Dan Powell, co-founder of LandBase, tells us about a recent workshop he took part in...
“One of the more interesting contacts I made at the Oxford Real Farming Conference this year was bumping onto Lois Phillips, an old colleague of mine who works in land education at Rushall Farm in Berkshire. She has helped organise a set of workshops on Soil microbiology in conjunction with Simon Parfey of SoilBioLab.
Simon set up SoilbioLab in 2014 after working for Laverstoke Park Farm running the soils analysis lab there. He is helping land managers to look deeper into what lives in their soils and offers both courses in observational soils microbes analysis as well as a lab based soils analytical and evaluation service.
I set off early in the morning from Dorset towards Rushall Manor Farm to avoid the worst of the SE England rush hour traffic. I arrived in time to find Simon setting up his microscope in the field classroom at Rushall Manor. The session started with him describing the importance of organic matter in soils. He told us that the organic matter is the driver of everything that goes on both above and below ground as it acts as the basis for all nutrient cycling that feeds plants and animals and ultimately us!
Simon was going to concentrate on the microscopic animals that, although invisible to the naked eye, are far more important and make up the bulk of biological life in the soil. We were introduced to bacteria of which there are millions in a teaspoon of soil. Next up the rung of soil life where the protozoa or single celled organisms, the most common of these were amoeba and flagellates. These consume bacteria almost continuously and cycle the nutrients their bodies contain up the food chain.
Then there were the fungi who make up a much smaller diversity than their bacterial neighbours but are responsible for not only extending the rhizosphere or root zone in many plants but also in exuding acids to breakdown the more coarse organic matter.
In addition to this function specific fungi called mychorrhizia also have a symbiotic role with certain plants, exchanging hard to get nutrients like phosphorous for important energy and sugars that the fungi need to grow themselves. Some plants rely on this association and seem to have evolved in line with the fungi.. this fungal plant association is especially important for trees.
Lastly were the nematodes. These tiny round worms have over 20000 different species some of which we associate with pathogenic parasitic conditions in the gut of animals or eating plant roots such as potato or clover eel worms. However we learned that free living soil nematodes are essential in cycling the fungi and bacteria into nutrients that become available for plants and the vast majority of species are poorly understood although they are crucial for the cycling role they play in soils.
We learned that different soils have different balances of the soil biota and if the populations have been damaged through for example, pesticides, bad fertiliser practice or poorly planned cultivations, then this delicate balance can be upset and the plants and animals will not thrive on these soils until the balance was restored.
Simon’s company makes use of compost teas which are propagated populations of bacteria or fungi through aerated water that can be applied to soils as a way of correcting this soil imbalance.
After these microbial introductions we were introduced to using a microscope to actually see these little beasties as they really are. We looked at a number of samples and discovered tiny bacteria darting about on the prepared microscope slide, also strands of fungi where apparent and some of us even came across the odd nematode or two.
It was one thing talking about these little fellows but quite another coming face to face with them down a microscope.
By the end of the day I felt that I had been privy to another world just as full of life as the word above the soil, and although this was one we talk about in our farming and gardening everyday, it is not everyday we get to see these guys face to face as it were!
I don't think I will be purchasing a microscope just yet but it has reinforced my conviction that if we can recognise what conditions are good for a healthy soil then we have the tools at hand to nurture the life in the soil to ensure healthy plants and animals and healthy us for a long time to come.
Thanks Simon for a very interesting and stimulating day. This has helped me to continue to take care of soils in my care for the sake of the little guys!”
If you want to learn more about soil, Dan Powell is running a course with Landbase next month “Getting to know our soils and what they need from us” Book your place now!
Select strong healthy plants with characteristics that you are looking for. If it is an heirloom variety that you are saving, it is best to select the variety that best fits the description of the variety. If you want to select varieties that fruit earliest, then select the earliest fruiting each year.
Clearly label the plants that you have selected. Tomato plants generally do not cross with one another (they are in-breeders) so you can grow and save seed from more than one variety in one polytunnel.
Harvest and processing
Once the fruit is over-ripe for eating it will be ready for harvesting for seed. At this stage take all the ripe fruit off the plants, then slice them along their equator (use a bread knife for this as it is less likely to damage the seed). Then squeeze out the pulp into a container.
This can then be left for 3-4 days to ferment (this breaks down the germination-inhibitor that surrounds the seed). Do not leave for longer than for days as premature germination can occur. You may notice a mould appearing at the top of the pulp – this is fine and all part of the fermenting process.
Once fermentation is completed then poor the pulp/seed into a long necked container – something like a milk bottle works well. Fill it up to ¾ full and shake the bottle vigorously (with a lid on…). This helps to separate the seed from the pulp. As the seed starts to settle back down to the bottom of the bottle you can start to decant the pulp and water. A few small, light seeds may also come out. Decant until most of the water has left the bottle then repeat this process 5 or 6 times, or until the seed looks clean.
Fill up the bottle, now with clean seeds in, one last time and empty into a sieve. Blot the bottom of the sieve with kitchen towel to dry excess moisture and then turn out the seeds ideally onto a non-stick surface such as a plastic chopping board. Using the bottom of the sieve, spread out the seeds evenly to form one layer of seeds. As you are doing this you can have a bit of kitchen towel inside the sieve which will take away some of the moisture without the seeds sticking to the towel.
Label the seeds and put somewhere dry and airy to dry further. Once the seeds have dried they will peel off the chopping board in one piece. They can then be crumbled up into a paper seed packet and dried further using silica gel. To do this put the seed packet inside an airtight container and put the same amount of silica gel in the bottom of the container. Put a humidity reader into the container and close the lid. Leave until the relative humidity is around 50%. Then remove the silica gel and store the seeds in the airtight container somewhere cool and dry, and they should keep for up to 5 years. Don’t forget to clearly label the seed packet with the variety and the date.
This was written by Ashley Wheeler, a grower from Trill Farm Garden in Devon.