The Circle of the Food Chain and Decomposition
We moved to a new neighborhood on Thanksgiving Day in 1996. The following spring we had our yard sodded and began to plant trees, shrubs, and flowers. The woods that were behind our house were bulldozed and graded flat for more new houses. Spring rains came and our backyard was flooded, and then there was a mudslide down onto it. It seemed like everything we planted only lived for a very brief time. I couldn't understand why we couldn't grow things the way we had done at our old house. My mom said that our old yard had been established for over twenty years. That didn't answer my question though. Isn't dirt just dirt? What was the difference? I began to research the development of our city and its effect on the soil and ecosystem.
In May 1997, I decided to try to figure out what the differences in the soils were between my old established neighborhood and our new yard. From reading, I found out that if one looks at soil closely with a magnifying glass, one can see that dirt is made up of different particles. I found out that the particles were tiny pieces of rocks (minerals) and other organic matter made up of the dead remains of other plants and animals. Deeper down, the soil contains less organic matter and more rock material. In the fine particles of soil, except in dry areas, there is some water. This gives bacteria and other microorganisms (decomposers) a big surface to grow on. This information began to make me understand what was going on in my own backyard. It explained why my plants were dying. The developers had removed all of the topsoil that contained humus and minerals and saprophytes [an organism, especially a fungus or bacterium, that grows on and derives its nourishment from dead or decaying organic matter]. The clay-like soil that was left behind did not absorb water well. This caused the extreme runoff of the water and mud.
To continue my research on soil, I needed to understand what decomposition meant. To be rotted or decomposed is to be broken down by the help of tiny organisms. These organisms are living things that are so small that they can only be seen under a microscope or magnifying glass. Even though we might think this is gross, I soon realized that without this process, the world would soon fill up with dead plants and animals, and the food chain would come to a stop! I conducted an experiment called the Tullgren Funnel. In this experiment, I could separate the decomposers from the soil and observe their appearance. From a soil sample from our old neighborhood, I found several different types of decomposers and saprophytes such as roly-polys, pillbugs, centipedes, and earthworms. From the soil sample taken from the newly excavated area behind my house, I found nothing. The soil was like Play-Doh® because it was so tightly bound together. I realized that we would have to put topsoil and humus down in our flower beds to help them grow. We also realized that we would have to raise the beds to give the plants' roots enough room to grow and to keep the water from flooding them.
We decided to buy some humus and topsoil from the garden store. While I was helping to put the humus and topsoil into the flower beds, I read the bags, which said the contents were made from decayed plant and animal matter. I realized that this was going to cost my family a lot of money. I decided to talk to my garden club leader, and she told me to investigate composting. After reading as much as I could, I decided to set up homemade composting bins. I used food scraps from our own kitchen to start the bins (no meat or dairy products), along with a handful of store-bought humus, shredded newspaper, and a carton of red worms. I was amazed at how much waste my family created each week, and how the compost looked rotten and gross. But with careful turning and care, it did not smell. This really surprised me!
Over time, I was able to put my natural compost into our flower beds. I realized how healthy the compost soil and the worm "tea" were for our plants and trees. It was also saving us money and helping our city not to fill the landfill so fast. With further study, I learned that the worms helped the soil by their tunnels. These tunnels aid in soil aeration and help to mix the minerals to the surface while carrying the dead organic material to the underground. I couldn't believe how the garbage had been turned into a dark, spongy soil that had a rich, earthy smell. Furthermore, I had extra worms for fishing! Saprophytes, worms, fish, and I were all part of the food chain. My understanding of the food chain grew and grew!
After over a year and a half of research on soil samples and composting, in 1997-98, I determined that no chemicals or fertilizers could have helped our yard as much as the recycling of our own kitchen garbage and the making of our compost. I was replenishing the natural nutrients and microorganisms in our yard. The topsoil that had been removed by the developers would normally take years to be reestablished naturally, but I was quickly replenishing the same elements by using my head and making use of the biological food chains that were available to me.
In conclusion, I have studied the growth of our community. It was once a wooded area where Chickasaw Indians settled under the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek. Later, settlers moved in and started a settlement and raised cotton. Until the 1940s, our area was mainly a rural, agricultural region. Slowly, industry began to move in and we are now witnessing a city being born. While this is exciting, we are experiencing many growing pains. Due to the industrial and residential boom, our area's woodlands, wildlife, and waterways are being destroyed. Along with this destruction, we are hurting our ecosystem. If laws are not passed, we will probably have future problems of pollution, flooding, and erosion. Huge trees that have kept our air clean have been bulldozed. Bluebirds and owls are seldom seen any more. Waterways are being polluted with sewage. Even the small world of the saprophytes has been bulldozed and carried off in dump trucks. We must begin to rebuild what we have disturbed. In my yard, we are still composting, planting trees, putting up birdhouses, and putting out feeders. I hope the community will see how beautiful our yard is and ask how we have done it. Then I will gladly tell them about composting, using kitchen waste, and caring for the plant and animal world that we can see and can't see! We're all part of the food chain. It isn't gross at all. It's amazing!
Last but not least, I found a Cree Indian prophecy that explains our area. I think it is very appropriate with our history as a Chickasaw Indian territory. It describes what is happening to our area and warns of the danger that lies ahead in the future. It is obvious to me that the Indians were very concerned about our natural resources. We must be concerned and use caution in protecting nature.
Bailey, Bill. "Finny's My Name and History's My Game." Desoto Times Today, October 14, 1997, section B, p. 3.
Chastain, Celia. Worm Composting and Raised Beds. Videotape. Memphis, TN: The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 1997.
Chastain, Celia. "Cultivating Soil," The Dixon Gallery and Gardens Horticultural Digest, spring 1997, pp. 1-2.
Encarta 1997. Redmond, WA: Microsoft, 1997.
"Fashionable Fertilizer Solves a Disposal Problem for Zoos." New York Times, May 12, 1992, p. 1.
"Garbage." Kids' Discovery Magazine, April 1996.
The History of Olive Branch, Mississippi, Oxford, MS: The University of Mississippi, 1980.
Kneidel, Salley. Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method. Fulcrum Publishing, 1993.
Magic School Bus Science Explorations. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1994.
Ronan, Colin A., ed. Science Explained. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.
Szerlag, Nancy. "Compost Your Leaves, and Your Soil Will Rake in Benefits." Detroit News Home Page, 1995.
"Toiling in the Soil, Great Gardens Start from the Ground Up." Southern Living, March 1997, pp. 84-86, 109.
Wessels, Joan. "Booming Growth Continues for Desoto County." Southaven Press, January 7, 1997, section A, p. 1.
More About This Resource...
Less than 1 period
Supplement a study of biology with an activity drawn from this winning student essay.
- Present the problem Hallie and her family faced when they moved into a new house with a new yardflooding, mudslides, and plants that lived for a very short time.
- Ask student to brainstorm ways the problem could be solved.
- Send them to this online article, or print copies of the essay for them to read.
- Have students write a one-page response to the article, comparing what Hallie learned and tried with the class's suggestions.
OriginYoung Naturalist Awards