Reviewed by George Batchelor
What do plants eat? In his latest book, Teaming with Nutrients, Jeff Lowenfels writes for the gardener who is fascinated by plants and wants to better understand and visualize the world of soil molecules and root hairs, of hydrogen ions, covalent bonds, and nutrient movement through the phloem. In the best of instructive traditions, his writing is not only clear, but his personal wonder and astonishment of the subject are contagious.
As with his previous book, Teaming with Microbes, Lowenfels doesn’t simply provide gardening advice. He wants his readers to understand the fundamental soil chemistry and biology as well. At the same time, Teaming with Nutrients does not pretend to be either comprehensive or authoritative. The book provides the basics of soil biology and chemistry without overwhelming. Chapters are organized in a textbook structure with each chapter beginning with a preview of the topics to be covered and ending with a bulleted summary at the end. Lowenfels writes for the layperson: his explanations are clear, accompanied by abundant illustrations from over twenty contributors. His agenda – to bring the amateur into the world of plant chemistry – is ambitious, and the book is packed with information. There are ten chapters, and he doesn’t get to gardening until chapter 8.
Given this wealth of information, a reader scanning the table of contents might be tempted to skip to the last chapter which contains recipes for soil improvement. Yet, that would be unfortunate, because, as nice as it is to know what to do, those earlier chapters tell you why. For instance, there is a thorough explanation – including a sidebar description and illustration – of cation exchange capacity (CEC): what it is (essentially a measure of how much plant nutrition a soil can hold), why it’s important (it dictates demand for nutrient amendment), and how adding compost to soil improves it (organic matter provides high surface area for cations). Like many of the concepts in the book, the CEC explanation is built on concepts addressed in sequence: the chemistry of ions in Chapter 2, followed by the botanical mechanisms for nutrient uptake in Chapter 3.
The early chapters, which profile each of the nutrients and their role in plant growth, provide the fundamentals for subsequent chapters that describe soil test results and how to interpret them and visible symptoms of nutrient deficiencies and how to correct them. Lowenfels builds on these fundamentals to make the case for organic nutrients versus synthetic nutrients, and to explain such things as why conventional farming and gardening have historically applied excessive phosphorous, which has led to pollution of stormwater runoff.
As gardeners we learn the names of the plants, their dynamics, and their growth habits, and then we start to see the depth and complexity of the larger ecosystem they comprise. Teaming with Nutrients adjusts our lens to the microscopic level, giving us a tour of the unseen system of plants and soil, the biochemical machinery that gives us lettuce, trilliums, oaks, and dogwoods.
About the Reviewer
George Batchelor is a member of the Ecological Landscape Alliance and Supervisor of Landscape Design for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.