We started this series of articles on the role of ‘beneficials’ in natural farming with an overview that highlighted how everything from bats to bacteria can help you to maintain a healthy farm ecosystem.  Beneficials play a vital role in helping you to avoid the use of pesticides, fungicides and conventional fertilisers, all of which degrade the state of life on the farm.

One of the greatest challengers farmers face is plants’ need for nitrogen in order to develop; and, in the case of conventional farming this leads to a never-ending dependence on commercial nitrogen fertilisers, essentially harsh salts that burn up the organic material and micro-life in the soil.  Over time, more and more chemical fertilising inputs become necessary to eke production out of what is essentially a lifeless soil.

By contrast, organic and Biodynamic farming focus on creating the conditions for natural nitrogen to be available in the soil.   We look to use and enhance Nature’s strategies to ensure balanced nutrition for a community of plants, which includes an abundance of nitrogen in a form that supports the community of life –which is very different from the forms of nitrogen used in fertilisers.

A living soil is a powerhouse of naturally occurring minerals and trace elements that plants need for healthy growth and a productive life.  One of the ways that Nature makes natural nitrogen available to plants is through the lives of certain bacteria, which are known as nitrogen-fixers.  A good example of these are Rhizobia bacteria that live symbiotically in the root nodules of plants such as legumes.  We use lupins, vetch, clovers, medics and other legumes in our vineyard cover cropping system for the specific reason that they are natural hosts for the Rhizobia bacteria, which as they consume and excrete, fix nitrogen in our soils.  You can ensure the presence of Rhizobia bacteria by inoculating the seeds of the legumes with them.

There are also free-living bacteria such as Bacillus subtilis that occur in the roots, and endophytic bacteria such as Herbaspirillum seropedicae which colonise the leaves and roots of the plant.  You can use the latter as an inoculant sprayed onto the leaves of the vines, and as their lives play out they will bind free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form the plant can use.   Intervening through the use of beneficials such as these bacteria is a life-enhancing strategy that mimics Nature’s own goal – to create more and more conditions conducive to life.

We’ll continue to explore different strategies to introduce and nurture beneficials to help maintain a healthy, balanced farm ecosystem in our next article. You can go back and read our overview on beneficials here.