Soils Under the Microscope

Do you ever stop and think about the soil under your feet? You would be in the majority if you said no, but if you only knew of the secret lives going on in that soil you would be fascinated!

Our soils are teeming with life, and that life is microscopic. With the right tools though, you can literally see what is in your soil. Our recent workshop series provided a training opportunity on how to use Microscopes to see what is in the soil.

Ellen Walker and Bonnie Dunlop of Earthwhile Australia (see this month’s People of NRM article) delivered two training workshops covering the foundations of Soil Microbiology and Microscopy, one in Geraldton and the other in Dalwallinu.

Staff and committee members of local landcare groups, grower groups and farm improvement groups were invited to send participants to the course.  All participants were provided with a Brightfield Microscope to use for the day (and a few super keen participants brought their own). These allow the high level of magnification needed to view soil microorganisms and importantly they allow you to see transparent organisms (which most soil microorganisms are).

 There are several adjustable parts on the microscope, and Ellen and Bonnie covered all the tips for setting up and adjusting each part to give the clearest imaging, and how to correctly handle the Microscope to avoid damaging it. All participants were shown how to prepare a soil sample in order to prepare a slide for viewing that soil sample, then given the opportunity to make up their own slides. Initial samples came from Ellen’s own compost pile, which was guaranteed to contain the four main types of living organisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes). Once everyone was comfortable that they could correctly identify these different organisms, participants were given the opportunity to prepare slides using their own samples brought in from their farms, vegie patches and compost heaps.

As well as learning the skills for correctly using the microscopes, the workshop covered some basic principles of soil biology, soil food webs and why soil health is such a crucial aspect of sustainable farming. Soil microorganisms perform several functions and processes that are vital to soil health. They improve soil structure through producing micro and macro-aggregates and physical tunnelling action. They enhance moisture retention through firstly improving the soil structure and secondly the actual organisms themselves contain water plus are coated in physical slimes and films. They cycle nutrients and in doing so make them more available to plants, and they can increase plant health by increasing their resistance to pest and disease attack in several ways. If you would like to know more we explored this in greater detail in a previous NACC Notes article linked here.

Having established that these microrganisms play a vital role in soil and plant health, it stands to reason that as a land manager, it would be worth knowing what is present (or perhaps more interestingly what is absent) in your soils. It is interesting to note that some plants prefer bacterially dominated soils (generally annual plant systems), while others (generally more perennial systems) prefer fungally dominated soils. Understanding what is really going on in your soil, and what you are aiming to achieve, can also help to inform management practices.

Ellen and Bonnie managed to squeeze in two separate school visits during their Midwest tour, and provide talks to Wandina Primary Students (year 5) and also students at Morawa Agricultural College. We were impressed with the questions the Year 5’s had for the Earthwhile Team. The Morawa Ag students were interested in seeing their own soils under the microscope, and were quite surprised at some of the new information they learnt during their lesson.

For more information, please contact our Regional Agriculture Landcare Facilitators: Annabelle (E) or (P) 0448 986 879 or Lizzie (E) or (P) 0447 361 335.

Lizzie King – Regional Agriculture Landcare Facilitator

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