parasitic nematodes and pathogens.
Protozoa are tiny life forms that feed on bacteria, fungi, organic matter and even other protoza, often numbering in the 10,000 to 100,000 per gram of soil. They are divided into three groups, the flagellates are the smallest and feed on bacteria, amoebae are small and often found feeding on bacteria near plant roots and finally ciliates are the largest and feed on bacteria as well as the two other types f protozoa. Protozoa play a large role in the mineralization of nutrients and make them readily available for plant uptake near the plants roots. Like nematodes less is known about their importance in soil health and their numbers and biodiversity are often attributed with healthy living soils.
Soil viruses maybe the most abundant but also the least understood microorganisms in soils, numbering in the billions per gram of soil it is suspected they play a serious role in soil biology, ecosystems and nutrient cycling. Because of the difficulty in recovering viruses from soils not much is known about them, hopefully in the coming years as more effort is put into the soil food web we will discover their importance in soil health.