All posts by Jordan Charbonneau

The Soil Food Web

Healthy, productive plants start with healthy soil. One way to look at soil health is through the soil food web. It’s similar to a food chain but it’s non-linear. For example, earthworms consume decaying plant material but plants also consume the nutrients in worm castings. In a food web, there’s back and forth. Plus, many organisms don’t rely on a single food source. A food web is made up of plants, animals, and all the organisms in the soil from visible insects and fungus to microscopic bacteria. A healthy soil food web is key to a healthy garden and ecosystem.

The soil food web can be looked at in trophic levels.

Photo from the NRCS

First Trophic Level

The first tropic level is made up of the primary producers that photosynthesize, using the sun’s energy to fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These producers include plants, shrubs, trees, lichens, moss, photosynthetic bacteria, and algae.

Second Trophic Level

This level is made up of decomposers, mutualists, pathogens, parasites, and root feeders. These include nematodes, fungi, and bacteria.

Third Trophic Level

The third level is made up of shredders, predators, and grazers. Shredders include anthropods like earthworms, leaf-eating insects, and millipedes that break plant material down into smaller pieces. Third level predators include nematodes and some protozoa which feed on fungus and bacteria. Grazers are also composed of different types of protozoa.

Fourth Trophic Level

The fourth trophic level includes predatory anthropods and nematodes that eat other soil organisms. These include beneficial garden insects like predatory wasps and beetles.

Fifth & Higher Trophic Levels

These levels are made up of higher-level predators; birds and animals that consume other organisms.

Increasing Complexity

A complex and diverse food web is a healthy one. Here are some steps you can take to increase your soil food web’s complexity.

If you garden on a large plot, breaking it up can increase the number of anthropods present in your soil food web. This can be done through the use of permanent vegetative pathways (clover is great for this) or hedgerows within your garden.

Tilling is detrimental to protozoa and fungus and can create an unbalanced web. Using reduced or no-till methods can increase the diversity of helpful bacteria, fungus, and protozoa present in the soil.

Keeping soil covered can also increase fungal, bacteria, and insect life. This can be achieved through the use of cover crops and mulches.

Studies have shown that fields with 4-year crop rotations have more beneficial fungi and bacteria than those with 2-year rotations.

Pesticide use significantly decreases the number and diversity of a wide variety of soil organisms. Having healthy soil and therefore healthy plants can help prevent the need for pesticides in the first place.

Carbon Sequestration

A healthy soil food web is important to climate change mitigation. Plants take in atmospheric carbon in the form of carbon dioxide and add carbon to the soil. In a healthy ecosystem, it’s used in the soil by fungus and bacteria where it can remain for hundreds of years!

Water Quality

A soil food web also impacts water quality. Healthy soil food webs help create and maintain organic matter which helps to hold moisture and prevent erosion.

Bedtime Tea: Best Herbs to Grow for Sleep

Getting good sleep is key to a happy life. For some folks, adding a cup of herbal tea to their evening routine can help them have a restful night. Try adding these herbs to your garden this spring to craft your own bedtime teas.

Chamomile

Chamomile has a long history of being used as a sleep aid. The cheery white and yellow flowers contain a compound called apigenin which is believed to promote relaxation and sleep. Chamomile has a distinct apple-like flavor and fragrance.

To make chamomile tea you’ll want to collect the flowers. It’s best to harvest them in the morning just after the dew has dried. Pinch off the stem just below the flowers.

Use your chamomile fresh or dry it for later. Dry the flowers in a dehydrator on low or spread them on a screen somewhere warm and dry. To make tea with dried flowers bring your water to a boil and then steep 2-3 teaspoons for 10 minutes. Use 4 teaspoons if the flowers are fresh.

Skullcap

This Native American herb has been used for centuries to promote sleep, calm the nerves, and treat anxiety and depression. It’s thought that skullcap’s sedative properties come from its ability to stimulate gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that helps calm nerves.

Skullcap is most effective when harvested in flower. Harvest the aerial parts of the plant, leaves, stem, and flowers. Dry in a dehydrator on a low setting or on a screen in a warm dry place.

To make skullcap tea, pour boiling water over 1 tablespoon of dry skullcap and let steep for 10 minutes. Start with one cup a day and increase of needed.

*Pregnant women and those suffering from liver disease should avoid taking skullcap.

Catnip

This member of the mint family isn’t just for felines! Catnip flowers and leaves contain the compound nepetalactone which has a mild sedative effect. It has been used to treat insomnia, anxiety, and headaches.

Like skullcap, it’s best to harvest catnip in flower. Clip the leaves and flowers and dry in a dehydrator on low or on a screen in a warm dry place.

Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 2 teaspoons of dried catnip and let steep for 10 minutes. Some people enjoy catnip tea best with a touch of lemon and honey.

Lavender

Lavender may be best known for its relaxing smell but it’s also a wonderful herbal tea. It’s commonly used to treat anxiety, stress headaches, depression, and insomnia. Some studies have shown that it boosts the production of dopamine, a hormone that helps you feel good.

To harvest, clip the lavender stems right after they begin to flower. Cut them about 2 inches above the woody base of the plant. Gather small bundles and hang upside down to dry.

You can make tea from fresh or dried lavender. Strip the buds from the stem by running your fingers down it. Boil about 1 cup of water and pour over 2 teaspoons of fresh lavender or 1/2 teaspoon of dry lavender.

Valerian

Some studies have shown valerian to be an effective tranquilizer and calmative. It has been used for centuries to help ease headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. Scientists think it works by increasing the levels of a chemical known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your body which helps you to relax.

Valerian has tall sprays of small white flowers but it’s actually the roots you want for tea. To keep this perennial growing for years to come you should wait at least 1 year before harvesting. Then, divide the large plants in fall taking half of the roots. Wash the roots thoroughly and chop them into 1/2 to 1-inch pieces. Dry in a dehydrator or on a screen somewhere warm and dry.

To make tea, steep 1 teaspoon of dried roots in about 1 cup of hot water for 10-15 minutes. It’s recommended to drink your tear about 1 hour before bedtime for best results.

*Valerian can interfere with other prescriptions. Consult your doctor.

St. John’s Wort

St. John’s Wort is believed to help with insomnia and depression. Scientists think it works by elevating the levels of the chemical serotonin in the brain. Serotonin helps balance your emotions and boost your mood.

Harvest the flowers and buds of St. John’s Wort when it’s in bloom. Dry them on low in a dehydrator or on a screen in a warm, dry place.

Tea can be made from fresh or dried St. John’s Wort. Steep 3 teaspoons of fresh flowers in about 1 cup of hot water for 4 minutes or steep 2 teaspoons of dried flowers in water for about 10 minutes.

Lemon Balm

A member of the mint family, lemon balm is thought to promote sleep by increasing the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your body, helping you relax. It has been used historically to relieve anxiety and insomnia.

Lemon balm is a hardy perennial that can be harvested for fresh use throughout the growing season. Cut and use the stems, leaves, and/or flowers. Dry lemon balm for later us by cutting stems off about 2/3 of the way down and tying them in bundles. Hang the bundles upside down in a warm, dry place. You can also lay them flat in a dehydrator to speed up the process.

To make tea, steep about 2 teaspoons of dried lemon balm or a loose handful of fresh lemon balm in about 1 cup of hot water for 10 minutes.

**We’re not doctors. Consult a physician before treating any ailment. Always start with a small dose of unfamiliar herbs to make sure you’re not allergic.**

You can find growing information for these herbs under the individual plant listings, just click the link on the plant’s name.

Try growing a few of these herbs this summer and making your own bedtime teas. Many of these herbs are great when blended. Let us know what your favorite tea mix includes!

Drought Tolerant Perennials Native to The Eastern U.S.

Many of our readers have asked for more information on drought-tolerant, native perennials. Native perennials are ideal for providing nectar, pollen, seeds, and habitat for native butterflies, bees, and other insects and animals. They’re also a low-maintenance choice for your garden. Native varieties are well adapted to local soil and climatic conditions. They typically require less watering and fertilizing than other cultivated varieties. They’re also more tolerant of local pests and tend to withstand weed pressure well, making them perfect for busy gardeners. Here are a few of our favorites.

Rudbeckia

Often called Black-eyed Susans these charming yellow flowers are a hardy, drought-tolerant perennial. They self-seed readily and naturalize aggressively. Be sure to plant them in an area you don’t mind them expanding. Birds like goldfinches love the seeds.

Echinacea

Another awesome native perennial is echinacea. Once established they’re quite drought tolerant, hardy, and may self-seed. We carry four echinacea varieties, Echinacea augustifolia, Echinacea pallida, Echinacea paradox, and Echinacea purpea. All four varieties are medicinal and excellent in teas and tinctures. The roots, leaves, and flowers can all be used. Echinacea has immune boosting, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. Paradoxa is the only yellow variety. Note that every variety but purpea needs cold stratification to germinate. 

Echinacea is also attractive to native wildlife. Pollinators love Echinacea and some songbirds species enjoy the seeds in the late summer and fall. Leaving the dead flowers standing can help encourage birds to visit.

Bergamot (Monarda)

Also called Bee Balm, this is another useful flower to have growing on your property. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees love bee balm. We carry two varieties, Lemon Bergamot and Wild Bergamot. Lemon Bergamot leaves are great for flavoring meat or fish. Both varieties make delicious tea and have medicinal properties. Several Native American tribes used bergamot as a carminative.

Butterfly Weed

Though it may take up to two years for this plant to become established from seed, it’s well worth the wait. These brilliant orange flowers will attract butterflies, bees, and birds to your garden throughout the growing season. Once established, butterfly weed is very drought-tolerant and will self-seed. They do best in well-drained soil with full sun. For best results, sow in the fall. 

Daylillies

Daylillies are super easy to grow and quite hardy. The orange daylilly is a native species and can store water in its roots. While you can purchase bulbs, Day Lillies spread readily and are pretty easy to find for free. Try asking a friend or connecting with a local gardening group. Additionally, the flowers, flower buds, young stalks, and root tubers are all edible. 

Yarrow

Another great medicinal flower, yarrow is another plant that’s easy to find for free. You’ll often find plants growing in hayfields that can be easily transplanted (always get permission of course). Yarrow’s latin name Achillea millefolium comes from it’s historic usage. Yarrow has been shown to staunch blood flow and was reportedly used by the legendary figure Achilles to treat battle wounds. Yarrow also helps attract beneficial insects and pollinators and many permaculturalists consider it a “dynamic accumulator,” meaning that it brings nutrients from to in the soil to the surface for other plants to access.

Other tips for making your garden drought-tolerant:

  • use natural mulch like straw, wood chips, or leaves whenever possible
  • plant cover crops which add organic matter and keep the soil cool and moist
  • add organic matter like compost to your soil so that it holds water well
  • utilize gray-water from sinks and showers if possible
  • create permanent beds and paths and don’t water paths
  • when you need to water use drip irrigation and/or water in the early morning or evening to avoid evaporation