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Soil biology is the life that inhabits the soil. Dr Jill Clapperton once said, ‘When we are standing on the ground, we are actually standing on the roof top of another world’. She is painting the picture of the abundance of life that lives in the soil, which we hardly seem to notice, as much of it is only visible under a microscope These organisms include plant roots, viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, mites, nematodes, worms, ants, maggots and other insects. In fact, the number of living organisms below ground is far greater than that above ground. Can you believe that a handful of soil contains close to a million different microorganisms? You might not see them with your naked eye, but they are there.

In conjunction with climate, these organisms are responsible for the decay of organic matter, retaining and cycling of both macro- and micro-nutrients back into forms that plants can use. Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria use the carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients in organic matter as food in order to obtain energy to survive. Microscopic soil animals like protozoa, amoebae, nematodes, and mites feed on the organic matter, fungi, bacteria, and each other for the same purpose. When these organisms die, they release the nutrients they took up for the plant to consume. These activities stabilize soil aggregates building a better soil habitat and improving soil structure, health and productivity. This means that a soil is able to replenish and support itself and the life in it, through the functioning of the ecosystem. It also means that in a farming system, a proper balancing of these organisms which live in our soils can help the farmer to be less reliant on expensive and ineffective chemicals. For example, you will never be able to permanently get rid of weeds using herbicides, they are a band aid and not particularly effective band aids because you have to keep on using them time after time. To get off the chemical bandwagon one has to understand the life that is in the soil and put those willing workers back to work for you. All you have to do is just feed them and they will feed you back! The soil is a system which can only function at its best if the biology (soil organisms/life) is there to enhance the chemistry (nutrients) and physics (structure) for the benefit of the plant.


1. Accessed on 22/07/2013:

Portia Phohlo

Portia is a Trace and Save researcher and has been part of the team that works on the Woodlands Dairy sustainability project for the past 4 years. She studied B.Sc in Agriculture where she majored in crop and soil science at the University of Fort Hare. She went on to do her honors and master’s degree in soil science at the University of the Free State. She is very passionate about soil health and soil microbiology and believes that applying soil health principles will rehabilitate degraded soils.

In her free time, Portia loves catching up on House of Cards and The Walking Dead series. The latter she says she finds it fascinating how a dead decomposed organic material can still be conscious, this actually breaks all rules of microbiology according to her. When she’s not watching that, she enjoys watching motivational videos from Ted, especially ones by her idols Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Brene Brown.
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Portia Phohlo

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