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The Intelligent Gardener

February 4, 2013

My hubby is recuperating from some pretty intense shoulder surgery so when he said go buy yourself something pretty, or at least something to keep you in a good mood while you’re playing nurse, I jumped at the chance to buy a book.  Specifically Steve Solomon’s latest gardening book,   the intelligent gardener {Growing Nutrient-Dense Food}.  I’m a huge fan of Solomon and always happy to read what he has to say, even if I don’t always agree with him.

I’m not very far through the book yet, but like any controversial author I am disagreeing a bit, and I don’t see myself going crazy with soil tests.  But I totally agree that mineralization is an important part of the nutrient dense food conundrum and is equally as important as applying compost or organic matter to improve your garden soils.  Vegetables take a lot out of the soil, and for the most part, most of the vegetable leaves the garden.

What is interesting is that Solomon discovered by living in different places and gardening in those places that many soils are worn out and just because a vegetable garden will grow there does not mean the vegetables are necessarily nutrient-dense.  He surmised this after he and his wife both suffered from loose teeth, then moved and ate from different soils and their teeth tightened back up.  He goes on to tell of neighbors who also suffered from “malnutrition” even though they applied copious amounts of manure or compost.  His main point is that manure is of little value to the home gardener.  That I disagree with. To paint all manure with that same brush is too much of a generalization.  I do agree that some manure isn’t worth a pinch of shit, but my garden does well with our composted manure.  However, I think the saving grace is that we pay pretty close attention to keeping the animals that manure comes from, mineralized.  Instead of “feed the soil”, we back up a bit and feed good loose minerals like kelp, soft rock phosphate, trace mineral and sea salts to the animals that are “feeding the soil.”

Our other redeeming farmstead practice is that we eat meat, so it may be that Solomon, who calls himself a vegetablearian, maybe needed some other foods in his diet in certain places he lived.   Old subsistence farmers and gardeners in my locale died of old age after eating from their gardens and farms for decades.  Several of these old farmers were my gardening and milk cow mentors.  I know their diets well.  Dairy, eggs, meat, and vegetables fresh during the growing season, and preserved for the winter usually by canning.  Most were too frugal to keep much more than one freezer which was reserved for calorie rich butter, lard and meats.  All the ones I knew died with most of their teeth.

I like this book because I like Solomon, and he writes extensively about the soils and gardening in Cascadia which is where I live.  As long as I live I will garden, and I think each year I will learn more about the mysterious and challenging mission of growing my own food.  I think the take-away message in this book is that we need to re-mineralize as much as we can, no matter what.  If you garden, no matter if you’re an omnivore, vegetarian, or carnivore I think this book is a good read.  I will be referring to it as time goes on, I believe.


Have you read this book?  What’s your take on this latest work by Solomon?

33 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2013 3:03 am

    I haven’t read this book or heard of the author.

    I don’t do soil tests, so maybe I’m gardening blindly. I was preached that years ago and it only seemed to complicate something that is so simple; in fact it discouraged people I knew from gardening. I go by the simple method of adding compost, manure and green material (hand-cut grass and weeds) throughout the summer. I add it into the soil before I plant and during the growing season, I spread compost and green cuttings over top the soil to add nutrients and to act as a mulch to keep moisture in and weeds out.

    In general, I add anything else that is good too: dried leaves, sand (we live with clay soil), apple cores (or left overs whatever fruit, vegetable or berry I’m eating), etc. If it decomposes, I add it (I know sand doesn’t decompose; instead breaks up the clay soil. I leave in small pebbles (marble size or smaller) for the same reason.).

    Where I’ve worked my soil for years, it feels rich and plants grow like crazy. This is how I judge a soil: if the vegetables grow well, disease free, mature on time and taste great, the soil must be good. I could be wrong, but that’s what I do.

    As I expand my garden, I’m finding tough soil suffering from years of abuse–it used to be a hayfield. It will take a few years of working it to get it back to a healthy state. I don’t like to truck in dirt from other places because I don’t know what else might arrive with it. Instead, I try and improve what I have.

    That said, I’m paying more attention to the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables. About three years ago I was told that we’d have to eat three apples grown today to meet the same nutritional value of an apple grown thirty years ago. That made me stop and think: why? Is it the apple variety? The soil? The fact they are picked before they are completely ripe? This made me think of hydroponics? Can we gain the same quality of nutrients from vegetables grown in water compared to soil? Personally, I don’t think so.

    I’ve known old farmers who died with their teeth, too, and they had the diet you described: homegrown vegetables, meat and dairy. They were as healthy as a horse.

    Thanks for writing this. More awareness of this topic is important.

    • February 4, 2013 9:08 pm

      Diane, great comment, I’m more in your camp and flying by the seat of my pants. But for me it works, I’m just not a spreadsheet kind of person. Which may be good or bad depending on how you look at it.

    • February 12, 2013 9:07 am

      I’ve had people tell me to test my soil, and I also see that as being beyond the scope of my garden. Like you, I love my soil with compost and other goodies and every year I have a beautiful garden. It’s just a “window kitchen” garden, but no such garden has ever been loved more.

  2. February 4, 2013 3:51 am

    I attended my second Soil Seminar with John Kempf last week. I again came home with over 30 pages of notes. There’s far more to the nutrient density than just adding minerals.

    Solomon’s new book was mentioned. But if you get a chance to attend a seminar with John Kempf, I’d strongly urge you to go. He is VERY strong on the science. Here’s his website:

  3. February 4, 2013 4:58 am

    “Dairy, eggs, meat, and vegetables fresh during the growing season, and preserved for the winter usually by canning. Most were too frugal to keep much more than one freezer which was reserved for calorie rich butter, lard and meats. All the ones I knew died with most of their teeth.”

    I think I knew those same old subsistence gardeners and eventually became one : ) Will say a little prayer for hubby and his recovery and for you as well.


    • February 4, 2013 9:06 pm

      CQ, thanks so much for the kind words, and for sending good thoughts his way. He’s not backseat driving yet, so we have a way to go 😉

      I know exactly what you mean about those old subsistence gardeners and canners, it’s the same here 😉

  4. February 4, 2013 7:58 am

    I’ve got Solomon’s “Vegetable Gardening West of the Cascades” – and it’s taken me a long time to appreciate his methods thanks to his emphasis on external inputs to correct the mineral deficiencies in the coastal soils of the PNW. I only clued into your solution, of putting the inputs through the animals, about a year ago, I think from something you’ve said in the past, in fact, and it gave me a whole new perspective on his book. I knew he’d moved to Tasmania, was it there that he got loose teeth? I’ll have to go find out! I must say though, that apart from his soil amendment mantra, I’ve always used him as my go to on how to grow specific crops here. He really did know our climate and conditions.

    • February 4, 2013 9:27 am

      SSF, I have that as well, but I really like Water-wise Vegetables and Growing Food When It Counts better, and this one is quite interesting as far as our native soils west of the Cascades. People get turned off by him because he doesn’t recommend mulching and other popular gardening methods.

      His teeth went bad in Oregon, and got better in Fiji eating mineralized, conventional sprayed, never fertilized produce that was grown in a valley , which led him to the conclusion that organic as a stand alone designation didn’t necessarily mean as much as he had previously thought. It had more to do with the mineralization of the soil from the flooding river nearby.

      Like anything, there is never ONE book or method that works, I like to take the best and leave the rest. It’s a pretty good read though, and gives you tools to work with soil tests to make a difference. Far beyond the usual pH, add lime theory.

      Here the Nutribalancer has made the most difference, I believe.

  5. February 4, 2013 10:11 am

    Whenever I start a new garden I brix carrots as my baseline. And if I am going to buy carrots from someone else I brix theirs as well. We have been here just over a year now but the first thing I did was compost and heavily manure a garden area and pasture. I’ve spread over 1200#s of minerals and I’m not done yet. I would rather my goats are eating nutrient dense grass and scrub than supplement with mineral, although of course I am doing both now.

    I agree that mineralized animal manure is really the best way to improve soil. I don’t think he made that point but vegetable matter alone will not provide all the nutrients you need. Organic standards do not regulate what goes into the produce, they merely regulate what does NOT so all those studies that organic produce is no more nutritious than conventional are no surprise to me. Getting to know your farmer and their methods, or growing it yourself is the only way to get truly nutrient-dense food that is free from pesticide and herbicide.

    I think I have nearly all of Steve’s published books that are in print. He makes me mad every time I sit down to read but I have to admit that many of this methods are sound. He is about the biggest curmudgeon I can think of though and I don’t enjoy getting mad every time I want to read so I limit it to small doses that I don’t enjoy.

    I think a better way to learn Steve Solomon’s methods is to just read your take on it. That way I don’t get mad. 🙂

    • February 4, 2013 10:50 am

      Annette, you’re so funny! I get mad and then I have an aha moment and all is well. He makes me laugh most of the time and he helps me keep quiet when I should. Some time back in the fall I was talking with an organic market gardener who assumed that his crops had bugs because the conventional growers (miles away) sprayed all their bugs so the bugs naturally had to come eat his stuff because it was organic…, I decided it wasn’t the time and place to bring up brix at all, they wouldn’t have listened. Sigh.

      So glad Steve started Territorial and shares what he comes up with.

  6. February 4, 2013 10:18 am

    MOH, I finally got my copy of “Gardening West of the Cascades” back from a friend, and just in time to refresh before the big seed starting gets underway. I agree with you that I choose to disagree with some of what he says, in particular the ‘search for the complete mineral balanced foods”. I don’t think they exist. I think like the idea of “dying of old age” its all a bit of a scientific myth.
    I see books like his as simply tools to do a better job than I am now. Perhaps I might be doing better by liming my soil, but I don’t. Or at least I haven’t yet. Because for me it’s about balance. I want to put the best quality food on the table I can, but not at the cost of spending all my time ‘doing’ and not ‘being’. There is something holistically complete about sitting in the goat yard, on a warm spring day, and watching my two legged kids play with the four legged kids. Perhaps I could be weeding, or composting, or amending, or dusting yet again for mites, or trimming hooves, but I’m not. I’m simply enjoying what’s before me. And that’s why we chose the life we are living.

  7. February 4, 2013 10:22 am

    On this topic I’m working my way through Albrecht’s works now. You know, just a bit of light reading before bedtime.

    I’m hoping the ash I add to my nearly finished compost along with the nutrients I put through my animals and the composted bones brings up the mineralization in my pastures. I mostly rely on manure to add organic matter to my garden. A little ash, a little greensand and a little raw aragonite round out the main effort.

    • February 4, 2013 10:55 am

      HFS, you should check out this book at the library at least, he is simplifying Albrecht and Astera. Layman terms and all that for us simple-minded folks. 🙂

      I was going to ask you about that ash, do you get enough to cover your entire garden? We don’t generate much here due to burning softwood, so I don’t have to empty ashes too often.

      • February 4, 2013 10:57 am

        Do I get enough? No. I generate a pan full every day, filling a cinder bucket every 3 days or so. Was reading Homemade Contrivances recently. In the chapter about fertilizer the author suggested you compost bones in damp ashes. He said most homes burn 15-20 cords of wood a year so ashes are not a problem.

        We don’t burn that much.

        • February 4, 2013 11:05 am

          HFS, crap I can’t fill a five gallon bucket in two weeks! And that is our only heat source.

      • February 4, 2013 11:04 am

        One of the things that makes me mad is that he disagrees so often and loudly with Astera who I hold in high reverence. He also does it often on the soils forum.

        • February 4, 2013 11:07 am

          Annette, he’s pretty gentle with him in this book and talks a little about their disagreements, but not to the point that it turns you off. When my cows get crabby I add extra minerals, maybe Steve needs more minerals than he thinks 😉

  8. February 4, 2013 10:31 am

    Another thought, on the mineralization bit. I know that Michelle over at CollieFarm posted something recently about doing a soil test (specifically for selenium) and if I recall right, her soils showed (regionally abnormal) high levels. I have often wondered about the loose minerals we feed our animals, and have wondered since we know our area is deficient in some of these, if over the years of feeding minerals, we have re-mineralized the soils in some areas. Not that we should ease up, Solomon’s point of the rain leaching out many of these minerals would require we continue to keep up the input.

    MOH, have you done any comparison studies on your farm?

    • February 4, 2013 11:02 am

      Adalyn, I haven’t, other than a few basic soil and pesticide residues for organic certification over the years. I remember Michelle’s post, it was a good one. I’m just more of a peasant type farmer watching the animals etc., you have to pick which way you want to go and head in that direction. I always tell people if you feel uncomfortable not testing your animals, or soils etc, then do it because you will always be second guessing your decisions.

  9. February 4, 2013 10:46 am

    I just blogged on this yesterday! I agree with the approach that if the cows get the minerals, so does the soil, if it all works quit fussing. I will do some tests just for the H of it, but I do worry that this approach makes gardening seem overly complicated and discourage many people.

    • February 4, 2013 9:04 pm

      Len, great post! Looking forward to your results 🙂 But I do agree, some folks may give up, but at least ol’ Steve has us thinking.

  10. February 4, 2013 1:21 pm

    MOH, I wonder if those with laying hens and using the chicken litter in the compost or garden, don’t have a leg up as far as calcium goes. I mean, most folk know to keep ground oyster shells in front of the hens, to keep the shell solid on the eggs. That would also mean a reasonably calcium-positive “end” result, I would think.

    • February 4, 2013 1:42 pm

      Brad, that’s true, in addition chicken manure is a good source of phosphorous too if that is what is low in your particular soils. It only gets to be a problem when there are too many chickens, like the CAFO facilities in the Delmarva area and others. That’s what’s nice about Salatin who removes his livestock from the soils during the winter months when the plants and soils can’t use the material. That’s what gets me on my soapbox about year round pastured chickens…too much of a “good” thing can end up being a bad thing. I’m liking this book in regards to my pasture and cows, lots of fodder for thought there for me anyway. I like to read between the lines.

    • February 4, 2013 1:42 pm

      Brad, that’s true, in addition chicken manure is a good source of phosphorous too if that is what is low in your particular soils. It only gets to be a problem when there are too many chickens, like the CAFO facilities in the Delmarva area and others. That’s what’s nice about Salatin who removes his livestock from the soils during the winter months when the plants and soils can’t use the material. That’s what gets me on my soapbox about year round pastured chickens…too much of a “good” thing can end up being a bad thing. I’m liking this book in regards to my pasture and cows, lots of fodder for thought there for me anyway. I like to read between the lines.

  11. Bee permalink
    February 4, 2013 8:42 pm

    Nita, so sorry to hear about your hubby, and I know it’s not fun for you. I spent a solid five months last summer and fall doing it all because mine had three back surgeries in a period of about six weeks and was on bed rest at home for a month between the first and second surgeries. He lost over 30 pounds (he doesn’t recommend it as a weight loss diet) and got so sleep deprived he was thoroughly nuts for about a week. Good thing you have Ruthless around to help out. Hope he gets well soon. Remember to take care of yourself as well as everybody else!
    As far as minerals go, I agree with your system of running them through the animals first. If you think about it, nature doesn’t usually transport much in the way of minerals or anything else from one place to another except via the weather or by putting it through an animal’s digestive system. I suspect that there’s a certain amount of “value added” going on there and we would be smart to continue the pattern.

    • February 4, 2013 9:00 pm

      Bee, thanks so much, the sleep deprivation is the worst along with the ongoing pain, which I’m sure you’re well aware of. Thank heavens for bone broth and custard. Jane and hens are happy to help in the healing process. 🙂

      Aren’t we lucky to have animals, it does make help fill in the gaps with fertility for sure. I think Len commented earlier about some methods getting too complicated and scaring potential gardeners off. I agree totally with that too, keeping animals out of the equation makes the “problem” much harder to solve for sure.

      Thanks again – N.

  12. Batina permalink
    February 5, 2013 8:36 pm

    I think for folks with well established gardens that you have managed well for some time and had good results, a lot of what Steve talks about in his book may not be necessary. But if you have just started a garden on land that was not well managed, or you are starting a garden in suburbia where all of the topsoil has been stripped off, then a lot of the advice would be helpful in figuring out how to fix it. And if your only source of manure or compost is to purchase it from someone else, and they are not feeding their animals properly, then double whammy…the only way to fix an imbalance is to remineralize directly.

    I am curious to see if his point about the balance of calcium and magnesium to open up clay soils really works. My clay soil is horrible, and I thought the only solution to that was a huge amount of compost. I am going to probably do a soil test this year to find out if that is true in my garden.

    • February 5, 2013 9:12 pm

      Batina I hope you post back with your results! People with heavy clay soil are waiting with baited breath…

  13. wondering permalink
    February 6, 2013 11:21 am

    What is this “brix” you speak of? I googled it, but all I found out was that it is a sugar measurement. I’m afraid I don’t understand. 😦

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