Colorado Mountain College workshop promoted organic gardening
By Kristen Green
Organisms that are too small to be seen by the human eye carry the weight of all living things on their microscopic shoulders. Microbes form the foundation of the soil food web, helping the soil support plant life, which supports the rest of life as we know it. You definitely want them on your team.
It is estimated that in one teaspoon of living soil there are nearly 1 billion bacteria, up to 30 miles of fungal hyphae, and up to 100,000 protozoa. The bacteria eat the simple carbohydrates the plants put out through their roots, which are then eaten by the protozoa, and then the waste from the protozoa acts as nutrition for growing plants. In addition, fungi protect plants from pathogens and harmful microbes, and create pathways in the soil that bring water and nutrients back to the plant. Both work together in decomposing organic material and making the nutrients available to the plant. It all works in balance – helping to keep organic gardens free from fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals.
Harnessing and encouraging this organic interplay was the lesson garden writer Jeff Lowenfels brought to Colorado Mountain College in Edwards for a weekend workshop called “Teaming with Microbes.” The workshop was a collaboration among the CMC Slow Food on Campus club, the Colorado Mountain College sustainable cuisine program and the Vail Symposium. Lowenfels co-wrote the nonfiction book “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.” He is considered a leader in the organic gardening movement.
“Jeff is one of the leading experts in the world on microbes in soil and organic gardening,” said Alby Segall, president of the Vail Symposium. “CMC was the perfect partner because it offers academic credibility and an incredible venue, complete with a community garden and greenhouse.”
“The workshop was very beneficial to me as a gardener and as the director of our college’s sustainable cuisine program,” said Todd Rymer, director of culinary education at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards. “It was wonderful to have the opportunity to ask Jeff questions I had after reading ‘Teaming with Microbes,’ and to learn more about the amazing complexity of the soil food web and the importance of relationships between microbes and plants. I also got some great tips when Jeff led a tour through our student gardens, pointing out what we were doing well and where we had opportunities to enhance the soil food web.”
The hands-on workshop guided 50 participants through the process of preparing soil and garden beds, planting and maintaining an organic garden.
“I hope participants learned that it is better to work with natural systems rather than attempting to create healthy plants by applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides which significantly reduce soil biodiversity and health, leading to a downward spiral of increased chemical use and plant disease,” Rymer said.
As complex as the interplay between microbes and plants is, implementing the concepts is simple. In fact, there are things gardeners can do today to create a better environment for microbes:
•Compost your food and yard “waste” and turn it into a resource rich in nutrients and microbes for your plants.
•Mulch your soil.
•Stop tilling soil.
There are also ways for food industry professionals to implement and support the organic garden movement, including collaborating directly with a local grower– send them compostables and then buy the local, nutrient-dense food they grow.
In the end, just as the microbes support plant life, which supports all living things, organic gardening and the Slow Food movement is about sustainability.
“Our current agricultural system is heavily dependent on petrochemical inputs – everything from fertilizers to fuel for machines to pesticides,” Rymer said. “By adopting these growing principles, far less fertilizer and pesticides will be needed. In addition to reducing energy inputs, no-till practices also reduce soil erosion, enhance water quality, build organic soil matter, improve tilth and help sequester carbon.”