View from the deck on a glorious morning in early June.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Wrestling with soil science.

I am laboriously working my way through Steve Solomon's newest tome, "The intelligent gardener". The subtitle is "growing nutrient-dense food." It was inspired by the work of Michael Astera, author of "The ideal soil." Visit him here: I had earlier bought Astera's book, and got bogged down soon after learning that cation does not rime with nation. I intended to work my way through the basic chemistry book that is floating around the house, never got around to that, and life was kind of strange last year. It is still on the to-do someday list, but I won't lose sleep if I don't get around to it.

Steve's book was written in collaboration with Erica Reinheimer, an active and helpful member of Steve's group at yahoo who balanced the soil in her own gardens. Steve's chatty style makes the material easier to digest. 

The first part is a rebuttal of the Gospel according to Rodale: just keep piling on composted organic matter, and all will be well. This is the message of piles of garden books written since WW2.

NOT, says Solomon. Perfect nutrition depends on minerals in the right proportion. If the minerals are not in the soils which grew your organic matter, they won't be in your garden. That makes perfect sense. I have always used some rock dust and seaweed for that reason. I figured the plants would grab what they needed if the full spectrum was available, much like my body uses my fave super food.

After reading "Gardening when it counts" I started concocting  Steve's Complete Organic Fertilizer, the original version.

I loved knowing I did not have to rely on my sloppily made compost for nutrients. Even badly made compost, given enough time, turns into lovely smelling stuff that improves tilth if it does nothing else. But I was aware that much of my heap's nitrogen might have gone up in ammonia. Liquid diluted fish fertilizer does a good job of feeding plants, but administering it takes time and it  has to be repeated. The organic ideal is to feed the soil, not the plants. I loved COF, GMO soy meal and all. (one group member has used it in his garden and fed it to his worms for years without ill effect)

But now the plot thickens: in order to get the maximum nutrition the soil has to be tested, and a fertilizer concocted tailored to one's particular ground. I would just ignore the idea as too much fuss and bother if the group members who have done this were not all raving about the results. What really pushed me over the edge was the taste test done by Mary Ballon, right here in the Kootenays, albeit one valley to the East. Mary used to run West Coast seeds, she is not just any gardener. Mary grew some carrots just the regular organic way, and some with the customized formula based on soil tests. In a taste test the 'custom carrots' won hands down. 

Ideally one would have test plots, one with COF, one without, everything else the same. One with COF made with regular agricultural lime, one with Dolomite, and so on. I am afraid I just don't have the required temperament to do the science. I am all in favor of it, that's not the point. I am just too fuzzy around the edges to do it. It's a Moon in Pisces thing. After some forty years of failing to live up to my own ideal of a well-organized, record keeping gardener I am ready to admit that it is not likely to happen in this incarnation. Michelle and I made a big batch of old-style COF with Dolomite lime last fall, and I already can't quite remember what went into it. I know I splurged on some guano, did we add that or not? Bone meal? 

We will throw the concoction on and hope for the best. Most problems with long-term use of COF occurred after more years and in other soils and climates anyway. It is hard to imagine getting too much lime on the acid sandy stuff I have to work with. An overdose of magnesium, naturally occurring in Dolomite, tightens soil. I should be so lucky. But we will take samples, and do the math and consult with the group. It will be interesting. I have put "new clean trowel" on the shopping list. The first samples can be taken in the greenhouse.

Meanwhile, reading this book has the reverse effect on me that garden books normally have. Usually a good garden read has me itching to get out there. After this one, I feel like, "Oh goodness, that is so complicated, do I have to?" The answer appears to be yes. 


  1. I'm in the midst of a massive to-do list, so I feel your pain. Sometimes it's easy for me to get started on something but hard to wrap it up. Hence a pile of clothes on my ironing board I'm supposted to be listing on ebay, a pile of books unread in the corner, and my rusty garden tools that I keep meaning to sharpen and oil.

    As for compost, I'm quite lazy, so nothing much comes of it until about two years later. I've just about forgotten it's there and then voila, a nice surprise.

    Christine in Alaska, waiting for spring

  2. Hi, Ien,
    I have more than enough science in my educational history to bore good folks to coma. I have gone all over the map from titrated NPK+trace elements to wild goat poop mixed with leaf litter and dirt from bat caves. No way did I even once try for even a single-blinded trial, so of course I came to the conclusion: "It's all good."
    Without boring you about the relative availability of the various nutrients, the acid-base balance has the biggest influence on soil fertility, in my experience. I do check the pH all year, but it's more to spot trends toward acidity, with a bit of lime "sweetening" only where it's needed. I remember my uncles in Illinois showing us city boys how they could tell if the soil was sweet or sour by tasting it, but I never fell for it. To this day, I suspect they were trying to get us kids to bite a chunk of a meadow muffin!

    1. John Steinbeck talks about farmers tasting soil in The Grapes of Wrath. Wild goat poop and dirt from bat caves sounds great!

  3. Hey Ien! This is a dupe comment from the one I left on my site, but I wanted to try again to get it here too. Anyway, I tried to comment on your site last night from my phone but got locked out and then had to go to bed. Great review of the Solomon book. I'm a devoted GVWotC groupie, but have not had the most positive of experiences on that soil forum, and frankly, have turned more toward the Permie-influenced stuff than the Albrecht-influenced stuff for now. I've also struggled with the practicality and expense of custom-designed soil amendments based on soil tests when every one of my 15 raised beds + all the other areas of my garden all will have slightly different soil compositions. I mean, I'll invest in my garden, but I'm not running 20 lab soil tests every year. This seems more practical for row-cropping style gardens, where you can ensure a fairly consistent soil mineral content over a large area via tilling. I'll seek out the new book, though, and give it a go. I hadn't actually realized that it was published. Thanks!

  4. Where is the comment on your site? I asked you once if you had read the book yet, on FB I think, but one cannot react to all internet stuff. That's more or less what I am inclined to think. But I might take samples from all over, just once, to see if there is any blatant shortages or excesses. Steve covers the issue in his book. I was going to take samples today and got intimidated by the process...


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