Sustainable World Radio Interview with Doug Weatherbee: Life Within the Soil, Part II

If you missed it, be sure to check out Part I of this interview, and then come back to this post to catch the finale.

Part II of Sustainable World Radio‘s interview with Doug gets into the nitty gritty of bacterial/fungi ratios and how and when to favour them, carbon sequestration and how to protect and improve your soil quality.

Click play to hear the talk!

Interview with Doug Weatherbee: Life Within the Soil, Part II

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9 thoughts on “Sustainable World Radio Interview with Doug Weatherbee: Life Within the Soil, Part II

  1. His voice is one channel, the interviewer is the other. I was under the desk checking my wires before I figured this out. Weird huh. ;)

    Also, I would like to hear Doug’s opinion on when he thinks mechanical tillage is a good option. Lots of pointing out it’s problems, but no mention of when and how to use it.

  2. Hi JBob – short reply – traveling – as long as we understand that when we plow we are usually making the soil bacteria:fungi ratio more bacterial. There are rare farmers who’ve been practicing Soil Foodweb biological farming for a while and actually have soils becoming more fungal dominated than the needs of their specific crop (a rare and fortunate place to be). So tillage in this instance drives the soil back along the succession pattern to a more appropriate bacteria:fungi ratio for their plants. I’m just visiting the Soil Foodweb Lab in Oregon for meetings and have been walking in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Very fungal dominated. If I wanted to plant a veggie garden in those forests with broccoli and cauliflower, I’d beat the soil up by tilling a small plot.

    However, generally, most ag land tested by the Soil Foodweb Labs around the world is bacterial dominated. If you till and your crops need beneficial fungi, you need to make (ideally to close on-site nutrient cycles) or bring in good fungal compost and compost teas/extracts and feed the existing soil fungi foods they like. Starve the bacteria; they do just fine without our help. If you have to till, do minimal tillage passes, strip tillage, conservation tillage, etc.

    Also, remember, all that churning of the soil breaks apart aggregates and puts tougher and hidden bits of soil Carbon into the proximity of bacteria that oxidize the Carbon into CO2, thus soil Carbon loss. All the best.

    Doug

  3. Interesting. I had in mind specifically an old horse paddock I’ve been trying to improve over the last 3 years. After very minimal improvements with compost, rotational grazing, overseeding legumes, and irrigation I have finally come to the conclusion that the soil there had been stomped into concrete to at least a few inches depth, and that “massive” soil structure is one problem where biological approaches should be preceded with good old fashioned tillage.

    I just started rototilling some sections to see what will happen…

  4. JBob – yes, hard pan layers will seriously slow your soil development, making anaerobic conditions that do not favour rich microbial life. Like ourselves, microbes need adequate air and water to thrive, and not too much of the latter. No doubt you’ll have a lot of ‘hardy pioneers’ (‘weeds’) with strong tap roots trying to break this up and improve air/water flow.

    Any mechanical intervention to improve the soil should be imitating/emulating the work of these pioneers – i.e. a strong vertical tine ripping through the pan.

    A rototiller mixes soil layers, which is not such a good thing. If used when the soil is at all damp/wet, it can also (in heavy clay soils) ‘smear‘ the soil like wet concrete, creating a new impermeable layer at the bottom reach of the rototiller’s blades – essentially creating another pan. In natural, healthy soils, there are different microbes at different depths (i.e. each profile layer is its own environment). Overturning the soil, mixing the layers, as you would with a rototiller (and as you do with a traditional plough), puts microbes out of their element. Rototilling also over-oxygenates the soil, so microbes that survive the ‘blending’ become hyperactive and burn up any organic matter you have in the soil much faster (i.e. depletes the soil).

    I’d say, where you can, to break up the soil without overturning/blending it (i.e. yeoman’s plough – or even better, combined with compost tea application, like this), and then plant a mix of of green manure (cover crop) – a mix of legumes and grasses appropriate for your soil type and climate. Having broken up the pan, to allow air/water flow, the cover crops will make much faster progress in improving structure. The plant roots will work down, and sideways. As they grow, die, decompose they’ll leave behind cavities where their root systems were, as well as critical organic matter, and microbes will start to thrive. Well covered soils with rich root networks can take the pounding of horses far better. (although take particular care about where horses range in wet conditions if you have a heavier soil).

  5. I would love to rip or chisel plow the area, but all I have is the rototiller, and it’s only 1/4 of an acre, so custom operators won’t want to bother with it, and there’s no room for big tractors anyway.

    Tip: If you think you might want good tillage done, have it done before you plant a food forest and put up fences!

  6. Hi JBob, if you’re reasonably fit, you might want to consider getting a broadfork. The twin-handled aspect means it’s pretty easy to break up the ground (without turning it over). I’ve used these before, they’re great.

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