Meet the Scientists Whose Garden Unlocked the Secret To Good Health

Posted by on January 29, 2018 in Sci-Tech, Science with 5 Comments


By Lucy Rock | The Guardian

Juicy is the best word to describe Anne Biklé and David Montgomery’s garden, even in the dying days of autumn. Emerald green, dewy grass; a vegetable patch where leafy kale stands tall and arugula nestles low; shrubs and trees – cork bark maple, Persian ironwood and wax myrtle – screening the area from passersby and a late-flowering rhododendron bearing plump red blooms.

It is this oasis that led them on a remarkable journey into another world, one that exists beneath our feet and is run by microbes, creatures invisible to the naked eye.

Their plan to create the garden in the barren backyard of their new house in north Seattle was nearly thwarted by the very thing that makes it so lush today: the soil. It had been wrecked by glacial till – small golf-ball-size rocks packed in hard clay left by glaciers thousand of years ago.

Biklé obsessively layered compost on the beds and to their surprise their new plants grew rapidly and abundantly. But Biklé’s background in biology and Montgomery’s in geomorphology meant they weren’t content to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour.

They were intrigued at the speed of the transformation and began poring over scientific papers to find out why. The more they found out about microbes and how they turned compost into a smörgåsbord of other nutrients for the growing plants, the more they rethought not only how they viewed soil but also – prompted by Biklé being diagnosed with cancer – human health, medicine and agriculture. Their mission of discovery is charted in a book they cowrote, The Hidden Half of Nature, out in the UK this week.

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Looking out of the kitchen window at their labrador retriever, Loki, sniffing around the roots of a viburnum tree, Biklé says: “It all began 15 years ago. We’d bought this house and I had big-time garden lust. I had been going on garden tours, looking at books and dreaming of the day we’d do our own.”

They cleared the weed-riddled, stubby grass and concrete that was there when they moved in and bought thousands of dollars worth of plants, trees and shrubs. Biklé began to dig. “The first couple of holes went fine and then… aagh! It sounded like the metal shovel hitting concrete. I tried again and the same thing happened, then again and again. It was the quality of the soil. But the plants couldn’t sit around any longer, so they were going in. All we could do was address the soil from the top.”

Fertile soil needs a mix of weathered rock fragments and decaying organic matter. The former they had, it was the latter they lacked – in spades, many thousand of them. Commercial compost would blow their budget and Montgomery, still reeling from the smell of the chicken manure Biklé had used in the garden at their previous rented house, wanted a more fragrant solution.

Biklé, 55, a biologist and environmental planner, began gathering organic matter comprising woodchips from arborists, coffee grounds from baristas and leaves from neighbours’ lawns. She added a little “zoo doo” – faeces from grazing animals such as hippos and giraffes at the nearby zoo, which has little smell – and home-brewed compost tea from worm castings, kelp and molasses.

She said: “I’d tour around four or five Starbucks and fill up the car with 20 to 30 bags – they’re happy to give them to you. I’d mix them in with woodchips and leaves and layer it on the beds, about six inches thick. Gradually that would disappear, an eighth to a quarter of an inch every two weeks. We’d think: where did that go? The volume was decreasing so much and so quickly.”

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Over the next few years they noticed the colour of the soil darkening to a rich chocolate brown and wildlife inhabiting the garden: first came worms and fat-bodied spiders, next bees and dragonflies as the plants burgeoned, and finally birds.

Montgomery, 54, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and the winner of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 2008, says: “Anne was making soil far faster than nature could. We wanted to know how that was possible.”

Biklé adds: “I could understand a good part of that organic matter was being taken underground and broken down by beetles and insects, but when it got to the microscopic level, no. When we learnt about that, it was like, oh, there’s a hidden microbial world down there and it was fascinating.”

There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet and they are everywhere, in water, air, earth, as well as inside our bodies and on our skin. Without them we couldn’t digest food, plants wouldn’t grow and there wouldn’t be enough oxygen for us to breathe. There are thought to be 2-3bn microbial species, divided into six groups: bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, algae and archaea. They’ve had a bad press for much of the past century because some of them are nasty – the pathogens – and cause diseases such as TB, chickenpox and malaria, but most are harmless or helpful.

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The husband and wife team was so amazed at the symbiotic relationship between microbes and plant roots that they initially decided to write a book on soil restoration. Plants can’t get the nutrition they need from soil without the help of microbes – particularly bacteria and fungi – which create nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other nutrients in a form the plant cells can absorb. Microbes take the carbon they need to live from organic matter (the woodchips, coffee grounds and leaves that Biklé was laying down) and also get some food from plant roots that exude sugars and amino acids. Microbes, they explained, also defend plants against disease-causing pathogens.


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5 Reader Comments

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  1.' Janelle Geeves says:
  2.' Jean Sibelius says:

    Maybe more bad people should be reborn as microbes?

  3.' Nathan Rodgers says:

    The secret to everything is turning it into microbes

  4.' Nathan Rodgers says:

    Born again it’s where we put the wicked who are put to sleep awaiting a life of judgement

  5.' Nathan Rodgers says:

    Good for something guaranteed

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