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Healthy Soil Equals Healthy Plants

Soil Microbiologist Elaine Ingham Knows How to Create Good Garden Soil

by Dora Pollak

As my friends and family know, I’m a tea fiend. Chinese oolongs, Japanese greens, Indian chai—I love them all. A good hearty Assam wakes me up in the morning, sun-steeped peppermint leaves keep me going after lunch, and a soft African Rooibus sends me off to dreamland at night. Naturally, I’m interested in all sorts of new teas . . . but compost tea? 

Gardeners, get ready for compost tea expert Elaine Ingham! Not only is she teaching a month-long course on Living Soil at Maharishi University of Management’s Sustainable Living Department, but the world-recognized soil microbiologist will also be giving a free public lecture in Fairfield on Monday, April 12. 

Putting Down Roots

I returned to Iowa last spring after five years in the Pacific Northwest, intending to merely regroup before moving on to the next adventure—elsewhere. However, as time went on and life in my hometown became richer and more satisfying, I began to realize just how incredible this area really is. Southeast Iowa has a lot going for it in terms of sustainability, as the growing number of nationally and world-recognized visitors such as Dr. Ingham attests.

These past few months of ice and snow have not only made me appreciate the daffodils, mud, and robins, but seeing the seasons change in the place where my roots are has inspired me to start my own garden. Compost tea is not that interesting if you have no use for it, but once you break ground in the science and art of home gardening, a whole new area of research becomes appealing. 

What is Compost Tea, Anyway?

Compost tea is a liquid solution made by steeping compost in water. Although primarily used as a fertilizer, when applied directly to the leaves it helps suppress foliar diseases. Compost tea makes the benefits of regular compost go farther and increases the amount of nutrients available to the plant. It’s like a superfood smoothie . . . for plants.

However, brewing compost tea is not quite as simple as throwing a bag of Lipton into a mug of hot water. There are a few different types of compost tea, a variety of processes for brewing it, and several guidelines to follow. With a little research and planning, any gardener (including an amateur like myself) can soon be making high-quality compost tea. 

Creating Healthy Soil

Fortunately for those of us who like to learn from people with experience, Dr. Elaine Ingham will explain how to bring your soil back to health by developing a diverse, healthy food web at her free April 12 lecture.

Dr. Ingham is the President of Soil Foodweb Inc., a small business that analyzes soil samples to determine their food-web organism content. Elaine graduated cum laude in biology and chemistry from St. Olaf College in Minnesota, holds an M.S. in microbiology from Texas A&M University, and a doctorate from Colorado State University in microbiology. She has worked with many people around the world to develop a greater understanding of how to properly manage compost, vermicompost, and compost tea to guarantee disease-suppressive, soil-building, nutrient-retaining composts and compost teas.

Embracing the Future

But true sustainability isn’t about compost tea or solar panels or electric cars—it’s the result of a fundamental shift in our cultural mentality. Through education, innovation, and a little dirt under our fingernails, we’re helping to make sustainable behavior a desirable, achievable, and normal lifestyle right here in the heartland. Every day I find another way to be an active part in the transition toward an environmentally and socially sustainable world—from right here at home in Iowa. 

Far from being the backward boonies, Southeast Iowa is way ahead of the curve in embracing the future. People are taking great steps forward on issues such as local economy, organic agriculture, and renewable energy. Although we might not be flashy about it, we are on the leading edge of sustainability—and what is more sustainable than growing your own vegetables?

Every day I wake up to another sunrise and a big mug of tea . . . though I just might stick to the caffeinated variety and leave the compost tea for my newly planted little garden.

Hear Dr. Elaine Ingham on Monday, April 12, 2010, in Dalby Hall, Argiro Student Center, MUM, Fairfield. For more information, email  This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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