Teaming With Microbes
By Jeff Lowenfels
(A Book Review)

Dateline: 17 March 1017

With more than 2 feet of fresh snow covering my garden, I am continuing to pursue my interest in garden soil biology, as evidenced in my previous blog posts, Elaine Ingam, Agricultural Iconoclast and No-Till Gardening: The Glomalin and Mycorrhizal Factor....

When the amazing world of soil biology (and it's direct effect on healthy, wholesome plant life) is opened up to a gardener, it is only natural to want to know more. And it turns out that the go-to book for gardeners to know more is Jeff Lowenfels's book, Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web.

I got my copy of the book two days ago and finished reading it last night. I can see why it's an Amazon "Best Seller" and why it has so many good reviews. What Lowenfels has done with this book is take the technical, microbiological research and insights of Professor Elaine Ingam and distill them into a well-organized story that gardeners like me can actually understand. And that's no easy task.

I should mention here that I bought my first book about soil science for gardeners when I was 19 years old. That was 40 years ago. I was fired up to learn all about soil. But the book was more about dirt science. Which is to say it lacked life (if you read my essay about Elaine Ingam you'll understand the difference between dirt and soil is the biological life, or lack of it).

Needless to say, I never finished that book, and remember nothing about it (save what I've just told you). 

I experienced a couple other sparks of interest in the subject of soil science over the decades that followed, and attempted to better understand the subject, but met with the same lifeless, largely-incomprehensible (to me as a simple gardener) data.

But all of this changed when I "met" people like Ray Archuleta, Dr. Ingam, and now, Jeff Lowenfels

It turns out that microbial life in the soil, and how that life interacts and contributes to (or detracts from) plant life is something that soil scientists just didn't know much about 40 years ago. They knew that some of the microbial life forms were there, but they didn't know much about how the microbes worked together and the roles they played. They didn't know, for example, that plants fed so many of these life forms in return for the fertility they give.

Soil science is now sort of like computer science was in the 1970's; the insights and technology are rapidly increasing. Teaming With Microbes had to be revised six years after it was first published because there were new insights to be incorporated into the story.

Teaming With Microbes is divided into two sections. The first section delves into The Basic Science of the soil food web. The soil food web is all the critters (micro and macro) that are alive and active in the soil. After an overview of what is going on in soil, there are chapters about the individual life forms of bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae and slime molds, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, and gastropods.

I will admit that there were a few places in the discussion where I started to bog down in the science. But, before my eyes glazed over, Lowenfels would deftly stop the discussion and sum up the take-away from what he had just explained. 

The big take-away for me is that the soil is an amazing eat-and-be-eaten subterranean world. There is no waste in this natural system. It is, from my perspective, fearfully and wonderfully created (to paraphrase Psalm 139:14). Here is a single example from this fearful and wonderful world of soil life...

What you are looking at there is a nematode that has been snared by a fungal hyphae. Here's a description from Teaming With Microbes about what is happening in that picture...

"The ring that trapped the nematode is actually just a hyphal branch, twisted back on itself. These branches each consist of only three cells, which, when touched, produce a signal to let water in; the cells then swell to three times their size and the unsuspecting victim is killed in a tenth of a second. ... Not only does the fungus figure out a way to kill nematodes, which are all blind, but it attracts them to its trap in the first instance. In this case, the fungus releases a chemical that attracts the worm."
"Within a matter of only a few minutes after trapping, the tip of the fungal hypha enters the nematode's body, secretes its powerful enzymes, and starts absorbing nutrients. As this is exactly what the nematode has been doing—eating—the worm is usually a real treasure trove of nutrients for the fungus. These nutrients, of course, are then locked up inside the fungus until the fungus is eaten by one of its predators or it trades them for [plant] exudates."

The second part of Teaming With Microbes is all about Applying Soil Food Web Science to Yard and Garden Care. This section of the book mostly focuses on properly made compost, compost teas, and mulch. 

There is nothing new about compost, compost tea, and mulch. These biological methods for growing wholesome food without using synthetic fertilizers have been applied by organic gardeners for decades. However, when soil biology is better understood, the approach to making and applying compost, compost tea, and mulches may differ from the usual. There are now more-intelligent ways of using these methods, and Lowenfels discusses them.

In closing, I can tell you that I'm well-pleased with this book and what I've learned from it. The basic understandings about soil life and how healthy soil life translates into healthy plant life are easy to grasp. The book then offers deeper insights, but not so deep that I get lost. I feel like I could now teach a grandchild about basic soil and plant biology.. and it would not be boring!

Teaming With Microbes will now be a valued reference book in my library of gardening books.

Next up (as long as the snow cover remains on my garden) I'm going to read The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. As I understand it, this book looks at the soil microbiome and the human microbiome. There are some similarities. If I like the book, I'll report on it here...


  1. Oooh! A "living book" on soil biology! Ordering now!

  2. I am following this with interest - I guess I am not an academic but it is interesting never the less

  3. My go-to book has been "Start With The Soil" by Grace Gershuny. It's an organic gardener's guide published back in 1993. It's a very "Easy-to-read" book and Chapter 2 is "The Soil Community and How To Care For It". It's an easy reader and has been such a help for me. Your posts have been so wonderful Herrick! The one on Dr. Elaine Ingham was quite a revelation. I had never hear of her until you brought her to light. Thank you!