I recently came across this sort of online debate (summarized below if you don't have time to watch these lengthy videos):
In the first video, the host says lots of good things about the Mittleider Method, before sharing 6 reasons why he doesn't use it. 1. He finds is disrespectful to the soil organisms and microorganisms
2. It pollutes our water ways, seeping through to the water table or running off into streams, rivers and the oceans, contributing to dead zones.
3. It is unsustainable.
4. It creates plant dependence.
5. It doesn't create nutrient-dense foods.
6. it is expensive.
He elaborates that instead of buying a chemical NPK fertilizer and supplementing it with the "Magic Mittleider" blend of 13 other micronutrients which cost around $14 for a 20 oz. container, he can supply between 70 and 90 elements in the form of volcanic rock dust and/or oceanic/seaweed-based fertilizers, pointing out that a 50 lb. bag of rock dost costs a bit more than $20.
The second video is a rebuttal of these 6 points by two proponents of the Mittleider Method, uploaded a week after the first video was uploaded.
In it, they point out that all things are made of elements from the periodic table, and that according to the best information we have from scientists, plants have need of only the NPK, plus about 13 other micronutrients. They can pull Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen from the air, and the rest they must get from the soil.
The speakers then point out that if the plants only need 16, or at most perhaps 18 of the elements, then to add 70 or 90 elements is not only needlessly wasteful, but even dangerous. Looking at the periodic table, you can let your imagination run wild as far as what those other elements might be. Specifically named are elements like Arsenic, Lead, Mercury, and other heavy metals.
The third video is made by the same guy who made the first video, uploaded a few weeks later. In it, he refers to the statements made by the two men in the second video about the dangers of rock dust. He compares several bags of rock dust from various companies, and verifies that, yes, indeed, each bag contains trace amounts of these elements, amounts far below the level of contamination, and quite far below the accepted levels of normal soils, equating the views expressed in the second video with fear mongering.
I found all this quite fascinating, but it raises a few questions for me. First of all, these two:
1. What are your experiences with or thoughts regarding the Mittleider Method?
2. What are your experiences with or thoughts regarding the use of mineral supplements like rock dust?
Additionally, if soils become depleted of nutrients and minerals over time, where (and with an eye to human settlement, also when) have the best, most nutrient-dense soils been found? I'm looking for answers in the form of topographical descriptions, as well as political/geographical names and dates. In other words, answers like "riparian zones" or "coastal plains" or "The windward side of mountain ranges" would be fine, but i'm also looking for answers like "The Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia, circa 5000 BC" or "The Great Plains of the US, pre-20th Century" etc.
However, it seems to me that if there is a "supply chain" of soil minerals, it makes sense that we would find the most at the beginning and at the end of the conveyor belt, the beginning being their volcanic origin, and the end being the oceans where they eventually accumulate, including the associated "edge" regions. For example, I've heard that a lot of the fertility of the Pacific Northwest comes in the form of oceanic salmon swimming upstream and being eaten by bears, which then distribute those nutrients in the woods they way bears do best. "Ring of Fire" locations like Alaska or Hawaii come to mind. The Nile River Delta and Israel are much greener than most other parts of northern Africa or the Middle East. Without having a specific example in mind, I could imagine that atolls are rather fertile as well.
Using the chemical means that most of the pores in the soil is filled with bad microbes. Using the rock dust promote, the microbes that digest rock and make it more bio-available. It is also a more long term solution, whereas the other one will more easily dissolve and then soak down into the water table then to the river/etc
Anyone that seriously asserts that plants only need about twenty minerals from the soil has established themselves as someone I do not want soil advice from. Our understanding of how soil works to support plant life is still very incomplete, nowhere close to being able to say "these are the minerals plants need, adding more is wasteful."
The American plains are commonly referred to as being/having been the most fertile soils on earth.
The microbiology in the soil is what makes it fertile, and that is usually promoted by deep soils, aided by decomposition of diverse organic matter, deep roots of plants, and glacial mineralization from geologically new mountains. Consistent but not overwhelming rainfall is also related. For the first, like Peter said, the Great Plains. Deep soils are more prevalent in colder, more northerly areas. Deep roots are more likely in untilled areas, unsprayed and clayish river bottoms. Mountainous areas have more mineralization. Consistent but not overwhelming rain is why Canby Oregon is the named area with the USDA's best soil. High rainfall and moderate temperatures lead to great diversity of plants and animals. Find the intersection of all those factors and you will have great soil!
Best soils? How does one define best? The best soil for alkaline loving plant is alkaline soils near the salt flats.
The best soil for growing root crops is deep sandy soil. Sandy soil is a joy to work, but keeping sufficient moisture and nutrients in the soil may be a problem.
Rocky soil is a pain in the neck when used as a vegetable farm, but it works great for orchards.
In the mountains, the soils with the most organic matter are found just below the keyline -- the point where the slope changes from steep to gentle. The plant debris that is carried from the steep slopes settles out when the water flow slows. Also, more water seeps into the ground there. So more water and more organic matter equals more nutrients in the soil. That also promotes more plant growth so more organic matter grown and dropped there as well.
My favorite soils to grow in were created as river deltas. And more specifically, far enough out in the delta that silt is the predominant component of the soil. The rocks and sand were mostly left close to the mouth of the river. The most gumbo clay was swept out into deeper water. I use the generic term of river deltas, and include in that the flood plains of rivers and the bottoms of prehistoric lakes.
OP asked “1. What are your experiences with or thoughts regarding the Mittleider Method?"
I discovered permaculture less than two years ago. It embraced my decades old interest in alternative energy and natural building. I had far less experience with gardening, though enough to know I had much left to learn.
I discovered the Mittleider Method several months before discovering permaculture. I almost went that route. I had the website in front of me ready to order the magic mineral mix but didn’t pull the trigger. Why not? All my gardening had been organic and cheap. I never imported anything to my garden other than truckloads of compost when getting started. I couldn't quite bring myself to do it without a bit more research. During that research I tripped over permaculture, the soil science of Dr. Elaine Ingham, and Paul Stamets work on mycology. I’m so glad I didn’t pull the trigger and start using Mittleider Method.
So what are my thoughts about the method? I think they get many things right and a few critical things wrong. Permaculture says, get a yield. Mittleider does that really well. Lots of non-garndeners or black thumb gardeners report great successes with the approach. They garden intensively. They make it simple. They get people started, and they get a success.
My favorite part of the Mittleider method is their design suggestions for an inexpensive T-frame apparatus to support vertical crops. The design stacks functions nicely, easily turning into a greenhouse in cold weather and supporting shade cloth those of us down south. It integrates nicely with a modular drip system. It’s a nice solution and I might consider it for a small backyard greenhouse. The whole approach deeply appealed to the engineer in me, before permaculture exposed me to more complete solutions and the principles and patterns from which to derive such solutions.
So what’s wrong with Mittleider? Really it’s what’s wrong with me. Permaculture has expanded my mind so much that I’m beautifully warped, unable to return to an approach that solves so few problems by comparison. Even talking with a Mittleider proponent in language they understand requires me to shrink my thinking. So I usually don’t… unless I start by showing the “Greening the Desert” video to expose something completely beyond the thinking of conventional gardeners.
Now that I’ve seen what’s possible with permaculture, the Mittleider Method, along with every other gardening approach I looked at previously seems naively incomplete. Here’s a few ways my current permaculture influenced thinking is far beyond where Mittleider could take me.
I want to build perennial systems, while getting a yield now with annuals.
I want to produce zero waste and require zero outside inputs to my land and lifestyle. That’s far from where I am today, but a goal worth stepping toward every day.
I want to cultivate healthy soil biology, sharing the reasons with those who care.
I want to leave the earth I live on healthier and more productive because I have been there
It’s this last reason that really connects to my heart. I’m decades past tired of hearing about how humans are destructive and we should protected the wilderness from us, protect the spotted owl from us, protect the piping plover from us. It’s not enough for me to tiptoe around in the world trying not to harm anything. It’s certainly not for me to shove my agenda down people’s throats and steal their property rights so they won’t harm anything. It’s not enough to not be bad, I want to make a positive difference. I want to leave the world better than I found it. I want to restore thousands, even millions, of acres to healthy productive ecosystems. I want to connect damaged land with skilled permies. I want to enhance individual liberty. I want to live, love, laugh, and bring hope to my world. And I want to eat delicious healthy food in the company of positive healthy people.
If the Mittleider Method gets someone started eating from their backyard instead of the supermarket then I applaud that. It’s just a few tools short of accomplishing everything on my personal list above.
"Dr. Jacob R. Mittleider, world-renowned international agricultural consultant, developed this method of gardening while conducting family garden-size agricultural training and program development in 27 different countries.
The Mittleider Method is based on 55 years of study and gardening experience.
After 20 years of growing flowers and vegetables commercially, Dr. Mittleider embarked on a program of sharing his expertise with gardeners and would-be gardeners around the world.
In 1964 he was asked by Loma Linda University in California to take an extended trip to study the diets of the people in developing countries. He traveled through the Middle East, Africa, India, Australia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific.
He found that the diseases, insects, and nutritional deficiencies were similar in all countries visited and that the agricultural problems closely resembled those in the United States.
He concluded that the solution to their food problems simply required carrying out the recommendations of experts in plant nutrition and following scientific agricultural practices.
Thus he developed the Mittleider Method of gardening—an easy-to-use method that allows gardeners to raise an abundance of vegetables and other crops on almost any soil, in practically any season, in almost any climate, and virtually at any elevation."
The first thing that one should note about the Mittleider method is that it was developed by a Commercial Flower and Vegetable grower. The methodology has roots in Hydroponic growing methods thus the dependency on chemical nutrients.
This means he was most concerned at that time with production. Sounds like Big Ag thinking doesn't it?
The second thing to note is that it was developed this method to allow abundant growth and production regardless of soil condition, location, or season (green house growing conditions?)
Given the criteria he was designing for he came up with a nearly perfect methodology, just not a sustainable agriculture one. Dependency on purchased nutrients means food costs go up as the price of the nutrients go up along with leached nutrient pollution of water ways/ ground water.
What I find objectionable is that it promotes dependence on chemical fertilizers, does not promote building soil health or water conservation. It does promote spending lots of money, meaning it is good for those in the business of supplying.
Of course it works, almost anyone can grow crops or other plants by using his methodology. Miracle Grow gardening works, it just isn't very healthy for the planet. addendum: or people who eat such foods.
Soil amendments should; Have a lasting effect (stay in the soil for more than one season)
Promote soil health by giving the micro organisms nutrients so they can thrive and so interact with the crop plants we desire to grow, along with all other plants that come into contact with the micro organisms.
Create a truly healthy soil that can self sustain nutrient levels by the acts of the gardener harvesting and returning the left overs back into the soil, creating a non-chemical dependency.
Improve the water holding capability of the soil, the quantity and quality of micro organisms, promote Mycorrhizal Fungi so plants can better pick up all the nutrients they need to be nutritionally beneficial to we who use the plants for food.
Rock dust is a good method of introducing a broad spectrum of mineral nutrients into soil, it also promotes healthy soil by being a long term solution.
Soils found in Delta regions, flood plane regions tend to be the richest soils. The Nile Delta is such a region, it was the annual floods that allowed the Egyptians to prosper through the ages.
Soils found in areas that were previously ocean bottom tend to have the most clays but they still have an abundance of mineral nutrients, one just has to improve the clay's ability to give and take in water, which is the transporter of all nutrients found in all soil.
Volcanic soils are also mineral rich and they tend to be more sandy, meaning they drain water better, leaving just enough for plants to use without roots drowning and rotting.
Excellent post, Bryant. I would only add one thing. Miracle Gro gardening isn't good for the people eating the food either. The plants don't develop the antioxidants needed to fend off free radicals, so neither do we. The plants develop tremendous volume, but are prone to diseases growing that quickly, and so are lacking in nutrition. It's a good way to make sure there's less nutrition in the amount of vegetables or fruit that you grow or eat.
Thanks, John. I totally agree that that sort of gardening, while fine for those who don't want to do the work of building their soil but still want pretty flowers, is also inappropriate and even counter productive to use for vegetables, melons, fruit trees etc. As you bring up, the rapid cell growth makes for weak plant stems and a host of other problems as well as not providing good nutrition. Plants take time to build good nutrition for those who eat it, just like chickens need a fully balanced diet of bugs, seeds, grasses, lizards etc. You only get out of any food what went into it, if what went in was all nutrients in a bag then those will be the only things the plant can give to the animal that eats it. We humans need a broad range of nutrients in our diets or we soon have health issues that can be the end of us. In the USA it is very possible to be well fed but not fed well (nutrient rich foods mean you are fed well, MickeyD's is a good example of nutrient poor food).
The ancient Chinese used to classify soils by how much labor they required to grow well. There are no good/bad soils, just more or less difficult soils. Each soil has its own problem. There is probably an "ideal" soil, but it does not exist. We can always strive towards it, but that's what ideals are: a constant aspiration but also a perpetual rebuke.