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Garden Allies: Soil Microbes

Articles: Garden Allies: Soil Microbes

In our last three forays into the under-world of the garden, our subject was decomposers: those organisms  that break down organic matter and build the gardener’s most precious resource, the soil that supports virtually all plant life. As we conclude our discussion of the soil foodweb, we explore rhizobia bacteria, actinomycetes, and mycorrhizae.

Endomycorrhiza. Illus: Craig Latker

Certain bacteria and fungi form obligate mutualistic relationships with plants and are essential for optimal plant growth. Many plants can’t grow at all without their largely unseen partners, which facilitate nutrient uptake, while the mutualistic partner also derives essential sustenance. These partners provide nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron in an available form. Nitrogen gas (N2), for example, makes up 79 percent of our atmosphere, and nitrogen is an essential component  in DNA, proteins, and chlorophyll molecules. For nitrogen to be available to plants, however, it must first be converted, or “fixed” to a form that can be taken up by roots. In nature, this process is primarily accomplished by soil microbes ...

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