Then one day an e-mail arrived from Tom Alexander of Growing Edge magazine. Attached was a photograph taken through a microscope of a fungus attacking a nematode, a soil-dwelling microworm. "Soil food web. You lose," the message said.
This rocked his world.
The research frenzy that followed led him to Ingham, who helped adjust his vision from macroscopic to microscopic. He saw the light. And when he did, he felt awful. He had to fess up to his readers that he'd been giving them bad advice for years.
"Alaska gardeners trust me and do things on my word (that) they would not normally do without checking up. So when I realized for the first time that my system of gardening resulted in more work, more diseases, more failure, I was despondent that I had betrayed my readership. Clearly, it called for an explanation, an apology and corrective action ... sort of like a drunk deciding he's had his last drink and will now make it up to his friends and family."
Lowenfels also introduced the soil food web to other garden writers around the country by arranging for Ingham to speak at a Garden Writers Association conference in Seattle a few years ago. David Ellis of the American Horticulture Society, based in Alexandria, Va., remembers it clearly.
"I was there at the meeting where he basically said, with near-religious fervor, ... everyone was going to leave the room a changed person, that we would never look at gardening in the same way. In my case, it was true. It really opened my eyes to what was going on underground."
"He doesn't go off chasing windmills," said Robert LaGasse, executive director of the association. "You've got to prove it to him. But once you've proven it to him, you can't shut him up because he's very passionate about what he does."
Lowenfels, who carries that life-altering fungus-vs.-nematode photo around in his wallet, has already started work on the second edition of "Teaming With Microbes."
"We found one little mistake, and that's just driving me nuts," he said. (The definition of "pH" on Page 41 somehow got goofed up.) "And there have been new discoveries made. There's a whole kingdom of creatures that were not even included."
Lately, Lowenfels has been doing a lot of speaking about the soil food web around the country -- at universities, at garden meetings, at tomato festivals.
He's just a little possessed. You can tell by the way he and Lewis sign their book:
"May the microbes be with you," he writes.
"And, believe me, they are," Lewis adds.
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See Page 1, Garden Writers Go Underground
Reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at