clover

It seems natural to focus on the biggest inhabitants of the garden and to think that gardening is all about plants.

But it is so much more.

The garden is a highly ordered world that extends from the top of the tallest tree deep into the earth.

It is a community of countless living organisms, all working hard to build their homes, feed themselves and raise their offspring.

While we focus on the plants - and perhaps the birds and butterflies - most of the species inhabiting the garden live in the soil and are so small that they can only be seen with the most powerful microscope.

Yet their relationships are every bit as complex as ours.

Every species has a unique set of tasks and every individual makes a contribution towards the benefit of the whole. When we look closely, we can see an intricate web of relationships, alliances and even cooperatives that rival our human institutions in sophistication.

Let’s begin by taking a giant step back to the time when primitive organisms came together to form the relationships that would become the foundation of life on earth. Life as we know it would not exist without the cooperation of two very unlikely partners - plants and bacteria.

All of the carbohydrates in our food and in every cell of every living being, and all the carbon in the soil used to be part of the air - carbon dioxide (CO2).

It is the unique task of plants, algae and certain kinds of bacteria to extract the carbon from the carbon dioxide and incorporate it into solid compounds. This is what we call photosynthesis.

But that’s only half of it. Photosynthesis is only possible through the activity of proteins, enzymes and similar substances in plant cells. One of the major building blocks of these molecules is nitrogen.

Nitrogen also occurs naturally as a part of air and even though plants are able to capture carbon dioxide gas they cannot capture nitrogen gas. This is the job of the nitrogen fixing bacteria, who are able to convert nitrogen gas into solid form.

Ultimately, all the protein in our food and in the bodies of all living organisms has its origin in the work of these tiny creatures. But just like us, they totally depend on plants and recycled organic matter for their carbohydrates.

These bacteria live in the soil, on plant surfaces, and some even live right inside plant roots and leaves where they trade their nitrogen directly with the plant in exchange for sugars. Neither can exist without the other, and none of us would be here without their cooperation.

The creation of life on earth is truly a group effort.

In Mother Nature’s garden abundance continually increases, as ever more carbohydrates and proteins are created.

The greatest biodiversity on land is found in the top few inches of the soil, where these basic building blocks of life are constantly recycled as one organism’s waste becomes another’s food.

The end product, the most highly refined waste, is humus, which in these times of climate change we cherish for its ability to moderate the CO2 content of the atmosphere. But the carbon doesn’t get into the soil without the work of plants and the whole complex soil based web of life.

All of this comes to a halt when we - with our obsession with tidiness - deprive the soil dwelling organisms of their primary carbohydrate source: the old and discarded plant parts.


For current Gaia College students, these concepts are some of the most important to keep top of mind as you move through your course.

For future Gaia College students, we encourage you to start with the Organic Master Gardener course:

Organic Master Gardener Online