When we think of soil, what might come to mind is dirt, ground up rocks and rotten leaves, but the ground beneath our feet is also teeming with life. These critters are essential to the organic gardener (and life as we know it) because they break down dead plants, animals and minerals into particles that plants feed on. Follow these tips to take care of the microorganisms in your soil and they will take care of the plants in your garden!

First, let’s talk about fertilizers; synthetic vs. organic.

Synthetic:  These fertilizers have already undergone processes that convert raw materials into plant-accessible nutrients. The problem is that this food only benefits the plant – essentially starving the beneficial organisms in the soil. In addition, synthetic fertilizers increase the acidity of the soil and leave deposits of salts behind. The repeated use of synthetic fertilizers eventually creates “dead” soils and plants that are entirely dependent on man-made fertilizers.
Organic:  Adding organic fertilizers, compost, and green manures to your garden provides food for a great variety of soil organisms. The waste that they produce becomes food for your plants. Adding organic matter to your garden soil also improves aeration, creating the light, fluffy beds that are ideal for root penetration and water drainage.

Taking a look under the living soil at the “Cast of Critters”:


Earthworms:  Eat plant matter and make worm castings, aerate the soil.
Mites:  Can be predators, or herbivores.
Nematodes:  Beneficial nematodes eat fungi, bacteria, and protozoa.
Protozoa:  Consume bacteria and release nitrogen into the soil.
Sow-bugs:  Scavengers and shredders of organic material.
Springtails:  Eat fungi, pollen, algae, and decaying matter.
Fungi:  Some form a mutually beneficial relationship with plant roots and greatly extend the plant’s root zone.
Waterbears:  Aka Tardigrades, eat algae and microscopic organisms, also very cute.
Bacteria:  Some take nitrogen from the air and feed it directly to the plant, others break down minerals.

The Do’s and Dont’s of Healthy Soil:

Do: Mulch.

Not only does mulching suppress weeds, which minimizes soil disturbances, it also prevents water loss through evaporation and reduces temperature fluctuations – creating an ideal environment for beneficial critters.

Do: Rotate Crops.

Each type of plant has different nutritional needs, and growing one crop in the same spot year after year can deplete the soil of essential nutrients, as well as cause a build up of pathogenic organisms. Varying the type of plants in each bed from year to year will benefit both the flora and fauna of your garden.

Do: Crop Dress.

When adding compost to your garden bed, lay it on top of the soil, rather than digging it in. Weather and insect activity will gradually mix it into the soil.

Do: Fertilize Seasonally.

Soil organisms are most active when the soil is warm and moist. Remember that it takes time for some organic fertilizers to become available to plants, and they break down at different rates. Research your soil amendments to discover the best time of year to fertilize.

Do: Use our organic fertilizers.

Feed your soil critters the best diet and they will reward your plants with the best nutrients. Down To Earth fertilizer blends contain ingredients from a wide variety of sources, which are broken down by soil microbes at differing rates. One application will meet your plants’ nutritional needs over a longer period of time than synthetic fertilizers, or other organic fertilizers with less diverse ingredients.

Don’t: Overwork the soil.

Too much tilling can destroy the delicate soil structure, kill earthworms and collapse their tunnels, and damage mycorrhizal fungi. After the initial double-digging of the garden bed, till only when necessary. Some amendments will need to be mixed in to come into contact with soil microbes.

Don’t: Step on garden beds.

Beneficial insects, and fungi, as well as plant roots, water and oxygen can not move easily through compacted soils. Keep this in mind when designing your garden beds, creating easily navigable paths that are wide enough to work in.

Don’t: Use chemical pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides.

These can kill the beneficial insects, microbes and fungi on which a healthy plant depends. Instead, focus on prevention of pests and diseases.

Don’t: Overwater.

A plant’s roots, and the beneficial fungi that grow on them, need oxygen to grow. Heavy, waterlogged soils inhibit oxygen absorption. Water deeply and less frequently, testing the soil for dryness before watering again.