The Intelligent Gardener: A Review
by Gary Kline
The Intelligent Gardener, written by Steve Solomon, came out in December 2012. Being impressed with its momentous content, I decided to do a “book review” to assist in spreading awareness of this departure from Steve’s previous renditions of gardening insight. A shorter version of this review appears in my June 2013 leaflet “Black Lake Organic and the Solomon Story”.
This will be a mostly complimentary and friendly book review. If it were entirely complimentary I’d be accused of not being objective. I know that if I were in a ring with Steve Solomon, he’d knock me out. He knows far more about gardening, soils, and agriculture, etc. But still, I need to spar with him on some things, and I’m sure he’ll understand.
Steve Solomon is a masterful writer and a highly intelligent man; and clearly, he is an intelligent gardener. Let me get this straight. More than any of the thousands of gardeners who have benefitted from over 30 years of the Wisdom of Solomon, I owe him a deep debt of gratitude. I personally, and my business, Black Lake Organic, have benefitted profoundly from his tutelage and insights. That whole continuum of my understanding from soils and gardening, on through nutritional health, is owed, in large measure, to Steve. I could call him Steve, or I could call him Solomon, and I think for reader effect I’ll call him Solomon - - - mainly.
Solomon has written at least eight books of note. I have read most of them. Each contains a staggering amount of knowledge. He knows so much partly because of his power of observation. He maintains in his head, and on his computer, a vast amount of general knowledge that is all sorted, categorized and organized rather than being a basket of trivia scraps. Each new observation is keenly examined, synthesized, or integrated for fit and for retrieval when needed. Every missing piece is diligently researched. Every word is carefully chosen. That’s why he can write books about life, connecting with readers’ less lucid thoughts, and yet give precise, clear and detailed instructions on the subject matter for which he is steward.
On the subject of vegetable gardening in the Northwest, Solomon is unquestionably king. But an obvious question comes up: How can one write eight or more books on essentially the same subject and get away with it? The reason is simply that Solomon’s thinking changes, or as explained nowadays, it has evolved. But, with The Intelligent Gardener, subtitled Growing Nutrient-Dense Food, he has completely reversed course.
Solomon freely admits to errors and contradictions with past advice. So this means he is, or has been, mistaken on some things; and thus, I can maybe get away with disagreeing with some things he writes without retaliation (though I expect rebuttal). This is not to say that I am invariably right. My critiques are offered in the spirit of advancing our collective understanding of how the world works.
What do I mean by Solomon having reversed course? A simple way to illustrate it is that in previous editions Solomon advised we (us?) readers not to waste our money on soil tests. I disagreed with him at the time and said so in one of my newsletters, although he may have been referring to a different genre of soil test offered through the extension service. Now he would advise that the first and best thing you should do to have a great garden of highly nutritious produce is to get a complete professional soil test. And, in The Intelligent Gardener, he sets out the whole procedure for how to do that, but also for how to interpret the test results yourself and understand every aspect involved in scientific soil analysis. It’s not real easy or thrilling reading, but very rewarding, if you stick with it. This is where it’s at. But, there’s also the option of paying an expert to analyze the test results for you.
Over the past couple of years I have given classes in advanced organic gardening built around the principle of mineral-augmented organics, a term and concept I promulgated several years ago. I was trying to get a sorely needed, different perspective out to the public to improve gardeners’ understanding and their success, and also to direct the focus onto the goal of improved nutritional health. Understand that I don’t bother to go after “chemical” gardeners and farmers in these discussions. Others can fight that fight. My target is misinformed organic growers, in the Solomon tradition, albeit not so deftly.
At age 73 (a couple years over Solomon’s age), I’ve been asking myself how much longer I could go on doing that instructing and whether I really want to. Now I can say I no longer need to. It’s all pretty much covered in Solomon’s book, and much more extensively, expertly and thoroughly than I could do it. Just get the book. Solomon has done a great service for gardeners and, for that matter, the future of all of agriculture. Basically, he has brought the lessons and the legacy of Dr. William Albrecht, long overdue, to the general public. If you want to advance the cause, buy a copy of the book for your extension agent. This is the next wave beyond acceding to organics.
As I write this, I’m in my second reading of The Intelligent Gardener and I’m surprised at how much I had already forgotten (a function of old age and senility), but also how little of the content had sunk in. Now, I have to say that much of the first few chapters was me talking back to myself. I took a lot of my early guidance from Solomon, especially beginning from a momentous meeting I had with him back in November 1997 in Yelm, Washington when he turned me back on to the writings of Dr. Albrecht. It was a life changing incident for me. My entire view of the world and how it works was transformed after reading Albrecht’s works. That whole story has been related previously elsewhere.
Solomon and I have come to talk and think alike. But now it’s all out there (pretty much) in his 300-page book that will be in thousands of hands and homes. Steve has generously given me and Black Lake Organic credit and mention at four different points in the book. So now I can relax. Come to think of it, get a copy for your favorite college professor too. This book should be in all the agricultural schools; but don’t expect them to rave about it.
Perhaps the greatest thing Solomon has done with this book is to bring to the fore nutrient minerals (those known to be required for healthy plant growth) and the fundamental importance of remineralizing our soils. This is in contrast to the overwrought emphasis in gardening today on organic matter in “soil building”. Solomon was the first to wake me up on this crucial point. In this regard, about the most valuable thing he has to say (and which I have been struggling to put into words over the past decade or so) is the following quotation taken from page 51:
“Because so many people have been handed oversimplification, incorrect ideas about soil fertility and about what organics [truly] is all about, I say it again: soil mineral balancing is not in any way a contradiction of the organic system; it is a natural extension of it, as well as being the prerequisite action needed to make organics work as well as they should.”
Another educational or philosophical goal of utmost importance shared by Solomon and I is conveyed in a statement he makes on page 62:
“In this book, I try to broaden the reader’s opinion about what organic [actually] is and what it should be – and that can be a touchy minefield.”
Indeed, we are treading on virtually sacred ground for so many who don’t know the background of their beliefs. In so many ways it is critical that we get over this hurdle in people’s thinking. Organics has gotten mired down in political correctness, whereas it needs a solid foundation in scientific correctness. Perhaps jettisoning the term “organics” is in order.
Solomon has some pretty harsh things to say about historical or conventional organics, as do I. But in fairness there were some aspects involving the inclusion of mineralizing, early on, which Solomon either has skimmed over, forgotten, or is not aware of. That oversight is one of the critiques I intend to bring out and correct for the record. I think it is also true that there are some parts of Albrecht’s writings (which were voluminous) that Steve did not pay enough attention to.
In abbreviated, but very instructive fashion, Solomon describes his lifetime of gardening experiences in several locations and on different soils on the West Coast, and now in Tasmania, with an extended vacation in between in Fiji. He describes the effects of eating from those various gardens on his health, given that he and his family of three ate mostly from their gardens.
He began in California’s San Fernando Valley (L.A. area), where he first learned about making compost and using purchased organic fertilizers. He had a big and successful garden from a fairly mineral-rich soil, but desired to have a rural homestead, and so he moved to Lorane, Oregon and onto an old worn-out and eroded farm. It was there that he started Territorial Seed Company in 1979. This is also when the first edition of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades came out, followed by the first version of Solomon’s famous “Complete Organic Fertilizer Mix”, on which BLO’s initial BLOOM fertilizers were based. I had visited Steve and his wife, Isabelle, at their Lorane homestead and also had them visit me in the early 1980s. Steve talks about the BLOOM fertilizers (reformulated a couple times) on page 88, and pays me quite a compliment.
As a kid, Solomon ate (and was fed) all the wrong things. But it was at Lorane that his health problems started to show up. He and his wife ate predominantly from their garden and from his varietal test garden. Solomon likely used some of the fertilizers he had previously used and different versions of his “complete” mix, but he also brought in lots of local organic matter or vegetation, made compost from it, and worked plenty of it into his nutrient-poor acreage in obeyance to the directives for soil building which he took from years of reading Organic Gardening Magazine. Remember, he was not a believer in soil testing.
Essentially, the message of Organic Gardening and numerous books published by Rodale Press, urged the incorporation of ever more organic matter (manure, compost, leaves, etc.) in the garden as the solution to everything and the key to gardening success and garden soil enrichment; or, at least, that’s the way it came across to Solomon and thousands of readers and followers of Rodale’s anti-chemical organic method crusade. Besides, you could use free waste materials and spend hardly a dime. I, too, fell under the lure and spell of this conventional organic wisdom (C.O.W.). Please understand that I am telling this as I piece Solomon’s saga together and, no doubt, my depiction is not completely accurate.
Because his garden’s soil remained minerally imbalanced in those early days, eventually Solomon’s jawbones deteriorated, his teeth loosened, and, ultimately, they fell out or had to be pulled out. Isabelle’s hair and fingernails weakened. She eventually died of cancer, though I don’t know if this was related or attributed to this decline in nutritional health, and I believe the daughter was living elsewhere much of the time. Solomon came to realize (at least, believed) that the drastic decline in his own health resulted from overdosing the garden with organic matter, which he once described as “somewhat dangerous” stuff, and due to insufficient or incorrect mineral fertilization.
Solomon blamed J. I. Rodale, founder of the organic movement in America, for ruining his health and for misleading people into similar circumstances for the sake of his puritanical organic ideology. Rodale effectively excommunicated Professor Albrecht for using or recommending use of certain non-natural fertilizers - - - to the great detriment of posterity; not the fertilizers, but the unawareness.
Solomon came to realize the specific cause of his physical deterioration or degeneration was the high potassium content of local vegetation brought in to “build-up” the organic content of his degraded soil, thereby creating a serious mineral imbalance in the crops he raised. As Solomon explains (p. 132), the reason potassium becomes an excess problem is that after plants flower, all the vital nutrients, except potassium, move into the seeds that are harvested or fall to the ground, leaving woody, carbonaceous stems (high in potassium and low in calcium, phosphorus and protein nitrogen) behind as the raw material (straw or wood chips, etc.) that he used in making compost.
When the seeds leave, such as when eaten by livestock, most of the plant’s nutrition goes with them and the ground is left that much poorer in nutrient minerals. Now, factor in that our bones and teeth are made primarily from calcium and phosphorus with bone marrow, the source of our red blood cells, being mostly protein. This is why primitive peoples (and some smart contemporaries) always cracked open animal bones to get the marrow. Calcium, as Albrecht showed, is necessary to make protein. Solomon’s garden evidently needed much more lime (calcium carbonate) and phosphorus than he gave it.
When Territorial Seed Company finally had become profitable, Solomon, in 1984, took his wife and step-daughter on vacation to Fiji, and their new dietary practice (purchased produce) brought about another unanticipated revelation. They noticed that eating locally grown produce caused a significant improvement in their health and his teeth were no longer loose. His wife’s fingernails (a form of tough protein) returned to a healthy condition and they all felt better. Curious to find out the explanation, Solomon began to explore the source of their food and how it was grown.
Imagine Solomon’s surprise to learn that the produce was grown without any recourse to fertilizing at all and, furthermore, the fields were routinely sprayed in winter with herbicides and with pesticides in the stressful weather periods on the island. This ran counter to Solomon’s organic beliefs, which included the supposed automatic superiority of organically grown foods and the invariably negative health effects from use of chemical sprays.
No one is saying that pesticide spraying improves produce. However, despite the lack of any fertilization, any compost, or the importing of organic matter or manure, this produce clearly brought about improvement in the family’s health in this case. What could be the reason?
Solomon’s further investigation revealed that this clearly healthful food was grown in a valley surrounded by mountains possessing a multitude of minerals of the very highest quality and content. Their natural, slow erosion kept the valley soils in a high state of perpetual fertility that Solomon estimated surpassed even the valley of the Nile River. There was no need of applied fertilizers. The rank off-season growth of weeds, along with crop residues, kept the farmed soils well supplied with organic matter, once it was plowed down. The high nutrient density of the crops offset whatever negative effects were presented by pesticide spraying, Solomon reasoned. Here was a powerful lesson about the influence of proper nutrition on health and about the importance of adequate mineralization in creating and maintaining the health-giving qualities of our food, including that of livestock raised on highly mineralized soils and pasture land.
But that wasn’t the end of the lessons. Solomon and family returned to Oregon and settled on a piece of idyllic land near London Springs, where they again grew their own food. But before long their health began to falter. His teeth loosened again and most of them were extracted, as he showed me when he subsequently moved to Yelm, following his wife’s death. Surely, it has since dawned on Steve that he is, himself, a characteristic illustration of the sort of physical degeneration described by dentist/nutritionist Dr. Weston A. Price, and depicted in text and photos on pages 27-29 of this book. People in excellent nutritional health seldom have cavities, let alone lose teeth. Clearly, few people are in excellent health these days.
Meanwhile, Solomon had written more editions of his popular and influential vegetable growing books. In practically every edition he modified his famous Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF) recipe, as if searching for some elusive, perfect formulation needed to get the growth response, taste, etc. just right. As he states, his fertilizer recipes [nevertheless] brought a lot of satisfaction to a lot of food gardeners. In the meantime, Solomon became famous on the strength of his recipes and his excellent and informative writing. He’s already working on the next edition of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades.
As mentioned, to my thinking, The Intelligent Gardener represents a total departure from all of Solomon’s previous books and, likewise, so does this latest version of his COF, including the one on page 21 in his 2005 Gardening When It Counts, which emphasized wise water use and had dolomite in the recipe.* But more than that, it represents a complete turn-around in his thinking and perspective on the subject of fertilization and soil treatment for attaining maximum nutrient density or nutritional quality in food. In a couple places he reveals how that turn-around came about. And, again, it came out of personal experience with his garden, its declining performance, and how that affected his health. Only this time it was in Tasmania, where he went to live after leaving Yelm. And the culprit this time was not potassium, but magnesium.
* Late note – see addendum at the end of this article.
If you go to page 129, you will find the following:
“I can hardly find words to express how pleased I feel when walking on the spongy carpet my garden became after bringing calcium and magnesium into balance. Two years ago  I had excess magnesium. I could hardly work up a fine seedbed in the spring without making clods; trying to dig after winter rains was exhausting. Then I boosted calcium without adding more magnesium [in dolomite lime or other materials]. Now my clay loam crumbles beautifully, even when it is wet. No more clods. - - - The amount of calcium compared to the amount of magnesium on the exchange points [of clay or humus particles] determines if it is [to be] tight and airless. - - - The ratio of Ca to Mg has as much or more effect on the soil’s air supply as the level of organic matter does.”
Elsewhere, Solomon talks about how his soil had become hard, his plants wouldn’t grow, their quality and taste went downward, his health declined. He couldn’t figure out why this was happening as he had bought lots of mushroom compost each year to loosen the soil up (this, despite telling us that overdosing with organic matter is a mistake, futile and even dangerous, perhaps). Having made this simple change, because of the dramatic success, he felt he might no longer need any imported organic matter. Following the application of calcitic lime the soil loosened up, the plants grew robustly, their taste returned and his health recovered. Also, he noted that some spinach he was growing for seed to sell and which previously always got diseased, no longer did. Once the soil structure got straightened out, the effective fertility went up and the disease went away. What this illustrates is the principle of Nutritional Pest Control that has been demonstrated numerous times after correct fertilizing.
You may ask, what brought this revelation about the effects of Ca and Mg and their proper ratio to light? Well, you can go to pages 6 and 7 and read the explanation:
“The art of remineralizing soil to increase nutrient density was developed by independent biological farm advisors working in the tradition of William Albrecht, a pioneer researcher in the relationship between soil fertility and human health.”
Solomon brings up Michael Astera, author of The Ideal Soil, as one such advisor, and describes the analytical system used in his book. He goes on: “A few years ago, Michael began participating in ‘Soil Health’, an internet discussion group I moderate. I had never before thought that such precise soil balancing [as indicated in Astera’s book] needed to be applied to the home garden. On the forum I had complained of ‘tight’, compacted soil, despite the addition of lots of organic matter. Michael suggested I change the type of lime I was using [calcitic rather than dolomite]. I did, and a year later my soil was loose. At his suggestion, I got a soil test. His analysis helped me to get results beyond my expectations. So I read his book!”
No one had pulled together this nutrient requirements information prior to Astera, and this had made a major impact. Initially, Astera and I (GK) worked together to ferret out the data, but he took it to the refinement stage, which included determining appropriate levels for boron and the sulfate forms of copper, zinc and manganese. It is not impertinent for me to say that Astera learned about magnesium tightening soils (and calcium loosening them) from yours truly. And, in fact, a good deal of what is in Astera’s book, particularly fertilizing materials and element levels in products, is a consequence of conversations and collaborations between the two of us in the 2001 to 2007 era, beginning when Michael got hold of a 2001 newsletter I had written discussing much of this stuff. Indeed, I have on my gardening/soils bookshelf a coffee-stained copy of the book I loaned to Astera that discusses the essentiality of getting that Ca to Mg ratio just right, and gives a number of recommended nutrient element levels for fertilizing soils. That book is Hands-On Agronomy (1993 and 1995), written by Neal Kinsey and Charles Walters. The book was not stained when I loaned it to Michael.
So, it may reasonably be said that Solomon’s turn-around moment resulted from my influence on him via my influence on Astera. But my knowledge is owed largely to Solomon’s influence on me and Albrecht’s influence on all of us. Solomon, perhaps, has been repaid for what he has given me. What goes around comes around.
There are many useful pieces of information in Solomon’s book that might be commented on, and much of it is brilliant; but there would be no great value served in my doing that. Indeed, this review is already approaching book length. However, just as Solomon differs in certain areas with Astera (and he says that’s to be expected), so, too, there are some areas where I differ with Solomon and feel some obligation to bring those out in the interest of further refining our collective knowledge in this most crucial area of human concern. When you consider that establishment/conventional agriculture and conventional medicine have it all backwards, what we alternative guys are working on is of utmost importance to our entire civilization.
I’ll start my dissent with summarizing what I see as the somewhat unjust criticism of conventional or traditional organic methods by Solomon, as expressed at length on pages 19 and 20, in the section he titled “The Organic Religion”.
According to Solomon, “Rodale’s original organic gardening system was based on the following articles of faith:
“1. Organic food is far superior to conventional food and produces greater health and well being.”
My comment: Maybe true much of the time, but not invariably or automatically. Solomon’s is right.
“2. Soil fertility is built mainly by importing organic matter and to a far lesser extent by importing natural rockflours, especially lime.”
Comment: Rodale actually introduced the use of various rock minerals, albeit sparingly, to organiculture, as may be seen in The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (1959), The Complete Book of Composting (1960), and other publications, including the book Organic Gardening (1955), where he said (p. 33):
“I wish to stress here that too many organic gardeners have been working to their own disadvantage and have produced an unbalanced soil. They have piled prodigious amounts of organic matter into it and have neglected the mineral side - - - .”
Rodale also stated (pp. 118-119): “A good soil today must contain a considerable portion of minute rock particles to make a proper medium for growing plants and to give it the necessary mineral content. Organic matter contains some minerals, but - - - rocks are the main mineral suppliers. To be good, a soil must contain some organic matter, but its physical structure and lack of mineral elements in the rock may militate against producing good [nutritious?] crops.”
So, fairly early on, Rodale did initiate and attempt to communicate the mineral message as part of an extended organic practice beyond the humus farming of its progenitor, Sir Albert Howard. Rodale just didn’t keep on it or really know in those days just which minerals and how much were needed in soils.
“3. Almost all soils are capable of growing super-nutritious food in abundance, particularly if lots of organic matter is added in order to release locked-up nutrients.”
Comment: This could be true in some situations, but is unlikely most of the time, as Solomon has campaigned to make known. Stating that organic matter can be overdone, as suggested by Rodale himself, borders on blasphemy among organic cultists who don’t want to hear it and think they know everything there is to know about soil treatment and how to garden or farm.
“4. Soil pH is the only essential [soil] test needed and liming (preferably with dolomite) is done according to this test result.”
Comment: The refutation of this particular notion is the principal reason that The Intelligent Gardener came about and goes back to Albrecht’s findings and pronouncements. Rodale and company never got past the pH hang-up. Only with correct and full soil balance do you get correct or ideal soil pH, and then it comes just naturally. Solomon says he had always followed Albrecht’s precepts, but in this case it wasn’t so or he would not have run into his Tasmania trouble. Ever since then Solomon has become adamant that magnesium or dolomite should not be added to our Maritime Northwest soils. But I wonder if he would maintain that stance where a soil test says some magnesium is needed to get the Ca:Mg ratio right.
“5. Chemical fertilizers are unsustainable and inevitably damage soils, microbes and earthworms.”
Comment: Solomon started out being ambivalent to pure organic methods and rules. His early books recommended use of some non-organic (chemical) fertilizers; but I suspect the impetus of the growing organic movement caused him to drop those. Also, I think he came to see them as inferior. Although there are some contradictions and acknowledged exceptions, I think the naturalness rule is the best guide and organic gardeners have little reason, generally, not to abide by it. Perhaps Solomon needs to make the case for particular synthetic fertilizers he thinks could or should be used in gardening or for producing more nutrient-dense produce.
On page 21, Solomon ridicules organic growers for thinking they are on the side of angels and the environment. That I see as an unwarranted low blow. Surely they (or we) deserve credit for trying to do the right thing, rather than being indifferent, though I get his point about people who stop listening and are happy in their righteous rut. Indeed, there are people who are affronted if I suggest there are shortcomings to the conventional organic wisdom (Sacred C.O.W.) and to ceaseless application of organic matter to their soil. Sustainable agriculture to them means simply switching to 1950s organiculture, and they can’t imagine anything more might be needed. Sorry to say, that won’t do the job.
Solomon isn’t just a serious gardener, he is very serious. His family’s garden has always been extremely important as their major food supply, their economic system, and their whole way of life. Figuring out what makes it work best is of uppermost concern and its nutritional support is his health insurance policy. What he learns and passes on is crucial also to practically everyone’s welfare, even if they don’t grow their own food, and whether or not we realize it. Nutrient-dense food and its growing is how we are going to get out of the ills that have befallen our country and much of the world and thereby reverse our overall poor health status. This extends far more than is realized, into mental health, social deviancy, and chemical addictions, not to mention rampant malnutrition.
I predict publication of The Intelligent Gardener will do much to turn the corner for preventive healthcare and health recovery - - - because it has straightened out the foundation for it all through restoring the health and nutrition of the soil. To help this along, you could send a copy to your local health department head, though likely it would be used as a paperweight.
If fervent organic gardeners are to be faulted, I think Solomon is correct to say (p. 18) they need to catch up with advances. Furthermore, I totally concur that rather than obsessing over pollution and contaminants, people need to focus more on restoring nutritional health. As Solomon astutely points out (p. 248):
“A well-nourished body is able to throw off an amazing amount of insult. - - - Our fundamental health problem, the basic bottom line, is not that there are pesticide residues in our foods; the real problem is that only residues of nutrition remain in them. If a person’s entire food intake were highly nutrient-dense, then their body would be largely unaffected by what usually comes with hidden sub-acute malnutrition. In other words, you’re far better off to stop fretting over toxic traces and instead focus on growing and eating nutrient-dense food.”
Solomon goes on to point out (p. 248) that our entire planet has already been poisoned by industrial and military wastes. I point out that you can’t get completely away from it; you can only side-step the worst of it and cross your fingers. Realistically, you can’t do much about it, but there is much you can do to safeguard your own health and probably extend your life through proper diet, emphasizing highly nutrient-dense and whole foods. I was going to suggest sending a copy to your congressman, but I don’t think they read.
Actually, I think there is one thing we can do to reduce pollution and have a big impact, and that is to sell the truth message of nutritional pest control (which comes from correct mineral-augmented organic fertilization because it spells the death knell for pesticides as being entirely unnecessary). On a personal level, we can partially counter pollution and toxicity using activated charcoal (very similar to biochar) to sop-up contaminants that have made it into our bodies.
I’ve changed my mind. There are a number of succinctly stated points Solomon makes in regard to the how and why of mineral balancing in contrast with conventional organiculture that bear reiteration here. These reflect the turn-around Solomon himself made and which most organic growers need to make if they are to catch up and extend their practices meaningfully to the full spectrum of nutritional support that I contend organiculture has always needed to encompass. We begin with the centrality of Albrecht’s cation ratios that set up the optimum chemical and physical condition of the soil. If only Rodale had not severed ties with the country’s leading alternative soil scientist of the time, more gardeners would be aware of this basic step. If you go to the 1959 Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and look up “Albrecht” (p. 20), you’ll find three paragraphs that tell about him without mentioning the most salient contributions by which Albrecht was (and is) known.
In The Intelligent Gardener (p. 123), Solomon gives the required or desired cation ratios (68% Ca, 12% Mg, 4% K=potassium and 2% Na=sodium). Something I didn’t know (and may not be accurate) is that Solomon states (p. 50) that “Albrecht concluded that we should target the typical [nutrient] mineral ratios in prairie farm soils as an ideal balance of soil calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium that produces the highest possible nutritional outcomes, as well as bountiful harvests.” I always assumed the ratios were derived from lab and field trials and experiments in growing crop plants. However, prairie soils are closest to Albrecht’s ideal soil.
On page 128 Solomon states that bringing the four major cation elements into balance is the most important task in remineralizing, and that calcium is an incredibly important plant nutrient and much undervalued and, in fact, is required [in the soil] in greater quantity than all the other elements combined. Indeed, Albrecht spoke of calcium, not nitrogen, as the king of the fertilizing elements. If you get all the other nutrients in balance, nitrogen fixing microbes will make your nitrogen for free.
There are different camps in horticulture that argue physics or chemistry, or biology is the major controlling factor in plant growth. Solomon argues (p. 31), and my studies lead me to concur, that soil minerals (chemistry) comes first. If you get the minerals in proper balance, the physical characteristics and soil ecology and the microlife will follow and will come into balance too. This includes the optimum pH. Accordingly, “ - - - biology can perform miracles. But biology will only do its job with extreme effectiveness after you have fed the soil to satiation and brought it into balance.”
Here’s the way Neal Kinsey expressed it in Hands-On Agronomy (p. 117): “Before microbiology works, chemistry and physics have to be in place.” This means the Ca, Mg, K, Na, P, etc. need to be in as close to the correct proportions as we can practically get them. I’m a biologist, but I’ve never understood the argument that soil fertility is all about the biology or the “soil food web”, or about having a “live” soil. To me, soil is not “alive”; it contains and supports life. Microbes must have minerals. Soils are about 1% micro life and about 45% minerals, with about 5% or 10% of that being known nutrient minerals. Humus should be 5% or 10%. In an ideal soil, air and water each make up about 25% of soil by volume.
On pages 129 and 130, Solomon states that the ratio of Ca to Mg has as much or more effect on the soil’s air supply as the level of organic matter does. Without abundant oxygen in the soil, plant growth slows down and roots tend to become diseased, and the weakened plants are then more prone to insect and disease attack. Elsewhere (p. 255), Solomon contends that properly balancing Ca to Mg can take the place of incorporating organic matter and is the better strategy. Presumably, he means beyond a base minimum of organic matter.
After attacking a popular book (The Soul of Soil) for singing the gospel of organic matter solves all (see p. 255), Solomon has this to say about mineral balancing versus the “never enough” organic matter strategy:
“- - - the religion that praises organic matter as the Answer speaks a partial truth. It is true that organic matter can do all sorts of wonderful things. What is not true is that applying heavy doses of organic matter is the only way or even the best way to achieve those wonders. - - - bringing the soil’s balance of calcium to magnesium into a desirable zone massively improves tilth, increases air supply, and allows the soil biota to function in high gear. A soil that has calcium and magnesium in balance is able to generate its own nitrates and create lots of organic matter all by itself. When the minerals are balanced, the soil does not require heaps of compost – when you have balance, just a little dab will do ‘ya.”
Better go back and read that paragraph again. But does one balance fit all? Solomon (p. 120) doesn’t think so. He thinks one formula for all plants and all soils couldn’t work and that different plants have different needs. I’m inclined to disagree, and I will point to statements by Neal Kinsey, a student of Albrecht, that strongly indicate that the same fertility structure works for nearly all plants and soils. Someday I’ll go into detail on this profound possibility. Let me note, too, that Kinsey is insistent that an ideal soil must have that magical 68% calcium to 12% magnesium CEC profile.
Since at least the year 2000, Solomon has been warning against overuse of organic matter and compost in gardens and saying that even adding a quarter inch annually may be too much. Acknowledging that some minimum amount is very beneficial, I have tended to pass on the same advice, viewing compost, particularly if not mineralized, as a negative and as diluting the soil’s latent mineral content. Not until this current book did Solomon make clear to me that if you start with a reasonably mineral-balanced soil and add compost made from feedstock off such soils that you actually could raise the fertility of a soil by adding lots of compost and liming.
Otherwise, though, as he states on page 254, this approach is folly. Solomon points out on page 71 that adding imbalanced compost to a minerally imbalanced soil is only going to imbalance it further. Even adding a balanced compost is not going to balance the soil. For that you are going to need a professional soil test and add the test-prescribed minerals (and rates) to bring the soil into balance; if indeed, that is achievable and you don’t have nutrient excesses to deal with. As he states on page 60, “- - - compost rarely contains the ideal mineral balance to grow nutrient-dense food. Excessive additions of compost usually imbalance the soil’s mineral profile and degrade nutritional outcomes.” That is shocking news and anathema to die-hard organicists.
Another reasoning pitfall is the lure of recycling. As long as you are harvesting or removing food from your garden the nutrients are going to be depleted and you can’t replace them just by recycling crop residues, kitchen scraps and ordinary compost without also at least returning the urine and humanure the family generates. Worse than nutrient removal by harvesting, in our rainy climate, is the removal of minerals by leaching from our high rainfall and from summertime watering. The usual effect of this, as Solomon points out (p. 49), is the loss of calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, while potassium stays behind in the local vegetation and topsoil. In general, you can’t avoid the necessity to import replacement mineral nutrients. Here’s where biochar comes in, but that’s a story for another time.
In the Maritime Northwest our moisture evaporation rate is exceeded by our annual rainfall. Quoting Solomon from page 49:
“Leached soil retains relatively more potassium compared to other nutrients - - - [or] loses relatively less potassium than it loses calcium and phosphorus (and magnesium, etc.). Consequently, leached soils produce foods that are higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein, and the smaller quantity of protein is also lower-quality protein. This sort of food provides our bodies with much more potassium than we have any use for and it has considerably less calcium, magnesium and phosphorus than we need – desperately need.”
We know already from (p. 13 and p. 61) what this situation did for our “vegetabletarian” friend gardening in western Oregon, despite having used only organic fertilizing materials and methods. At one point in the book (p. 110) Solomon points out that soil solution growing doesn’t work because the aqueous medium can only hold so much nutrients at any one time. What’s needed are clay and humus colloid particles capable of electrically attaching positively-charged nutrients (in the case of both clay and humus) and negatively-charged nutrients (in the case of humus, but not clay). These colloids can hold and store nutrients against the tendency of rainfall or irrigation to leach them out of the topsoil; yet plants are able to pluck off those stored nutrients as needed.
Dr. Albrecht maintained that cations were exchanged directly with roots without entering the soil solution, and that while held on the colloids the cations were insoluble yet available for plants to take up. This is in contrast with Solomon’s contention (p. 32) (and seems to contradict his above claim of soil solution growing not working) that nutrients are only available to plant roots if they are soluble or in solution.
According to Solomon (p. 12), what led him astray to begin with was his “supremely, stupidly confident” notion that he could “quickly convert any old clay pit or gravel heap into a veritable Garden of Eatin’ by putting in plenty of organic matter and lime.” This erroneous notion he attributed to indoctrination from organic gardening literature and its dominance by J. I. Rodale specifically. Had such a simplified methodology been sound, it would have proven itself by his diligent practice of it, and thus his health would not have failed, but would have been superb. Instead, it was the excesses of organic matter and lime (and the wrong kind of lime) that were the undoing of his health and likely that of many other followers of conventional and Sacred C.O.W. methods. We must be careful about closing doors too tightly. New ideas must be let in for examination.
* Addendum on June 1, 2014:
To see the extent of Solomon’s turnaround on his COF recipe, compare his latest version to the simpler recipe published in the 2007 sixth edition of Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades (p. 35) as follows: 4 parts seedmeal; 1/2 part lime (equal parts agricultural/calcitic and dolomite); 1/2 part phosphate rock or bonemeal; and 1/2 part kelpmeal. In more recent printings (2013 or 2014), Solomon has had the old recipe replaced with the one appearing on pages 83-84 in The Intelligent Gardener, and he includes the advice not to use magnesium whatsoever.
© 2014 Gary L. Kline
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