Close up of plant in dark soil with targeting reticle on it

Soil Biology

Soil biology is not something the average homeowner usually thinks about. Most garden and lawn enthusiasts focus solely on what they can see above ground, such as healthy-looking plants and trees and the pollinators that visit them. Dirt is not an aspect of lawn care most people are interested in and who can blame them!?

That being said, your soil and everything living within it are crucial to growing a thick and healthy lawn. Believe it or not, what you do below-ground will have much more of an impact on your lawn’s health than any superficial above-ground treatment.

Scientists are still researching the field extensively; however, there are some fascinating facts that can show just how vital biological life is to your soil. It is estimated that over 1 million fungi and 1 billion bacteria can be found in only 1 gram of soil. Now multiply that by the amount of land you have, and we’re talking about an astounding number of organisms and microorganisms that call your lawn home. The good news is that these tiny and even microscopic organisms are essential to a healthy, robust, and disease-resistant lawn.

These organisms provide all of the necessary conditions that allow plants to grow to their fullest potential. Keeping your soil alive and teeming with these organisms can transform your lawn from just okay to the envy of everyone who sees it. Maintenance of your lawn’s soil biology requires minimal attention and effort on your part. Keep reading to discover ways you can enhance your soil’s biology to build the best possible lawn.

Understanding Your Soil’s Ecosystem

An ecosystem is made up of a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. It includes all living and nonliving things in an area and how they interact with each other. As the bacteria, algae, fungi, worms, insects, etc. eat, grow, and move through the soil, their actions make it possible to have clean air, clean water, and healthy plants. This ecosystem hosts an elaborate food web that can be divided into trophic levels.

What are Trophic Levels and How Do They Impact Lawn Care?

A trophic level of an organism indicates the position it occupies in a particular food chain. Each level contains organisms that share the same function in the food chain as well as the same nutritional relationship to the primary sources of energy which are plants. Put simply, the trophic level of an organism is the number of steps it is from the beginning of the food chain. Every organism relies heavily on those in a different trophic level which creates a complex web of interactions. Let’s simplify that a little!

Diagram of the food chain, with primary producers at the bottom and apex predators at the top and other levels in between

Making up the first and largest trophic level are plants. Plants, moss, algae, and photosynthetic bacteria are primary producers which means they get their energy from the sun. They turn the energy they obtain from sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugars for the plants to feed on through a process called photosynthesis. Every animal that eats these plants will receive energy to survive and thrive from each plant.

The second trophic level is made up of the decomposers and mutualists like fungi and non-photosynthetic bacteria. Decomposers break down residue in the soil, like decaying plant matter, and create new organic material that provides an energy source for other organisms. Mutualists benefit from other organisms and also provide nutrients to other organisms for the benefit of both. Both decomposers provide essential services to soil and plant and animal life including:

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Recycle Nutrients – The decomposers constantly break down carbon and nutrients to return them to the soil for plants and other organisms to use. The plants or organisms ingest or absorb these nutrients or elements for their growth or health. After their life cycle is complete, they return the nutrients to the soil through the decaying process, and the cycle begins again.

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Deliver Nutrients and Water – Think of bacteria and fungi as the delivery systems of the soil ecosystem. As an ecosystem thrives, bacteria reproduce as much as the nutrient levels allow. The carbon, nutrients, and water they ingest become essentially locked in their bodies until their death when these nutrients are returned to the soil. This helps buffer soil during times of poor conditions. Fungi also deliver nutrients and water to plant root systems where they live that plants would otherwise not have access to.

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Enhance Plant Growth – Plants that live in an environment, such as your healthy lawn, are usually more well-nourished than those living in an area experiencing difficult conditions such as drought or overexposure to chemical products like fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, they tend to grow better, produce more, and are more resistant to difficult conditions or disease.

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Provides Disease Protection and Resistance – Bacteria and fungi rely heavily on plants for their food and nourishment. Without healthy plants, they would cease to exist. They have evolved ways to protect their “homes” at all costs, and this includes helping plants stay healthy. Bacteria and fungi can produce enzymes that kill pathogens. By having an abundance of beneficial microorganisms in the soil, they will keep pathogens and harmful bacterial populations low as they have so many healthy organisms to compete against.

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Breakdown Soil Toxins – Microbes have the incredible task of detoxifying harmful chemicals in the soil from chemical fertilizers or herbicides. They also break down naturally-occurring toxins that would otherwise inhibit plant growth. However, consistent chemical fertilizer use will decrease their populations and cause them harm.

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Keep Pest Populations Low – Pests typically feed off of decaying or dead plant matter. Pests begin to starve when faced with nothing but healthy plants. Many harmful insects are unable to ingest healthy plants, so encouraging a robust microorganism population in your soil can benefit not only your plants’ health but their defenses as well.

The third trophic level is comprised of shredders, grazers, and predators

  • Shredders are organisms like earthworms that shred plant matter as they feed. They also provide habitat for bacteria in their fecal matter and enhance soil structure by producing feces. Not surprisingly, worm poop is great for your soil and the microorganisms living there!
  • Grazers are mostly protozoa and nematodes. They release nitrogen from plant matter when they feed on fungi. They also control bacterial and fungi populations as well as disease-causing pests.
  • Predators have an equally important role. They stabilize populations of lower trophic level organisms. They also improve soil structure through burrowing and passing soil through their digestive tracts. In addition, they carry smaller organisms long distances which helps spread the healthy ecosystem.

There are higher level trophic levels; however, these are mainly higher level predators and do not directly affect soil health outside of providing population control of level three trophic organisms.

Featured Solutions

Sustainability Through Lawn Care

Glass globe laying in a bed of long grass

Now that we have a better understanding of all the factors comprising soil biology and how they interact to create an ecosystem that nurtures plants and allows them to thrive let’s take a look at what you can do to best help your lawn’s soil biology. Luckily, there are non-labor-intensive options available that will not harm your soil but will contribute to their success.

As we learned before, you cannot have a healthy lawn without healthy soil, and you cannot have healthy soil without an abundance of microorganisms. There are many different ways you can enhance and maintain beneficial biology in your soil. Use the methods below to increase your soil quality and increase the quality and health of your plants and turf.

Test Your Soil

You know you need to understand what’s going on below your lawn, but how do you go about doing that?

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Use Your Senses – This method is free but far from technological. It’s a great way to identify a problem and if you need to pay for a test to get more specific answers. Does your lawn look patchy? Dried out? Does your soil smell earthy? Unpleasant? Do your plants’ roots have small white fiber meshes? These are all ways your lawn tries to tell you about its health. Patchy, dried out, foul or non-odorous lawns are all indicators something is wrong. Fiber meshes on roots and a strong earthy smell as well as the presence of lots of earthworms indicate a healthy soil biology.

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General Microbial Analysis – This is a relatively inexpensive option that ranges from approximately $75 to several hundred depending on how much of an in-depth report you want. The tests involve sending a sample of dirt to a lab where they will test for the presence of bacteria, fungi, and other organisms. However, they do not tell you the species of these organisms, which leaves you in the dark about whether they are beneficial or not.

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Specific Microbial Analysis – These tests are a more in-depth version of the general microbial tests. They can identify which microbes are living in your soil so you can develop a more effective plan. This method is expensive and usually unnecessary for the average homeowner.

Choose the Best Fertilizer and Herbicide

One of the most important decisions you can make when trying to boost your soil biology and the health of its microbes is switching to an organic lawn care regimen. Although chemical fertilizers have been used commonly for decades, they have harmful effects on your lawn and soil quality. Natural or organic fertilizers replenish nutrients to the soil to enhance soil biology wherever it is applied.

Safer Brand Lawn Restore

Herbicides are much the same. They are applied to kill undesirable plants, such as weeds. However, you must be careful to purchase one that does not kill grass. Otherwise, you might destroy your existing lawn! Herbicides also come in two types, synthetic/chemical and organic. The organic type, such as the SaferⓇ Brand Weed Control line, has naturally derived ingredients that break down without releasing harmful chemicals into the soil.

By choosing organic products, you can contribute to the health and vitality of the soil by providing nutrients for microorganisms. Chemical products are toxic and overwhelm their ability to break them down if used over time. Organic products will break down over time into their naturally occurring ingredients to nourish the soil. Synthetic fertilizers release a shock of chemicals that could kill these beneficial organisms.

Water Wisely

All organisms need water to thrive; however, too much can be catastrophic. Try to keep your soil moist but not soaked. Constantly soaked roots are an open invitation for root rot and destructive fungi. Keep the soil moist by watering periodically and hold off when the forecast calls for rain.

Time of day is also important for wise watering. The best time to water plants, gardens, or lawns is not during the middle of the day. Water your turf in the morning or early evening to ensure the plants have time to soak it up before it evaporates.

A container full of scraps ready to be added to compost heap

Start Composting

The microbes and fungi in your soil naturally break down organic matter. The act of composting creates nutrient and microbe-dense material that will provide a massive boost to your lawn or garden. Compost dramatically increases the number of microbes found in an area which will improve your plants’ health and disease resistance.

If spreading compost seems like a daunting task, don’t worry. Compost tea is a liquid version of regular compost that is both less strenuous and less time-consuming to spread. The composted materials are brewed like tea, and the nutrients are extracted from the solid materials. The resulting “tea” can be directly applied to your lawn for a nutrient and microbe boost.

It is important to keep in mind that compost teas can lose some nutrient value during the brewing process whereas regular compost provides more consistent nutrient levels.

Evicting Unwanted Pests

Whether it is moles, gophers, grubs, insects, or other nuisance animals that are causing you stress, there are many options to help alleviate your problem. Repellents, both liquid and granular, help prevent animals from invading your lawn and can stop a problem before it starts.

Traps are very effective at eliminating animals after they have declared your lawn home. There are even motion-activated sprayers that scare animals away from areas by spraying them with a small jet of water.

Insects are small but can devastate a lawn and garden, sometimes overnight. By using a pesticide that is approved for organic use, you can apply insecticides, such as SaferⓇ Brand Insecticides to problem areas without worrying about the consequences to your lawn, plants, or soil biology.

Eager to Learn More?

Take some time to review our learning center pages so you can equip yourself with all the knowledge you could need when it comes to lawn care and so much more. By signing up for our e-newsletter, you can be among the first to hear about new products that could take your lawn to a whole new level of health!

OMRI Certified for Organic Gardening Safer® Brand leads the alternative lawn and garden products industry, offering many solutions that are compliant with organic gardening standards. Safer® Brand recognizes this growing demand by consumers and offers a wide variety of products for lawns, gardens, landscapes, flowers, houseplants, insects and more!

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