The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Decomposers in the soil

Magnified sow bugRoot exudates aren't the only products plants provide to the soil food web.  Dead plants (and animals too) add organic matter to the soil, spawning an entirely different web of soil microorganisms.

Bacteria are great decomposers of fresh, green plant matter, while fungi prefer the more difficult to decompose lignin and cellulose found in many tree leaves and in wood.  Protozoa and nematodes help too, although they also enjoy munching on the microorganisms smaller than themselves (and on each other.)

But most decomposers are too small to eat debris on their own.  Instead, they depend on soil arthropods (like sowbugs, millipedes, and ants) to chew up the debris for them.  The soil arthropods come back later when the bacteria and fungi have multiplied and the debris is well decomposed to get their reward --- the released nutrients in the organic matter and the tasty bodies of the decomposers themselves.

And don't forget the plants.  What do they get out of this mess of soil life?  Nutrients, of course.  At each stage in the decomposition process, some nutrients leach out into the water and get hungrily sucked up by the plants whose roots run through the whole ecosystem.

This post is part of our Living Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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