This type of pesticide spraying still happens all around the world.
Our world has issues.
Corruption, environmental degradation, poverty, world hunger – the list goes on and on.
In my view, one of the biggest problems is our food system.
It’s polluting our environment and polluting us, and it’s not providing us with the nutrition we need – and that includes organic food.
I’ve heard some of the brightest minds in organic agriculture – including Dr. Arden Andersen and Dr. Elaine Ingham – say that in some cases, we’ve lost over 60% of the nutrition in our food in less than 60 years.
When we don’t provide our bodies with proper nutrition, we don’t think as well, sleep as well or treat each other as well.
We’re less happy, and of course, we’re more sick.
Our current food system is a huge problem, and it’s important to shed light on these issues, but I think it’s just as important to focus on solutions rather than spending too much time feeling down about it.
Food is life-giving. It’s part of our cultural and social bonding. It has healing abilities. There’s so much powerful opportunity in food.
My organic garden last summer – young pear tree in the foreground.
And fortunately, you can grow your own – in your backyard, on your balcony or in a community/allotment garden.
It will take a bit of work and there will be a few mistakes along the way because there are a lot of things you need to learn, but you can learn them.
To me, one of the most important ways of improving our food system and our own health is to grow our own food, and not just any food, but highly nutritious, organic food.
That’s the part most gardening experts get wrong, and what I’m going to focus on today.
Doing this means more than just using compost, more than just switching to organic fertilizers and pesticides, and more than square food gardening or any of these other trendy methods being touted in gardening books.
To do it, you need to know a little about chemistry and biology, which is the subject of the first lesson in this 3 part series…
Chemistry basically refers to the periodic table of elements and how those elements interact.
Less than 20 elements are currently considered ‘essential’ for plant growth, although some of us believe many of them are probably important for optimal plant health.
There are over 100 of them – hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and so on.
How much of each element you have in your soil is based on the underlying rock material that’s native to your area or was brought in by glaciers, waterways, volcanoes or wind.
Rain can also have a big impact by moving those elements somewhere else – downhill or down into the subsoil.
Use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides also changes the soil chemistry.
If you weren’t too concerned about which plants grew in your yard, you wouldn’t have to do anything to change the soil chemistry because odds are there are some plants that will start growing there naturally, given they have enough water.
But since we are concerned with what grows in our gardens, and we want it to be healthy, we do often need to do a little chemistry tweaking to bring our soil to a place that can grow the wide variety of food plants we want to grow.
Note that I’m not saying chemicals – just chemistry, which just means elements, found naturally all over our planet.
As organic gardeners, we aren’t particularly fond of the idea of having, say, our rock phosphate shipped from Idaho and our gypsum from California.
But we are fond of growing tomatoes and strawberries that are as nutritious as possible, and if we do get our soil into balance, we can ultimately decrease the shipping of a lot of food from around the world to our kitchen counters.
So how do you improve your soil chemistry?
I mention compost often. It’s a great start. It brings in small amounts of many different elements, so it’s especially useful to make sure you have enough of those trace elements we know less about but believe are very important.
These include elements such as selenium and arsenic (yes, soil, plants and people all need even arsenic in small amounts).
Seaweed is an excellent source of broad spectrum nutrition for soil and plants.
But you’ll probably also benefit greatly by using some organic fertilizers in the first couple of years.
You’ll do this in order to have more control over the quantity of certain elements in your soil, and in order to feed plants directly during those first years when your soil is still transitioning to being healthier.
- Broad spectrum fertilizers that add small amounts of many different elements, such as rock dust, seaweed and even ocean water. These will benefit almost any garden.
- More specific fertilizers that add larger amounts of just 2-3 elements. They are usually naturally mined rocks such as lime and rock phosphate. These should mostly be added only after you’ve done a soil test.
Some of these products may feed plants directly, but often we do this even more for the other biology in the soil, because it has just as important of a role to play…
An optimally healthy forest topsoil can be 80% microorganisms by weight! Many people who work with soil put that number at more like 5%, but that’s because they’re used to working with sick agricultural soils.
Biology refers to living organisms.
Without the biology, soil is just lifeless dirt.
But a handful of healthy soil might have more bacteria and fungi in it than there are people on the planet! And most of them are beneficial.
Through their growing, eating and being eaten, microorganisms rearrange the elements and soil particles to create a place where water and nutrients can be held, air can circulate, and animals and plants can thrive.
Plus they feed plants directly, so they’re really the link between the chemistry in the soil and in plants.
They’re a key part of getting the nutrition back into our food.
Soil microorganisms, plants and animals make up what we call the ‘soil food web.’ The main reason we work on balancing the chemistry is so the soil organisms – the biology – can do what they do.
Unfortunately, the biology is often deficient in our gardens because of past tilling, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, construction practices, drip irrigation and xeriscaping, monocultures, pollution, etc., so as with the chemistry, we may need to bring it back in.
You can learn about your soil biology by sending a soil sample to a biology lab that specializes in this kind of thing.
You can also get a microscope and learn to diagnose your soil yourself.
Doing this isn’t nearly as popular as chemistry testing, but is gradually becoming more accepted in the organic farming world and we may eventually see it as the more important test.
Once you have an idea of what you’re working with for soil biology, you can bring in the appropriate microorganisms through specific, homemade compost and compost teas, plus perhaps other microbial inoculants such as mycorrhizal fungi.
Adding regular high-quality compost is the most important part because it will have a treasure trove of beneficial organisms, but it gets even more exciting when we learn to make compost specifically for our soil and crops.
For example, if you’re trying to grow broccoli, your bacteria-dominated soil may be fine – brassicas don’t even partner with mycorrhizal fungi.
But if you want to grow tomatoes or strawberries, you’ll want to get more fungi in the soil by making more of a fungal-dominated compost and compost tea.
And of course, we want to stop doing the things which might have caused our biology to be deficient in the first place.
Pests and Weeds
Colorado potato beetle.
When a Colorado potato beetle decimates my tomatoes, potatoes or eggplants, it’s not because I’ve grown amazingly nutritious plants.
The beetles are actually there because my plants are unhealthy. So are the aphids, cutworms, scales and all other insect pests.
They can’t even digest plants that we would consider healthy.
Same with the mildews, wilts, molds and other diseases.
It’s an interesting piece of history that insects and diseases have evolved to remove the sick plants from our world in order to keep the whole system functioning.
And that dandelions, crabgrass, thistles and other weeds are there because my soil is imbalanced. They’re there to fix it. Thank you weeds!
This is a crucial lesson to learn because it helps us understand why we need to make the change from managing garden pests (e.g. IPM) to managing garden health.
The great thing about managing garden health is that we’re getting both nutritious food and pest control with the same principles.
Let’s continue our chemistry and biology discussion to see how it relates to the issue of not only nutrition but pests and weed control too…
For plants to be optimally healthy, they need access to balanced nutrition.
When they have that, not only can they manufacture their own toxins to dissuade pests from eating them, but the pests won’t even try in the first place because healthy plants aren’t food for them.
My compost bin.
In my garden, well-made compost is the basis for this balanced nutrition.
By well made, I mean it was put together with a diverse array of ingredients that bring in a diverse array of nutrients and microorganisms.
I also mean that the moisture, air, temperature and carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of the pile were all kept within ranges that promote the healthy breakdown of these materials instead of putrefaction, and the proliferation of beneficial microorganisms instead of harmful ones.
The many nutrients in the compost are responsible for a lot of important things, from relieving compaction in the soil to photosynthesis in plants to everything in between.
But a main downside of compost is that it doesn’t allow us to deliberately manipulate specific nutrients into the correct ratios with each other the way we can with specific mineral fertilizers.
At the same time, I think most of us want to produce much of our fertility onsite because it’s more affordable and sustainable, so I can relate when my Academy members are hesitant to pay for a soil test and ship in fertilizers from across the country.
So when you’re starting out, feel free to work mainly with compost, mulch and cover crops at first. Those are great amendments to learn how to make and use, and they’ll get you a long way. The soil testing and fertilizers can come when you need them.
On the other hand, if you don’t have access to good compost, there are a few fertilizers that can very affordably bring in the nutrients your soil and plants need, especially in those first couple of years when the soil is still transitioning to being healthier.
Ocean water is an excellent fertilizer.
Rock dust, liquid seaweed and ocean water are the main ones I use. Ocean fish make excellent fertilizer, too, although I’m concerned about the overfishing of our oceans, so I don’t use it as much.
In terms of specific elements, there is one worth using even when you haven’t done a soil test. That element is calcium.
Because most weeds and pests are there largely because of a calcium deficiency, getting sufficient calcium can go a long way to controlling them.
Calcium makes many good things happen. A deficiency of calcium makes many good things not happen.
That’s why I often say to add 5-10 pounds of calcium carbonate per 1000 square feet to your soil each year, even if you haven’t done a soil test.
Phosphorus is the next most important for dealing with pests, and then many of the trace minerals in compost, seaweed, ocean water and rock dust have a big role to play.
Let’s talk diversity.
First is microbial diversity.
Microorganisms bring food and water to plants, so they have a huge role to play in plant nutrition, and therefore pest control.
They also control bacterial and fungal diseases directly, in the soil and on plants.
Compost, compost tea, homemade teas, effective microorganisms (EM), indigenous microorganisms, mycorrhizal fungi and other inoculants will all bring in a different set of beneficial microbes that will keep diseases at bay.
Well made compost is the best one.
The main reasons we occasionally bring in these other inputs are because we may not have access to really great compost, and here’s where it gets interesting – compost can’t be applied to plant leaves.
What we’ve learned is if we can colonize the leaves with microbes from aerobic compost tea or EM, they can prevent and eradicate many diseases.
If we can colonize the roots with mycorrhizal fungi (not found in compost), they’ll do the same in the soil.
Then there’s animal diversity. Insect pests will be eaten by other insects and other animals if you have those other insects and other animals in your garden.
The way to attract beneficial insects is by using a wide diversity of insect-attracting plants that bloom at various times throughout the year.
Herbs are often really good at this, so my advice is always to plant as many different herbs as you can, even if just one of each – dill, cilantro, thyme, oregano, and at least a dozen others.
Many birds are also insect eaters, so invite them into your garden with bird feeders, bird baths and a diversity of food and habitat for them. Of course, you may need to protect some of your crops such as cherry trees with bird netting, but that’s okay.
Frogs, snakes, bats and more – there are many insect controllers that will help us out if we make our gardens a place they want to live.
The more diversity we have in the garden, with wet areas, weedy areas, rock piles, evening-flowering plants, etc., the more helpers we’ll attract.
My garden looks pretty wild sometimes because I plant polycultures of many species of plants all mixed together.
Then there’s plant diversity. If you plant many types of food, when your potatoes get eaten by the Colorado potato beetle (because you probably have a deficiency, in this case, of Ca, P, Vit C, Cu and Mn), you’ll still have squash and carrots right nearby in good shape.
In fact, if you plant multiple species of potatoes in different parts of the garden, odds are that if one becomes pest-ridden, the others will be fine.
It can also be helpful to plant many different species of plants close together. A simple example of this ‘companion planting’ is corn, beans and squash.
A more complex example, called a ‘polyculture’, is to plant 10-20 species all mixed together.
Some of those plants will confuse predators, while others will attract the predators of those predators.
Some will provide food for you, some will improve soil fertility, some will control weeds, some will break up compaction, and so on.
Bringing It All Together
There’s a lot to learn about getting the chemistry and biology right, but it’s absolutely fascinating to see how garden pests go away when soil and plant health are improved.
We’ll talk about pests in the next lesson. Unfortunately, these ants actually help these aphids rather than control them, but many other insects will control them both.
The most incredible phenomenon is when disease and insect pests move from your crops to your weeds because that means:
- Your plants are obviously healthier – that’s why the pests left them
- Your weeds are obviously less healthy – that’s why the pests moved to them
- Your soil is obviously healthier – that’s why the plants are healthier and the weeds are now sick because most weeds don’t do well in balanced soil
When that happens – what an a-ha moment!
My aim with SmilingGardener.com is to share the basic principles for how to accomplish this. I try to share just the right amount of detail to help people out with their gardens without overwhelming them.
My aim with my Smiling Gardener Academy is to share a much more comprehensive, step by step approach to accomplish this. It’s for the people who are willing to put in a little work and study up front to grow nutrient-dense, pest-free food for many years to come.
You can read more about the Academy here.