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The soil food web is a powerful ally

The soil food web is somewhat hidden and unseen without a shovel or microscope

May 31, 2021  By Michael Stangl

The soil food web. Pattarawit/Adobe Stock Images

I started applying fertilizer and sprays back in 1981. Over the years I came to understand that the way I managed the soil has an outcome on plant health. I had soil tests done that told me what I needed to apply, and agronomists, manufacturers and other specialists were all willing participants to sell me what I needed.

You know, I, like the planet, was not born last night. It was 55 years ago, but more importantly it was 4.5 billion years ago for the earth. Earth has evolved with tried and tested processes to regenerate life both in the soil and above. All this life is connected by a food web to flourish. The soil food web is somewhat hidden and unseen without a shovel or microscope.

Today’s agronomy of N-P-K is based on Justus von Liebig’s (German chemist) findings from 1840 (all the while other technology has evolved). Liebig reported that the atmosphere did not contain sufficient nitrogen, and that started the industrial wheel of manufacturing artificial manures (fertilizers). Within years, a process of manufacturing munitions and fertilizer was developed in Germany to support its war efforts, called the Haber-Bosch process.

We are just coming to understand what is in the soil, with very recent discoveries, and what is happening just below our feet. For example, we know that there are 74,000 tonnes of nitrogen gas above every hectare and yet we continue to apply more and more nitrogen at a cost to us and the environment.


I want to break that down for you. A pallet is 48 inches by 40 inches for a total of 13.32 square feet. The one pallet footprint is holding nine tonnes of atmosphere nitrogen that can be converted to N fertilizer by harnessing the soil food web activity 24/7.

We have so much tech in developing fertilizer formulations and delivery systems that cost us to only have a result that requires more. We can take this as part of our job, or we can see this as an opportunity to harness the soil food web in providing the plant needs for every second of the growing season.


Let us get that food web working for you.

The key reason fertilizer works is because the soil is dirt – compacted bacterial-dominated dirt. With each application, only a portion of what we put on is used (up to 30 per cent), the remainder gasses off or flushes away with watering or those heavy rains into the streams, rivers, lakes (blue green algae blooms/cyanobacteria), and oceans (dead zones, red tide).

The chemistry created by this compacted dirt is designed for weeds to grow. Each fertilizer application forces bacteria to eat even more organic matter, gassing it off as CO2 as well as producing excessive amounts of nitrates that wash away. This signals for plant diversity (weeds) to grow to hold onto these nitrates from moving or further gassing off as ammonia.

Plant diversity’s (weeds) primary reason is to propagate excessive seed counts to grow and die, leaving behind plant debris of root structure that broke the compaction, increased infiltration/gas exchange, scavenged the needed nutrients to bring to the surface to develop and prime the soil food web into building organic matter.

The soil food web is intelligent. Recent data shows that once we get optimal organic matter built within the whole, the food web moves along the transition from compacted dirt into a regenerative soil teeming with life.

Increasing photosynthesis
To further improve a functioning soil food web on a whole, increasing photosynthesis amps up plant exudates that feed greater bacterial and fungal diversity to optimize the food web that contains nitrogen fixers, phosphorus solubilizers and more.

There are simple solutions to start the regenerative process. A light disturbance to the surface area such as aeration to open compaction for greater gas exchange and infiltration should be done yearly and, if budget allows, in the spring and fall.

Next apply as many turfgrass species as you can at once. A 12-grass species blend adds to the seed bank as well as being opportunistic. Applying this to the existing areas will create a diversity of exudates for even greater number of species within the soil food web.

Topdress with a compost (not all compost is the same – results vary) to build up the organic matter that is required for the food web. The regenerative process is so intelligent that the plants will send more than 90 per cent of the sugars it makes from photosynthesis out the roots as exudates to build diverse soil life for organic matter. Once that organic matter percentage is met, exudates reduce, and surface growth increases like it had been fertilized – all with the soil food web.

Adding an inoculant is important and is also simple. Do you buy or make your own? Buying has very few species, is limited and creates unbalance. Using a Johnson Su Bioreactor (JSB) is data driven. It that takes 60 weeks to produce a finished diverse compost that contains up to 2,750 species of bacteria, 400 to 500 species of fungus, protozoa, nematodes and microarthropods.

The JSB is used globally as an inoculant, seed coating and slurry in furrow, foliar, and root feeding. The evidence is clear, and results are proven for lawn, sport field, golf and other applications.

Measuring results with a microscope would provide the needed observation for the evidence/data that can direct what needs to be done next in fine tuning or drastic overhaul.

With some new tools and understanding, regenerative processes can reduce inputs, increase infiltration, resilience, and profits.

If you have questions and need answers, check out “Regenerative Lawn Care” on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1591152457939867). Contact me at info@stangls.com or (905) 641-8133.

Michael Stangl is the owner of Stangl’s Enviro Lawn Care in St. Catharines, Ont.

This article is part of the Earth Week.

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