Soil Mineralization According to The Intelligent Gardener

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Once upon a time, there was a Garden Guru named Steve Solomon, who grew loads and loads of fresh produce, wrote gardening books that people loved and referred to, and sold seeds.  Life was good.  Steve spent many happy hours in his garden, the fruits of which comprised a large percentage of his diet and that of his wife.  He found writing to be a rewarding career, and he took satisfaction from knowing that he was teaching others to become more self-sufficient and enjoy a more healthful diet.

Devotees bought and talked about his excellent books, including Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, and Gardening When It Counts, and got their hands dirty mixing up Solomon’s Gold.  The success of others’ gardens and that of his own brought him joy.

There was just one problem: Steve’s health was declining, and so was his wife’s.  His teeth were falling out, he had no energy, and his wife suffered from brittle nails and hair loss.  What could be lacking in their diet, he wondered?  Adding more meat and other proteins helped, but not enough.  Steve was certain of one thing: his vegetables were the best that could be found.  After all, he adhered to the Gardening Patriarchy’s Dogma, which assured him that he was doing everything right and that his produce was far superior to any that could be bought from a grocery store.

Talking with many others who had relied primarily on their own produce revealed that he was not alone: few liked to admit it at first, but when pressed, they shared the same ailments: loose teeth, low energy, and brittle hair and nails.

Do Organic Gardeners Have it Wrong?

Steve began to wonder if some of the knowledge he and other organic gardeners had clung to might have some missing pieces.

The sacred teachings went something like this: No chemicals allowed, ever.  Avoid external inputs.  Add lots and lots of compost.  Repeat.  The result was supposed to be—must be!—the most nutritious tomatoes and bumper crops of zucchini.  And to be sure, Steve stuck to the rules with devotion.  A rebel at heart, he liked to raise eyebrows a little with some slightly unorthodox suggestions. But he didn’t think to question the fundamentals.

Then Steve went to Fiji for a well-deserved vacation.

The “Eureka” Moment

A curious thing happened while in Fiji: his health improved.  His wife’s health improved.  Steve began to seriously investigate what could be contributing to this quite sudden and dramatic turn-around, and he naturally looked to his food first.  They were eating a diet very similar to the one they enjoyed at home, with a few exotic additions of fish and fruit.  He drove an hour to the hub of agricultural production in that area and questioned the workers.  Expecting to hear something that would enforce the doctrine of organic gardening to which he was devoted, he was surprised to learn that they sprayed pesticides liberally, added no fertilizers of any kind (organic or chemical), and used no compost or manure at all.  Yet, during the best growing season, the produce was the most delicious they’d ever eaten and had given their health an undeniable boost.

Harkening back to his university days, Steve recalled some inspiring geological classes, and a light bulb went off in his head: it was minerals.  Specifically, the minerals derived from ultrabasic igneous rock.  The volcanoes of the past had blessed the area with soils rich in minerals that could be described as “magical.”

Steve, being a successful author already, knew that most gardeners don’t want to read about magic.  Instead, he wrote about science.  (The same thing, really, but I digress). He researched, abandoned some tightly-held organic gardening beliefs, and began to write.  His work was greatly enhanced by the contributions of his co-author, Erica Reinheimer.

And that is how the gardening world came to have The Intelligent Gardener, a book rich in chemistry, math, and many other things that I avoid as much as mosquitoes.

Somehow, Steve manages to present chemistry and math in a digestible manner, even to a person like me. I picked up on a lot more than I expected, and assumed some of the rebellious tone of the book, which I guess accounts for my careless abandonment of grammar rules in the following bullet points:

Key Take-Aways From The Intelligent Gardener

  • Soil nutrition matters and even our very own precious gardens are probably not yielding nutrient-dense food.
  • The entire food chain suffers from infertility of soil.
  • Compost doesn’t fix everything if it is poor compost made from mineral-deficient material.
  • Y’all need a REAL soil sample.
  • Y’all need to balance your soil nutrients, like, super precise.
  • There is a garden patriarchy and they don’t like to be challenged.
  • Steve had some loose teeth, went on vacation, and had a revelation.
  • The revelation was this: soil fertility begins with proper soil mineralization.

Start Here

You need a soil sample.  A good one.  I’m not talking about your standard pH sample or even one that might show you the N-P-K of your soil, but a sample examined by extremely smart people in extremely white lab coats in a land far away.  If you are like me, and you either slept through high school chemistry or spent that hour reading The Lord of the Rings, you may also want to hire a professional analyst to help you interpret the results.  Both the sample and the analyst are very affordable, I promise.

“Can’t I just buy a bag of minerals and toss it in the soil and save myself the trouble of reading the book?”, you may be asking.  Well, sure.  But you’ll miss out on Steve’s dry humor, and more importantly, you will run the risk of throwing the mineral balance of your soil so far off that it takes several gardening seasons to correct it.

Soil Health Begins with Minerals

You see, Steve asserts that properly mineralizing your soil is the most important step you can take toward growing bumper crops of nutrient-dense food.  It is more important than adding compost, mulching, or even working in horrifically stinky loads of biochar.  Bring the soil minerals into proper balance, he says, and everything else will follow suit.

“If first you bring the minerals into balance, then the whole soil ecology, all the microlife—the worms, nematodes, algae, amoeba, fungi, bacteria, both helpful and harmful—all those living things come into a healthy balance too.”

That’s a strong statement to make, but he backs it up admirably, comparing soil health to that of the human body.

If you build it, they will come.


Why Do the Books Ignore Minerals?

Solomon explains how the organic gardening movement began to gain steam in the 40s and 50s.  The world was recovering from war, which had drastically changed the way that farmers and gardeners grew food.  Victory gardens sprang up everywhere, doused in chemical fertilizers and tended by people with little to no previous gardening experience.  Farmers were advised (and in some cases, bullied) by governments to adopt practices that seemed miraculous, but which destroyed the soil.

Those who recognized the damage began to write books encouraging us all to return to the “old ways.” Unfortunately, the entire food chain and ecosystem had suffered in ways that were not immediately obvious, and it wasn’t really possible to return to the old ways.  For one thing, we no longer had the abundance of animals we’d used previous to the World Wars.  Those animals we did have were not fed the same quality of feed, thus their manure lacked vital minerals and nutrients.

Solomon pays homage to William Albrecht and his book Soil Fertility and Animal Health, a thorough and dense treatise calling for a more scientific approach to organic gardening.  He was ignored at best and silenced at worst.  Money, you know.  Fortunately for us, this book can be found in free PDF format online.

Maybe it’s Time to Break Some Rules

One idea that I was surprised to see in The Intelligent Gardener is that we need not vilify those who seek out soil amendments from distant places.  Yes, it takes some fossil fuels to get them to you.  But the benefits far outweigh the risks.  What if we view the planet as one large organism?  The people on it as one community, with some striving to improve a broken food system? This helped me to become comfortable with the idea of ordering seaweed from a far-off ocean, or rock dust from a volcano bed hundreds of miles away.

Another hill Solomon is willing to die on is that some chemicals are misunderstood and ought to be considered reasonable additions to the organic garden.

We are encouraged to be more thoughtful about our compost—garbage in, garbage out.  You cannot add nutrition to a garden with compost that came from deficient materials.  Perhaps bringing some external inputs is the boost your beloved pile needs.

Above all, be willing to examine some long-held beliefs about organic gardening that might not serve you as well as you would like.

Will you be adding The Intelligent Gardener to your homestead reading list?  I hope so.  Here’s to good health!

View Comments

  • Thank you, garden is set up but not being used at this time. I did order some good mineral supplements to use. Feeling better, do a blood work up to see where I am at.
    Best Regards,
    Ranger Rick
    North Idaho

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