Roto-Tiller For Sale, Teaming With Microbes

I just finished reading Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

As you can see from the picture, I tried the experiment on page 36 to see what my garden soil consisted of. I didn’t have a tablespoon of water softener to add, but since I used soft water, I figured that would be okay. My soil seemed to settle into two layers and on top was some organic matter, then fairly clear water, and then some floaters (more organic matter) up by the lid (trying to get out?). I used soil from my raised bed vegetable gardens, where I’ve added lots of compost over the years. I think I would see much different layering if I dug up where the lawn is, since that soil has not been amended.

And as I read about what else you can do to find out what your soil food web is really made of (Chapter 13), I made a mental note that this should be science fair project for my nephew who is 11 years old. I think he’ll be ready for that in a year or so, and I’ll get a free analysis of my soil if I help him.

After reading the book, I’ve decided I am doing some things that are pro-soil food web, but I do have some practices to change. Can I make those changes?

One of the practices the authors say to discontinue is roto-tilling. Fortunately, I actually did stop roto-tilling in my vegetable garden about 7 years ago, when I converted to raised beds. Every spring, as I plant each bed I turn over the soil in just that bed and rake it smooth. Now, apparently I should just lightly hoe up the bed and then plant. Hey, that’s less work, and that’s always a good thing. And I still get to use a hoe!

I did take a “soil science” class in college, but learned quite a bit more reading Teaming With Microbes. I don’t know if it is the passage of time making me forget what I had learned before, or the advancement of soil science providing more to learn, but I kept thinking “why didn’t they teach us this in soil science class”? I’m not saying they didn’t, I’m saying I don’t remember it if they did. I think they must have taught us “classic soil science”.

In the class, we did learn about clay, silt, and sand and how to rub soil between our thumb and index finger to try to determine soil texture.

We also saw where the prairie meets the timberland. They took us on a field trip to look at soil. Yes, that seems odd and my friends laughed back then about someone taking such a class, so you can laugh now, it is okay. I’m a gardener, I can take it. I don’t know exactly where we went, but it wasn’t too far from Lafayette, Indiana. We got off the bus and the professor had us turn to the east and look at the tree line, then turn around and look west to see nothing but grasses all the way to the horizon. Then he proudly proclaimed that we were standing right where the timberland gave way to the prairie.

We also learned to remember “See Hopkins cafĂ© might good” to remember that the elements needed for plant growth are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, potassium, iodine, nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, iron, and magnesium (CHOPKINSCaFeMg). I don’t know if that is THE list of THE only elements required for plant growth, but it was what they had us remember.

The biggest difference between my long-ago soil science class and this book? In the class, I think they primarily taught us about soil structure, but not so much about what lives in the soil. And what lives in the soil makes a difference. So I am happy to have expanded my knowledge of the soil food web and will recommend this book to any gardener who wants to better understand the soil in the garden, and probably more importantly, understand what LIVES in that soil and how to care for it.

If you have also written a post about the book, or compost or soil in general, please comment with a link so I can be sure to add you to the club post, which will likely go out Wednesday, January 31. So far, I have 8 posts, but will take as many as want to participate. No limits in the blogosphere, plenty of room for all!)


  1. One thing I have learned in my three years of gardening is that levels of organic matter in climates like where I live in South Texas are much lower than levels in the northern states. The heat causes the microbes to be more active and eat up organic matter. I wonder how that would affect the no-till methods of gardening.

    If you try the no-till, I will be very interested in getting your opinions on it. I find it fascinating, but I wonder if it isn't overblown.

  2. I posted on TWM, and got two comments with sources of mycorhhizal fungi. Also, Jeff Lowenfels kindly emailed me to alert me to an error in the text.

    My link:

  3. I think soil science has made leaps and bounds since then.

    'See Hopkins cafe might good' - that's a GREAT mnenomic!

  4. I don't know anything about microbs, but I found out something today. Did you know if you want to kill germs on your kitchen sponge, you microwave it 2 - 3 min. (I read it in the paper)

  5. I have changed the blog after the trouble with beta.


  6. I'm with you... I am seriously thinking about reselling my little tiny tiller. I mostly dig or make lasagna beds now anyway, so having it is really just an unnecessary temptation!

  7. Carol, you make the Teaming With Microbes book sound really interesting so I must read it sooner or later!

    We don't have a tiller. The beds do have to be turned over with spades and garden fork - how else could we get out all the saplings that have sprouted courtesy of our *resident herd of squirrels*?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    *another favorite Henry Mitchell phrase.

  8. I must confess to being a soil microbiologist by training, and can safely say that much has been learned (of late) about the importance of good biology to soil structure and productivity. However, way-back-when I sat through courses in soil chemistry and soil fertility and soil physics, and yes, one course even in soil microbiology! (And I remember those soils field trips too!). I haven't read the book yet - but it sounds like it was helpful. No-till is definitely the way to go, and I always keep (when I can) a cover crop going - clovers or rye grass or something, then just turn it under. And leaves, lots and lots of leaves - thick layers of them. I'm guilty of not testing my soil pH hardly ever - but try to lime from time to time (and depending on where you live, it may not be a problem). Good aeration, good organic matter - makes for happy microorganisms!

  9. Carol what an interesting post! I'm not a soil tester or anything close, but what I do is make sure and add things to my soil frequently throughout the year. (Coffee grounds for acid loving plants.) I add table scraps all the time. Except bones... Daisy Mabel gets those! I don't use a tiller cause I never bought one. My dad always did. My grandpa would pick a handful of dirt and squeeze it and let it fall through his fingers, as if he knew some secrets of good soil! I have an area in the back yard where all my table scraps go and it is very rich. I am always adding or taking from this area. This is also my burn area for fallen branches, etc. So far our soil here has done a fine job of growing whatever we have planted. It did set a few years undisturbed before we bought the acerage and I know that helped the flower beds. In the growing season the only thing I buy for new plants just getting established is Miracle Grow.

  10. I wrote a second post on this book, because the first one was misunderstood.

  11. Hello Carol
    I will be posting tomorrow about the book...that'd be 1/30, the date you'd threatened to review things before! (I feel so proud of myself that I got the thing read in time, considering I only got it in the mail on Thurs.) Thanks; this book was great for tech-weenies like me.

  12. Carol: Another great post! It's great that you've already done one of the experiments from the book. Our ground is still frozen in Minnesota, otherwise I'd probably have a jar full of dirt on my counter, too.

    I also want to thank you for recommending this book. It's something I would have never read on my own, but I've learned a lot about some simple ways to make my soil better and why they work.

  13. All... thanks for the comments!

    I've picked up the new posts for the book club, and El, I won't post until very late tomorrow, so you still have time, as does anyone else who would like to add a post.

  14. Carol: Once again, I'm in just under the deadline. My post on Teaming with Microbes is here:

  15. I absolutely love the book "Teaming with Microbes." Every spring I re-read it as the first step toward gardening for the season. Because we live in a challenging area for gardening (6300 ft in elevation on the Colorado desert plains) and are gardening on virgin land, there is little organic material in our dirt (about 100% clay). Our dirt is colored light brown. We cover the gound with cardboard and then pile on the wood chips and pine needles. The ground is slowly changing. We also put up many bird feeders to call the birds in to help take care of pests.


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