The Permaculture Podcast

    Episode 1226: An Introduction to Nutrient Dense Farming with Mary Johnson


    Click here to download the episode. | Open Player in New Window

    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.

    (Mary’s first interview)

    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, 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.

    NorthEastern Oklahoma A&M Plant Nutrient PDF

    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
    Tony Murlin

    Dr. Carey Reams
    Dr. Elaine Ingham
    International Ag Labs
    Remineralize the Earth
    Bionutrient Food Association
    Dan Kittredge
    Alan Chartock in Conversation with Dan Kittredge
    Ray Archuleta (Web Article about his work)

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    • Episode 1234: Nutrient Dense Foods with Dan Kittredge here to download the episode. | Open Player in New WindowMy guest for this episode is Dan Kittredge of the Bionutrient Food Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading the word about nutrient dense farming methods, nutrient dense foods, and ultimately to develop a device so growers and consumers to measure the nutritional quality [...]
    • Episode 1210: Mary Johnson on Climate Change and Internation... here to download the episode. | Open Player in New Window The guest for this episode is Mary Johnson of Watershed Resource Consultants and one of the co-founders of Terra Genesis International. With a background in plant and soil sciences, Mary has spent the last several years working with conservation organizations in South America, [...]


    2 Pings/Trackbacks

    1. Nancy GroveNancy Grove
      October 29, 2012    

      Thank you for the overview of this topic. We would love to hear a podcast like the one you mentioned that would go much more in depth and in detail into this topic. (I have felt since the beginning that everyone who talks about Nutrient Dense Farming, is hesitant to reveal details. Perhaps the reason is that the information is extremely complex and situation specific. I have a slight suspicion that part of the reason is because the experts in the field are more inclined to sell their information via a workshop than give it away….. I am excited to hear what Dan Kittredge has to say, as we will be attending one of his workshops in a couple weeks. Thanks again for the podcast. We love it- and once again, your interview style and podcast organization is much appreciated!

    2. Susan NorrisSusan Norris
      November 12, 2012    

      Great information here! I never thought about “nutrient-dense” farming, just growing healthy food, but the two ideas are the same.

      The link for “NorthEastern Oklahoma A&M Plant Nutrient PDF” takes me to a 404.

      Really great podcasts!! Thanks for doing this, Scott!

      • November 13, 2012    

        I corrected the link for the Plant Nutrient PDF. You are good to download!

    3. […] of The Permaculture Podcast with Scott Mann.  The episode posted on October 26, 2012 was “An Introduction to Nutrient Dense Farming with Mary Johnson.”  Johnson touched on most of the same themes as Kittredge did, and she even cited him as […]

    4. […] this is your first exposure to this idea, you may want to start with the episode “An Introduction to Nutrient Dense Farming with Mary Johnson.” Mary provides an excellent overview of the ideas at the core of the discussion with Dan […]

    5. ViviVivi
      May 29, 2015    

      One thing people talking about soil mineralisation usually forget to mention is that you can put as much of the needed element in the ground as you like – it won’t help much if the pH of the soil is wrong. You see, the plants can only use these minerals if they can access them as dissolved salts (e.g. phosphate, not phosphorus), and a lot of them react to insoluble compounds in environments that are too acidic or too alcaline. That’s the reason most of our nutrient-hungry food plants only do well in a narrow band around pH 6,5 – that’s were all those macronutrients are available. Below pH 5.5 you can throw all the rock phosphate you want on there, and the plants won’t be able to take it up. Acid-loving plants like blueberries need a lot of iron, which is only really available (at the right oxidation level) in soil that has less than pH 6.0. There’s a handy chart to see which nutrients are in solution at which pH levels, which you can easily find in many versions if you google “soil ph nutrient availability”.

      By the way, not only acid-loving plants need iron – plants (and soil bacteria) need enzymes that are based around an iron-sulfur core. And if I remember my plant physiology course correctly, it’s usually even the limiting growth factor for plants in aquatic environments. (On land, it’s generally phosphate.) One of the enzymes that need iron to be constructed properly is chlorophyll (one of the enzymes needed to make chlorophyll has iron as an active core). And chlorophyll is built around a central magnesium atom in a similar way as the human haemoglobin is built around an iron atom. That’s why both iron and magnesium defiency lead to chlorosis (yellow leaves) and because of the lowered rate of photosynthesis, bad growth and low sugar, if the plant survives at all. So just because something isn’t named as a macronutrient, doesn’t mean it’s optional. It just means the plant (usually) only needs trace amounts for some essential enzymes, not huge amounts for structural building. (Like nitrogen for proteins and phosphorus for the DNA helix and phospho-lipids in cell membranes.)

      You can also block some nutrients (like iron) by over-fertilising with other nutrients (like for example phosphate and most of the other metals, in case of iron), because the salts in the fertilisers can react with each other once they’re in solution in the soil moisture, and some of these new compounds can be insoluble under the same circumstances where the original fertiliser compounds were soluble.

      …Uh, and I just notice that this would be a lot easier to explain if I could rely on the US teaching seperate and mandatory biology and experimental chemistry courses in highschool, not just a general “science” class as is usually mentioned in US TV shows. Most of the stuff above and the terminology that I tried to work around is just so self-evident and habitual to me, since I was taught the basics when I was 13, and the university courses were just meant to build on that.

      • June 15, 2015    

        Thank you for you detailed response Vivi. I found this easy to follow, though it has been 20 years since my last chemistry class.

        As for US schools, mine required three science courses at a minimum to graduate, of which biology and chemistry were mandatory and included laboratory experiments. Once those were completed students could then elect to take other courses, such as earth science or meteorology. Even at the collegiate undergraduate level there were core science requirements for all students regardless of academic major.

    6. Jason BibeeJason Bibee
      July 29, 2017    

      I’m curious how much more nutrient dense is the food? Going from an 8 to an 18 on the brix meter, what does that equate to in terms of sugars, micronutrient content etc.

    1. Soil Preparation for Annual and Perennial Gardens | on November 29, 2012 at 13:11
    2. Nutrient Dense Foods with Dan Kittredge » The Permaculture Podcast | The Permaculture Podcast on December 14, 2012 at 00:04

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