Soil Minerals and Soil Testing for Organic Gardeners


The Neglected Role of Minerals in Growing Healthy Plants and Healthy Humans

©2007 By Gary L. Kline
all rights reserved

Presentation to the Mason County, Washington, Master Gardeners on Friday, February 9, 2007

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you on The Neglected Role of Minerals in Growing Healthy Plants and Healthy Humans. This just happens to be the most important topic in the world. It’s also a fascinating topic and I have to warn you, once the health significance of minerals and complete and balanced soil fertilization sinks in, you likely will be obsessed by it, and all of its implications, like I am.

Because I learned about and grasped the nutrition message late in life, I have medical problems. One is that I have a rapidly failing memory, consequently I almost have to read my speech or I’ll get off track and get hopelessly lost. Another is that I have a mysterious, chronic congestion problem that lately causes me to run out of breath when I give speeches, so you’ll see me pause now and then to take a drink, but really it’s to catch my breath. I hope you’ll pardon these annoying distractions.

Stephanie Cohn was your emissary in contacting me for this talk. I’m sorry that she and Patrick could not be here tonight, but because I have this written text they will be able to get a copy and I’m leaving a copy with Jeanne (?) so you’ll be able to request a copy and therefore not need to take notes, or even stay awake.

Stephanie and Patrick are regular customers at my Garden Store. When we were discussing possible talks, she asked me to speak on the minerals aspect of gardening and its relation to the hot topic everyone is interested in: Health! Indeed, we all are being bombarded with health ads, advice, warnings, medications, diet books and so on. There is a reason. We are discovering that, paradoxically, we are an unhealthy nation. We, collectively, and as individuals, need to investigate why that is so and why the situation seems to be getting progressively worse, despite everything modern medicine can throw at it.

As Stephanie and I were nailing down his topic, I pointed out that this was quite a coincidence in that the spelling of her last name C, O, H, N, is the same as the chemical symbols of the four organic elements of living organisms (plants and animals) and of all the organic matter present in soils. As most people know, the letter C stands for Carbon; O stands for oxygen; H is for hydrogen; and N is for nitrogen. C, H and O make up nearly every organic molecule and N (or nitrogen) is required to make proteins, without which there is no life. In fact, the thousands of kinds of proteins are made up predominantly of different combinations of C, H, O and N and sometimes sulfur (S) and phosphorus (P).

Before going any further, I’d like to find out about the make-up of tonight’s audience. I need a volunteer to count hands and report the numbers to me so I can record them.
1) How many people do we have here? Ans._______
2) How many are organic gardeners or farmers? Ans._______
If you are a conventional chemical grower I’m going to ignore that you are here, otherwise I’d have to redo my speech.
3) How many are vegetarians? Ans._______
4) How many are vegans? Ans._______
5) How many grow most of your own produce? Ans._______
6) How many buy produce from farmer’s markets or other local growers? Ans._______
7) How many have had a seafood dinner at Xinh’s Restaurant? Ans._______
(It’s absolutely the best thing you can do for your health.)
8) How many of you have all your teeth and no cavities? Ans._______
9) How many are in perfect health? Ans._______

That last question was not a trick question. It is a surprising fact, based on archeological evidence, that the great majority of humans living 12,000 years ago--- I’ll call them cave men, or cave people, were in nearly perfect health, before there was even a garden, let alone a farm. At that time there was not a single vegetarian on the planet. Humans then hunted wild game, fished, or possibly herded animals and they ate animal source foods more then they gathered plant source foods.

If you look at the famous cave paintings in France and Spain, you see men hunting large mammals, not picking berries, tending spinach or pressing olives. If you go inside the Egyptian pyramids of 5,000 years ago, you see depicted, men, both hunting mammals and birds and also harvesting grains. Grain farming began about 10,000 years ago. Grains and cultivated vegetables only recently became part of the human diet.

Here’s the good news! Animal source foods, which include meat, fish, fowl, shellfish, milk, butter, and eggs are good for you. These are, in fact, health foods, provided they are consumed as whole foods and were raised properly. That means, ideally for livestock, that they should be raised on pastureland, which, like your garden, hopefully is correctly fertilized, as I’ll describe later.

My point in bringing up animal source foods is that seldom does anyone derive all their nutrition from their garden and I don’t want to leave the impression that one should, or can, live exclusively on plant source foods. I believe that animal source foods, at least milk, eggs and butter should be a major part of the human diet for attaining and sustaining maximum health. Fruits and vegetables, of course, should also be.

In all the universe there are just 92 natural elements that make up everything, so far as we know. Getting down to earth, just 4 of these can be regarded as the organic elements, all of which essentially originated in the atmosphere. Most of the remaining 88 elements are minerals or inorganic. They are found in the ground or the solid part of the earth, or come essentially from rock. I’ll point this out on a chart of all the chemical elements known as the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Except for oxygen, which is combined with many minerals in rocks or soil particles, the four organic elements are not found in rocks, to speak of. It is true that diamonds are a form of carbon and a type of rock. But I’m going to ignore that exception. But my point is, if you grind up a bunch of rocks you will find, from chemical analysis, that there is almost no carbon, hydrogen, or nitrogen in them. Some forms of nitrogen found in the soil that came from organic matter, are actually regarded as minerals while others existing as part of organic molecules, are, I believe, regarded as organic nitrogen. For our purposes, nitrogen is not a mineral. Rocks, from which soils are made, are almost entirely made up of inorganic elements and oxides combined with the mineral elements.

But when we look in the air, and in the water (which is H2O) which originally came out of the sky, we see that the situation is reversed. Nitrogen, Oxygen, and some Hydrogen are abundant and there are essentially no minerals in the air (except as dust that is blown in) and no minerals in plain water (except as were washed in from land). The atmosphere near the ground is about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, (both as gases) less than one half percent is hydrogen gas, and thus most of the remaining small fraction consists of the inert gases, such as Argon and Neon. Incidentally, when we look up into the sky we think there is more of it than anything. But the atmosphere is only 15 miles thick, whereas the earth is 8,000 miles in diameter. Picture the brown outer skin on a big Walla Walla onion. That’s about how thick the atmosphere is, in relation to solid earth; and the deepest part of the ocean is only 8 miles.

What about that fourth organic element, Carbon? I have already said that it is not found appreciably in rock. Carbon is the backbone of all life and all organic molecules. Organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon compounds. So where, then, does carbon come from? The answer is that carbon comes from carbon dioxide (CO2) which makes up just 0.03% of the atmosphere. It is cycled from the air via photosynthesis (a miracle process) through plants, and usually on through animals, and it returns to the atmosphere upon decay of the dead organisms. It also comes from the respiration of animals (such as when we exhale). But also from the respiration of plant roots and most soil microbes. You could say that plants breathe in CO2 through their leaves and exhale oxygen (O2); but also the opposite occurs below ground with the roots.

Not many people realize that the vast bulk of any plant’s tissues comes from the air and not from the soil. Photosynthesis uses light energy to combine CO2 and water (that’s H20) to form sugars, but also cellulose, and all manner of complex organic molecules. But photosynthesis also uses tiny amounts of indispensable earth minerals, which are almost always neglected in any classroom discussion of the highly complex miracle of photosynthesis. The fact is that typically a plant is made up of carbohydrates plus some fats and proteins to the tune of about 95% (disregarding its water content). And that 95% came from air and water.

Yet plants, which make their own food and become the foundation of food chains leading to animals, are really nowhere without that other 5%; nor are we anywhere, without the inorganic or mineral components, which comprise a dozen or 14 kinds essential to plants and perhaps twenty essential to the growth and functioning of animals and we humans. Plants take up extra minerals not proven to be necessary for their own growth and reproduction, but which we require and could not otherwise get. Like plants, we humans are also five percent minerals; a small amount, but oh, so critical an amount.

As Master Gardeners I’m sure you already know that, chemically speaking, plant nutrient elements are divided into three groups: primary nutrients, secondary nutrients, and micronutrients. In all, there are 18 proven nutrients, although there may actually be dozens more. The primary nutrients are carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which frequently get left out of discussions of plant fertilization; plus nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the famous N-P-K trio, which many farmers and gardeners still think are the only nutrients really needed to grow a crop. The symbol K, by the way, stands for Kalium, the Latin name for potassium. The secondary nutrients, which actually play major roles in soil and plant feeding, are calcium, magnesium and sulfur. That totals nine. There are 9 trace elements known to be necessary for most plants to grow to maturity and reproduce. They are: sodium, iron, copper, zinc, boron, molybdenum, cobalt, manganese, and chlorine. These are all minerals. Incidentally, sodium and chlorine are the main minerals in sea water.

Here is an astounding fact about sea water and sea life. Seawater contains all 92 natural elements. Thus sea creatures are constantly bathed in minerals and consequently there is almost no disease in the open oceans, (at least that was true before mankind began polluting the oceans). Furthermore, fish and other animals do not age, physiologically, in the ocean, whereas the bodies of freshwater fish and land mammals typically deteriorate as they get older. The explanation is that sea animals do not develop mineral deficiencies and thus their bodies remain in a young condition throughout their life and, so too, disease is unable to develop or to invade their bodies. We should never have left the ocean.

Now, some plants float in water; most plants grow in soil; that is they grow out of the ground with their non-photosynthetic roots underground and their stems and leaves in the air. There are six basic things, known as growth factors, that plants must have to grow. The growth factors are 1) anchorage {to hold them up}, 2) light, 3) air, 4) water, 5) warmth, and 6) nutrients. Except for anchorage, we humans need the same things.

It’s very handy to remember these six growth factors for diagnosing what’s wrong with any sick plant (other than pest attacks). If you have a sickly plant or one that’s off-color and you’re sure the problem is not anchorage, not lack of air, not lack or excess of water, not temperature (or adequate warmth) and not inadequate fertilization, then it has to be inadequate light. Then you know what to work on.

Unless you are growing in a greenhouse or other controlled environment, that is, if you are growing a plant or crop outdoors, there isn’t much you can do about changing or favorably modifying most of those six growth factors. If the plant is in the ground, you can’t change how much air it gets; you can’t make the clouds go away for more light, or make rain fall, if it’s needed (although you can take water to the plant). There’s not a lot you can do to raise or lower the temperature or make it stay just right. However, there is one factor you can do a lot to modify or improve and that is nutrition or fertilization.

Proper fertilization of plants can make an amazing difference in their growth and quality; yet so many people ignore or resist doing this and seem to think the plants will take care of their nutritional needs for themselves, somehow. They count on the needed nutrients just automatically and always being there and being sufficient to grow their crops well. This thinking comes under penny-wise and pound foolish. Seldom is life so easy and so simple that you can just put a vegetable seed in the ground and expect magnificent results. It may happen the first year or so, but not usually much more after that on the same spot. This is like priming a pump, you won’t get much out if you don’t put something in.

While fertilization is the one plant growth factor you can do a lot about, unfortunately it is complicated and difficult to get just right. Probably we will never completely understand soils and plant nutrition. However, there is a lot that we do know and a lot we can do in the way of improving soil fertility to improve plant yield, quality, and health. In fact, the basics are simple as A,B,C. I’ll come back to that later.

I have said that plants and humans share much the same growth factors and nutrient element requirements. It turns out that crop plants are much like people. They require all the proper nutrients (and not junk foods) to grow and be strong and healthy, as well as to develop protective immune systems against diseases and resistance to pest insect attack. The important point I want to make tonight is that more then simply putting organic matter (such as manure, leaves or ordinary compost) into our garden soils, we must assure or provide the inorganic minerals that are key to the growth, maintenance, repair and reproductive or seed-making capacity of food crops, as well as the health and performance of ornamental and landscaping plants.

Adequately mineralized and nutrient-balanced soils result in nutrient-dense food plants with superb taste, extra hardiness, and high resistance to rotting. If you grow or buy produce that tastes poorly, wilts or rots quickly, that is a sure sign it was grown without adequate minerals. This can be true of organic produce as well as chemically grown produce.

To sum up, we can not expect to be healthy ourselves if our food is not of high nutritional quality, and our food can not be nutritious if the soil is not fed all the necessary nutrients in sufficient amounts, balance, and completeness for their proper growth. There’s those ABCs. I’ll repeat. To properly grow crops of high quality, plant nutrients must be present in the soil in adequate Amounts (A), proper Balance (B) (in relation to each other) and in the Complete (C) array.

But how are we to know what that something (or some things) should be and how much to add to our soils? The correct answers can be surprising, or even upsetting, because they don’t often agree with what we’ve been told; or to put it another way, the stuff we’ve been fed about soil fertilization and soil-building--- and this goes for conventional organic advice as well as conventional chemical practices. In certain respects both schools of horticulture operate from the same simplistic misconceptions about plant nutrition and soil chemistry. I’ll give you my answers further down to the questions of what to add and how much.

As recently as 200 years ago the great majority of Americans were gardeners and farmers who grew most of their own food, including livestock. Just in my lifetime, since 1940, we have gone from about 25% of the population living on farms to less than 1% today. Those who survived childhood perils a century or two ago, were much healthier than most of us today. Less than 200 years ago there were no artificial fertilizers and no chemical pesticides on the planet, although there may have been limited use of things like arsenic out of sheer ignorance of the effects. In that sense, because there were little or no poisons and harsh chemicals in use, everyone was “organic” without knowing it. It has only been in the last century, out of 100 centuries of agriculture, that synthetic chemicals have been in wide-scale use. Man, have we screwed things up in the last 100 years.

Less than 100 years ago, among surviving primitive tribes and peoples, less than half those populations had even a single tooth cavity in their lifetime (and, incidentally, almost none of them were vegetarians). Despite what you may have been told, cavemen, and even the primitives of a century ago, were incredibly healthy. It was only after the introduction of white man’s civilized food that they went to hell, and rapidly. I leave it to you to decide whether we humans are making progress.

I didn’t come here tonight to attack vegetarians. I’ll be doing that later this month at Evergreen College. Instead, I came here to attack organic gardeners. I don’t bother attacking chemical gardeners. That battle has been fought and won. Most Americans today consider themselves organic gardeners. By that they nearly all mean that they don’t use any nasty chemicals or sprays (that they will admit to).

The reason I attack organic gardeners is for their own good and to get their attention. I attack them for something more important than whether or not they use chemicals in their garden. We should be at least as concerned (for our health’s sake) about what we are not putting into our food in the way of life- sustaining nutrition as we are about what we are not putting on our crops in the way of so-called “chemicals”. Everything of course, is chemicals and we are talking about the difference between natural and synthetic chemicals.

There are exceptions, of course, but most organic growers and gardeners are oblivious of the issue of true nutritional content of the crops they grow or eat and what that means for their health or lack thereof. We are the only species on the planet that doesn’t understand that obtaining nutritious food is the number one imperative (after air and water) for continuing to inhabit the planet.

That lack of awareness by gardeners carries over to their food buying at the “food market” which no longer carries any real food to speak of. Over 80 percent of the average American’s diet is now processed or fake foods. And we wonder why we are a nation with rampant cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity osteoporosis and a dozen other chronic diseases almost unheard of a century ago. These are the top killers in the nation, followed closely by doctors and hospitals, now in fourth place. Want to stay out of the hospital? Eat truly nutritious food or you can’t avoid going.

What we have in this country is a health crisis, really. People want to blame chemicals (pollutants in the air and water; pesticides; additives and contaminants or germs in our foods), and these certainly are part of the problem. They want to blame sitting around too much, lack of exercise and not getting out in the garden. Or they want to blame overeating (too many calories), or blame meat, cholesterol, and animal fats. These, however, are not the major cause of our modern, unhealthful condition. Incidentally the previous statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, the AMA, the USDA, the EPA or the FBI; I hope.

The main problem is not the bad stuff (poisons, toxins and so forth) that are in or on our foods, but the good stuff in the way of health-giving nutrients that are not in today’s foods. Nor is it that we eat too much. It’s not how much we eat, so much as what we eat or what we don’t eat. For the most part, the food we buy, including whole and unprocessed foods, and even the food we grow in our gardens, so often, is not worth eating. It lacks nutrition and nutrition is the foundation of health. Health is more than an absence of sickness. What we have in this country is not, in fact, health care, but sickness care.

How can we expect to be healthy when the stuff we mistakenly confuse for food is nutrition-less? Nutrition isn’t optional. It isn’t just a nicety. It is the prime necessity of life. Eating isn’t just a matter of filling up so we don’t go hungry. It is a matter of nourishment. Go look in the dictionary at the word “nourish”. It means: “to feed or sustain (any plant or animal) with substances necessary to life and growth”. Look also at “nutritious”. It means “Nourishing”, promoting growth and repairing tissues of the body.” Without good nutrition you don’t go anywhere, except backwards.

The point I’m working up to is that so often even organic food is no better, nutritionally, than chemically grown food. And while organic growers may be virtuous in not introducing pollutants and poisons to the environment, that doesn’t necessarily translate into health for the garden or the gardener. Again, the absence of sickness or pollutants does not mean the presence of health. Health is a positive quality that has to be built into or grown into plants, animals and people through proper feeding with all the necessary nutrients in the right amounts and ratios, and that certainly includes inorganic minerals.

Unlike the waters of the oceans, soils are not uniform and they aren’t naturally fertile everywhere. Some regions have always been deficient (on the human time-scale) in certain nutrient elements. Our problem, here in the Maritime Northwest, is that the soils are leached out of important nutrients due to the heavy rainfall. Places like Kansas and Nebraska, where the annual rainfall is much less, have naturally fertile and mineral-rich soils, or at least they once did. Wherever soils have been disturbed or farmed by man without proper fertilization or replacement of nutrients, they usually suffer loss of balanced fertility. The produce, grains or livestock get poorer and poorer, weeds come in and pest and disease problems go up. So get out the chemicals. Do anything but spend money on feeding the soil and correcting the real problem. That’s the American way; ask the USDA. If you doubt the validity of what I’m saying I want you to get and read four books:

1. Minerals in Pastures (1929) by J. B. Orr. Out of print.
2. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939) by Weston A. Price
3. Soil Fertility and Animal Health (c. 1959) by William A. Albrecht
4. Bread from Stones (1893) by Julius Hensel
If you read even one of those books you’ll be out preaching the mineral message alongside me.

The trouble with so many organic farmers and gardeners is that they only have half the fertility picture. Besides not putting bad chemicals on the land, they think all they have to do is pour on organic matter, preferably free, in the form of leaves, grass clippings, cover crops and crop residues, and maybe some manure, to have a rich and fertile soil. They don’t even have to look at or analyze the soil to know it is fertile. They just know it is. The lore of Conventional Organic Wisdom, abbreviated C.O.W. or what I call Sacred COW, tells them so. Sacred COW is faith-based agriculture. They trust in nature. I will point out, though, that farming is not natural. Nor is gardening, really. Nevertheless we can garden and farm in harmony with nature.

Yes, pouring on the organic matter can lead to a nice looking, easy to work soil; but usually not a significantly more fertile soil. Instead, it can become a less fertile and less healthy soil. The reason is that worshippers of the Sacred COW have neglected the other half of the fertility picture, which is the inorganic, mineral nutrient portion. Certain minerals actually govern true fertility and health in the soil, its earthworms, micro-organisms, etc., and consequently in the plants and what feeds on and depends on those plants for proper nourishment. Animals know nutrition, you can hardly fool them. They can taste it and they will select it.

What the worshippers of the Sacred COW are missing is the mineral message. And what they need to be practicing is what I have termed “Mineral Augmented Organics”. Mineral Augmented Organics would be the backbone of a new school of agriculture (replacing both chemical agriculture and organiculture) which I have named “Nutri-Culture”. We should do it, just for the health of it.

Looks can be deceiving. A nice-looking soil, or a nice-looking cabbage, can both be utterly lacking in nutrition, which is to say downright unhealthy. However, an awful looking cabbage will surely be one minerally deficient. It is a big mistake to simply trust that significant amounts of minerals are present in humus or compost or in the native soil (which I usually don’t refer to by that filthy, four letter word--- DIRT), soil deserves respect. There is an instrument, called a refractometer, that can be used to measure the nutritional content of produce. It is standard equipment in the wine-making and food-canning industries. I brought one along as exhibit A for the defense of true nutritional health. There is also a tool you can use to accurately measure the nutritional make-up of soils; it’s called the Professional Soil Testing Laboratory. We offer that service through Black Lake Organic. I don’t recommend bothering with home test kits or going to government agencies that offer “free” or publicly subsidized basic tests.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of soils, fertility, and balanced mineralization, it is simply a fact that most of the agricultural soils in the USA, including many garden sites, are seriously mineral depleted or inherently mineral deficient. Here in the Maritime Northwest our soils are generally depleted of the secondary elements calcium, magnesium, and sulfur due to being easily washed out by rainfall, almost as fast as these minerals can be broken out of their natural rock sources. Oftentimes sodium, and to a lesser extent, potassium, are also leached out. The minerals left in our leached out soils will grow giant trees, but pathetic vegetables. Calcium is needed for plants and animals to make proteins and bones. Where calcium is essentially absent, the organisms will attempt to substitute potassium and thus be of weak constitution.

Sulfur, one of the three secondary elements, is a negatively charged element or ion known as an Anion. It is a plant nutrient and is also involved in acidifying soils. However, being an ever-positive guy, I want to focus in the main, on positively charged elements known as Cations. You may have heard the term cation exchange capacity, or CEC, being referred to in your study of soils. It sometimes is also referred to as Base Saturation Percentages. What this refers to, primarily, is the positively charged elements calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium.

I’m going to repeat that and I recommend you remember these four elements in this order: calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. I refer to them as “The Fab Four” because these four cations, present in the right ratios, control soil fertility and set up the chemical conditions that lead to physical and biological development of ideal soil tilth or work-ability, which includes optimum aeration, water drainage and moisture retention. Microbes and plant roots thrive in this loose, mineral rich soil. It all becomes a synergistic setup for ideal crop growing. In the process, pH automatically settles out near the ideal 6.5 number.

I don’t want to leave out the fact that a certain amount of organic matter or humus, between 5 and 10 percent by volume, is part of this magical formula. However, given The Fab Four in the proper ratio of about 65% calcium, 15% magnesium, 5% potassium and 1% sodium, and allowing some room for other cations, trace elements and hydrogen ions that keep the soil just slightly acid (around pH 6.5) the environment becomes perfect for the arrival and proliferation of friendly microbes and the production of vitalized organic matter. What you have set up is a Magic Mineralization Machine which, among other things, will manufacture and provide all the nitrogen, the most expensive fertility element, your garden needs, and do it free of charge.

Furthermore, these microbes, and especially mycorrhizae (if they are present or introduced by inoculation) go to work mining phosphorous that usually is abundant (but locked up in the soil) to make it available to plant roots. Or, in the case of mycorrhizae, they actively scavenge phosphorus and other nutrients and pump them back to the roots with which they live symbiotically in exchange for carbohydrates the plants make and the mycorrhizae need, but can’t make, since they do not photosynthesize. Ain’t Nature grand!! Oops. I said farming isn’t natural, but just such a set-up existed in Nebraska and Kansas when the buffalo roamed.

But what makes it possible to keep the Fab Four around in topsoils are two things : humus and clay. Humus, or decomposed organic matter, and clay, form tiny particles known as colloids or micelles. These micelles are magically negative-charged and thus attract and hold onto the positively charged cation nutrients in large numbers because of the micelles’ high amount of exposed surface area.

You can think of this like static electricity that causes dust particles to cling to a T.V. Screen. The Cations are thus held relatively tightly against the leaching activity of water and rainfall as it percolates into the ground. Sand does not have this miraculous negative charge property like clays and humus particles do. That is why sandy soils lack good fertility. However, by adding organic matter to sandy soils you can partially, if only temporarily, improve the water holding capacity and the cation holding capacity of sandy soils and grow decent crops. I should point out that there are some clay types not naturally well suited to holding cations and some too warn out, geologically, to do so.

Compared to clay micelles, humus particles are capable of much greater cation holding capacity in terms of the number of cations per equal particle size. However, keep in mind, that an ideal loamy soil has just 5% organic matter and 45% mineral matter, of which the clay proportion will be about 30%. Furthermore, clay hangs around forever, whereas organic matter, if not replaced one way or another, vanishes and is largely turned into H2O and CO2 that goes back to the atmosphere.

In fact, one very good argument for not overdosing with organic matter is that you are wasting time and energy because the percent soil organic matter will soon adjust downward to its natural percentage level as determined by the regional climate and especially soil temperature. If you want your organic matter to go away more quickly, get out your roto-tiller and run over the garden several times to give it lots of oxygen and burn up the organic matter converting it to CO2.

You might think from the above discussion that the more organic matter you put into the soil, the higher its cation holding capacity and the better. However, that just means the more nutrient cations you must supply, because until you saturate the micelles or fill up the negative charge sites, (or nearly so), the roots can’t get the cations off the humus micelles, which are acting like magnets. And thus, the roots are unable to pull the cations into them for feeding the plant. In fact, the way the roots get what they need is by exchanging positively charged hydrogen (or hydrogen ions) which are non-nutrient cations, with the nutrient cations being held in reserve on the humus or clay particles. This is what cation exchange means. The roots exchange hydrogen cations, which they excrete, with the nutrient cations in their environment, which in part will be in the soil solution but, more importantly, on the micelles, provided the soil is adequately fertilized.

When you walk out onto a bare patch of ground you are walking largely on oxygen; but it is oxygen combined with minerals and mainly with silicon and aluminum that are essentially non-nutrients, though plants do use a little silicon. The fact of the matter is that a typical topsoil on planet earth is made of mainly of oxygen, silicon and aluminum to the tune of about 82% followed by, guess what, 3 of the Fab Four, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Deeper down in earth’s crust, sodium, the fourth member of the Fab quartet and is the seventh most abundant element. The top six elements in soil make up over 90% and in the earth’s crust about 98%. So you can see the nutrient minerals are only 5 to 8 %, about as much as humus; and the trace elements are truly traces, amounting to perhaps 1%, excluding iron, which is about 4%, but is also a trace element.

The secret of gardening success is in the soil. If we get this fertility balancing act down right, we can grow sturdy, hardy, disease and pest resistant plants and almost never need to use any pesticides. I liken the creation of full and balanced soil fertility to outfitting an orchestra for a beautiful symphony. You have to have the flute and piccolo as well as the trumpet and drum. Without the flute and piccolo, you have noise, and you may have music, but you do not have a great symphonic production.

So, if there is an optimum ratio of four mineral elements (which I call the Albrecht Ratio after the great soil scientist who discovered it) that control soil fertility and crop quality, how do you know if you’ve got the ratio right? How do you know how much of the other 10 nutrient minerals you have? How do you know if you have too little organic matter or way too much? How do you know what your soil pH is? How could you ever figure out what to apply in organic or natural materials to bring all these nutrients up to par? How much of each should you apply, and for that matter, how do you know what not to apply? The simple answer is a professional soil test analyzed by someone educated in soil chemistry and conversant in organic fertilizers.

Often what this comes down to is putting on some high calcium lime or, in some cases, high magnesium lime (which is dolomite lime) for their nutrient value, not their pH raising property so much. Nevertheless, this has to be done carefully because too much lime is as harmful as having too little. Calcium is extremely important in large amounts in the soil and in plants for the trucking of all other nutrients. Yet, it has to have a driver, Boron, in very tiny amounts. The difference can be tons per acre for calcium and ounces for boron to get the right ratio and balance.

A professional laboratory-conducted soils analysis is the best first step in getting it right, or as our slogan goes, “Doing it right”. I’ve brought along a 4 page leaflet on the soil testing and analysis service offered at Black Lake Organic, so copies can be made for all who areinterested in pursuing that. Suppose you decide such a soil test is just too expensive or you don’t want to bother with it. What are we talking about here? Only the most important thing in the world; your nutritional health and that of the other 8 billion of our species overrunning the planet.

Without your health, you don’t have much. How much would you pay to stay out of the hospital? Real food, nutrient-dense and whole food, is your best medicine. You don’t want to go to the hospital. You ever eat their “food”? People who are deprived of nutritious food are prone to disease and to social deviancy. People who don’t have adequate food (in both quantity and quality) live in fear and often in ignorance. This is how wars are started.

Remember, we are a nation of malnourished people depending on a medical system that is bankrupting the country and accomplishing little in the struggle to overcome degenerative diseases that are the top killers in the nation. On top of that, add that this system is fourth after cancer, heart disease, and diabetes (?) in killing us off. Somebody has to speak out on this. While I’m at it, let me recommend to you the absolute most important book on food and nutrition on the planet, Nourishing Traditions by Fallon & Enig (2001). It can change this whole dismal picture.

If you don’t do a professional soil test, then the second best approach to assuring your garden has all the necessary organic and natural nutrients in roughly the proper ratios and balance, plus gets a complete assemblage of beneficial microbes, is to buy the best complete organic fertilizers available on earth and work them into your garden soil. Where can you get these products? Time for a short commercial message. Why, at Black Lake Organic, of course. We make 10 different kinds for different classes of plants, including one for fortifying and accelerating compost making. These are sold under our Black Lake Organic Optimum Mixes (or B.L.O.O.M.) trade name. I’ve brought along a sample bag and some brochures that tell about the B.L.O.O.M. fertilizers.

I want to close with the following summation and observation and then I’ll take your questions:

More and more, the way the world is going, it is becoming evident that about the only way you can assuredly have clean, fresh, safe, and especially have nutritious food, is to grow it yourself. That calls for a certain amount of commitment and know-how, as well as an understanding of soils and their fertility. Garden soils need a certain amount of quality organic matter to be sure---perhaps compost or well-rotted manure. But don’t stop there. You also need to mineralize, and thus my slogan for all the world to hear:

Grow it Right: The Mineral Augmented Organic Way!

The Ideal Soil:
A Handbook for the New Agriculture

new from

Teaches all you need to know to become your own soil minerals expert!

(Yes, really)


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