Friday, April 19, 2013

Nurture your underground garden

Jeff Lowenfels demonstrates 
how to make compost "tea"

By Katie Jones
Gardeners thrive on a sense of anticipation. When will the first flower arrive? Will there be a bumper crop of tomatoes this year? How fast will the new trees grow? All of these are daily miracles to a gardener.

But many gardeners are missing one of the most wondrous stories. It is the saga of life below ground, with plant roots, nematodes, fungus and bacteria all thriving in a complex interdependency that we gardeners are just beginning to figure out.

One of the leading “storytellers” in this tale is author and columnist Jeff Lowenfels, who will come to Duke Gardens April 27 and 28. Besides writing the longest-running gardens column in the country, Lowenfels also wrote the book “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to The Soil Food Web.” In it, he explains the complexity and importance of soil, and he reveals the amazingly intricate community that quietly lives under our feet.

Lowenfels’ approach to gardening is rooted in an understanding of the soil as the living environment he calls a “soil food web.” This web provides the materials by which a plant can feed itself, and it is formed through the links between the organisms—not just earthworms and insects, but also fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms—that are teeming beneath the surface.

Lowenfels proposes another approach to our garden soil, one that makes us an active partner with the soil life and minimizes the use of synthetic fertilizers. To that end, he works with gardeners to teach how to make and use compost tea to use as a fertilizer and emphasizes compost teas’ utility in creating a healthy, sustainable soil. Compost teas contain beneficial microorganisms that can be applied directly to the soil and will help improve root systems, prevent disease, and restore a much needed population of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and protozoa back into the soil food web. It is a gardening miracle.

The key for those who want to make the transition to chemical-free growth is to learn how to put organic material into the soil. “Compost, compost teas, mulches and in the right situation, mycorrhizal fungi are the tools to use,” Lowenfels says. “It is easy to do and, once you know the science, quite a bit of fun.”

Cultivating healthy plants and bodies begins in the dirt, and Lowenfels believes that compost teas are but one part of a system for creating healthy soil. He will discuss both at Duke Gardens. He recommends that gardeners attend both the workshop on compost teas and the lecture on the soil food web, as each provides a different perspective on the soil story.

Workshop and lecture information

“Compost Teas: Controversies and Use” will be from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, April 27. “Teaming with Microbes: No More Chemicals in Your Yard” will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 28.

To register

For more information about the workshops, or to register, please call 668-1707 or email Duke students/staff, please be sure to take advantage of our  discounted registration fee. For information on other classes and events, please go to or follow Duke Gardens on Facebook.
Learn from Jeff Lowenfels 
how to team with microbes...
...and how to have a thriving,
toxin-free garden

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. Duke Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Columnist Katie Jones is an undergraduate student at Duke and a work-study student at Duke Gardens. Duke Gardens' home & garden column appears every other week in the Durham Herald-Sun.

1 comment:

  1. Composting is a great way to recycling your current biodegradable waste materials. Rather than losing your current kitchen waste in addition to backyard waste materials for being sent to the landfill exactly where it will advantage nobody, you may input it in the can that you just designed with
    Compost tea recipe in addition to make it possible for our mother earth be able to work on creating your personal free of charge fertilizer. Obviously, this is often a good big bucks saver for the devoted garden enthusiast.