In Part 1, we talked about the limitations of NPK fertilizers and compost in building healthy soil. We explored the primary soil minerals (Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Phosphorous, and Sulfur) and the secondary soil minerals (Boron, Iron, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc). The terms primary and secondary refer to amounts required for a balanced soil, rather than a reference to their importance. As we learned in part 1, they are all important and are interdependent. The primary minerals, the alkaline or base minerals, make up the largest percentage of a balanced soil. The secondary minerals are required in lesser amounts for a balanced soil.
A word of caution – These minerals should never be added to the soil without a soil test to determine if you need additions and how much. This is especially true of the trace minerals we will examine today. These are needed and applied in very small amounts, mixed with other needed minerals such as lime, to facilitate even application. Too much of any of these will result in toxicity.
Our focus this time is on the trace minerals that are required only in very small amounts — Cobalt, Molybdenum, Selenium, and Silicon. Although required only in a few ppm per acre, their presence is critical in building soil fertility. They are catalysts and synergists that activate other minerals and functions vital to the health and strength of plants, crops, and animals.
Cobalt is a component in the production of numerous enzymes, increases drought resistance of seeds, and is a component of vitamin B12. Ruminants such as cattle and sheep produce B12 in their digestive systems when Cobalt is present in their forage. The absence of Cobalt in the soil increases their susceptibility to infections and diseases. We like to see a minimum of 2 ppm of Cobalt in the soil. Cobalt is added to the soil in the form of Cobalt sulphate.
Molybdenum is a catalyst necessary for the fixation of Nitrogen. Much of our Nitrogen needs can come from Nitrogen in the atmosphere. Molybdenum is a key component of an enzyme that facilitates the conversion of Nitrogen gas to plant available ammonium Nitrogen. Cobalt and Molybdenum work together to source Nitrogen from the atmosphere in partnership with micro-organisms. Several Molybdenum-based enzymes are key to plant stress resistance and resilience. We recommend 1 to 2 ppm of Molybdenum in the soil through application of Sodium molybdate.
Selenium is a co-factor with vitamin E, is essential for proper immune system function, is associated with resistance to viruses, and regulates antioxidant activity necessary for plant resilience. It is required to produce the most powerful enzyme protection system in humans and animals. The ideal level of Selenium in the soil is 1 to 2 ppm. We use Calcium selenate or Sodium selenate to achieve the desired ppm.
Silicon strengthens cell walls and thereby is key to pest and disease resistance. It also improves stem strength. Nutrient pathways around and into the plant are made of Silica, and adequate amounts of the mineral improve nutrient translocation (movement throughout the plant). Silicon is the second most abundant mineral on earth and is a component of clay, soil, and rocks but is not in plant available form. Mono silicic acid is the plant available form of silica. We try for 100 ppm of mono silicic acid in the soil with the addition of Potassium silicate. For a gradual, long-term release of mono silicic acid, we use Calcium silicate or diatomaceous earth.
These are just of few of the many functions of each trace mineral, their interaction with other minerals, and how they work in synergy to contribute to optimum soil fertility. There are many others that occur in soils in very, very tiny amounts such as Chromium, Fluorine, Iodine, Nickel, Cesium, Tin, and Vanadium to name a few. These and many more are found in sources such as Azomite Brand Volcanic Minerals (71 trace elements), Glacial Rock Dust (67 trace elements), Jersey Greensand, Kelp Meal (60 trace elements with the added benefit of growth stimulants), and Redmond Mineral Salt or sea salt (50 trace elements from the ocean).
Our soil test includes the primary and secondary minerals, as well as the essential trace minerals Cobalt, Molybdenum, Selenium, and Silicon.
If you want to grow the healthiest, most nutritious food possible, paying attention to the health of your soil is one of the best ways to achieve this long term. Go to the Get Started page on this website for further information and how to get started growing the most nutritious food possible.
Building soil and soil fertility is so much more than just adding compost and NPK. Compost does build organic matter in the form of stable humus but doesn’t contain the optimum quantities of minerals, and NPK does provide a tremendous growth/bulk response but only provides three minerals — Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. How do the other minerals we need get into the food we grow?
Over decades, we’ve come to understand that the human body needs a large blend of minerals to function in the healthiest way possible and to resist disease. Look at the label on your multi-vitamin supplement. You’ll see Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Boron, Iron, Manganese, Copper, Zinc, and a host of others. For a maximum benefit to our bodies, it’s far better to get those through food we ingest, not a supplement. And, if it’s not in our soil, it can’t be in our food.
For crops to reach their full genetic potential and contain optimum levels of the other minerals we need, and taste as good as we want, these minerals must be in the soil at optimum levels. Vegetables and fruits will have greater sweetness and taste due to the phytonutrients that are manufactured by the crop. For any living thing to produce phytonutrients, proteins, enzymes, or amino acids, mineral elements much be present to act as catalysts. Just as an example, over 300 enzymes in the human body require Zinc as a catalyst.
A healthy, vigorous, nutrient-dense crop also has much greater disease and pest resistance.
Time and space do not permit an analysis of each mineral function. They are interdependent, and a shortage of any one of them can adversely affect crop yield and quality. Here are a couple of examples:
- Calcium directly stimulates the uptake of seven other minerals. So, a shortage or an excess of Calcium will affect cell strength and cell division which in turn will affect crop resilience, flowering, and fruit development.
- Magnesium deficiency will reduce phosphate uptake. Since phosphate drives all stages of the plant cycle, the result will be poor, early root growth and poor seed and fruit development.
The best way to illustrate this is through the “Law of the Maximum.” An excess of one mineral will result in the shortage of another. A crop may show signs of Potassium deficiency when in fact there is plenty of Potassium, but an excess of another mineral is limiting the uptake of Potassium. If one adds Potassium in this case, without a soil test, then it will throw Potassium out of balance along with reducing the uptake of other minerals.
All of this shows that minerals in the soil are the source of soil fertility and therefore crop quality and yield. Building the soil and balancing the minerals, stimulates the activity of beneficial soil bacteria, microbes, and fungi. This increased biological activity is what makes the minerals more and more available to the plant.
Indeed, building the soil requires the addition of organic matter/compost and biological activators, but it is not the end all. 10% Organic Matter in the form of stable humus will provide enough Nitrogen throughout the growing season for most crops. Sulfur, Phosphorous, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Boron, Iron, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc must all be present and in ideal balance to each other. Silicon, Molybdenum, Cobalt, and Selenium are important trace minerals that act as synergists. Building the soil also means building “reserves.” Once the soil is brought into optimum mineral balance, the pH will self-adjust to around 6.4 and you will have the reserves to provide soil balance for many years to come. Boron and Sulfur will require yearly maintenance as they are readily taken up by crops.
A word about Phosphorous. To maintain organic certification, or to simply grow organically, there are two readily available sources of Phosphorous approved for organic use by the USDA National Organic Program. Tennessee Brown Phosphate (TBP) and Calphos brand colloidal clay phosphate from Florida. TBP is 10% elemental Phosphorous while Calphos is 9% elemental Phosphorous. We prefer to use TBP as it contains a vast array of important trace minerals such as Cobalt, Molybdenum, and Selenium as well as well a host of others.
Most soils are considerably Phosphorous deficient and the amount of TBP required to balance the soil can cause skepticism. Let’s say we need 80 ppm or 160#/acre of elemental Phosphorous. Since TBP is 10% elemental Phosphorous, we would need to add 1,600#/acre of TBP (160 / 0.10 = 1,600). So, when we suggest adding 1,600#/acre of TBP, an organic farmer may walk away without saying another word (and we’ve had that happen). That amount is by far much more than anything they’ve ever heard of. But we must remember, TBP is only 10% elemental Phosphorous and we are also “building Phosphorous reserves” for many years to come and adding a vast array of vital trace minerals needed in very small quantities. For the home gardener with a 1000 ft.2 garden, this translates to 37#/1000 ft.2 of TBP.
One can split the application over three years (533#/acre each year or 12#/1000 ft.2 per year for the home gardener with 1000 ft.2 of garden space). You may not get the same results in the first year, but they will be far better than a Phosphorous deficient soil.
What is important to remember when you are skeptical about the quantities of minerals needed to balance the soil, is that you are “building the soil” and its fertility for many years to come.
In Part 2, we’ll explore the importance, function, and sources of trace minerals needed only in very small amounts — Cobalt, Molybdenum, Selenium, and Silicon — and the vital role they play in soil fertility.
Many people turn to university extension services for answers to questions about gardening and farming, and for laboratory tests to help determine what their soil might need. With so many tests available, it’s hard to know what to ask for. We often hear that extension services will, “Do this for free,” and that’s just not often the case.
Whether you are a home vegetable gardener, market gardener, farmer, or rancher, a complete soil test provides the foundation for building the soil. For instance, the standard soil test package provided by our local university extension office includes pH, Phosphorous, Potassium, Magnesium, organic matter, and cation exchange capacity. They charge $12.50 for the standard package including fertilizer recommendations, with an additional charge for each further test.
In addition, to ideally balance the soil for optimum nutrition and yield, you will need to know the result for Sulfur, Sodium, Boron, Iron, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc. You will also need the Total Cation Exchange Capacity TCEC (the soil’s capacity to hold and release these nutrients), the % of other bases (alkaline minerals), and exchangeable Hydrogen. That brings the total up to $62.
It’s also critical to know the values of the very important macro-minerals; Cobalt (especially for pastures), Molybdenum, Selenium, and Silicon, as well as Electrical Conductivity. That means the total charged by the extension service would top $128.
By comparison, Sustainable Soils’ complete test package includes TCEC, pH, % organic matter, Sulfur, Phosphorous, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium (base cations), Boron, Iron, Manganese, Copper, Zinc, % base saturation, other bases, exchangeable Hydrogen, Cobalt, Molybdenum, Selenium, Silicon, and Electrical conductivity. The total cost is $47 for the soil test. Adding in the soil Rx (our fertilizer recommendations) the total comes to $97.
This complete test package gives us all we need to write a soil Rx that balances your soil and optimizes nutritive value as well as yield. Once your soil is brought into balance, annual maintenance consists of monitoring Sulfur and Boron. These elements are readily taken up by crops and can be added as needed. 5 to 10% organic matter in the soil will release 100#/acre of Nitrogen throughout the growing season and will be enough for most crops. When adding Nitrogen, this should always be included in the equation.
Why are balanced and optimum mineral levels so important? It’s “The Law of the Maximum.” Too much of any element will cause a shortage of another. Nutrients in the soil are interdependent. For example, excess Magnesium or Potassium can affect Calcium uptake. Too much Nitrogen restricts Copper. Too much Phosphorous restricts Zinc. Too much Potassium ties up Boron and can block Manganese, and so on. Since each mineral has multiple functions, deficiencies manifest in many ways. A Magnesium deficiency means substandard photosynthesis, reduction in yield and disease resistance. Potassium promotes the movement of sugars into the fruit and seed. The resulting poor sugar translocation means insipid flavors and smaller seeds, fruits, and root vegetables. You will always experience a reduction in yield and profit if potassium is deficient.
And, if it’s not in your soil, it won’t be in your food. Humans and animals need minerals to grow and maintain strong immune systems. Those minerals are best obtained though the natural food sources in which they are present. In order for your produce to contain these minerals, they must first be in your soil. It’s best to feed the soil and let the soil feed the crop. Building the soil and balancing the minerals that naturally occur in the soil gives you the opportunity to grow crops that can reach their full genetic potential. It facilitates growing the most nutrient dense crops possible.
Let us take your soil sample and get it tested. It’s a great time of the year to do this in preparation for spring planting!
In recent weeks, I’ve had the chance to talk with one of the leaders in the field of soil fertility, and to mourn the passing of another. I’m reminded again of how important it is to stay in touch, exchange ideas, develop new theories and share everything that’s happening in the world, even while we isolate ourselves physically.
First, I had the chance to speak with Neil Kinsey, world-renowned founder of Kinsey Agricultural Services and a soil consultant since 1973 after completing a program of study developed and taught by Dr. William A. Albrecht. Neil and I shared some thoughts on many things, but also on how to reach out and impact the growing number of organic farmers.
Then, just a short while later, I heard of the passing on September 4th of my friend and mentor, Michael Astera. Michael was the owner of soilminerals.com and Agricola and was the gentleman who inspired and shaped my career in agricultural consulting. He was a great champion of the Albrecht method of soil fertility and soil balancing. Michael wrote The Ideal Soil 2014 – A Handbook for the New Agriculture v2.0. It is the result of studying The Albrecht Papers, an eight-volume collection of essays written by Dr. William A. Albrecht, as well as chemistry, physics, agriculture, and a host of other related disciplines.
Prior to completing his first book in 2012, Michael had begun helping farmers increase both the nutrient density and yield of many different crops. In due time, he had satisfied clients throughout the globe, from Australia to Japan, South Africa to Finland, from Argentina to Alaska and almost everywhere in between. He had written soil prescriptions to balance the minerals on farms, ranches, greenhouses and backyard gardens. His refined version of the Albrecht method is in use on coffee plantations in the highlands of Laos and the hills of Zambia, rice farms in Thailand and the Philippines, horse pastures in Borneo and sheep pastures in Oregon.
Michael’s passion was in sharing with the world all he learned about soil mineral balance. It was his mission to show home gardeners and farmers how to grow the most nutrient-dense food possible. He was keenly aware of the relationship between declining soil fertility, and the increase in degenerative diseases of humans and animals over the last century. He made his living as an agricultural consultant but was also committed to showing anyone how to increase and manage soil fertility for themselves. Such was Michael’s generous spirit.
Whenever I was stuck or stumped and needed guidance, Michael was always confidently there with the answers and solutions. He would take the time to answer in detail and made sure I fully understood the how and why. The depth of Michael’s generosity is illustrated by the fact that I was not the only one he mentored and encouraged. The list of his protégés is long and varied, from fellow consultants to farmers, home gardeners, viticulturists, and arborists. Michael’s presence will be greatly missed.
Two giants in the world of sustainable agriculture – one who still influences thousands of farmers and gardeners every year, and one whose legacy will provide guidance for years to come. How fortunate I am to have felt their impact.
COVID-19 is certainly changing our lives in many ways. Hopefully most changes will be temporary and get us through and beyond the pandemic. However, I see a change in our lives that might be a permanent silver lining to this pandemic — the interest in growing one’s own food to supplement the temporary shortages in our markets. Families may form new bonds as they plant gardens together and raise chickens and other farm animals in their quest to keep their food supplies more stable.
We may discover growing our own food provides us not only with a fulfilling lifestyle change, but also with an opportunity to grow food with more nutrient density than we thought possible. This in turn can lead to stronger immune systems and overall improved health for our families, friends, and neighbors. To illustrate, let’s examine how our farmland (and now our suburban gardens) have been treated in modern agricultural times.
The land we propose to grow our own food on has been mined or depleted of minerals for decades. The mining of farmland occurs when we grow crop after crop, year after year, decade after decade, without returning to the land any of the nutrient minerals the crops take up. The Phosphorous, Sulfur, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Boron, Iron, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc the crops take up, are removed from the soil and go out the farm gate. This is good because those mineral nutrients in the food are essential to the health of all humans. But if we don’t return to nature what we took, we have essentially depleted her gift to us.
Traditional western agriculture has focused on the addition of those elements that provide the greatest growth response, NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium). NPK ensures high yield and bulk (weight is how we are paid as farmers) but returning only NPK does not ensure the nutrient density of the crop. Sure, we have returned plenty of Phosphorous and Potassium with the application of NPK fertilizers. But there are nine other nutrients we have been neglecting for decades, without which we cannot have nutrient dense food.
If it’s not in the soil, it can’t be in the food. Adding compost and manure to our garden builds necessary organic matter in the soil. However, if the compost and manure don’t contain optimum levels of the eleven minerals listed above, the food we grow will not be as nutritious as that consumed by our ancestors (before our soils were depleted of those minerals).
As we embark on this new journey to grow our own food, we have the opportunity to produce the highest quality, most nutrient dense food possible by adding optimum levels of minerals to our garden soil. The benefits extend well beyond more nutritious food crops. Optimum mineral balance increases the retention of Carbon and Nitrogen. For example, without adequate Sulfur, the Carbon in the soil will off-gas into the atmosphere as Carbon dioxide. Additionally, much of the ammonia Nitrogen generated from the breakdown of organic matter will off-gas and be lost. By amending the soil for optimum mineral balance, you’ll be protecting the environment by keeping Carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Additional benefits include improved soil tilth and water retention, enhanced biological activity, natural disease and pest resistance, reduced dependence on chemical pesticides, and increased yields just to name a few.
A mineral balanced soil will enhance the gardening and farming experience and produce what we all are hoping for – the best tasting, and nutritionally balanced food.
Columbia, Missouri • July 25 – July 27 2018
I’ve just returned from the WWA Conference held in Columbia, Missouri. This year, the conference honored Dr. William A. Albrecht and his contributions to soil science, agricultural research, and education. William Albrecht, PhD (1888–1974) was Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri, Columbia from 1938-1959. He was president of the Soil Science Society of America 1939.
His pioneering work laid the foundation for the approach to soil fertility we use at Sustainable Soils, LLC, often referred to as “The Albrecht Method.” Neil Kinsey of Kinsey Agricultural Services was a direct student of Dr. Albrecht as well as having been certified as an agronomist by him. Neil has been carrying on Dr. Albrecht’s work for decades and has satisfied clients all over the world. He co-authored a book with Charles Walters, “Hands on Agronomy – Understanding Soil Fertility & Fertilizer Use.”
Conference speakers included Neil Kinsey as well as farmers and consultants from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, and South Africa. It was truly a global representation of attendees and speakers, some of which have had decades of success with superior crop quality and yield by working with Kinsey Agricultural Services and the Albrecht Method.
The Albrecht model of soil fertility has been proven highly successful on all crops and soils in nearly every country on earth. Balancing the mineral nutrients in the soil along with careful attention to building Carbon and humus levels, has been proven to create optimum soil fertility that provides the plant with everything it needs to reach its full genetic potential in nutrient density, (quality) as well as production, (yield). The pioneering work of a man ahead of his time, and those who have practiced and refined his founding principles, has given us a way to feed a rapidly increasing global population with the highest quality, highest yielding crops on less land. AND, there are women and men proving it every day!
I want to take this opportunity to honor an individual who was not able to attend this conference, but whose intense studies of Dr. Albrecht’s work lead him to his mission to create a better, healthier world for future generations. Michael Astera, soil fertility consultant and author of “The Ideal Soil 2014 – A Handbook for the New Agriculture v2.0.” has not only studied Dr. Albrecht’s work, but he has also intensely studied soil chemistry, biology, geology, and human nature. He has also proven that the Albrecht Method of soil fertility works and works very well in soils throughout the world.
His book has been translated to Spanish and Dutch as well as to a version for Indonesia. It has made its way, along with his consulting services, to coffee plantations in the highlands of Laos and the hills of Zambia, rice farms in Thailand and Philippines, horse pastures in Borneo, and sheep pastures in Oregon. Michael has proven that Albrecht’s founding principles, augmented with his experience, have been proven successful wherever they have been applied. My deepest gratitude goes to Michael Astera for inspiring me to embark on this journey to make the world a better, healthier place.
The time will soon be upon us where we begin to think about next year’s goals for our farms, plantations, gardens, and landscapes. Let Sustainable Soils LLC know that you would like to have superior quality and yields of whatever you grow, and we will be happy to help you.
So you would like to have a minerally balanced soil for optimum fertility? It will require an investment, but that investment will pay big dividends. Optimum mineral balance in the soil will result in:
- Increased nutrient density in the food and livestock forage you grow
- Natural disease and pest resistance
- Increased yield
- Improved soil tilth and friability
- Improved water retention and drainage
- Reduction in weed problems
- Reduction in fertilizer inputs
- Retention of Carbon and Nitrogen
- Ideal pH for your soil and climate
In the long run soil mineral balance will save you money by:
- Reducing the need for additional fertilizers
- Reducing water usage and providing protection in drought conditions
- Reducing pesticide and herbicide use
Additionally, you will be providing the highest quality, most nutritious produce, dairy, and meat possible for your family and customers.
The investment required to achieve such results consists of a soil test, a soil Rx based upon the results of that soil test, and the soil amendments needed. The quantity of minerals and amendments will depend on the condition of your soil, and how deficient the soil is in eleven primary and secondary mineral elements. For example, many soils in the United States are very Phosphorous deficient. Certified organic requires the use of amendments approved for organic use by the USDA National Organic Program.
Everything In Balance
The primary elements that are required in optimum levels are Sulfur, Phosphorus, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Boron, Iron, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc.
Justus Von Liebig, considered the founder of organic chemistry and regarded as one of the greatest chemistry scientists of all time, made major contributions to biological and agricultural chemistry. He popularized the “law of the minimum” which states the availability of the most abundant nutrient in the soil is only as good as the availability of the least abundant nutrient in the soil. To put it another way, a plant’s genetic potential is limited by the nutrient in shortest supply.
For example, too much Phosphorous restricts Zinc. Magnesium can stimulate the uptake of Phosphorus, while excess Potassium can inhibit uptake. If the Calcium level is too high in relation to Magnesium, the soil will be loose but will lose its texture and cohesiveness and water may drain through too easily and be lost. It will also be more prone to erosion from wind or water. If the Magnesium level is too high, the soil will be tight, preventing water and air from moving through easily. Too much Potassium restricts, or ties up, Boron and possibly blocks out the Manganese. High Copper shuts down Phosphorus, Zinc and Iron.
An optimum level of Sulfur is critical to the retention of Nitrogen and Carbon. Without adequate Sulfur, much of the ammonia Nitrogen generated by the breakdown of organic matter will be off-gassed into the atmosphere and be lost. Much of the Carbon will be lost as well as it is off-gassed as Carbon dioxide. (CO2). These are just a few examples of why ideal mineral quantities are so important. Rather like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, we want it just right.
Minerals and Human Health
If the minerals are not in our soils, they can’t be in our food. The secondary elements (secondary not in importance but in quantities required in relation to the primary elements) of Iron, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc play a vital role in health. Iron is essential for transporting Oxygen in the body and for the formation of red blood cells. It also supports the immune system and regulates growth. Manganese works in synergy with other minerals to promote immune system functioning. It is also necessary for reproduction, blood clotting, and for healthy skin, nails, and hair. Copper combines with certain proteins to produce enzymes that act as catalysts for skin pigmentation and the formation of collagen to maintain and repair connective tissues, including the heart and arteries. Zinc is the “reproduction and intelligence” mineral essential to neurotransmitter functioning and the maintenance of cognition. It is found in every tissue in the body and is essential for protein synthesis and cell division as well as being a powerful antioxidant. Zinc protects against neurodegeneration and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Most agricultural soils in the United States are severely Zinc deficient.
One can see the necessity of these secondary minerals to human health. They must be in the soil in optimum quantities, and in balance, if they are to be in our food and in our bodies.
Insoluble But Available
Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Sodium, Iron, Manganese, Copper, and Zinc, are cations (KAT-eye-ons) and have a positive ionic charge. They are held on negatively charged exchange sites primarily in the clay portion of the soil, but also on the organic matter or humus portion of the soil, by an electrostatic bond (opposites attract). Sulfur, Phosphorous, and Boron are anions (AN-eye-ons) having a negative charge and are primarily complexed with humus (organic matter), which has both positive and negative charges. Boron and Sulfur (and even some Copper) can be subject to some leaching.
However, as organic matter increases, more Boron and Sulfur will tend to adsorb to the organic matter and thus remain in the soil and available to plant roots. Conversely, soluble synthetic fertilizers leach into ground water and run off into rivers, lakes, streams, and eventually into the ocean.
The exchange capacity of the soil is its ability to hold on to and release mineral nutrients. Put another way, it is the soil’s “gas tank.” A soil with a large gas tank will take you a long way. A soil with a small gas tank will need to be refilled more frequently. Both can be balanced for optimum fertility. The initial cost of bringing a soil into balance will depend on the size of its gas tank. The exchange capacity of a soil (the size of its gas tank) will determine the initial cost. A soil test will tell us the size of the gas tank. That is always where we begin.
Cost Range Per Each Soil Rx
The total cost of treating a garden, field, or pasture depends on how big the soil’s gas tank is, the total square footage or acreage, condition of the soil, what it is deficient in and the degree of deficiency, freight for bulk quantities, your geographic location, and prices for soil amendments from your local sources.
The cost of a soil test is $43. The cost for writing a soil Rx is $50. Custom amendment blending is $50. The cost of any additional consulting is $50 per hour. Soil amendments can range from $0.03 per square foot for farm acreages where bulk pricing is available to $0.35 per square foot for home and market gardens. Actual cost within this range is determined by the current condition of the soil’s fertility and the size of the field or garden being treated.
The cost of an ideal soil of optimum fertility does indeed require an investment. However, once the soil has been amended and brought into optimum balance, you will not have to amend in these quantities again. The soil will have everything needed for years to come. Yearly maintenance will involve the addition of Sulfur and Boron, two minerals that are readily taken up by plants and subject to some leaching.
By investing in “soil building” you will realize the most nutritious produce, forage, dairy, and meat possible. Your products will taste superior, be of superior quality, and therefore will command a premium price. Your family and your customers are worth it.
Next time, we’ll examine one of the gardens we’ve been working on over the course of two years, and share more details about investment and results.
In the first update on Mary’s garden, we reviewed a soil prescription and saw the broadcasting of the custom soil amendment blend in the fall of 2016. Mary is a veteran gardener from Minnesota and has been accustomed to good results. In the season prior to amending the soil in her new garden, she simply could not get anything to grow and was concerned that she had lost her touch. Of course, she had not. Her soil was quite deficient in eight of the eleven minerals necessary for plant growth, health, and reproduction.
Overall, Mary’s garden did much better than usual in 2017 with nice yields. Cucumbers, basil, beets, and potatoes did very well as did cabbage and broccoli. She also had a thriving patch of carrots.
However, after returning from a ten-day trip, fungus had infected the carrots and caterpillars had devoured the cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and broccoli. Peppers did moderately well, Cow Pea Coat and Jacket beans did very well while two other bean varieties succumbed to fungus. Mary had enough tomatoes to eat fresh but fungus prevented the canning she had planned for. Melons were mediocre.
There is no reason for alarm. These results, both good and bad, can happen in the first growing season after amending. They are also partly due to excessive rain just as Mary’s summer produce was ripening. The original mineral deficiencies and imbalances were quite substantial and correcting them resulted in some obvious improvement. However, this is a process that takes several growing seasons to see the full result of mineral balance.
The soil microbes have just begun their work in consuming and digesting insoluble minerals. The more they digest, the more they reproduce and die. This ongoing biological process of digesting, reproducing, and dying ensures that a steady supply of nutrients are returned to the soil in a form that is available to plant roots. With an abundant supply of minerals added to the soil for the microbes to feed on, biological activity increases and so does the availability of nutrient minerals.
As this process continues, so do improvements in plant quality, vigor, disease and pest resistance, yield, and nutritional value. Improvements will continue each growing season, as the minerals become increasingly plant available.
We will be taking a soil sample soon to see if we achieved ideal balance. Plants readily take up Sulfur and Boron, and Boron is also subject to some leaching. These two minerals will likely require a minor adjustment annually. Because Mary made the investment of bringing the soil into ideal balance, she will not need to add the other minerals in these quantities again.
Mary has done much more than balance the soil for optimum fertility and nutrient content of her food, she has done her part in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. By providing optimum levels of Sulfur she has kept Carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere. Without an adequate level of Sulfur, instead of Carbon being incorporated into the soil as stable humus, it will off-gas as Carbon dioxide. It’s the same with Nitrogen. As the organic matter applied to soil breaks down, it produces ammonia Nitrogen. Without the presence of adequate Sulfur, much of that Nitrogen created will be lost to the atmosphere as ammonia gas rather than utilized by crops. Keep in mind this is FREE Nitrogen from the atmosphere that we are losing! It is amino acid Nitrogen necessary for protein development, provided by Nitrogen fixation resulting from the microbial symbiosis that takes place around the roots.
We will continue to keep you updated on the progress by sharing the results of the soil test and the soil Rx showing any adjustments needed. Additionally, we will perform Brix tests on next year’s crops to monitor the increasing nutritional value of optimally amended soil.
When Nature speaks, we are wise to listen. Weeds have an indispensable purpose in our ecosystem. Nature uses them to tell us about the state of our soil fertility and the nutrients lacking, or overabundant in our soils. The weeds we are accustomed to despising can actually be our allies. In fact, weeds are not the problem. Rather, they are only a symptom of a larger problem.
Weeds have numerous purposes. They are nature’s way of covering bare soil to prevent erosion due to wind and water. They also exist to correct soil fertility deficiencies. For example, the common dandelion is an indication of a Calcium deficiency and Potassium excess in the soil. The dandelion has a very long taproot that can grow as deep as three feet into the soil, retrieving Calcium from below the root zone, and bringing it to the surface where it will be deposited as the plant decays. Canada Thistle tells us we may have a Calcium deficiency along with excess Phosphorous and Potassium. Many broadleaf weeds thrive in soil conditions where available Potassium exceeds available Phosphorous. (Ideally, we want Potassium to equal Phosphorous by weight.)
If you were to observe vacant land over time, you would see a “weed progression” indicating the nutrients lacking in the soil during a given period of time. Whatever nutrients are deficient, weeds needing to capture those nutrients will be dominant. Let’s say those nutrients are Calcium, Phosphorous, and Copper and you are having trouble with Jerusalem-oak and Oakleaf (Goosefoot). When enough Calcium, Phosphorous, and Copper have been brought to the surface and released, those weeds will be suppressed by others seeking nutrients deficient at THAT point in time, and on it goes.
If you were to have a soil sample analyzed it would most likely confirm the deficiencies of Calcium, Phosphorous, and Copper. Additionally, if you balanced the minerals in the soil and corrected the above deficiencies, the Jerusalem-oak and Oakleaf would not thrive. With soil nutrients in optimum balance, weeds will still exist but won’t be an onerous, insurmountable difficulty.
Weed seeds are tiny in most cases and don’t have the food store to sustain them during early growth like larger crop seeds do. Therefore, the weed seeds depend on soluble fertilizers for their early growth and will respond to those fertilizers by proliferating. Having optimum soil mineral balance will give crops what they require without the need to apply soluble salt fertilizers (NPK).
When addressing weeds in the garden or crop field it is best to do so before they go to seed. If you can, get them early when they are “in the white.” Whether you cultivate, cut, or mow them leave the residue on the soil surface. It will keep the ground covered and return nutrients to the soil as the weeds decompose.
Further problems may arise when adding a soil amendment without a soil test. In one instance, a farmer growing alfalfa added nearly 1000 lbs./acre of Potassium sulfate after having heard it would grow better alfalfa. Dandelions began to grow during the first year and after several years; the dandelions took over the alfalfa. Too much Potassium interfered with the uptake of Calcium in the root zone. The dandelions grew to reach deep into the soil to bring up available calcium. This illustrates why it is so important to get a soil test before adding anything to your soil. You must know where you are to determine where you need to go. It also demonstrates the effects of adding too much or too little of one mineral on other minerals.
We’ve just scratched the surface on the subject of weeds and what they can tell us. In addition to indicating soil mineral imbalances, an excess of weeds can help us improve our farming and gardening practices by encouraging the use of cover crops or fostering effective grazing practices. There are a number of excellent books on the subject of weeds. If you wish to investigate further, we highly recommend the following:
McCaman, Jay L. When Weeds Talk. 2nd ed. of Weeds and Why They Grow.
Retitled, When Weeds Talk. MO, 2013. Print.
Pfieffer, Ehrenfried E. Weeds & What They Tell Us. 3rd ed. Floris Books, 2012. Print.
Walters, Charles. Weeds, Control Without Poisons. 2nd ed. Acres USA, 1991/1999. Print.
According to the National Gardening Market Research Company, a widely recognized authority on the U.S. consumer lawn and garden market, “an estimated 90 million households participated in do-it-yourself lawn and gardening activities last year  – in and outdoors. That’s about 75-percent of all U.S. households. According to the survey, the most important market force was 18-34 year olds. Five million of the six million ‘new’ gardening households were Millennials.”1 How exciting is that!
We have talked to several clients over the years that were excited to get their children into vegetable gardening to teach them about the fun and function of growing their own food.
The report further states that Americans spent about $3.6 billion growing vegetables, fruit, berries and herbs.1 That’s quite an investment—but worth it if we consider the value of homegrown goodness for our consumption and overall health.
Planting day will be upon us before we know it. In our neck of the woods, this past winter season featured spring-like temperatures, prompting lots of garden plants to wake up a bit too early.
As spring begins, it’s a great time to get a soil test and evaluate the short-term and long-term needs of your soil. Whether you farm on a larger scale and prefer to use your own fertilizer dealer, or garden on a smaller scale and would like us to ship you a custom soil amendment blend, the first step is always a soil test. You must know where you are to get where you want to go. If you are having problems with weeds, low yields, poor quality, drainage issues, flowering, fruiting, seed development, or all of the above, we want to work with you to begin the process of maximizing the fertility, balance, and productivity of your soil.
Visit the Get Started page on this site and you’ll find a step by step guide to taking a soil sample and sending it to the lab. After completing all five steps, you’ll soon be on your way to producing greater yields of higher quality, more nutritious, crops and forages.
Feel free to email us from the Contact Us page and we will be happy to answer any questions you may have, and assist you in the process of improving the fertility and performance of your soil.
1 2016 National Gardening Survey, GardenResearch.com