Are Fungal to Bacterial Ratios (F:B Ratio) Important for Plant Growth?

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Robert Pavlis

It has been known for some time that the ratio of fungi to bacteria varies in different types of soil and in different plant communities. Forests have a higher ratio of fungi while grassland and agricultural soil is higher in bacteria. This has led to the idea that plants grow best when the fungal to bacterial ratio is matched to their needs. Gardeners should not only monitor their fungi to bacteria ratio, but also modify the soil to change it.

In this post I will look at the science support this idea.

Are Fungal to Bacterial Ratios Important for Plant Growth?
Are Fungal to Bacterial Ratios Important for Plant Growth?

Fungal to Bacterial Ratio

Fungi are relatively large in comparison to bacteria. When we talk about the fungal:bacterial (F:B) ratio we are really talking about the biomass of these two organisms, not the actual number.

Many different types of soils have been analyzed for this ratio.

  • Coniferous forest: 100 to 1,000
  • Deciduous forest: 5 to 100
  • Weeds and Grasslands: 0.1 to 1
  • Agricultural fields 0.1 to 1

A study that looked at 47 sites in Russia, including various biomes, found that “a predominance of fungal over bacteria activity with F:B ratios always higher than one (4.9 on average). Natural sites were characterized by higher F:B ratios (on average 5.6) compared to agricultural ones (on average 3.5).”

Forests have very healthy soil, while agricultural soil is less healthy. This has led to the idea that having a higher relative fungal population results in healthier soil.

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

Dr. Ingham and the Soil Food Web School

Dr. Ingham did some of the early work measuring the fungal to bacterial ratios. She then developed the concept that each plant has a preferred ratio, and that gardeners and farmers should create this ‘optimal’ ratio for the plants they are growing.

How do gardeners do this? It all starts with measuring the soil and determining the current F:B ratio.

Dr. Ingham’s Soil Food Web School provides courses that will teach you how to identify and count microbes under a microscope. The company claims that this knowledge will allow you to calculate the F:B ratio.

Many of these concepts have been documented in the book Teaming With Microbes and I have done a detailed review of that book.

The Soil Food Web School is not the only group spreading this idea. It is also discussed in forms of Korean Natural Farming (KNF) and Permaculture.

Facts About the Fungal to Bacterial Ratio

Scientists agree that different soils have different ratios. It is also accepted that agricultural practices such as tilling and using synthetic fertilizer tend to favor bacterial growth.

The ratios can be modified by changing the way we manage the soil. Adding organic matter increases the total microbe population. Using organic matter with a high C/N ratio favors fungal growth and low carbon organic matter favors bacterial growth, although one study looking at wood chips used as a mulch or tilled into soil found no change in the F:B ratio. Tilling reduces fungal growth. Adding nitrogen to soil changed soil biomass from fungal-dominant to bacterial-dominant.

Building Natural Ponds book, by Robert Pavlis

 

What science does not agree on is the notion that plants grow best in soil with a particular F:B ratio.

What Came First the Chicken or the Egg?

We accept the fact that soil in forests has a high fungal to bacteria ratio. But does that mean trees need to grow in such a high ratio? What came first first, the forest or the fungal dominated soil? That is the key question to answer.

If we take agricultural soil and modify it to increase the ratio of fungi, will trees grow better? Is the modification required to grow trees?

Or is this a case where trees will grow just fine in agricultural soil and over time their presence modifies the soil to favor fungal growth?

How Does Science Measure the F:B Ratio?

There are numerous ways to quantify the amount of fungi and bacteria in soil, but the results from these tests vary greatly. Even light microscope has significant flaws. The testers tend to over count fungi because of their size and because it is very difficult to distinguish living and dead fungi. Conversion from counts to mass is also a problem.

Even the scientists don’t agree on the best method for measuring the ratio, ” Because of all the different methods and conversion factors for calculating F:B ratios, it is questionable to compare different studies. ”

Some Common Examples

Grasses and trees grow in very different F:B ratios. When I first heard this I immediately pictured a modern day park. Lots of healthy old trees surrounded by grass. Both the trees and grass grow well and these parks are located on all kinds of soil. How can these two plant types grow so well together if they require different ratios?

Take a well used agricultural field and allow nature to take over. What happens? Weeds cover the soil fairly quickly. Soon after that, shrubs and pioneer trees start to grow. Eventually the conifers show up. If the trees and especially the conifers required high fungal soils, why would they grow? The agricultural soil and the soil under weeds are bacterial soils, completely unsuitable for trees, if the F:B ratio is important.

In a YouTube video, Dr. Ingham points out that brassicas need a bacterially dominated soil and tomatoes need a more fungal soil. But gardeners have been growing these crops side by side for years.

What about hydroponics? Plants seem to grow quite well without any soil, or microbes.

Common sense examples don’t support the need for special fungal to bacterial ratios.

What Does Science Say?

I did a search for studies that looked at plant growth at different F:B ratios. I did not find a single one. If you find one, please add the link in the comments below.

I checked for plant lists and their preferred F:B ratio, and found none from the scientific community. A seller of microbes did have a very short list but provided no reference to the source and claimed that, “Most orchards need a high ratio”.  One of the comments in the Research Gate discussion mentioned below said the opposite.

The Rodale Institute makes the statement, “weeds require a soil with lots of bacteria”. Have they never seen land after a forest fire? It is quickly covered in weeds taking advantage of the increased light.

Someone did ask the question on Research Gate, “What are the optimal fungal to bacterial biomass ratios for different crops?”

No one pointed to such a list and one scientist said, “we have yet to quantify the optimum load of soil bacteria and fungi in relation to production levels”, which implies there is no list.

One study looked at the F:B ratio in terms of pH and found that fungi biomass did not change much as pH changed from 4 to 8, but that bacterial growth was very affected by pH. Bacteria are more prominent at high pH. Acidic soil has a higher F:B ratio than alkaline soil. Coniferous trees prefer to grow in acidic soil, as do fungi – can soil pH explain the higher F:B ratio in coniferous forests?

There is also a lot of research work trying to understand the relation between F:B and sequestering of carbon, and how F:B influences natural ecosystems. But it seems that even in this area there is not yet agreement about the importance of the ratio.

It is clear that studying the right ratio for plants has not been done, nor is it a current priority. We don’t know how changes in the fungal to bacterial ratio affect plant growth nor do we have any insight into the optimum levels for any specific plant. Any group that promotes the importance of the F:B ratio for growing plants is completely ignoring current science.

Number vs Ratio

We do know that soil with higher levels of microbes tends to grow healthier plants. Higher levels of organic matter will increase the microbe biomass, making the soil healthier, but it also adds other benefits like better moisture retention, higher nutrient levels and better aggregation.

Adding organic matter, reducing tilling and compaction all increase the number of microbes. That is different than trying to control the ratio.

Are Fungal to Bacterial Ratios Important for Plant Growth?

We don’t know how the ratio affects plant growth. We do know that there is no current science to support the idea that plants need a special ratio. There is also no support for the notion that gardeners should modify the ratio for better plant growth.

I suspect that the soil environment and the plants that grow there, affect the fungal bacterial ratio. Plants drive fungal growth, not the other way around.

The reason forests have a higher ratio is that trees produce difficult to digest molecules like lignin. This is not food for bacteria, but it can be used by fungi, who then out compete the bacteria, changing the ratio. Grasslands produce much less lignin and much better bacterial food and therefore bacteria do better, reducing the ratio.

Plants can grow with any ratio. Grasses grow in forests if there is more light, and trees do just fine in low ratio grasslands.

There is no science to support the idea that gardeners or farmers should try to manipulate the fungal to bacterial ratio. There are no accepted lists of the optimum ratio for plants. Here is what one report concludes, “Comparing a given soil to an idealized ‘optimal’ soil microbial community will never be useful, because an ‘optimal’ soil microbial community simply does not exist.”

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

20 thoughts on “Are Fungal to Bacterial Ratios (F:B Ratio) Important for Plant Growth?”

  1. David Johnson presented some data on this as part of a NCRS linked talk. His data showed the Fungi:Bacteria ratio was more closely correlated to biomass growth than N, P, K or even organic matter (higher fungi was better). I have not yet found the raw data or study details and found your site while looking. There appears to be little data about this.

    https://conservationwebinars.net/webinars/regenerating-the-diversity-of-life-in-soils-hope-for-farming-and-climate/?searchterm=compost Rather technical, linked from ncrs website, about 1 hr

    Reply
  2. Using logic in the absence of data, it seems reasonable that the presence of organic matter is necessary to the flourishing of bacteria and fungi, and the the amount, composition, and physical arrangement of microbial foods will govern the level and variety of microbial life available in the soil. It seems that the foundational element is organic matter and that ACT alone will not produce a significant increase in organic matter. However, it seems plausible it could accelerate the digestion of organic matter, which could improve plant growth, which could increase the mass of roots (aka organic matter). Aside from any increase in microbial food supplied by the plant during its life, if left in the soil, the roots become microbial food.

    Topically applying compost, especially from the crop most recently taken from that soil, would replenish/supply much of the nutrients future crops would need. Mulching retains moisture and suppresses competition. Nobody is disputing either of those propositions. So, as I’ve understood the claims of ACT evangelists, the tea isn’t a plant fuel or a substitute for nutrients; it’s an accelerant to produce more highly active soils that can digest organic matter more quickly and cycle more nutrients in a given period of time (i.e. levels more than ratios). It’s the acceleration of a natural process and the removal/reduction of interrupting interventions, that seems to show promise.

    As I understand their theory, ACT is not something you would need to apply in the same formulations/amounts forever; just in formulations/amounts/frequencies needed to ramp up or sustain a given level/balance of nutrient cycling; to accelerate a transition to greater productivity. A variety of benefits can follow. Neither is it presented as a substitute for compost or mulch but rather as an additional tool that reaches more deeply and more quickly into the soil to perform a complementary function. A properly designed study to evaluate *that* claim would test each other stimulus *with and without* ACT, since that’s the way its proponents intend for it to be used; the actual contours of their theory.

    Fixation on precision of F:B ratios, especially at the expense of levels, is misguided and unnecessary for evaluating *their* claims. We need not know an ideal ratio(s) to accept that altering levels and ratios in one direction or the other can have observable effects, some of which we may wish to sustain as beneficial to *our* purpose.

    I look forward to seeing more science and demonstrations to tell us what the effects are and their magnitude, with data of course. So, while I understand we like data, I feel it’s relevant to point out that using trees as the test subjects, and then isolating rather than combining the treatments, and then extrapolating the effects that can be anticipated by vegetable gardeners is not an ideal basis for drawing conclusions relevant to home/market gardeners. I’m not sold on ACT but I think it’s a novel idea and tool, one I’m eager to experiment with in my own space and evaluate scientifically, and I think the impulse to debunk it as a “myth” rather than to appreciate it as a theory with a series of hypotheses we can test is a bit overwrought.

    Reply
    • “the amount, composition, and physical arrangement of microbial foods will govern the level and variety of microbial life” – quantity dictates the amount of microbial food, but composition is not that important because all plant material has more or less the same composition. A grape and banana look different to use, but chemically they are almost the same.

      “ACT alone will not produce a significant increase in organic matter” – it won’t increase it at all.

      “However, it seems plausible it could accelerate the digestion of organic matter, which could improve plant growth,” – true, it can speed up plant growth by a very small amount, but only if the soil is deficient in the nutrients being released.

      Most people using ACT claim that nutrients are not important – it is the added microbes that are the secret sauce.

      “and then extrapolating the effects that can be anticipated by vegetable gardeners is not an ideal” – I agree – but there are very few studies that compare ACT to compost – none for vegetables that I have been able to find.

      Reply
  3. İnstead of searching for an ideal F/B ratio for crops, I believe the practitioners should know the effects of F/B ratio but much more concentrate in increasing the microbiological mass – indifferent bacteria or fungus- by at least cutting off activities that are harmful.

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  4. I’ve searched your site and haven’t found anything in Korean Natural Farming. I’d love to see you do a breakdown of that. It’s something I’m very interested in but don’t want to waste my time on it if it’s not truly beneficial to the garden.

    Reply
    • I have not written about KNF directly. Based on a quick review, there is not a lot of specific science supporting it. It is mostly a belief system. however, fundamental concepts like using microbes to decompose organic matter are valid.

      Reply
  5. Unproven theory or myth?

    Are you familiar with Dr. David Johnson? People around the world are currently restoring damaged farmland with fungal inoculation.

    Do you alter F:B ratios in garden soil? If so what were the results? Any anecdotal evidence one way or an other?

    Reply
  6. I agree that there’s a lack of (easily found) scientific literature. I would also say that this myth can’t yet be proven to be true or false. Just because there are no published papers about the importance of F:B ratios in gardening and agricultures, does not mean they are unimportant. As I understand it, the concept of F:B ratio in its application to agriculture is relatively new, though it as been studied in biology as far back as the 1980’s. Conducting multi-year field tests is difficult, as is obtaining funding when the approach is not industrial in nature.

    Full disclosure – I’ve taken Dr. Ingham’s courses on the Soil Food Web and F:B analysis by microscope. I’ll provide some of the information I remember from the classes. Granted they aren’t peer reviewed, as far as I can see, but there is active work in this area.

    You can find a PowerPoint from Dr. David Johnson (NMSU & CSU-Chico) here: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.735.4098&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    It summarizes experiments and field tests that show that increasing F:B ratios, increases plant growth. I’ve not been able to find a peer reviewed article on this research, but of course that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There is some sort of pre-print on related research at https://peerj.com/preprints/789v1.pdf

    Johnson is conducting research at Chico on fungal dominated compost and carbon sequestration. https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/bioreactor/david-johnson.shtml

    Your point in “Common Examples” (Trees and Grass growing well together) is a good one. I don’t have any peer reviewed scientific literature to point you to. But there’s an interesting anecdote at https://www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/bioreactor/citizen-science/paul-tranfield.shtml that shows fungal dominated compost improves growth in mixed plant species.

    One other point: F:B ratio is way to quantify complicated analysis in a single reference statistic In the SFW courses, its stressed that biological diversity is essential soil and plant life. When there is a wide diversity of microbial life present, then multiple species of plants can grow well side by side. This occurs when F:B ratios are not at extremes that favor weed growth or old growth forests.

    For home gardeners, the idea is to use well made compost and good gardening practices to achieve a diverse community of soil life (minus the disease causing organisms) to achieve an F:B ratio is around 0.75 to 1 maybe a little lower or higher. If you are composting well, not using pesticides, fungicides etc., and not dowsing your plants in fertilizer salts, then you soil is probably close to this ratio.

    Reply
    • “the idea is to use well made compost and good gardening practices to achieve a diverse community of soil life (minus the disease causing organisms) to achieve an F:B ratio is around 0.75 to 1 ” – do you have any scientific study that shows garden plants grow better at this ratio than at another ratio?

      If not – then there is no evidence that a gardener should strive for this number.

      Reply
  7. Very well written and understandable. Just in case you do not have what other people have said about the F:B ratios look at these papers: Microbiometer. (13 de DIC de 2020). Understanding Your Results. Obtenido de https://microbiometer.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/interpreting-results-final-9-20.pdf
    Gallant, S. (13 de DIC de 2021). Making Microbes: Fungal vs Bacterial Soil Life. Obtenido de Rancho Mastatal: https://ranchomastatal.com/blognewsletter/2016/10/16/making-microbes-fungal-vs-bacterial-soil-life
    Bailey, V., Smith, J., & BoltonJr, H. (2002). Fungal-to-bacterial ratios in soils investigated for enhanced C sequestration. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 34(7), 997-1007.
    Frey, S., Elliott, E., & Paustian, K. (1999). Bacterial and fungal abundance and biomass in conventional and no-tillage agroecosystems along two climatic gradients. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 31(4), 573-585.
    Hoorman, J. J. (7 de JUN de 2016). Role of Soil Fungus. Obtenido de Ohio State University: https://ohioline.osu.edu/factsheet/anr-37
    Lowenfels, J., & Lewis, W. (2010). Chapter 3: Bacteria. En J. Lowenfels, & W. Lewis, Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web (pág. 220). Portland, Oregon, USA: Timber Press.

    Reply
    • none of those links are reliable sources of information. Even the Ohio State article references the book by Lowenfels & Lewis, 2006, which is not based on science when it comes to the F/B ratio.

      Reply
  8. Nice article. I’d be interested in further articles on beneficial vs. detrimental fungi. My cherry trees often start losing leaves in July, though applying fungicides has helped. On the other hand I’ve used mycorrhizal inoculant root dips when planting. I’ve been cautioned against putting down wood chips, while some experts consider a bed of mulch around a tree a priority. Are wood chips a problem or the fallen diseased leaves that are nearly impossible to clear from the bed of mulch?

    Reply
  9. Spot on. Sometimes the answer to whether garden myths are true is not complicated science but common sense examples of real world gardening and ecosystems. There are good reasons to manage your garden such that a higher F:B ratio develops, but plants having an optimal ratio that they need to grow doesn’t seem to be one of them.

    Reply
  10. Interesting and initially looked worthy of further investigation but I loved the way you pulled this apart, it made me smile. ‘Not seeing the wood for the trees’ I shall continue with making and spreading compost which seems to yield good results. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to learn in this area, I follow the results of regenerative and no till farming with interest, awareness growing that we disturb underground communities at our peril.

    Reply
  11. “Plants drive fungal growth, not the other way around.”

    As symbionts, wouldn’t plants and (mycorrhizal) fungi each promote growth in the other?

    Reply
    • It is my understanding that plants initiate the connect with mycorrhizal fungi – it is not a mutual decision. A lot of fungi are not mycorrhizal.

      Reply
  12. I concur with your hypothesis that it’s the available nutrients which dictate the FB ratio, rather than the needs of the plants growing in the soil.
    Mycorrhizal fungi appear to play a significant part in improved plant growth but their relative presence, or absence appears to be more influenced by soil disturbance than nutrient ratios.
    Forest floors are largely undisturbed, whilst agricultural land is ploughed on a regular basis, with “no dig” cultivation tending towards the forest, rather than the field, with measurably better results from the latter (see Charles Dowding’s long term trial beds as an example).

    Reply
    • Hi,
      It seems like the nutrient cycle needs to be understood, before making a blind hypothesis.

      “I concur with your hypothesis that it’s the available nutrients which dictate the FB ratio, rather than the needs of the plants growing in the soil”

      How are you measuring available nutrients? Because it is a scientific fact that natural systems do not register high in available nutrients. Look at the agronomist recommended nutrients, in comparison to the available nutrients found in a natural forest system. You will find that the forest system nutrients are very low, there is a lot of science on this.
      But it is not that the forest is low in nutrients, it is the simple fact that in a living soil, nutrients are locked in the nutrient cycling of the soil. That which is housed by the soil life food chain, in which nutrients are constantly always cycling and made available as a plant needs it 24hrs a day. This is proven soil scientific fact, and something still not fully understood or sometimes accepted by some scientist.

      So to think that the F:B ratio depends on the available nutrients, is backwards to say the least. If you study ecological succession under a microscope (as I do), you will see all of these correlations that post towards F:B ratio correlation to ecosystem succession.

      This doesn’t mean you can’t find trees growing in grass field, but it does however mean you can’t find a grass field growing in the forest. To not see this distinction as a someone writing to disclaim a bright new science, really says it all about the critters limited knowledge on the subject.

      Always no worries, because time will tell, and it is telling. We are becoming a big wide web of soil microbiologists and the research is being done every day, with results proving the theories.

      Reply
      • The reason you don’t see grass growing in the forest is due to light levels.
        Failing to realise this means certain critters really do need to get out more.

        Reply

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