This funnyman’s message is revelatory!


by Susan
Here’s what someone recently wrote in a comment to our discussion of organic gardening:  "Soil food web gardening is revelatory in its practice, artful in it
crafting and leads to a supernatural culturing of the world around, in
and through us." Wow!

So I schlelpped to Virginia recently to hear a talk about the soil-food web by none other than Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teaming with Microbes.  And what I got for crossing the Potomac was unexpected –  laughs!  Lowenfels has gotta be the funniest, most animated speaker on the gardening circuit today (okay, not exactly the Borscht Belt, but still).  This lawyer, TV host, 35-year newspaper columnist who started Plant a Row for the Hungry could stand in for Jon Stewart any time.

So it’s a biology lesson laced with Karl Rove and Larry Craig jokes andNardi frequent jabs at the EPA, but still a lecture, and my notepad is filled with details about what researchers learned after the invention of the electron microscope – just don’t ask me to explain any of it.   But I DID grasp the point that it’s the bacteria and fungi and nematodes that do the work of feeding our plants, and you don’t get more basic and maybe even revelatory than that.  And here’s that great chart from Life in the Soil by Jim Nardi to remind us of all that subsurface action.


  • Miracle Gro.  But times are a’changing – the company is now the biggest supplier of
  • Like Amy, he was NOT happy with Anne Raver’s article in the NY Times blaming global warming on earthworms. (He says it’s the more recent imports from SE Asia that are hurting the forests, not the types of earthworms we find in our gardens).
  • Tilling, because it kills everything.  Says rototillers are a "guy thing – they love having a big engine between their legs."
  • Weed-B-Gone.  (Google "lawn dog cancer" to learn why)
  • The EPA, those "guys across the river" who are protecting the "Mafia" that makes commercial gardening products.  He urged us to make our local nursery find out what’s IN the stuff they sell.
  • Monoculture lawns – they’re "bullshit"!
  • Black plastic, because it destroys the whole soil-food web.


  • His lawn, with obvious passion.
  • Paul Tukey and
  • Mycorrhizal fungi, which he says are sold by all GOOD nurseries.
  • The KIS Brewer for compost tea.
  • Compost, as long as you know what’s in it.
  • For fertilizer, soybean meal from the feed store.
  • Fertilizers that are less than 10-10-10. ("Forget NPK"!)
  • Plantskydd deer repellent, because it lasts 6 months.
  •  for testing soil. (There’s also this great page there explaining everything.) 

I asked Jeff how often he sprays the the compost tea and the answer reflects the gradual transformation that happens with its use.  The first year he used it weekly; second year, once in early spring, again in mid-spring, then June and at the end of the season.  In the third and following years, just twice – in the spring and again at the end of season.  And how often does he apply the soybean meal?  As soon as the lawn greens up in spring for most of the garden.  Vegetable gardens get it two or three times a season.  And note that he applies it only as a side dressing, not mixed into the soil. 

If you’re wondering how a photo of Karl Rove and a "Larry Craig bathroom shot" help explain soil science, I’m afraid the book won’t help you.  And while it’s terrific that Jeff is carrying the soil-food gospel to assemblages of garden writers, it just won’t be the same coming from anyone else.  So I’m on a rant to get Jeff to put his funny, inspiring talk, with its inspired slides, on video and free online for the world to see.  I promised him that gardeners and environmentalists of all stripes would be watching and linking and the word would spread virally! Readers, please weigh in with your own convincing arguments.  (Just make them up if you have to.)

Finally, here’s a tip.  Jeff knows a kid in Anchorage who made $200K in one summer spraying compost tea on lawns.  Sure pays better than blogging.


  1. I love the idea of Jeff making a video. Brilliant ! I know tons of passionate home gardeners and professional growers (mainly cut flowers). I bet 80% -90% would be thrilled to watch it and then apply the methods. You have my vote!

  2. Just as an aside, I find his comment about mycorrhizal fungi interesting for a couple of reasons. First, a classmate in my propagation class last year did an experiment comparing the effects of different kinds of mycorrhizae on three different plants (including a control set) and the results were decidedly mixed. Second, when I was touring nurseries in Oregon last October with the IPPS group, we visited one nursery where the owner raved about the effects that mycorrhizae had had on his plants. The next day we went to a different nursery that grew pretty much the same plants in the same conditions and seemed to be just as successful, yet that owner said they hadn’t found mycorrhizae to be particularly advantageous so they didn’t bother with them. I think it’s easy enough to demonstrate that for some plants they can make a significant difference, but I’m guessing that mycorrhizae could become the next over-hyped garden retail product, much as natives are now being over-hyped.

  3. I would love, love, love Jeff on video! I’ve heard him speak and he is, as you witnessed, inspirational, knowledgeable and funny. He shared so much great information but, unfortunately, my brain could only hold so much and I’m sure I didn’t absorb it all. (Reminds me of the Gary Larson cartoon where a student asked to be excused from class because his brain was full.) So I’m going back for more. I plan to attend his seminar at either the Northwest Flower & Garden show in Seattle or at Portland’s Yard, Garden & Patio show. Or maybe both. I do hope I stop shy of becoming a groupie…

  4. I’m with Claire Splan, above!

    Fungi are no different than plants in that some do well in some conditions and others do well in other conditions.

    So, if my interpretation of what you said he said, Susan, is correct, you should buy this stuff, spread it all around, and cross your fingers that conditions just happen to be right in your garden, for some of the introduced mycorrhizal species to survive?

    Of course, this assumes there aren’t enough “native” mycorrhizal species in your garden’s soil to begin with – which you would certainly check before applying more – just like doing a soil test before blindly applying more fertilizer, right?

    And, why is it we would want to spread non-native mycorrhizal fungi in our garden, anyway? Are they really that much different than non-native plants we might want to add to our garden? What if they gradually migrate into the surrounding woods over the course of hundreds of years, displace the native fungi, and turn the area into a vast moonscape?

    This gets back to my previous posts of a few days ago regarding scientific evidence versus anecdotal evidence in the garden.

    Once again, until someone can show me peer-reviewed research that shows the addition of mycorrhizal fungi in a typical lawn, landscape and/or garden setting actually enhances some measurable parameter – e.g., pest-resistance, growth rate, fruit yield, etc., this stuff is nothing more than snake-oil in my book!

  5. If you want a list of peer reviews for mycorrhizals as well as other fungi, please find Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running for a definitive view, both over and under.

    For evidence, you could fund a study since the big money for these things just is not here around the food web. Soil Foodweb, Inc has some papers listed that could help see the efforts made in this area.

    I do not know about you, but I have bought into alot of snake oil over my life and have learned which ones do not support life and in what proportions. Just reading and informing ourselves of the story of the soils with no action is a place to begin. For a long time I was stupified by the barrage of chemical propaganda and could not differentiate very well. This passed with the knowledge of the composting process and the ruination of its active phases. Well-made composts and aerobic compost teas are often too much to understand in a post or two.

    Last I noticed, we are well on the way to becoming a moonscape. If we find that we must start somewhere to enliven our soils, whatever soil we are left with, we might start by using what is off the shelf retail. If it is just a ruined lab variety, it will offer food for someone in there and will not survive. Word on reliability gets around:

    Keep up with these good starts and watch for the controversy without falling into scientism. Err on the side of life, please.

  6. Mycorrhizae have been very well researched over the last few decades and are something where we can come to some reasonably clear conclusions about. First, commercial formulations are often a waste of time because they’re sterile — poor storage conditions kill spores very, very quickly. Second, the best mycorrhizae for you are usually those that are already in your soil. Third, if you fertilize even moderately well your mycorrhizae will either not associate with your plant or will become parasitic (in conditions of high fertility mycorrhizae suck carbohydrates from the plant without offering anything that the plant can’t get for itself).

    So what about all the studies that show that adding mycorrhizae are useful? — and there are lots of them. Most of these studies are done in low fertility highly disturbed soils — in these conditions there is little doubt that mycorrhizae help. But these conditions are much rarer than one might expect — and you can be sure that the researchers made sure that they were adding live spores — not spores stored in poor conditions for months at a time. Generally we find that highly disturbed sites naturally reacquire those mycorrhizae that they can handle within a few months of being disturbed.

    There’s a guy in Colorado — Curt Swift, who does a talk about these fungi — I’m not sure if he’s on the web or not….

  7. If you are going to study microbes, you HAVE to have a sense of humor, or you will go stark, raving mad (and not in the comic way, but painfully mentally ill). Trust me on this. Microbes are beautiful, fascinating, complex, frustrating, wonderful creatures. I wouldn’t give up my years with microbes for anything. But remember that white coats are nothing but straitjackets with shorter sleeves.

  8. I must be spending too much time with my own compost pile. I knew about the value of mycorrhizae but never saw it on the garden center shelf. So many things to keep up with! I get dizzy, but I’ll persevere. Right now I’m reading Jeff Gillman’s book.

  9. If you build good soil with compost and tend your garden with natural methods, your soil microbes should be fine. Does it really need to be more complicated than that?

  10. I am embarrassed by all the fuss! Thanks for the nice comments on the talk and Teaming WIth Microbes.

    As for the negative comments about mycorrhizal fungi, think about what you are saying before you write, please….there are too many studies to list that show they work when they are needed. And if you have been killing them off with the chemical way of gardening, rototilling and compacting soils, you need them….if not, you don’t. Isn’t if funny how people will take a nursery’s word about them when they say they don’t work…did you check to see if they were using them properly…ie ensuring that they hit the roots within 24 hours of getting wet? DId you check to see if they were using spores or just pieces of cut up fungi? Was the questioning nursery using chemical fertilizers over 10-10-10? Snake oil? Give me a break…ever hear about how they established pines in Puerto Rico after trying for years? They introduced fungi….Snake oil….really, some people can be so negative and nasty….these folks can’t be gardeners….gardeners would never be nasty.

    I have been on the road, but will try and remember to address some of the other points made over the past month and a half while I have been trying to get people off chemicals…something they really don’t have a right to use as it negatively impacts the rest of us. Some nerve! BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE NASTY\\CHEERS, JEFF L

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