Dan Powell, co-founder of LandBase, tells us about a recent workshop he took part in...
“One of the more interesting contacts I made at the Oxford Real Farming Conference this year was bumping onto Lois Phillips, an old colleague of mine who works in land education at Rushall Farm in Berkshire. She has helped organise a set of workshops on Soil microbiology in conjunction with Simon Parfey of SoilBioLab.
Simon set up SoilbioLab in 2014 after working for Laverstoke Park Farm running the soils analysis lab there. He is helping land managers to look deeper into what lives in their soils and offers both courses in observational soils microbes analysis as well as a lab based soils analytical and evaluation service.
I set off early in the morning from Dorset towards Rushall Manor Farm to avoid the worst of the SE England rush hour traffic. I arrived in time to find Simon setting up his microscope in the field classroom at Rushall Manor. The session started with him describing the importance of organic matter in soils. He told us that the organic matter is the driver of everything that goes on both above and below ground as it acts as the basis for all nutrient cycling that feeds plants and animals and ultimately us!
Simon was going to concentrate on the microscopic animals that, although invisible to the naked eye, are far more important and make up the bulk of biological life in the soil. We were introduced to bacteria of which there are millions in a teaspoon of soil. Next up the rung of soil life where the protozoa or single celled organisms, the most common of these were amoeba and flagellates. These consume bacteria almost continuously and cycle the nutrients their bodies contain up the food chain.
Then there were the fungi who make up a much smaller diversity than their bacterial neighbours but are responsible for not only extending the rhizosphere or root zone in many plants but also in exuding acids to breakdown the more coarse organic matter.
In addition to this function specific fungi called mychorrhizia also have a symbiotic role with certain plants, exchanging hard to get nutrients like phosphorous for important energy and sugars that the fungi need to grow themselves. Some plants rely on this association and seem to have evolved in line with the fungi.. this fungal plant association is especially important for trees.
Lastly were the nematodes. These tiny round worms have over 20000 different species some of which we associate with pathogenic parasitic conditions in the gut of animals or eating plant roots such as potato or clover eel worms. However we learned that free living soil nematodes are essential in cycling the fungi and bacteria into nutrients that become available for plants and the vast majority of species are poorly understood although they are crucial for the cycling role they play in soils.
We learned that different soils have different balances of the soil biota and if the populations have been damaged through for example, pesticides, bad fertiliser practice or poorly planned cultivations, then this delicate balance can be upset and the plants and animals will not thrive on these soils until the balance was restored.
Simon’s company makes use of compost teas which are propagated populations of bacteria or fungi through aerated water that can be applied to soils as a way of correcting this soil imbalance.
After these microbial introductions we were introduced to using a microscope to actually see these little beasties as they really are. We looked at a number of samples and discovered tiny bacteria darting about on the prepared microscope slide, also strands of fungi where apparent and some of us even came across the odd nematode or two.
It was one thing talking about these little fellows but quite another coming face to face with them down a microscope.
By the end of the day I felt that I had been privy to another world just as full of life as the word above the soil, and although this was one we talk about in our farming and gardening everyday, it is not everyday we get to see these guys face to face as it were!
I don't think I will be purchasing a microscope just yet but it has reinforced my conviction that if we can recognise what conditions are good for a healthy soil then we have the tools at hand to nurture the life in the soil to ensure healthy plants and animals and healthy us for a long time to come.
Thanks Simon for a very interesting and stimulating day. This has helped me to continue to take care of soils in my care for the sake of the little guys!”
If you want to learn more about soil, Dan Powell is running a course with Landbase next month “Getting to know our soils and what they need from us” Book your place now!