In this episode my guest is Mary Johnson and our conversation is an introduction to the idea of Nutrient Dense Farming.
Mary is a permaculture teacher, owner of Watershed Resource Consultants, co-founder of Terra-Genesis International, and holds a Master’s of Science in Plant and Soil Science. She’s worked with a variety of partner organizations on projects all over the world including Brazil, Kenya, and, as you will hear in the interview, Panama.
This interview serves as a brief overview of Nutrient Dense Farming: how increase the nutrition of our foods by building better soil and a simple way to measure these changes with a simple handheld tool. To learn more you will want to read and research on your own. Resources to help you along are provided below.
After this conversation three questions came to mind:
1. What nutrients do plants needs?
2. What are sources for these nutrient?
3. How can I apply permaculture to acquire, rather than buy, these nutrients and build soil?
Just as Mary provided us with an introduction to nutrient dense farming, my thoughts here are an overview. If you would like me to research these ideas in-depth and provide a full episode, or series, on nutrients, soil amendments, and dynamic accumulating plants, I can do that. Let me know.
So, what nutrients do plants need?
Humans use fat, protein, and carbohydrates in large quantities, these are our macronutrients, plants have their own: carbon (C), oxygen (O), and Hydrogen (H), as well as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The first three plants get from the air and water which are then processed via photosynthesis. The last three, and the other nutrients, come from the soil which we amend and build to assist our plants. If you’ve handled a bag of fertilizer the NPK numbers refer to Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, in that order, with the letters corresponding to the entry on the periodic table of elements.
Then come the secondary nutrients: Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), and Sulfur (S).
The micronutrients, are a longer list: Boron (B), Chlorine (Cl), Cobalt (Co), Copper (Cu), Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Molybdenum (Mo), Nickel (Ni), Silicon (Si), Sodium (Na), Zinc (Zn), and Vanadium (Va).
The primary and secondary nutrients are fairly simple to test for at most soil labs. The micro-nutrients may require more specialized labs to sort out for you. If you want to have these soil tests done there, in the United States, Aglabs.com can provide these services. Elsewhere in the world contact a local soil or environmental testing lab and ask them if they provide micro-nutrient soil test and they should be able to help you.
The PDF on plant nutrients from NorthEastern Oklahoma A&M I like for the simplicity in explaining each nutrient, as well as how they impact plants, which soils are likely to have issues, and additional information.
Prepared with the information in that document, combined with a soil analysis including trace minerals, you can determine what amendments to add and in what quantities to build your soil to an ideal mix for your plants.
Which brings me to the second question: What are sources for these nutrients?
The list of amendments useful for any particular nutrient, of course, varies. Bone meal is good for phosphate and calcium. Compost is rich in nitrogen and carbon. Urine is high in nitrogen, with good quantities of potassium, and phosphorus. Greensand is chock full of potassium, iron, magnesium, silica, and many other trace minerals. A trip to the garden center or DIY shop can provide bags and bags of everything we could generally needs, but what if you are looking for one particular nutrient?
In that case a little bit of research is your friend. I chose the first nutrient on our list: boron, and did a web search “boron for the garden”. A link took me to an article from Spectrum Analytic, a testing lab in Ohio. At the bottom was a list of sources for boron. Surprisingly a common household product, Borax, is a source. You can do this for every nutrient you may need to get your soil started in the right direction.
And our last question:
How can I apply permaculture to acquiring, rather than buying, the nutrients and build soil?
Mary provided a good description of this in her discussion of the Panamanian village: use your ability to observe to determine where plants will grow best. Use your knowledge: If you know certain plants share similar requirements and growing conditions, look for them in the landscape and grow your similar plant there. Experiment with slow and simple solutions: plant trials in the landscape and find where conditions are the best . Value your renewable resources by using your accumulating plants, like comfrey, as slash and mulch plants. Use those same plants to mine nutrients from one area and move the minerals, now trapped in the plant tissue, somewhere else.
A good foundation in the ethics and principles of Permaculture allow you to truly design anything.
And remember: Permaculture is, as a design system, largely based on our available information and the ability to apply that information creatively. We now live in a world that is more connected than any other time in history. You can find solutions to almost any question related to building a better world.
Nancy Grove and everyone at Old Path Farm
Dr. Carey Reams
Dr. Elaine Ingham
International Ag Labs
Remineralize the Earth
Bionutrient Food Association
Alan Chartock in Conversation with Dan Kittredge
Ray Archuleta (Web Article about his work)