Welcome to the first of three steps on how we can learn from nature when it comes to improving garden health, especially organic soil health.
(You'll see me swatting at mosquitoes and these other biting bugs here and there - they sure were thick when we got deep into the jungle).
All three steps are equally important, but the first I tend to think about is balancing soil minerals, the main reason being that I want to get a soil test analyzed as soon as possible when I’m working on a new garden because it can take a couple of weeks to get results.
Admittedly, this first post is more about how our organic gardens differ from a forest with regards to fertility than how it is the same, but it’s a very useful comparison.
So what can we learn about balancing soil minerals from a forest? After all, nobody fertilizes the forest.
I know some people don’t want to fertilize because of this reason, and because on the surface it makes sense to just use compost because you can make it onsite instead of mining the earth for minerals.
That’s actually one of the things I want to get across today, is just to share why I believe we need to balance soil fertility in our gardens, with a few tips on how to get started.
In the next 2 posts I’ll talk more about how we can mimic nature, and while I won’t be talking specifically about balancing minerals there, it will be very much related to fertility and garden health.
The forest was "fertilized" during its early years. Before there was soil here, there was rock, and that rock had some minerals in it.
And long ago before there was a forest, some microorganisms and small plants began to work away at the rock, and over the course of centuries, turned it into soil that would support plant life.
That’s the state a lot of our soils are in at home now. It may not be great soil - it may even be more like subsoil - but it certainly has enough minerals to grow plants, which is why you can have a garden without fertilizer. So if we want to mimic nature and not fertilize, we can have some kind of garden.
The reason the forest doesn’t need fertilizing is because something is going to grow there eventually without fertilizing. The first plants that come in create the soil and more plants gradually come in when the conditions are right.
Basically, something is always going to grow. Most of the plants that germinate won’t grow, but enough will grow that an ecosystem will develop.
Of course you can do this in your garden, too. If you were to leave it alone, the same thing would happen there. Maybe a forest or maybe not, but certainly "weeds" and grasses will quickly come in to improve the soil and they’ll gradually give way to more and more species of plants.
So the reason we need to fertilize is not because we can’t grow plants, but because we want to dictate precisely which plants grow, and we want everything we plant to not only live, but thrive, to be as healthy as possible.
If you leave your soil alone, is it going to produce tomatoes or strawberries or award-winning roses?
For most of us, the answer is no. The plants we want to grow don’t necessarily want to grow there. Most of our food plants evolved in different climates. So if we want them to do well, it’s a very good idea to balance the soil to give them what they need.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of money or use a lot of fertilizer, and you don’t have to do it forever, but just a little bit for the first few years can work wonders.
The easiest way to do this is to find a good, organic-minded soil lab and ship them a soil sample, even if it means shipping to a different state or province or sometimes even country.
They will tell you what you need to do to balance the calcium to magnesium ratio, the phosphorus to potassium ratio, and so on. They will tell you which of the important micronutrients are lacking.
This important step is overlooked by the average gardener, but if you want your garden to excel, to produce food with nutrition far beyond that of your local markets and grocery stores, be sure to do this.
The reason we need a soil test is because it’s important to add the right nutrients, not just the common N-P-K fertilizers that often make things worse, not even the dolomite lime that is often added for good measure.
You want to add only the nutrients that your soil needs. That’s why purchasing blended fertilizers with a dozen different ingredients generally doesn’t make sense.
That being said, there is something you can add without a soil test - glacial or volcanic rock dust. You can buy it in bags from certain fertilizer suppliers or direct from a quarry if you’re prepared to do some testing first.
This adds just small amounts of dozens of different minerals and ensures you have a base, but it’s not enough of any one nutrient to cause an imbalance.
It’s true that almost every soil has at least a little of every mineral, but lots of experimenting with rock dusts around the world show the benefits to be worthwhile.
We may also foliar fertilize our plants during the growing season with things like ocean water or liquid kelp in order to directly provide them with broad-spectrum nutrition.
This is especially useful in the early stages of a garden when the ecosystem may not be popping enough to provide for your plants.
In order for this to work well, though, you need to have started the process of balancing the soil nutrients, especially calcium.
This foliar feeding gives your plants the nutrients they need in order to function properly, to create the enzymes which allow them to be healthy, to maximize photosynthesis, and so on.
In turn, if you’re growing food, you will get those nutrients which are sorely lacking in the modern diet, even a diet with lots of organic fruits and vegetables (just because it’s organic, doesn’t mean it is full of nutrients, especially mass-produced, industrial organics).
So the main thing I wanted to share today is actually how a garden is different than a forest when it comes to fertility.
It’s different because we want to control which plants grow there and we want them to look good and produce lots of flowers and lots of healthy food.
In the next video I’m going to continue with another aspect of soil health that certainly relates to fertility and water, but this will be much more about emulating nature.