Back in April I attended a workshop on edible gardening and didn’t learn much for my $20 except that I already know quite a lot, and I learned the title of a book, Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. This little book alone was worth the class. It manages to put two of my favorite geeky things together: science and gardening.

The first half of the book covers the science of the “soil food web.” The soil food web consists of all the bacteria and insects and fungi that go into creating healthy soil. There are blown up photos of bacteria under electron microscopes that science fiction and horror writers could definitely use as the basis for aliens and monsters. The authors have a sense of humor and, after chapters detailing various critters and what they do and why they are important and how voracious they are, they comment that the reader is probably never going to want to put her hand in the soil again. Yes, that’s exactly how I was feeling, suddenly worried that I might be mistaken for something edible and be swarmed by bacteria that would immediately ingest me and turn me into compost for the tomatoes. But the authors kindly pointed out that I have been putting my bare hands in dirt for many years and hadn’t been eaten yet and I can rest assured that I wasn’t going to be. Nonetheless, it is very creepy. Science is not for the faint of heart!

Sometimes the science was a bit dull, but overall they do a good job at keeping it interesting. Between the photos of monstrous bacteria and stories of scientific discovery, they keep the pace moving along.

The second half of the book is applied science, taking everything learned in the first half and putting it to use in the garden. And it is good stuff! All the garden books I read always talk about the importance of good soil and how I should spend most of my time working on improving my soil because it means I will have to work less to do other things like water and weed and fertilize and kill invading pests. Good soil is the foundation of a good garden. But all those books never talk about how to get good soil other than to say compost and mulch. Teaming with Microbes explains the intricacies of soil ecology and how to create a healthy system. Yes, it is work, but the gardener only gets it going by making sure the right conditions are created, nature does the rest. And once the soil ecosystem is healthy, the gardener doesn’t do much at all except stand back and stay out of the way.

If you are a gardener, this is definitely a book you want to read. And if you are a nature or science geek, you’ll find the book extra fascinating.

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