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checking quality of compost and tea with a microscope

                    


Joined: Oct 23, 2011
Posts: 0
I've been reading the "Compost Tea Brewing Manual" and "Compost Tea Quality: Light Microscope Methods" by Dr. Elaine Ingham.  The second publication has lots of color pictures depicting what you're "supposed" to see on the slide under the scope. 

Lots of information and those publications are available on her website.

She emphasizes that looking at samples of brewed tea under a high powered microscope is the only way to be sure that you're applying tea that is full of the RIGHT kind of microbes. 

Bad tea has pathogens rather than beneficial organisms. 
Poor tea has a few bacterial clumps.
Acceptable tea has more bacteria, and some thin fungal hyphae, which are not the most beneficial types.
Good tea has bacteria in chains, thicker branching hyphae strands, and perhaps some protozoa.
Excellent tea contains lots of bacteria, lots of fungi, plus protozoa and nematodes. 

Apparently, protozoa and nematodes are essential to the ability of plants to uptake minerals.  Many nutrients are not available to plants until they are digested by these tiny creatures, and the nutrients are chelated in their waste.  The well-known relationships that plant roots have with bacteria are actually facilitated by these bacteria consuming organisms (they eat roots, general organic matter, and each other also).  News to me! 

Before brewing tea, the compost is tested to be sure that the right organisms exist and can multiply in the aerated environment of the brewing process.  After brewing, the tea itself is examined to ensure that aerobic organisms dominate the tea.  If there's not enough oxygen during the entire brewing time, the tea can be overtaken by anaerobic organisms which will consume the aerobic, more plant-friendly ones!

We decided to take the plunge and find a microscope (considering taking samples to our local school's scopes) to assess our tea.  Anyone else have experience with this?  Fascinating stuff. 
Emerson White


Joined: May 02, 2010
Posts: 1206
Location: Alaska
There are extremely few organisms you can identify with a light microscope alone. A smear on a slide will give you no information as to whether or not the organism is aerobic or anaerobic, pathogenic, or benign. I can only find where to buy the book on her website, not sure what there is for information inside. I will tell you that I bought several very large very heavy very expensive textbooks to learn to identify microbes and I doubt that a 48 page book will do all that much to help. you can find out some very basic information like does it have a glycocalyx/capsid or do you have gram positive/ gram negative organisms (heres a hint, if you don't have both, someones dumping antibiotics in your compost pile) with a few vials of various chemicals, and a microscope, but most of the simple biochemical tests you can do in your kitchen rely on pure cultures, or at least co-cultures with known organisms.

this woman has a Ph.D. in microbiology, but really she is either playing fast and loose, or sitting on a nobel prize. If her techniques could be used to differentiate soil bacterium (a notoriously complex microbiotic ecosystem) in a crowd with out culturing on differential medium, or testing with advanced biochemical tests, I think she would be sitting on at least a Nobel prize or two in medicine. So long as you are playing fast and loose, why bother to find a microscope, it might be fun to look I guess... but really paying attention to your process is more important than paying attention to the product coming out the end, sometimes you have to cross your fingers and hope.
Al Loria


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 395
Location: New York
Emerson, this begs the question of what to do to prepare our compost to turn out the most desirable microbiology.  This may sound silly, but, is there any way to inoculate our batches of compost material with beneficial microbes indigenous to our own soils?  Or, are there beneficial microbes, in general, that could, or should be added?

rose macaskie


Joined: May 09, 2009
Posts: 2134
>Emerson white it might not be ptimal following the advice of the woman who wrote the books but still i find any place is a good place to start, Marina philips will start here and then maybe become in the fullness of time a great micro biologist or someone else who reads this thread will start here and go on to great things. That's how i do things just start them though i don't know much about it at first and let myself get sucked in and in somethings i don't do to badly start somewhere and get carried on.  Faced with people who are too realistic or not realistic the right way, i just get paralysed. Its usefull to know that you should get a good microscope.  agri rose macaskie
Scott Reil


Joined: Jan 19, 2010
Posts: 179
Location: Colchester, CT
Emerson, I have to disagree.

Vehemently.

There are a number of places here on the web that can be invaluable in helping with identification of any number of soil inhabitants. As someone who did just this every day fro years, I can tell you personally that it was about a week before I was able to make a reasonable assessment of a sample based on simple field counts. The hardest part was learning to find amoebae, but it's a bit like learning to spot fish from the banks or the boat; once you do it enough and learn what to look for you get better at it fast...

If you are fixated with the bacterial population, then no, you do not get enough resolution to do that well, but in my experience, coliform populations express them selves readily enough to detect (the name says it all and they ARE pretty easily ID'd. The importatn thing to remember in Dr. Ingham's work is that bacteria are simply the mast food source for the rest of the food chain and if you have established and maintained the protozoan and nematic populations in good condition, then NO bacterial population can achieve dominance of the environment. This is hardly just Elaine's findings; E.O. Wilson posited that biodiversity inclusive of apical predators  maintains the ecosystem, and that is as true under a microscope as it is in a jungle...

As for your conjecture that Dr. Ingham's work may be Nobel worthy, it would not be from any monocular focus on bacteria (or archaea, or protists, or nematodes), it would be for her recognition that the natural nitrogen loop, and retention of fertility in soils is not reliant on any one piece, but in the collected interactions of of a complex biota.

I was talking about my focus of the moment with Dr. Ingham (I was smitten with the anti-fungal fungus, Trichoderma, and how corn seemed to stimulate it's growth) and asked what she thought about culturing Trichoderma for addition to soils or composts. She stopped me and said that she didn't like to focus on any one organism in soil , that that was missing the point, and that it was biodiversity that was the key. THAT's the genius of Elaine Ingham in a nutshell

And THAT you can see in a microscope. Heck, you can see it bare eyed if you look hard; that healthy soil has mites and big nematodes like Heterorhabditus, springtails, and more. This is simply the next step up from microscopic...

Marina (et al), check out Jeff Lowenfels Teaming With Microbes; it's the best oversight I have seen to date for Dr. Ingham's work and perfect for those who wish to understand without spending a couple grans on a 'scope...

And Emerson? Don't worry about the E.coli. That's only munchies for good guys...

S


Connecticut Accredited Nurseryperson
Accredited Organic Land Care Professional (NOFA)
Al Loria


Joined: Apr 21, 2010
Posts: 395
Location: New York
My compost in the tumbler must be healthy then.  It is loaded with thousands of smaller than a pinhead sized, white, spider-like creatures.  I am guessing they are mites, or maybe just spiders.

Please tell me these are the good guys.


Al
Emerson White


Joined: May 02, 2010
Posts: 1206
Location: Alaska
Scott, in what context have you done microscope work. I will agree with you about being able to judge soil health with your naked eye. I know that after working with organisms you get an intuitive feel for them, but I also remember when I first started working with a scope, and I've TA'd in a few labs introducing people to scopes. It takes about a week to get good at using a scope, and a few weeks to get good intuition about a limited number of organisms. Knowing 90% of the time if you have Strep. pneumo. and Strep. pyogenes and there for which test to run first is one thing, but really its incredibly subtle cues that let you know what you probably have, not the sort of thing you can identify as a novice. The organism count on any compost, even bad compost, is going to be TNC no matter what. Toss in the few dozen different pleomorphic organisms  and debris you are likely to find and you have a recipe for guessing and low certainty.  If you think about an academic setting just imagine trying to get a paper published on "I visually confirmed Clostridium sp.". I just have a hard time believing that anything can be gleaned following the directions in a 48 page book using widely available and affordable chemicals and come out with the kind of certainty that would make it worth while.
Jordan Lowery
volunteer

Joined: Sep 26, 2009
Posts: 1528
Location: zone 7
    
  11
ive been brewing ACT for about 7 years now in a whole number of brewers. about 5 of those were without a microscope. i can say without a doubt that the 5 years without one compared to the two with are not much different. the key is very biologically active compost. the best you can find or make. as well as the more air the better. if you have crappy compost your going to get crappy compost tea, the more diversity of materials you can add to your pile the better off you are.

i agree with Emerson on the identification of the microbes,  far too complicated to just say this is this and that is that. sure we can tell if theres fungi and bacteria, protozoa and nematodes, but we only can only make guesses without extremely expensive equipment to identify certain micro organisms.


The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings. - Masanobu Fukuoka
Joel Hollingsworth
volunteer

Joined: Jul 01, 2009
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
So the consensus seems to be that a microscope isn't a practical way of identifying bacteria in any but the most controlled conditions, but that microscopic eukaryotic life is worth keeping an eye on as an adjunct to other means of observing the soil ecosystem?


"the qualities of these bacteria, like the heat of the sun, electricity, or the qualities of metals, are part of the storehouse of knowledge of all men.  They are manifestations of the laws of nature, free to all men and reserved exclusively to none." SCOTUS, Funk Bros. Seed Co. v. Kale Inoculant Co.
Scott Reil


Joined: Jan 19, 2010
Posts: 179
Location: Colchester, CT
Emerson, I was doing soil food web assays in support of horticultural testing fro several years, hence my association with Dr. Ingham...

You are talking about IDing bacteria again, something I never learned becasue fro a horticultural or agricultural point of view there is little point; all of them are just fodder ofr higher level predators. Indeed the entire premise of Dr. Ingham's work is based on the concept of the biology being the true exchange capacity for soil nutrient.

Indeed there are particular bacteria that play more important roles than others in that exchange but the most common soil bacterias are not pathogenic and have beneficial roles to play. You have listed mostyl pathogens but my understanding of soil bacteria (indeed bacteria in general) is that about 6% are plant or animal pathogenic and the rest are either benign or beneficial. If we maintain healthy predators and a competitive biodiversity, there is never an issue. I have seen this first hand on a microscope, adding healthy composts to high populations of coliforms and in a few hours, flagellates, cilliates and amoba have dined royally (increasing population rapidly) and the badguy bacteria are no more...

Move up the food chain to begin to identify not the bacteria, but their predators, and you begin to see where farmers and gardeners live; in the natural nitrogen looping of predation of those most nitrogen intense kingdoms of bacteria and archaea... don't worry about the badguys, they're just somebody's dinner...

In other words, spot on, Joel...

S
Emerson White


Joined: May 02, 2010
Posts: 1206
Location: Alaska
Alright, sorry my argument was too bacterially focused, but still I doubt that a microscope would aid in determining if the spore you see was from a Mycorrhizal fungus or a powdery mildew or an anaerobic fungi. Same goes for Beneficial vs. parasitic nematodes. The diversity issue is one that you need a strong hand lens to address at most, and the idenitification issue is one you can't address with out some other large set of knowledge. Bacteria were only my example, not my argument.
Scott Reil


Joined: Jan 19, 2010
Posts: 179
Location: Colchester, CT
Well Emerson, what you see as not quite possible was pretty much what I did all day...

Spores, well hard to tell as spores, I'll agree with that, but when they hyphate it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly; our beneficials have hyphal diameters of two or more microns to almost four microns and the bad guys are much less (a generalization to be sure but true enough to hold up); there are also some coloring indicators that let you sort mycorrhizals from the rest of the pack. You can get a pretty solid idea of pathogenic vs. beneficial population with field counts...

As for nematodes, sorting out all of the setae and pharangeal bulbs isn't easy, but it's doable and there are a few good resources if you really need to know species. For the most part it is pretty easy to tell predatory from bacterial feeder from root feeders. I still can't tell fungal switchers from fungal feeders without the scorecard, but again, for the average gardener, there isn't a great issue; like bacteria or fungi or anything else, pathogenic species are a very small portion of any healthy biota, and good diversity means healthy soil...

In the chapter of One Straw Revolution titled The Limits Of Science, Fukuoka-sensei says "Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts tests that conform neither with natural law nor with practical experiences. The results are arranged for the convenience of research, not according to the needs of the farmer. To think that these conclusions can be put to use with invariable sucess in the farmer's field  is a big mistake."

Looking through that 'scope can bring you to focus too much on this species or that, losing sight of the bigger picture. Dr. Ingham has taken Fukuoka-sensei's thought  a step further; to seperate any one organism, including those humans find "useless" or "pathogenic" from the biota is as useless as the research  he speaks of. In proper context there are no useless organisms; I like the way Emilia Hazelip no longer uses the word weeds, instead substituting "spontaneous plants"; sort of a celebration of diversity (she leaves them as they attract native insects and organisms, and finds benefit, not detriment, to her garden). The same applies to soil biologies.

We must adopt the more general view; the uncertainty principle applies to our soils as much as anywhere else. The closer we try to measure the more uncertain our measurements become. Soil is not a conglomeration of seperate pieces as much as it is a cloth woven of diverse threads; as Dr, Ingham has coined it, a soil food web. To concentrate on any thread is to miss the greater whole...

Our assumptions that we can decipher good from bad in nature are usually unfounded and more grounded in hubris than fact. Nature's ultimate control on any organism is a diversity of other organisms. We are the only species to date exceeding that control, but I suspect Nature will have the last laugh there, as even if she is unable to bring us to check, we seem hell bent on accomplishing that end ourselves... 

S
Emerson White


Joined: May 02, 2010
Posts: 1206
Location: Alaska
So if you cant tell what is in there, or even if you don't want to be looking for particulars, what is the advantage of looking through a scope to start?
Scott Reil


Joined: Jan 19, 2010
Posts: 179
Location: Colchester, CT
Hey Emerson,

As far as soil fertility is concerned the generalities give us as much info as we need. FOr instance, if I am looking at high bacterial counts and high ciliates we likely have a depleted O2 situation, and we can look at steps to alleviate that. High bacterials and low active fungals warrants a higher carbon addition, and perhaps innoculation with a fungal compost. Even as we compare these biological factors against chemical ones we can begin to see trends and shortages we can use natural inputs to begin to correct...

We are well aware of the biological generalities of natural succession of soils, and which plants do better at which stages. By knowing our intended crop and the current biological state of the soil, we can determine how to either accelerate or reatrd the natural succession for optimal growth. Our current chemical monoculture relies entirely on processes that retard natural succession and soil building to a place that ALWAYS favors weeds, to which the answer is more chemicals. The methodology described by Dr. Ingham works within natural systems using natural biologies, keeping our tampering to a least damaging level and allowing for increases in soil. Monitoring by general field counts is a most valuable tool in this process...

C:N is more important than NPK... and that relies on biology...

S
 
 
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