Rising cost of living is sending many of us into our yards to plant vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and berry bushes and grow some of our own food. Oh, all right, I admit it. Some of us just like to be out there regardless of what’s happening with the economy. Nevertheless, there seems to be a rising interest in home grown food.
Gardening classes are burgeoning, garden clubs or networks are springing up, and people are even learning to can, pickle, cellar, ferment, salt, smoke, or somehow preserve food for when it’s out of season.
I’ve had a home garden off and on over the years, and am really enjoying this year’s efforts. Strawberry plants are blooming profusely, raspberries are blooming, too; kale and chard are growing; garlic, onions, daikon radishes, potatoes, green and red cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, fava beans are all doing well. Even my new bed of asparagus is putting up lots of shoots. Only my cauliflower plants are looking a little peaked. (I’ll have to ask someone about that.) And I only have about half my garden planted!
My soil has a lot of clay and enough rocks to build an outdoor fireplace soon (heh). I’ve been doing some research to learn more about how to take care of soil and build up it’s tilth, “it’s suitability for planting or growing a crop; moisture, drainage, rate of water infiltration and degree of aeration.” I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I know it when I see it. It’s that beautiful rich, dark crumbly soil that feels moist and loose but will clump together if you squeeze it. It has the iconic fragrance of fertile earth filled with microbial life. That’s what I want in my garden. The question is: what can I do to help bring it about?
A classic Rodale organic gardening approach is to add humus–dried grass, dead leaves, or compost. The second popular technique is to add organic fertilizer. In Steve Solomon’s book, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, he gives a formula for making your own Complete Organic Fertilizer. However, Steve has begun to back off from the idea that the formula is “complete” and recently modified it. Here’s why.
Typical fertilizer is concerned with four things: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphate, and the pH balance (level of acidity or alkalinity). As scientists begin to understand more about soil chemistry, and especially its biochemistry (since fertile soil contains multitudes of living organisms), it turns out that trace minerals may be at least as important as the other components.
To learn more, I went to a free workshop hosted by the Lummi Island gardeners’ network. My friend, Randy Smith (author of Transition Lummi Island), was sharing what he has learned about the effects of trace mineral levels in garden soil. The short version: there’s a long complex biochemical cycle which allows organisms to use nutrients from the soil and to make other nutrients available to plants growing nearby. If certain minerals are not present at just the right time, or there is an inadequate supply, the chain breaks and plants will be starved for those nutrients. For gardeners that means produce which may look healthy but is lacking in nutritional value for humans. This obviously can affect farm grown produce as well as home grown.
Randy says the place to start is with a complete soil test to find out what nutrients your soil needs. Logan Labs in Ohio is a recommended testing lab. They’ll email you the results, if you like. Once you have the results, you can either get the book The Ideal Soil by Michael Astera and learn to do the math yourself to figure out what to add to your soil to correct it, or you can simply send your test results to an expert, such as Astera, to get recommendations. Read more about the details.
Black Lake Organic Nursery in Olympia is a good source for ordering soil minerals. Owner Gary Kline is a well-known expert in soil science circles, too.
Here in Whatcom County, the most common mineral deficit is calcium. Our soil tends to be acidic. Most food plants need a more neutral soil, so just about every local gardener will get more nutrient dense vegetables by adding agricultural lime to their soil.
Asparagus is a good example of a vegetable that likes to feed well on soil nutrients. To see how wonderful the results of healthy soil can taste, try some Seared Asparagus.