Microbes & Bioavailibility: Getting the most out of your Garden

Microbes are microorganisms that make up all aspects of life around us. From the air we breathe to the water we drink and the soil we stand on, microorganisms surround us. Microbes can take many forms, but the microbes in your soil are beneficial bacteria and fungi that participate in the rhizophagy cycle, delivering nutrients in a more efficient form to your plant’s roots. These tiny particles actually help make nutrients in the soil easier for plant uptake and efficient use. 

But not all gardens have enough microbes, and adding microbes to your garden can be expensive. Below, you’ll find more detailed information on microbes, their role in your soil, best sources of microbes, and the difference that a high quality, organic microbe source can make without breaking the bank or ruining your garden. 

What are microbes?

Microbes are tiny, living organisms found in the water, soil and air, primarily as bacteria, viruses or fungi. Microbes break down nutrients in your soil, specifically nitrogen, making them easier for the plants to process, increasing the bioavailability and efficacy of your feeding efforts. Bioavailability is defined by Oxford is 'the proportion of a drug or other substance which enters the circulation when introduced into the body and so is able to have an active effect.’ For a plant, that means the proportion of nutrients being absorbed and used by the plant. Essentially, when you feed your plants, you are feeding the microbes in your soil which eat, digest and excrete your plant food, which is then more easily absorbed and digested by your plants. Soil food webs that are high in microbes are more effective and efficient with the nutrients in their soil, minimizing energy and nutrients wasted in your garden. The more microbes you have, the more bioavailable your nutrients will be. 

Why are microbes important?

In a nutshell: microbes make your garden more efficient. They pre-chew the food for your plant, if you will. 

Did you know that most plants don’t eat most of the food they are fed? This means that a large percentage of the money spent on nutrient lines is literally going to waste. Studies have shown that up to 90% of nutrients applied to soils are unavailable and go unused.

Microbes can help increase the amount of nutrients that your plants are actually eating. Studies have also shown that soil that is high in bacteria can influence the bioavailability (a measure of how easily plants can absorb the food you’re adding to the soil) of the nutrients added. By maintaining high microbe levels, you can increase your plants’ ability to properly use the nutrients that you are feeding it, reducing waste and increasing efficiency in your grow. The more organic and natural the nutrients and microbes are, the more efficient the entire system becomes at increasing bioavailability. 

Is my garden high in microbes?

Microbes can be found in gardens whose soil is naturally rich or has been built up to high microbe levels with soil conditioners, compost teas, and feeding regimens. Depending on your soil mixture, you may have soil that has been conditioned with or is naturally-endowed with a high microbe content. However, generally speaking, most soils are not high in microbes but will have some level of microbe activity. And if you are growing in soilless media such as coco coir, you won’t have any microbes unless you’ve added them. 

If you really want the most accurate answer, you can get your soil tested for microbial life at around $1,000 a pop. Otherwise, you can operate with the following rule of thumb: if you have not added microbes to your grow through conditioners, compost teas or microbial biostimulants, it is safe to assume that your garden is low in microbes. 

However, by adding the right microbiology to it, you can turn your soil into living soil!

How to Add Microbes to Your Grow

Most people that maintain a grow either build or buy their microbial content. Many microbe-rich additives are also very expensive, sometimes upwards of $500/gallon. An alternative is to make your own compost teas or living soil, but that can be a lot of work.

Microbe Sources:

  • Soil: As discussed, some soils are naturally endowed with high microbe content, while other blends are conditioned with additives and nutrients to offer increased microbe activity. If you have any microbes in your soil, they are likely lower than you’d like them to be, even if they are present.
  • Soil Conditioners: These are the “cliff notes” route to microbes. Buy, dress, repeat. With that being said, these products are usually highly concentrated, making them easy to improperly use, and are often among the most expensive supplements and additives you’ll find in the grow store – plus it’s one more bottle to deal with on your already-crowded shelf. If you’ve got a small hobby grow (or even if you’re buying at scale), this price point can create a burden of entry that may be prohibitive. Additionally, not all soil conditioners and microbe additives are created equally; many rely on synthetic food sources, additives, and nutrients that may detract from the overall quality of your grow.
  • Compost teas: This is the opposite route of soil conditioners, and is the most time-consuming and labor-intensive method for increasing microbes in your garden. Approaches to gardening like Korean Farming and Bokashi are traditional methods for increasing microbe activity, and are time-consuming, back-breaking processes, especially when growing at scale. While you may save some money, the time involved can be upwards of 10x as many hours as it takes to use an organic feeding regimen that already includes microbes in high supply. 
  • Microbe-Rich Nutrient Lines: Certain nutrient lines are designed with microbes in mind. Organic nutrients are more bioavailable than their synthetic counterparts, and organic nutrient lines that feature organic compounds as well as organic microbes double down on this efficacy and bioavailability. By adding microbes with every feeding, you avoid time-intensive calculations and impossible mixture recipes, and you increase bioavailability two-fold by introducing organic nutrients and the microbes needed to prepare them for root absorption.

No matter how you approach microbes, they are important to the overall health of your grow and your plants’ happiness throughout their vegetative and bloom cycles. The more bioavailable your soil is, and the more microbes their are to process the nutrients for your roots, the healthier your plants will be, resulting in bigger harvests with fewer nutrients (and costs). I personally have chosen to use an organic nutrient line that is high in microbes from FOOP Organic Biosciences. I cut out the extra bottles from my shelf and increased my plants’ uptake during feedings, and all I’ve seen are positive results. The microbes stay alive in FOOP’s bottles for at least a year, and are the budget-friendly, time-friendly and (most importantly) plant-friendly microbe solution that can take any garden up a level from good to great.

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