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Lorraine's Garden, Issue #009 -- Boosting Flavor and Nutrition
April 07, 2014

April 2014 Issue 9

In this issue:
Boosting Flavor and Nutrition:
Two Steps to Growing Nutrient-Dense Vegetables

  1. Remineralize the soil
  2. Restore soil life

Last month I introduced 12 Principles for Growing Nutrient-Dense Vegetables, and promised to cover each in more detail in coming issues. To simplify things, I decided to chunk it down into two main points, both covered this month (with more detail on the website for those who want to go deeper). Whether you grow vegetables in containers, raised beds or in the ground, this info can help you get more flavor and nutrition from your garden this year!

Remineralizing the Soil

Garden vegetables are very “hungry” plants -- they take a lot of minerals from the soil. We have bred vegetables to be flavorful and tender, which (fortunately for us) also makes them nutritious. Complex flavors occur when a plant creates complex compounds (called “plant secondary metabolites”), which are made up of a wide range of different mineral elements. This complexity of minerals also means increased nutrition.

When we harvest vegetables and eat them, we are removing those minerals from the soil. Most gardeners and farmers do use fertilizer, but most fertilizers only contain a combination of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus.

Researchers at Oregon State University now think that the human body needs 56-60 different elements to be healthy, These minerals have to come from the soil, via the plants we eat. But if it isn’t in the soil, it won’t be in the plants (or meat) that we eat, and so it won’t be in us. We’re slowly becoming depleted of minerals ourselves, and our collective health reflects this.

To learn what minerals your soil may be lacking, you can take a soil sample and send it to Logan Labs for testing (all instructions are at the soil sample link just given). I highly recommend that all food gardeners do this, because taking corrective action will improve the flavor and most importantly, the nutrition, of the garden produce you grow and eat.

When you get your soil test results, visit the Organic Fertilizer article to learn how to translate it into a custom fertilizer prescription for your garden.

If you don’t wish to do a soil test you can apply a balanced, “complete” organic fertilizer blend. This will not correct imbalances (which is important to do, if you can), but it will at least feed the current crop.

Restoring Soil Life

Soil life is critically important to healthy plants, because the microbes in the soil effectively function as an external “digestive system” for plant life.

Earthworms, fungi, bacteria, actinomycetes and other tiny creatures all make up a miraculously complex ecosystem that collects and makes minerals available to plants, trading the minerals for sugars that only green plants can make (through the process of photosynthesis). The microlife below ground also gives soil the structure necessary for water and air movement.

Three main things destroy soil life:

  • tilling or otherwise pulverizing and mixing soil
  • compacting the soil
  • certain harsh chemical fertilizers

So to restore soil life, we must first stop doing the three damaging things listed above.

Before transitioning to no-till gardening, however, we first have to restore the missing minerals to a depth of about 6”. After that, we can use straw, fine leaf mulch, or diverse-ingredient compost on the surface which will feed the soil organisms, and over time will keep the soil loose and friable.

Earthworms will come to do our “tilling” for us, and mycorrhizal fungi will grow networks of filaments to collect minerals from the surrounding soil to feed the plants. Azotobacter bacteria will pull nitrogen from the air to assist in feeding the plants, and all the other life will thrive when left undisturbed, all performing their miraculous tasks.

Using this new way of gardening also means not compacting the soil (ever!) by stepping on it. Make beds 40-48” wide depending on your reach. You should be able reach into the middle from the paths on either side. Never walk on the beds, but only on the paths in between, which can be 12-18” wide.

Stop using chemical fertilizers, and rely only on natural, organic fertilizers in carefully prescribed amounts as determined by the soil test.

You can radically speed up the restoration of soil life by making actively aerated compost tea, which is made from rich homemade compost or worm castings, and brewed in an aerated brewer. Complete instructions are in that linked article.

When this transition to a natural way of growing gets finely tuned in, and the balance is restored, plants will be so vibrant that they naturally resist diseases and pests.

My farmer friend Dan Kittredge says that pests are only attracted to low vibrancy plants that are lacking in deep mineral nutrition. He says the pests are there to tell us, “This plant is not fit for human consumption”.

Commercial agriculture and chemical gardening are both fighting a losing battle. Let’s create an alternative -- a natural, healthy agriculture, which will restore our soils and our collective health.

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