The Benefits of Beneficials
Why ignoring beneficial microbes could be costing you dear...
The integration of microbiology with hydroponics is a small but growing section of the industry. But I think it is one that deserves to be more mainstream and I proffer that it will become much more so over the next few years.
The fact is that plants have evolved over millennia to co-exist with those microbes found naturally in soil. When co-existing in close proximity, organisms may enter into one of three well defined categories of symbiotic relationships:
- Commensual or
In mutualistic relationships both organisms win, the interactions between them result in favourable outcomes for both parties. This is the type of relationship that we'll be looking at today, an example is one that we will be looking at in depth and that is the role of endo-mycorrhizae in plants, a relationship where both the invasive fungus and host plant benefits.
In a commensal relationship only one of the organisms benefits but the other party is not harmed in any way. An example of this type of relationship might be that of the Burdock plant, or indeed any other type of plant that produces seeds encased in sticky or spiky seed coats that act like velcro, attaching themselves securely to the fur of animals for the purposes of dispersal.
Finally, parasitic relationships benefit only the parasite while the other party, known as the host, is harmed in some way or may even be killed by the actions of the parasite. An example of a parasite in relation to the indoor garden might be that of our good friend, the spider mite. The spider mite feasts on many popular plants favoured by indoor growers, using the soft tissues to lay eggs and sucking out the contents of leaf cells causing severe hard and eventually death to the plant.
Parasites aside, as I mentioned earlier, today we are going to be focusing on the first type of relationship, mutualistic and in particular, as it relates to indoor gardening and how it can ultimately help you, the indoor grower. By understanding and taking advantage of mutualistic relationships, I will demonstrate how you can effectively:
Reduce the amount of nutrients you need to feed your plants
Increase your yield given the same amount of light input
Improve the quality and flavor profile of your harvest
Now that we have some foundation on what we are talking about, let’s dive into more detail by talking about the kinds of micro-organisms that live in soil and that have developed a mutualistic form of symbiotic relationship with plants. Micro-organisms are living creatures like us but with one crucial difference, instead of having different types of cells that have become specialised for one purpose, eye cells being dedicated to vision for instance, micro-organisms are single celled and all of their functions are carried out by that one generalized cell. Most of the eight kingdoms of life are represented at this level, the Protozoa kingdom has amoebae, plants have algae, fungi have yeasts and moulds.
In addition, there are many classes of bacteria. Many of which have evolved to intermingle their lifecycles with those of the plants they have grown alongside. The first type we’ll consider is the nitrogen fixing bacteria, these break down atmospheric nitrogen which is otherwise mainly unavailable to plants into ammonia which can be readily taken up.
The process of fixing nitrogen is very expensive in terms of energy requirements. The microbe must therefore have a very good reason to conduct this activity. Some plants and bacteria have formed such a close form of symbiosis that the two have become almost inseparable, for example many legumes are dependent upon becoming inoculated with nitrogen fixing bacteria within its root structure in order to develop fully. In this type of relationship, the bacteria form nodules within the root structure of the plant which are essentially nitrogen fixing factories with the plant supplying the energy in the form of sugars from photosynthesis to the bacteria which takes a percentage of the energy for itself in exchange for fixing as much nitrogen for the plant as is required.
However most plants do not have this close relationship and yet there does exist a much looser version where the bacteria obtain the energy required to break down nitrogen by breaking down dead and decaying plant material in the soil, releasing nitrogen encourages the growth of more fresh plant material above ground which after some time will produce more material for the bacteria to break down.
All the beneficial bacteria products on the hydroponics market contain these latter types of bacteria, non leguminous, free living nitrogen fixing bacteria. In hydroponics, when using nitrogen fixing bacteria in the nutrient tank, as indoor growers, unless growing legumes, we should concern ourselves with inoculating our nutrient tanks with the best species of non leguminous, free living nitrogen fixing bacteria and then providing the best energy sources to allow them to do their job.
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