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Big truths can be found in the world of microbes

'Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web' by Jeff Lowenfels, Wayne Lewis
Friday, Nov. 23, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

I love to read, but lately it seems the only books I have time to peruse are those related to gardening. Occasionally, I come across a few that are real winners and I feel they should be on every gardener's bookshelf.

There are three books that are both educating and entertaining and, in my humble opinion, should be read by every gardener. Buy them, take them out of the library, or borrow them from a friend — they'd also make great holiday gifts for the gardener in your life.

Just when you think you have a grasp of “how to garden,” someone writes a book that shakes it all up ... and the whole thing makes darned good sense. The authors have research to back up their ideas, they speak from experience, and they make a complicated topic easy to understand and incredibly readable.

Enter “Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. We are all taught ad nausea to pay attention to our soil and to spend lots of time amending it properly and working on creating a good base for our plants; but do we really do it, and do we do it right? “Teaming with Microbes” is an inside look at what's really going on in our dirt and the amazing relationships between soil life and plant life.

Betcha didn't know that a mere teaspoon of soil contains at least a billion bacteria and several yards of fungal threads (meaning an acre of soil contains over 2,000 pounds of bacteria — staggering!); and I'll also betcha didn't know that all this microscopic life is way more important to plant health than most of us ever thought — even us organic gardening junkies (trust me, you've got to read it to believe it!). The book's second half is dedicated to teaching gardeners how to use all this information to care for their soil. You may think you've heard everything there is to hear about dirt, but this is pretty “ground-breaking” information and will surprise a lot of long time gardeners.

Another favorite read of the season is Paul Tukey's “The Organic Lawn Care Manual: A Natural Low-Maintenance System for a Beautiful, Safe Lawn.” Tukey is the founder of and a self-professed “lawn man.” He worked as a professional landscaper for several years until he was diagnosed with acute pesticide poisoning from his use of conventional weed-killers.

“The Organic Lawn Care Manual” is incredibly detailed, covering everything from turf varieties, to organic fertilizers, to how to hire a lawn-care contractor. The book points out some major dangers to ourselves and the environment from the use of synthetic products and, more importantly, it hands you a step-by-step program to avoid them and still have a lush, healthy lawn. A worthwhile read, chock full of sensible information and science to back it up.

“The Elements of Organic Gardening” by Prince Charles and Stephanie Donaldson is not a “down and dirty” how-to gardening book, but it is interesting and deserves a place on the bookshelf (or coffee table!). The book details the prince's personal philosophy on gardening and offers unique insight into the royal gardens and how they are maintained. The pictures are lush and the text is lighter than you'd expect from such a glossy, high-profile book.

I suspect that Donaldson did most of the writing (purely an assumption on my part), and her style is both beautiful and educational. I did learn some interesting things from “The Elements of Organic Gardening,” in particular about how livestock and poultry play an important role in the royal gardens, about British gardening history, and about some unusual pruning techniques. Not to mention all the great ideas I got from the book's photographs that will translate surprisingly well into my own small garden.

Cozy up and crack one open (a book, I mean). What a perfect way to spend the coming winter.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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