Soil-management expert Jeff Lowenfels, coauthor of Teaming with Microbes (Timber Press, 2006), suggests that taking the following steps this spring will make a difference all season long.
1. Do not rototill. Rototilling breaks up and dislocates the soil food web, destroying the fungal network that gives soil structure. Worms and other members of the soil food web are damaged and killed, and the microorganisms that feed plants in a natural system are dislocated. If you must break up the soil to plant, use as little energy as possible; pull a board across the soil to create a burrow for planting, or drill small holes for seeds or plants.
2. Don’t use fertilizer with numbers higher than 10-10-10. These numbers specify the percentage by weight of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the mix. Anything higher than 10-10-10 will damage the soil’s all-important microbiology, especially the fungal component of soils. Instead, use lower number “meals” such as bone, blood, soy or even oatmeal.
3. Use the right mulch. Row crops, vegetables and annuals prefer nitrate nitrogen, which is produced by “green” mulches (straw and grass clippings are two of the best). These are full of sugars and bacteria that create nitrates. Perennials, trees and shrubs prefer ammonium nitrogen. “Brown” mulches such as leaves and bark chips provide the perfect nutrients for fungi to produce this.