Book Review: TEAMING WITH MICROBES—The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web

Book Review: TEAMING WITH MICROBES—The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web
By Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

If you look closely at the title of this book, you will think there is a misspelling. But it is not by mistake that the authors use the word “teaming” rather
than “teeming.” The purpose of the book is to help gardeners understand the inhabitants and activities of the teeming microbes in the soil food web and to learn to team with these organisms to create the healthiest possible soil and plants in their gardens.

The soil is indeed teeming with microbes. The sheer number of each type is mind-blowing. “A mere teaspoon of good garden soil, as measured by microbial geneticists, contains a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and a few dozen nematodes.” (p. 19) Bacteria are so small that a few hundred thousand can fit in a space the size of the period at the end of this sentence. The importance of these tiny soil microbes in supporting the health of plants cannot be underestimated. Yet many people (even some gardeners) have little understanding of the role and importance of these organisms and how to support their functioning.

The authors divide the book into two parts. The first part has a summary of soil science and a chapter devoted to each of the major participants in the soil food web: bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae and slime molds, protozoa, nematodes, arthropods, earthworms, gastropods, and larger animals. The role and functions of each group of organisms are described as well as their connection to gardening.

The second half of the book is devoted to explaining how to assess the health of the soil food web in your own soils and how to employ three major tools to build the health of that web: mulching, composting and making compost teas. The application of these tools for annuals and perennials is explained.

At the end of the book there is a gardening calendar and a summary of the authors’ 19 soil food web gardening rules. The information in this book is dense and concise and, as such, it is not an “easy” read. It resembles a textbook more than a gardening handbook. But it is worth wading all the way through to gain a better understanding of what should live in our soils, how these tiny organisms partner with and support our plants, and how not to interfere with their work and maybe even learn to support it.

Over time we are learning not to disrupt the soils in our gardens, yards and fields and instead help the food web to live and thrive in incredible balance, resulting in healthier plants and better crop yields. Teaming with Microbes is an important addition to the literature of no-till, restoration gardening and agriculture.

Submitted by Ann Guthals


Book Review: Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols

BOOK REVIEW by Kristine Glenn

In the depths of winter when the green and growing garden is covered by a blanket of snow, the heart of a gardener can wither away. This is the time to pick up a book like Beverley Nichol’s Merry Hall. The book chronicles the British author’s search for the perfect garden and the perfect house. More specifically, he wants a Georgian house and a garden of at least five acre: “a garden riddled with brambles, stung almost to death with nettles, and eaten to the bone with blight… I was in a rescuing mood.”

He finds the ideal place early in the book and Merry Hall describes his initial forays into rescuing and restoring the house, and especially the gardens. The book is written in the aftermath of World War II in a style reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, E.F. Benson, and Jane Austen. Deliciously witty, Nichols delves indiscriminately into horticulture, his talented and taciturn gardener (Oldfield), cats and more cats, nosy neighbors (Miss Emily and Our Rose), garden aesthetics, music, and more. But his first love is the garden and the book hones in on all things gardening. Nichols frequently rhapsodizes about the beauty of a blossom, warning the reader “when I begin to write about flowers, I lose all sense of restraint, and it is far, far too late to do anything about it.”

With every reading and re-reading, Merry Hall keeps me simultaneously laughing and in awe of Nichols’ turn of phrase and ability to cut to the heart of the matter, whether it is commentary on a passive-aggressive spinster or falling in love with a bank of Lilium regale. The story wends its way through the pages in an organic and enticing manner. Nichols cautions the readers that Merry Hall “is not really a book at all; it is only a long walk round a garden, in winter and summer, in rain and in sunshine; and if it bores you to walk round gardens you will have long ago chucked it aside.”

The book is meant for slow reading where each page is savored and the story visualized, absorbed, and chuckled over. It’s best read with a notepad close by so you can write down unfamiliar plant names and references for later research. It can take some work to adjust to the style as the setting is quintessentially British and the world it inhabits is from almost 70 years ago. But it is worth the effort. So I encourage you to settle down with the book – preferably in a comfortable chair, by a crackling fire, and with your favorite drink – and enter the entertaining, insightful, and somewhat cynical world of Beverley Nichols.

Note: Beverley Nichols was a prolific writer in a career spanning 60 years. Best remembered for his gardening books, his most popular is Down The Garden Path, which has been in nearly continuous print since 1932. Merry Hall is the first book of the Merry Hall trilogy. If you like it, the next book, Laughter On The Stairs, shifts the focus to restoring the 22-room mansion amidst life in the village. The final book, Sunlight on the Lawn, brings more stories of the house, garden, friends, and neighbors. All of the books are available on Amazon. Regrettably, they are not available at the Billings Public Library. I’ll remedy that if I find some spare funds.

Book Review: Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle

Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle

I adore this nonfiction book for so many reasons! As a gardener, a dreamer, a reader, and a Montanan (after being here 43 years), this book nurtures those of us craving some prodding towards creativity. It’s about the conversion from conventional, large-crop, synthetically fertilized farming to rotating, small crop, organic farming. Technical while still being accessible to the non-scientist, Lentil Underground explains the process of finding new ways to do what no longer works and the willingness to take the leap away from the mainstream. Many third-generation farmers were facing bankruptcy in the 1980s while farming the way they were told to do by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Montana State University agriculture professors.

Liz Carlisle, a Missoulian by birth who holds degrees from Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, writes in a crisp journalistic style made popular today by writers such as Michael Lewis and Mary Roach. She weaves information into a timeline featuring real characters in an ongoing story that reflects recent history of the past few decades.

“My intention has changed from making money to growing good-quality, healthy food. I think the soil’s happier. The farm just feels better. It’s like it knows I’m not going to pillage.” These few farmers in Montana who moved away from debt to large corporations towards certain weeds to replenish their soils represent a broad philosophical shift. The independence and innovation of farmers fortunately cannot be restrained, even though they were bucking the trend and often alienating neighbors and family members. In the long run, most organic farmers not only survived but thrive.

What began with some founders of AERO (Alternative Energy Resources Organization), now based in Helena, has become essentially commonplace. Albertson’s and Walmart carry organic produce, whereas that designation used to be only carried by specialized, expensive health food stores. The movement no longer is the domain of a small, kooky cluster of transcendentally minded hippies, although the evidence, as explained by Carlisle, is that it started that way. Both the history of the movement and the character descriptions involved make colorful fodder for reading.

As a gardener, I still feel mixed about black medic and clover helping fix the nitrogen in my flower and vegetable beds. On one hand, I care about appearance. I get stuck in those middle class values that Carlisle confronts: “It became customary, when passing by a tidy, productive farm, to remark that a good family must live there.” Alternatively, I feel relief knowing I help the soil by ignoring what’s under the canopy of flowers and vegetables, thereby contributing to healthier, nutrient-rich soil.

She includes some celebrities, too, since land use often mirrors personalities of those that own it. I won’t be a spoiler, though, because reading the book far exceeds reading this review. If you have doubts about picking up a copy, keep in mind that it was the ‘Read for all Incoming Freshmen’ at the University of Montana in the fall of 2017. The themes of thoughtful change while taking charge of destiny from the ground up can inspire future leaders and gardeners everywhere to ask essential questions and experiment.

BOOK REVIEW submitted by Bess Lovec

Successful Gardening On The Prairie

Book Review


Successful Gardening On The Prairie

Author Eric Bergeson

This book review is a first for me – I have until now reviewed books which I heartily recommend. I found it hard to find any redeeming quality in Successful Gardening on the Northern Prairie and I do not recommend it as a garden guide.

I found the author’s tone to be terse, bossy and sarcastic. I would prefer a helpful tone to a garden guide, especially one that is supposed to be good for beginning gardeners. Mr. Bergeson also frequently makes what I consider to be odd statements, such as voles are half mouse, half mole and one short row of carrots can produce bushels of carrots (I wish). Here is another example: “It is not necessary to plant large masses of annuals to make a splash…Plant $50 worth of geraniums in three or four clay pots, place them across the front of your house, and (you) could add as much as $10,000 to the market value of your home.” Really?

I was very surprised when he recommended planting Russian olive trees, which are exotics and a weedy tree here in Montana (the author lives in Minnesota). He also recommended castor bean plants which were banned in California when I was a child due to their poisonous beans. He is also not careful to identify exotic plants in the plants he recommends.

He freely recommends the use of herbicides, chemical fertilizers and tilling the soil. He talks of adding organic matter to the soil but only devotes a half page to composting. And he frequently recommends trees by name that were developed in his nursery, making these recommendations sound like an advertisement for his nursery.

I thought that most of his advice was equivalent to common sense and maybe at times helpful to a novice gardener or landscaper, but not much help to an experienced one.

Last, but not least, the author devotes 130 pages to trees and bushes and only 12 pages to growing vegetables which to me makes the title of the book misleading. I think he should have called it Successful Landscaping rather than Successful Gardening. At the end of the (very short) chapter on growing vegetables, he states: “This chapter is short for a reason: the best knowledge of vegetable gardening comes from trial and error…New vegetable gardeners should simply dive in and get to work. Successful vegetable gardening on the northern prairie is not complicated.” Maybe we don’t need our extension service and our classes if it’s so simple!

I value books that address our regional challenges to successful gardening. I had my hopes raised by this book’s title, but was sorely disappointed by its content and tone.


Book review Submitted by Ann Guthals

Book Review: Our Native Bees

Our Native Bees
By Paige Embry

Say “bee” and most people think of honey bees. There has been a lot of press devoted to the plight of honey bees in recent years as the number of hives declines and people worry about getting crops pollinated by traveling honey bee hives if there aren’t enough to go around.

Our Native Bees is about the “other” bees—the natives. Honey bees are not native to America—they come from Europe. There are over 4000 species of native bees in the U.S. and Canada. The author, in part, wrote this book to answer the question of whether the natives can fill in adequately to pollinate our plants if the honey bees disappear.

our native bees 3.pngThe first half of the book is devoted to the relationship of bees with agriculture and speaks to the question of whether natives can fill in for honey bees, and the second half is about the natives themselves, as well as ways to increase habitat for all bees. Along the way, every page is filled with interesting and captivating anecdotes of Paige’s quest to learn about bees and facts about bees that we wouldn’t ordinarily know. For example, ground nesting and being solitary is normal for native species. Many natives are small, even as small as a grain of rice. Most native bees don’t sting. And the majority of flowering plants rely on animal pollinators and the main pollinator is bees.

The book is filled with page after page of gorgeous photos of bees. The photography is absolutely spectacular and as fascinating as the narrative.our native bees 2.png

Both food (think flowers) and nesting sites are important to encouraging healthy native bee populations. When we think of creating a bee-friendly garden, we mainly think of the flowers we can plant. The author points out that providing nest opportunities is just as important (and sometimes can be  “unsightly” to a tidy gardener). There is an important chapter devoted to making golf courses and lawns more bee-friendly in ways that support the bees and are still usable and enjoyable to the people. In the first part on bees and agriculture, she describes how large fields with monocrops, herbicide usage and machine tillage are hard on all kinds of bees and she describes a farm with smaller, more diverse operations and why this encourages diversity of bees as well.

The more we understand the natural world in and around our gardens, the better we can garden in ways that support that world, as well as grow food and provide beauty. Learning about our native bees is a good place to start.

Book Review by Ann Guthals

Book Review – ‘What A Plant Knows’ by Daniel Chamovitz

Humans use their senses to get information about the world around them. We use this information, in part, to decide what actions to take. Our five main senses are sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. Do plants have similar senses?

In What A Plant Knows, Israeli botanist Daniel Chamovitz compares human senses with equivalent senses in plants. In each chapter, he describes a human sense, then explains whether plants have a similar ability to perceive the world around them. Plants do have senses similar to humans with one exception (hearing), because plants also need to gather information from the world and then act on this information.

For example, plants can “see,” i.e. perceive light, as we can tell when plants grow towards a light source. It is vital that plants perceive light because, for plants, light equals food. For each sense, the author explains how the sense is exhibited in a plant and also the historical development of our understanding of the ability, including clear, brief descriptions of elegant experiments. For example, for the perception of light with concurrent growth towards the light source (phototropism), Darwin hypothesized that light was perceived at the tip of a seedling so he performed the following test: one shoot was allowed to grow normally, bending toward the light; the next had the tip cut off and did not bend; the third had a dark cap on the tip and did not bend; the fourth had a glass cap on the tip and did bend; and the fifth had a band around the stem and not the tip and did bend toward the light.

In addition to the five human senses, there are chapters on how plants know where they are in space (perception of gravity) and what and how a plant remembers.

This fascinating book is so readable it’s like reading a novel or a mystery—you get caught up in wanting to know the answers and find it hard to put down. When you’ve finished this little book, you’ll have a better understanding of how plants live, function and perceive their environment, and you will also probably treat plants with more respect and appreciation for their abilities. You will find that you have more in common with plants than you might previously have thought and you will appreciate the interconnectedness of all living things. Having a better understanding of plants and how they live may also result in better care of the plants in our gardens and landscapes, as we understand their needs better.

Submitted by Ann Guthals