What’s the “soil food web?” And what does vegan compost have to do with it?
Think of our ocean’s food chain. The phytoplankton and algae at the bottom feed the zooplankton (including jellyfish), shellfish, and smaller fish.
These “bottom feeders” feed corals, large fish, small sharks, and baleen whales. And at the top of the marine chain are toothed whales, dolphins, seals, and large sharks.
Or, in the words of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
“Food webs describe who eats whom in an ecological community.”
Visualizing the ocean’s food web is easy. But visualizing the unseen food web in the soil beneath our feet?
That’s another story. But the food web is there, and understanding how vegan compost protects and nourishes it is the focus of today’s post.
An imbalance in any part of a food web may have disastrous consequences for the whole. In the oceans’ case, soaring numbers of jellyfish deprive smaller fish of plankton.
That means less food for the rest of the marine food chain – and more and more jellyfish, because nothing eats them!
The same dynamic applies to the soil.
Vegan Compost: Teeming with Life
What does vegan compost do? The Soil Food Web Institute explains that when made correctly, it replenishes the soil food web’s living organisms, including:
- fungal- and bacterial-feeding nematodes
- predatory nematodes
Amazingly, according to the U.K.’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), one sugar-cube-sized chunk of healthy soil absolutely teems with a diversity of life forms.
Bacteria are only one example:
“… (one billion individual bacteria) and many different kinds of each type (ten thousand different bacterial species).”
The term “soil food web” refers to the fact that these organisms have a food chain. At the bottom are the bacteria and fungi feeding on live plant material, decaying organic matter, and root secretions.
Next are the smaller bacteria- and fungi-feeding arthropods and nematodes, which become dinner for their larger relatives. At the top are beetles, predatory mites, and centipedes.
Plants ARE Like People
Without our gut microbiomes, we couldn’t be healthy. And without the micro-organisms in vegan compost to enrich their soil, plants couldn’t be healthy either.
Exactly how do the micro-organisms help them?
- Above and beneath the soil’s surface, they degrade pollutants into harmless substances.
- They prevent seepage so nutrients stay in the root zone.
- They help the plants absorb soil and leaf nutrients.
- They build the plants’ disease resistance.
- As we posted last week, some rhizobacteria work with legumes to affix nitrogen to the soil.
They also feed the vertically-burrowing earthworms, which “drought-proof” plants by creating passageways that let air, water, and roots settle deep in the soil.
Every “meal” a soil micro-organism digests becomes a plant-nourishing waste product. Says AHDB:
‘Plant roots are hot spots for such feeding activity, so plants can readily take up these nutrients, leading to the production of more plant material, supplying new organic matter to the soil, and completing recycling of nutrients. ‘
Another small glimpse into what vegan gardener Will Bonsall terms “a unified living system whose parts function to the benefit of one another and the whole.”
What Makes Good Vegan Compost?
Any plant-based foods – fruit, veggies, grains, legumes – or, in the North American Vegan Society’s words, “… anything left at the end of the day…coffee grounds, carrot greens, a watermelon rind, or the remains of a tofu lasagna” qualifies as vegan compost material.
So does what Michigan Master Gardener Howard Scheps terms “brown material”:
- pine needles
- dead plants
- dried leaves
and “green material”:
- grass clippings
- non-woody pruned vegetation
- discarded garden produce
Scheps recommends a 2:1 ratio of brown to green materials, arranged in two layers sandwiching 1/2 an inch of soil. The soil’s micro-organisms will start the composting process for you.
For the soil food web, it’s all in a day’s work!