Chemical free gardening for organic food and ornamentals is no harder or more expensive than conventional growing. Remineralization by adding rock powder is perhaps the most important component, bringing the soil back up to the balance of trace elements the plants require to naturally resist pests on their own.
Long before there was agriculture, there were plants that managed to grow, thrive, reproduce, and survive to the end of their natural life. They lived and died, and anything that ate them lived and died, all in the same neighborhood. This pattern continued until the last hundred years or so. The trace minerals taken from the soil by the plants were returned to the soil through decomposition.
A potato, with help from its ecosystem, refines and carries out of the soil, potassium, iron, phoshporus, magnesium, calcium, zinc, copper, and many more minerals that we know, and likely much we don’t yet know of. When modern gardeners and agriculturalists haul that potato away, with it goes a wealth of minerals, which are permanently removed from that patch of soil. The story is pretty much the same if it is broccoli, beef, or begonias. When the plant or animal is hauled away, the minerals go with it.
Readily available for replenishment of some departed elements is the air. Containing 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and smaller amounts of other gases. Ma Nature has many strategies for extracting those into organic forms to fuel more plant life. I’ll discuss some of those a bit more later. The point here is that the heavy stuff those plants collected is now gone. Do this very often and subsequent generations of plants simply don’t have enough of some minerals to live as designed.
Early refined-additive agriculture discovered that supplemental nitrogen pumped the plants up. Later they found phosphorus to be helpful too. Then along came added potassium, followed by calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Recently the soil chemists have discovered advantages of adding boron, iron, molybdenum, and zinc. You might notice that nearly all of these are heavy elements neither commonly found in the air, nor coming back to the land of its own accord when what grew there is hauled away.
There are two really big problems with this method of feeding the soil. One is the egotistical assumption that today’s soil scientists know for certain every mineral needed and in the right balance, as if it has all been discovered at this date NOW, and nothing new will be discovered tomorrow. (If so, shall we shut down the universities and put research scientists out to pasture?) Secondly, we know quite clearly that these individual refined elements are poisonous at certain levels and must be applied in carefully metered quantities. Get the balance wrong and everything dies.
A bit more subtle, because they have no lobby, the plants and microbes of the soil don’t like this system at all. “No balance” they complain. “We need gold, silver, antimony, cuprite, malachite, stibnite, halite, and so much more. You ignorant, pompous, foolish humans. How do you expect us to resist pests when we don’t have the minerals we need to make ourselves complete– the materials we use to fabricate our shields?”
They cannot be in balance because their soil is not in balance. It, in turn, has no hope no matter how long you leave it alone because the trace mineral balance has been permanently altered. So these imbalanced plants cannot be all they could be; they succumb to pests, die young, and don’t deliver to their consumers all the nutrition they could have in a better world– in a whole soil.
Ah, but the scientists have an answer. We’ll prop them up on life support systems and cover their earth in chemicals to kill off anything that attacks our staggering, malnourished plants. “Cool beans” they say. “We got these things to market looking very much like the product people expected.” Wash any chemical residue off the surface of the plant, and it’s all good, right? 96% of the farmers agree. I have long-ago outgrown arguing against the vast majority. However, I do continue to follow my own path.
That path brought remineralization, rock powder, rock dust, and a couple of other names for it to my attention. This is not new and not mine, but also not common knowledge. At the time, I was a provider of custom tractor work for gardeners, farmers, and homeowners. I provided rock powder along with my tillage and cover crop planting; this was a great match. The problem was there were no commercial sources in my area.
Thus began an interesting journey of forming a California corporation, selling stock, building production equipment, leasing a facility, establishing, and servicing a new rock powder market. In the next several years I produced and sold hundreds of tons in pails, bags, and bulk throughout an 11-county area of Northern California. I directly and indirectly converted gardens, vinyards, and orchards to healthy, pest-free, and pesticide-free growing.
With a severely limited budget, establishing a market for an unknown product of fantastic claims was probably my best trick. (Keep in mind this was pre-Internet). I went and talked to every nursery owner in the 11 counties. “Will you run an experiment growing some plants with and others without rock powder?” Those willing to do a side-by-side experiment were given a free 50-pound bag of my rock powder, a brochure, price list, and my contact information.
My reasoning was that I couldn’t be there to sell it to their customers, but they would IF they believed in it. I was right. The orders came in for an unlikely, unknown product with rather incredible claims.
I want to stop right here to point out this is exactly what I want you to do. Run a side-by-side experiment on whatever you are growing. Do not believe me. Believe what you can see and prove for yourself. Trust me and this essay only enough to try it for yourself. Then and only then will you KNOW.
I personally ran, assisted in, and supplied rock powder growing experiments all with similar results. The rock powder soil quite clearly had bigger, healthier plants that did not suffer pest problems like their counterparts did.
Luana’s home was in the middle of an old, decrepit apple orchard. She hired me to mow the weeds down at the beginning of “fire season”. As I putted the acreage I grabbed apples off the trees one after another. Not particularly squeemish about such, all I needed was a belmish-free mouthful regardless of the rest of the apple. I could not find ONE BITE in the whole orchard. She hired me to fix it.
Ten tons of rock powder per acre, radical pruning, rip, disc, and cover crop were the core of my prescription. Two years later I was hard-pressed to find ONE BLEMISHED APPLE in the entire orchard.
“Dad, what’s wrong with this broccoli?” I knelt down to see the plant at the end of my 100-foot row completely white with a coating of aphids. Close inspection found it kinked horizontal like an old garden hose at ground level, then curving back towards the sun. Nutrients couldn’t properly flow through the defective stalk. Nature sent the aphids to return the plant’s components to the soil. Neither the adjacent broccoli nor any others in that row had a single aphid on them. The one had been stepped on early in its life. The rest had no problem defending themselves in spite of the presence of a reproducing swarm of aphids… not to mention total absence of interference in this dance of nature’s elements.
I have a great number of examples from a 20-acre cemetery-prep lawn, grandma’s rose garden, an organic high-end Sonoma County vineyard, 100-cubic-yards of amazing compost, a berry farm, and many more. I’ll close with a great one:
A University of California research scientist wanted to run an experiment. I met him in a massive Central Valley commercial tomato field. Upon arrival I immediately regretted the trip. The soil was so depleted there could be nothing left alive in it to digest the minerals and grow healthy plants. I gamely spread 50 pounds in the area he had marked off for this trial. I heard nothing from him ever again in spite of his promises to keep me appraised of the progress and conclusions.
Curiousity compelled me to call him late in the summer. “Oh there was a definite improvement; significant superiority in the rock powder treated plants, but we have no way to determine WHICH ELEMENT in the rock powder was responsible for it. Therefore we gained no useful information from this experiment.” Sigh.
I first began screening raw rock powder down to the finest particles in my yard. Every time it rained, I had to put a lot of time and effort into drying my pile back out before I could bag it or spread it in bulk. In that process, throughout the moist rock powder, I found lots of big, fat earthworms loving it.
This is a crucial bit of information. Try that with a pile of any refined soil additive; it will be death to earthworms and most other soil inhabitants. The rock powder has a huge variety of mineral elements in a non-toxic, harmonic balance. You cannot put too much on any soil. In practical terms there simply isn’t a toxic amount.
Before I move on, I need to mention sources of rock powder. I went to every rock crushing operation within a reasonable distance and got 5-gallon samples of what quarry operators consider to be mostly a waste product they usually call “crusher fines”. The more surface area (smaller pieces) the better.
It has to be crushed rock rather than screened river sand. The river dissolved and carried away all the softer minerals leaving behind mostly silica and a few hard minerals with very little microscopic surface area. Sand is cheap, plentiful, and nearly useless as a source of trace minerals. Rock powder is harder to find, but still cheap and plentiful. You just have to find someone crushing rock for gravel roads, cement plants, and such.
Get what you can get within reasonable travel distance. Try it on your plants. Make a grid with rows of plants going one direction and marked rows of rock powder enriched zones going the other. If you pay close attention, you will be surprised that you can see differences quite early in the plant growth, and it just gets better after that.
I know some will be curious. Three years into my growing rock powder business a man stopped by claiming to have multi-million dollars behind him to enter the rock powder market I had established. I had no way to judge his credibility, but was put off by his love for claiming that their rock’s cosmic, geo-magnetic energies from this special place near Las Vegas made it much more magical than ordinary rock powders. I figured you couldn’t ask for better performance than my plain old local minerals, and he felt like a snake-oil salesman to me. I soon found my share of the market I built too small to support my operation. Oops.
Remineralization is the key difference between my growing methods and those of many chemical-free growers. The rest of the life in the soil is extremely important and cannot be neglected. I was about to write this next bit, but found it already composed and much more thorough. North Carolina State University has done an excellent job using the same exact lead-off sentence I was going to write, so I’ll post it here.
There is more life below the soil surface than there is above. This includes the burrowing animals such as moles and earthworms. Many soil creatures are not much bigger than the head of a pin. They include mites, springtails, nematodes, virus, algae, bacteria, yeast, actinomyetes, and protozoa. There are about 50 billion microbes in 1 tablespoon of soil. A typical soil may contain the following estimated number of organisms in each gram of soil:
|Bacteria||3,000,000 to 500,000,000|
|Actinnomycetes||1,000,000 to 20,000,000|
|Fungi||5,000 to 1,000,000|
|Yeast||1,000 to 1,000,000|
|Protozoa||1,000 to 500,000|
|Algae||1,000 to 500,000|
|Nematodes||10 to 5,000|
1 gram of soil is the approximate weight of a standard paper clip.
As soil life forms move through the soil they create channels that improve aeration and drainage. Nematodes and protozoa swim in the film of water around soil particles and feed on bacteria. Mites eat fungi; fungi decompose soil organic matter. The microorganisms’ primary role is to break down organic matter to obtain energy. They help release essential nutrients and carbon dioxide, perform key roles in nitrogen fixation, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, denitrification, immobilization, and mineralization. Microbes must have a constant supply of organic matter or their numbers will decline. Conditions that favor soil life also promotes plant growth.
When the soil is tilled and left bare, soil life can be injured by high temperatures. To promote soil organisms; incorporate organic matter, till as little as possible, minimize soil compaction, maintain favorable soil pH and fertility, and use an organic mulch on the soil surface.
Don’t treat your soil like dirt.
Healthy soil is dark with organic carbon, soft when dry, spongy when wet, very easy to push a shovel deep down into, and absolutely teeming with life. Your soil is your bank account. Properly tend the soil and the plants will take care of themselves.
My mentor would tell the class that he could turn a parking lot into a healthy garden. Not that I didn’t believe him, but it did seem like more of a long-term challenge than I would want. Since then I have literally done it several times, and in one season. The biggest problem is also the most common problem I faced when doing my custom farming: compacted soil.
Nature will eventually do the job starting with tough, spiney plants to break up the compaction, moving on through different tools decade-after-decade until finally whatever the climate allows could grow there. If it is your space, you can shortcut that process.
Mechanically break up the soil deep. Healthy plant roots, even annuals can go many feet deep. Help them get there with a ripper. This is the highest weight and horsepower requirement tool I had by far. Don’t buy a tractor to do this as you will never need to do it again. Just hire it done at least 2-feet deep; 3-feet is better. More is nice if it is affordable, but with a good head start, plants and soil organisms can do the rest in a few years.
Before any more tilling, spread 10 tons of rock powder per acre (15 pounds per 100 square feet). I always added 1,000 pounds of oyster shell flour too as an awesome source of additional calcium, but it isn’t crucial in most cases. Don’t let its absence stop you, but do stay away from calcium sources your local organic growers wouldn’t recommend.
Rare is the soil with plenty of organic matter. I add a 4″ to 6″ layer of it before pre-plant tilling. Yes, that’s a LOT. You can wait and grow your own, but adding a thick layer will make it happen this year. If you have more time than money or means, cultivate and plant a deep-rooting cover crop mix.
In Northern California I used 50% oats, 25% vetch and 25% bell beans. In my orchard the three plants would grow way-deep into the ground and over 7-feet tall above. I would mulch-mow it, leaving a thick mat on the surface. Windfall fruit would land unbrused on it to be collected ready-to-eat. The next spring I would till it in, plant again and repeat. The deep decomposing annual roots were an integral part of the soil ecosystem.
I’m going to skip the where to plant, what to plant, and how to plant parts. That is local information, can easily take years of experimentation to get right and fill multiple books.
My final important point is that you must NEVER leave your soil naked. It hates sun, wind, and erosion. If you don’t have a cover crop, find an affordable, local source of organic mulch. By “mulch” I mean shavings, chopped straw, compost, and such.
Stay away from tree leaves. They are mostly allelopathic; they like to keep plants from growing at the base of the tree and, thus, in your garden if used as mulch. Leaves are great for weed suppression, but the only functional difference between weeds and your desired plants are your desires.
Cover crops are a great answer. I have had vegetable gardens where I simply ‘mowed whatever growed’ in between my crop rows. Never naked, never muddy and quite good looking. My mentor used shortened-blade scythes to great effect keeping the cover crop plants nature put there slightly lower and disadvantaged when compared to his money crop. Organic vineyards went from dead dirt tilling to cover crops between the vines a decade or more ago.
The life of your soil is your real growers bank account.