The Rainforest under our Pillows

//The Rainforest under our Pillows

When you go to bed tonight you might wonder what that noise is.


Beneath your pillow, beneath your bed, beneath your house, lives a vast rainforest teeming with life.


For in just a square metre of your garden soil live over one million, million soil microbes. In a gram of this soil, up to a million different species exist, and in a table spoon of your soil, there travels 50km of fungal threads, weaving their way about.


The richness of this world is only just coming to light. Ninety percent of all the world’s fungi live in soil and half the world’s bacteria.


We think of organic matter being the main component of soil yet it on average it makes up only 5% of the soil composition, the rest being inorganic substrate, water and air. This is why soil erosion and over farming is so dangerous, as once this organic compound is lost or sucked out into crops and not replaced, the soil becomes barren. Areas all over the world have agricultural land now being labelled by how many more years it has left until it is exhausted, with 16% of land perhaps not lasting longer than the end of this century. It can take 200-400 years to create a 1cm thick layer of new top soil, and in some cases over 5000 years. Calling soil Black Gold is an understatement.


So next time you complain that your hands have got dirty, remember that if it wasn’t for soil most of the food we eat would be impossible to grow.


What’s in our soil?


First of all, organic matter. This distinguishes good soil from barren material. To imagine how much matter is in a typical UK field, a cow weighs about half a tonne and normally we graze one cow per hectare. In this field there are up to five cows, 2.6 tonnes, of organic matter.


In this same acre are 1.5 tonnes of bacteria!


Bacteria is the biggest microbe of them all, breaking down organic matter and dead organisms. In our garden, or a forest, a predominance of them are found around the roots of the plants. Heterotrophic bacteria decompose organic matter into nutrients which the plant roots absorb, with Autotrophic bacteria generate their own organic matter from CO2 and inorganic matter and minerals, again which the plants can then absorb. The bacteria in turn benefit from nutrients the roots give out. Bacteria can even protect the roots from harmful pathogens. To get around, bacteria produce slime which helps bind the soil particles together making it more robust.


Fungi is a whole new world being explored by science. They have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots and, joined to the roots, can extend metres or hundreds of kilometres away in different directions. Because they are smaller than roots they can squeeze into the smallest fissures of rocks, bringing back water molecules and nutrients to the plant roots in exchange for sugars that the roots give them!


There are plethora of other personalities in our garden soil, nematodes which can travel through the soil like microscopic worms, bacteria and fungi hitching a ride on their backs to colonise new land, protozoa which feeds on bacteria, allowing nitrogen to fixate back into the soil. The are mites, lava and Springtails, which under a microscope look like pale, perfectly formed little prawns.


So what can we do for the health of our soil?


When I asked a soil expert recently he exclaimed, referencing James Nardi: “There is only one answer to preserving and looking after our soil, the magic bullet, is compost. As much organic matter as we can find!”


He, like many other soil scientists, advise us to dig as less as possible, as rotivating and deep digging have been proven to damage the huge network and web of life in the soil. “If possible, lay mulches on top of the soil, use green manures in the Winter, rotate soil beds when growing veggies, and avoid artificial fertilisers which are now being proven to damage the microbial of the soil, throwing it out of balance.


So you don’t have to travel to Brazil for an exotic experience of life, just peer into the good brown stuff between your shrubs, grab a spoonful and get out your microscope.


What to do in garden This May

There is an old gardener’s adage that ‘ one looses the gardens in May’.

There is so much to do.

Annual flowers and other frost sensitive plants like vegetable plugs- tomatoes, runner beans, peppers, aubergines and chillies – can be bought and planted now if you didn’t have the opportunity to grow them indoors this year.

Feed lawns

Water any new plants and fertilise and water pot plants

If Penstemons show lots of new basal growth prune them back to the fresh green shoots

Thin out the clematis that have already flowered this year.

Hoe, hoe more hoeing every week, but very lightly,  to get the weeds when they are small- to save you having to get on your hands and knees – little and often. Or apply a good mulch. Even grass clippings are now said to be fine straight on bare soil.


Where to visit in May

Parham house of course!

Parham Park, Pulborough RH20 4HS

Opening times

House | 14:00 – 17:00

Gardens | 12:00 – 17:00

Big Kitchen Restaurant | 12:00 – 17:00

Last Admission | 16:30

By |2024-04-01T12:05:27+01:00April 1st, 2024|Articles|Comments Off on The Rainforest under our Pillows

About the Author:

In 2006 I formed Glorious Gardens, gathering together skilled practitioners to offer not just design but implementation of these designs and maintenance packages where we could look after the gardens once we had created them. Throughout my career I have designed gardens to inspire people with the heart aching beauty of nature, with shapes, colours, moods and proportions to pleasure the body and calm and delight the mind. I am also an artist who works with colour and abstract shapes and I bring this sensitivity to the 4 dimensions of a garden. I am very good at listening to clients and I’m able to draw out the essence of what a client wants for their outdoor space.