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Soil Biology Test?

Johnny Niamert


Joined: Nov 08, 2013
Posts: 268
Location: Colo
    
    4
Does anyone have any familiarity, experience, or thoughts on a soil biology test?

Basically, as I understand it, it is a soil test which tests for numbers of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, etc that are contained in a sample. Instead of testing nutrient, mineral, elemental soil composition, it more tests the biological ratio and thus gives you a better idea of the capacity of the microbial life. One then could also 'customize' composts, teas, mulches, etc, to their particular soil needs.

I believe the tests were in-part pioneered by Elaine Ingham and EarthFort. I believe there is another lab doing a similar test, but the name eludes me.
Here is a pdf from their site explaining the tests a bit more:
http://earthfort.com/assets/images/lab/assay_descriptions.pdf

John Elliott
pollinator

Joined: May 08, 2013
Posts: 2038
    
  64
Do you want to do these tests yourself? There's quite a difference between the tests you need to do to grow vegetables and the tests that are necessary to do a scientific experiment and publish a paper about it.

At the "I buy all my test equipment from Harbor Freight" level, there's some testing that you can do: get some 10x magnifiers, build yourself a Tullgren funnel and then make your own counts of the different soil critters you can find. Once you have that data, then you can begin to understand what is happening in your soil. But to get to that understanding, you have a long road ahead of you, one that is far, far more complicated than just knowing what N, P, and K mean.

Johnny Niamert


Joined: Nov 08, 2013
Posts: 268
Location: Colo
    
    4
A set-up like you described would fail to count anything that is not capable of travelling relatively far distances. While this maybe good for looking at earthworms, I'd like to think you really don't believe shopping at Harbor Freight could let you accurately count VAM colonization, measure fungal hyphae diameters, and help determine nitrogen cycling capacity, among others.

I think a soil test like this would be 'above and beyond' if your soil is healthy and doing good; but might consider it for struggling, beginning, or special needs.
I'm considering one for some land I maybe taking over which is marginal, and that's being nice.

I may be a little further down the road then you seem to give me credit.
Jennifer Wadsworth
steward

Joined: Sep 24, 2013
Posts: 2212
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
    
128
Johnny:

I think if that particular soil test interests you - you should go for it. It looks very thorough and quite interesting.

With regards to John's post above - John is a retired research scientist and has devoted a lot of time and effort sharing his expertise on this site - which is highly valued by many of us (note the popularity of his posts). Unfortunately you provide no details in your profile OR in your question regarding "where you're at" - in terms of both physical location/climate and knowledge level/experience. When there is a paucity of information to work with - one can only give the most basic answers and assume the OP has limited knowledge on the topic - otherwise the question would be far more specific and directed than, "Does anyone have any familiarity, experience, or thoughts on a soil biology test?" - right?

One of the great things I love about John's posts are that he usually provides a "hands on" way of doing something yourself and gaining experience through that interaction, instead of always relying on the "experts". There is a place for both approaches. I, personally, enjoy getting my hands dirty and learning new things as well as doing research into what the experts are doing.


http://abundantdesert.com
Climate: Subtropical desert (Köppen: BWh)
Elevation: 1090 ft
Continental Effect: 350 miles from the Pacific Ocean
Land Profile: FLAT land
Annual rainfall: 7"
Soil: Clay loam - this area was the alluvial flood plain of the Salt River
John Elliott
pollinator

Joined: May 08, 2013
Posts: 2038
    
  64
Thank you, Jennifer. Johnny brings up a difficult dilemma -- doing scientific tests cost a lot of money. A properly outfitted lab has a high dollar overhead, and it shows in the prices they charge for analyses. But that has developed because science has patrons -- the government and large corporations -- that can and do make the investment.

When somebody on these boards asks about tests, I assume (rightly or not) that they are part of the 99%, that cost is very important and that they want to spend the minimum amount of money to understand the science of the problem. This is what I call George Washington Carver science -- studies that you do using common household items, and yes, cheap instruments you can buy at Harbor Freight, to gather some information about the problem. Working at Tuskegee, where financial support was as segregated as the rest of the society at that time, Carver accomplished a lot with equipment that was crude in comparison to what you can find today at a dollar store.

Of course your home-built Tullgren funnel is not going to give you hyphae diameters and VAM colonization, you really need a microscope for that. But doing science with financial limitations means that you make the most of techniques that you have at your disposal. You learn to interpret proxy information, much in the same way that climate scientists have to use proxy information because they have no instrumental records going back beyond 150 years or so. If the only magnifier you can afford is 10X, then you look at soil critters in that size range. Counting earthworms requires almost no equipment, with a 10X magnifier you can maybe start counting arthropods, get a 100X magnifier and smaller organisms can be included into your counts. Each level of magnification adds to the complexity of the scientific picture of your soil.

And finally a caution about too much information. Suppose you have all the information Johnny lists and more. Suppose you have a complete chemical analysis, including trace elements, spore counts and species IDs on all the VAM fungi, population densities of all the nematodes, arthropods, and collembolans in the soil. What does all that tell you? When you have too many colors in a picture, all the absorptions broaden out and it begins to be a dark brown smudge. Sometimes the simple observation of one proxy tells you more than crunching reams of data. When I am topping off the soil on a new hugelbed, I take notice of how many fungus gnats are drawn to the fresh dirt. For me, they are a proxy for measuring the amount of fungal colonization. If I see lots of fungus gnats at work, I figure I don't need to inoculate with more spores.
Johnny Niamert


Joined: Nov 08, 2013
Posts: 268
Location: Colo
    
    4
Sorry if I mistook your posts, John.
Long story short on my side, but my sincerest apologies to all. Not really the impression I wanted to make. I took your posts a little too personal.

I definitely do things as frugally as I can. I was raised always around a home-garden, so I have a life-long appreciation and familiarity with eating what you and the land produce. My family has strictly used natural, alternative, and plant-based medicines my whole life as well. I've been a very active part-time organic yardener for the past 6 years. I've taken time to research soil life, as much as a 60 hrs/wk full-time truck driver could. I had apple trees to start in my old yard, to which I planted oak and crabapple saplings to add to the forest layer. I planted bushes for wild bees, birds, and fruit. My annual veggie garden was more than 50% of my backyard, and fed me and half my neighbors well. My garden was heavily mulched and interplanted with perennials, companion, and insect attracting plants. I averaged about 3 compost heaps in a city lot backyard. I put in a 'Harbor Freight type' greenhouse, planted comfrey, yarrow, valerian, etc. I usually brought in 5-6 truck fulls of leaf this time of year to make compost and mulch layers, much to my neighbors curious looks. The tree trimmer knew me well and looked forward to me taking his chips. My backyard was a budding permaculture example in the city, and I sold my house to a young couple who promised to keep it that way.
When I sold my house, the first things I moved were the most important .... my compost pile, worms, and comfrey plants.

I'm in the process of heading 250 miles west by south west to ~40 acres of sage, juniper, and pinon at 7000', with about 14" of natural h2o if we're lucky. Zone 6a. The soil is very young and fragile. According to the geologic map, it is composed of gravel and alluvium from the pinedale and bull-lake age. There is a pretty good layer of caliche about 12"-18" down. There is about 5 acres of roughly cleared and loosely established grass and weed pasture. The property has water during spring runoff, with very limited summer/fall rights. My initial goal is to "heal" a subsistence garden that is currently on the property, about 100'x100'. There are permaculture 'themes' currently in the garden, but I need to work on it. Mainly I need to stop the roto-tilling which has been occurring. There are about 10 fruit trees of different type, perennial berries, flowers, and native plants. In addition to the garden, establish a pastured/free-range laying flock this spring and work the fertility of the pasture and forage areas. I'm also planning a foraging forest to plant this fall on some of the more barren land, after I work on water-catchment/geography this summer. I'm just trying to be as self-sufficient as possible year-round to start, for the first year or two. Then we'll see where things go.

A lot of my emphasis, based on my experience at my old house, has been on "jump-starting" a generally neglected property into a more productive one. I recently decided to stop my current rat-race job and live simply, self-sufficiently, naturally, and spiritually. I'm not the only one my age wanting to do this, but I'm actually in the process of doing it. I have spent a great deal of time researching, reading, and attempting to make a properly made, balanced, digested, and finished compost. In addition to that, brewing compost teas, the VAM relationship, plant-based garden tonics, fermented, indigenous, etc. I'm very big on mineralization and the importance of microbial action in making them available to plants and also animals. I'm hoping my self-education and experience from the past 6 years is a good base to start to heal this 40 acres, and to continue my education and healing.
Being how this soil is so young and fragile, I just thought it would be interesting to see what sort of microbial population there was to start. I realize a bit north of $100 is a bit much "just to see", but the information could also prove useful in what type of composts, teas, sprays, compounds, manures, etc I add in the near future. I realize this maybe a bit pedantic to some, but some techniques could be used if a glaring deficiency is seen in the results. Without the test, yes, all this would happen fairly routinely and naturally on it's own. But if the data could shave a few months, or even a full season off "jump-starting" this land, it may be worth the $.
I would think this especially the case if your composition soil tests show enough of a mineral or element, but one is still 'chasing deficiencies'. It may all just come down to knowing what is missing, microbe speaking. I'm not planning on getting a microbial assay done initially. I'm gonna collect soil next week from the garden area and send if off for composition tests first. I think it will come back fairly 'average' so I think the deficiency is in the microbial life, personally guessing from the roto-tilling. Knowing the exact make-up of microbes won't change anything, but could refine what I do to as inputs to change the conditions. I was thinking ways to do this would be a finely chopped matter composted for more bacteria, less nitrogen woody static piles for fungi, collecting old healthy native soils and introducing them to aged composts for higher soil life species, specially brewed compost teas and biodynamic sprays, inoculates, etc. . . Like I said this would be fairly pedantic to some, or it could save valuable time in getting a property off to a good start.
John Elliott
pollinator

Joined: May 08, 2013
Posts: 2038
    
  64
Johnny Niamert wrote:

I'm in the process of heading 250 miles west by south west to ~40 acres of sage, juniper, and pinon at 7000', with about 14" of natural h2o if we're lucky. Zone 6a. The soil is very young and fragile. According to the geologic map, it is composed of gravel and alluvium from the pinedale and bull-lake age. There is a pretty good layer of caliche about 12"-18" down.


Sounds like Santa Fe. The thing about the soil biology in arid western soils like that is that it has ways of shutting down during the long dry spells. The whole swale-building, water-harvesting exercise is geared to alter the environment so that there is enough water to keep the soil biology up and running instead of shutting down until the next good rain. Were you to examine the soil biology during a dry spell, you would find all sorts of dormant critters, and they would be easy to miss. But give them some water and the sporulated fungi will awaken, eggs will hatch, and the dessicated will come out of their torpor.

I don't think you can go wrong by importing as many fungi as you can find. Pry the conks off of tree stumps. Pick any mushrooms that you can find. Leave a pan of flour and water out and let it get colonized by yeasts. Even mushrooms from the grocery store. Every time you add fungi to the local environment it either fills a niche in the soil food web or it becomes food for something that does.

This is the way you build the soil biology from the lowest level up. It's different from adding animal manures -- that just adds bacteria (and mostly anaerobes at that) -- and bacteria don't form long strands through the soil that can move nutrients the way fungi can. Sure, bacteria will feed protozoa and so on up the food chain, but the nutrients in that food chain don't move around. Well, maybe an earthworm may ingest them and move a few inches before it excretes them, but that doesn't count for much. That doesn't move phosphorus from where it is to where it is lacking. For that, you need to have the active transport through the mycelial networks -- fungi.

It's been mentioned in other threads that pond water is a good source of new soil critters. Haul it in from all sources. Just like with the fungi, don't rely on the wind to blow some spores in, go out there and actively seek them. Bring them back in quantity and give them what they need to multiply. If you start doing this, you'll be surprised at how many other critters start showing up once you have set the buffet.
Jennifer Wadsworth
steward

Joined: Sep 24, 2013
Posts: 2212
Location: Phoenix, AZ (9b)
    
128
Hey Johnny - thanks for that really wonderful post - I'm inspired by what you are doing and also by the wonderful way you expressed yourself. Thank you.

Where is this new land that you will be on? I hope you take a ton of "before" pics and measurements and keep up with them over time - you seem to have the skillset to do that. I hope that you would post this information as you go along as it will be a great benefit for people to see the progress (and the inevitable "things that didn't quite work out as intended").

If you edit your profile to show your location (the location you're moving to), others from that region can jump in and let you know what's worked and what hasn't for them and point you towards some resources.

Johnny Niamert


Joined: Nov 08, 2013
Posts: 268
Location: Colo
    
    4
Thanks Jennifer. I will be located in Western CO on top of a southern facing mesa. I will consider, and probably will add some pics at some time. Is there a section for 'my property' kind of threads?

John, that is a good point. I always put fruiting mushrooms and forest litter into my compost bins and mulch. I'm big on mulches, especially in this dry climate. It makes soil conditions much better, and would help some problems currently being experienced in veggie garden area. Like you mentioned, the wet-dry cycle is doing a number on the soil life and making production difficult. Currently, I'm thinking of ways to get a lot of good organic matter to start with and get mulched and working for composts. I'm thinking of getting some wood chips brought in, but that really isn't by the permaculture rule. I always brew compost teas to inoculate mulches as well. I figure it gives them a good jump start on decomposition. Having a diverse and healthy soil life is hard here without lots of organic matter to feed and shelter them, IMO.
The land is fairly flat here, so I'm considering making swales at the lower ends of one section of the pasture, to begin. I figure this would allow me to work on the pasture and decide how to plant it better to my needs, while at the same time making a good start for a food forest. The swale would collect the odd rain and snow run-off, but also allow the spring irrigation to collect and soak in good for the trees/bushes to use during the dry times. Can't decide whether to do a full on-contour swale, or more of a 'dam' style hugel-bed to soak up the run-off in the area it flows. I'm still debating whether to keep it pasture, or make an entire mixed forest with veggies areas. I'm planning on chickens soon and goats in the future, so I'm leaning towards making this entire pasture into a planned foraging, forest, and veggie area with swales that will be great for running goats and chickens. Hoping this will be a good base to start to work on and collect enough moisture to support it.
John Saltveit
volunteer

Joined: May 09, 2010
Posts: 811
    
  23
Steve Solomon, in his recent book, the Intelligent Gardener, recommends a soil mineralization test, which is available at Logan Labs in Ohio. I just sent off for one.
John S
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