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When Compost Isn't Enough

Posts: 45
Location: Lynnwood, WA. USA
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I'm stuck in an intellectual permaculture quandry.

I would like to manage my suburban yard/garden with as few outside inputs as possible.

However, I have just read Steve Solomon's book, The Intelligent Gardener, which suggests (with some scientific backing) that in some areas (especially where heavy rainfall leaches soil nutrients) soil can be widely deficient in certain plant nutrients, and when you eat those plants, you are not getting a nutritionally complete diet, which can lead to health problems.

Nutritious Diet/No Pesticides is my number one goal due my complementary efforts to help my son recover from autism through dietary improvement (which is going quite well, by the way).

Solomon says that adding manure or organic matter from your local area is not helpful, as these crops (grass/hay in horse feed, green manures etc.) would have the same nutrient deficiencies endemic to the area.

He suggests soil testing and strategic supplementation/fertilizing.

I guess I was hoping to get away from outside inputs like commercial fertilizers, but now I'm concerned that there is not a way to do this AND simultaneously maintain maximum fertility on my land. I was hoping chicken manure and woodchip mulch would be the answer to all my problems, and now I'm not as confident in that approach.

Any thoughts on this topic?

Thank you!

Emily Cressey
Posts: 1444
Location: Fennville MI
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I would review Elaine Ingham's work. She is of the opinion that soil biology is the critical elmenet in getting nutrition into plants and so into us. In her opinion, the mineral nutrients are there in the soil, it is a question of making them available to the plants and that is done through the soil biology.

I see her as making some very strong arguments, and I see Solomon as promoting a micromanaging appraoch that is input dependent and not as soundly based as he would like us to believe.

Posts: 6168
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Hau Emily, I commend you on wanting to practice sustainable growing. First thing to do, no matter what plan of growing you intend to follow, is to take multiple samples in multiple areas of your gardening space and get them tested. With these results in hand you are ready to form a plan of improvement/ conditioning for your soils. Steve Solomon, in my opinion, seems to be "on the fence" when it comes to permaculture ideals since he talks about fertilizers.

Any organic matter you put into soil is helpful. Organic material helps the condition of the soil, both nutritionally and texturally, it may also help soil nutritionally, but only to the extent of the nutrients in the soil and in the organic material. With a good (complete analysis) you will know the mineral defects, soil make up, major nutrient content, minor nutrient content. This allows you to use things like powdered rock, manures, compost, etc. to amend the soil so it will reach optimum nutrient content at a quick pace.
I personally discourage any "quick fix" which includes commercial fertilizers, there are plenty of better choices, such as green sand, dried kelp, composted manures, rotted humus, leaf mold, fish emulsion, compost and manure teas and on and on, which are far superior to any chemical choice.

Proper soil nutrition is not an overnight happening thing. Expect it to take around two years to get close to your soil nutrition desires and know that it will happen and when it does it is far easier to maintain.
If you can get manures from stables (will be a mix of poop and hay/straw) along with other manures as well as your kitchen scraps that don't feed chickens or other animals. Compost them then apply this to your gardens as a mulch layer, every year. You will see vast improvement of your soil, both in levels of nutrition available to plants and in soil texture and water holding ability.

While it may be that you have to add other amendments to the soil for nutrition. Friability is also a major component of great soil. Inoculation of soils with mychorrizal fungi is what makes all the nutrients in the soil available to plants. If you don't have this inoculant it will only help to add it. It is easy to do and you may be able to locate some that are already growing and fruiting in your area. If not, they are reasonably available through growers online.

Get that soil tested and get ready for a wonderful adventure in soil building that will pay you huge dividends.
Posts: 4540
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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If you don't want outside inputs, then make the decision to not use outside inputs... It's easy to make a decision and then stick with it. What is hard is always sitting on the fence... Will I spray today? Will I spray next week? What about that bug? What about this blight? What about that yellowing? To me, it's never an issue. I don't use outside inputs: Not poisons, not fertilizers, not manures, not composts, not micronutrients. Occasionally I'll import seeds -- if they're from a species that I am not currently growing. I import water.

I've never had a test done on my soil. My father never had a test done on his soil. My grandfather never had a test done on his soil. I don't know about the members of my family before that. But since the beginning of agriculture, I suspect that the vast majority of growers have never had a soil test done... We've gotten along just fine.

You don't have tests done on the food that you buy from the grocery store... You don't have a clue if it is nutritious or not nutritious. You don't know what minerals or nutrients are in the food. And just because a laboratory detects some minerals by conducting non-biological tests on samples, doesn't mean that those minerals will show up in the plants that you eat.

I handle the nutrient issue by tasting every plant that I save seeds from, and only saving seeds from great tasting plants. I figure that plants that taste great and have dark colors are more nutritious. I figure that I'll select for families that grow great in my soil exactly as it exists today. It's just too hard to make much of a long-term impact by adding things to the surface of the soil. It's much easier to change the genetics of the plants. Besides, I can't afford inputs.

So my thoughts are that soil testing is for mega-ag factory farms. Since that's not me, I don't worry about testing the soil. I plant things. They grow. They taste great. That's all I care to know about my soil.

Posts: 3370
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
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All good posts, all valid paths if you choose.

I import some things to speed up my soil building. My gardens get rock dust for minerals and compost I make from lawn clippings and sawdust I get for free. My large acreage gets fertilizer as hay fed to the livestock and free choice minerals-the animals can sense what they are lacking, same stuff the soil is lacking. I can't afford rock dust on a broad acre scale, but it is an easy fix for a garden.

I have also had huge improvements in my children through their diet. It took more than just nutrition, we had to correct the flora and fauna balance and that took some outside inputs too. But it was SO WORTH IT!
Posts: 1703
Location: Western Washington
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There are plenty of non-chemical amendments out there as well. Kelp meal, bone meal, blood meal, fish goo, all sorts of stuff. Build up the soil organic matter and the nutrient retention will follow. Char might be something worthy of looking at as well.
Posts: 257
Location: Central Texas zone 8a, 800 chill hours 28 blessed inches of rain
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Emily Cressey wrote:
Any thoughts on this topic?


I was going to recommend kelp and seaweed wash up along the beaches of the Sound, just miles away from you, but that has been covered. I would also suggest making use of the volcanic ash that is still being packaged and sold in the area from Mt. St. Helens. I would buy it as an absorbent in 25# bags for a couple of bucks. A lot of minerals from deep within the earth were renewed back to the surface in that event. Largely unspoiled by modern industrialization would be my guess.

But first, I would have a soil test done for a few bucks. You may find that your soil is not deficient at all. If it is, it will allow you to target specific compounds rather than a random approach.
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