Monday, March 1, 2010

Spring, sprang, sprung

Well, it's official. We are having an early spring! No going back now. While the rest of the nation is battling snow and ice storms, our fruit trees are blooming. The daffodils have popped. Even the magnolia tree is blooming. Those seeds I ridiculously planted in January are now fine little seedlings--small but mighty and strong enough to weather those chilly early spring nights. All this earnest growth outside has me ready to garden. But first, I have to attend to the soil.

In a couple of hours 3400+ pounds of minerals are arriving. Add those to the 700+ pounds that are already waiting in the barn and we'll be ready to tackle a major soil-remineralization project.

Encouraged by the members of a biodynamic list serve I am on, I decided to dive into this foreign world of borax and azomite and epsom salts as a way to build my soil. And while not strictly biodynamic (a system where the farm or garden is a closed loop and which you strive to never add any inputs), I am excited about the possibilities that remineralizing our soil can do for our food (and our bodies).

When we moved here in 1999, we didn't know squat about caring for any farm animals other than chickens and we certainly didn't know about pasture management. Our pastures were sorely overgrazed from the last owner's 30 year tenure on the farm. We knew we needed to do something to bring them back to health but we weren't sure what. With all the learning curves we had to master, the pasture found its way to the bottom of the list. Finally, it has made it to the top.

Last year we sent five soil samples away to Logan Labs in Ohio testing the two pastures, the two orchards and the garden. This year we sent in two, the garden and the hoophouse. Basic soil testing is pretty cheap considering all the information it details. It's usually around $20 a sample. From that you learn how well the soil takes up minerals and which minerals are available in your soil and in what quantities. A balanced soil profile produces healthier plants and healthy plants make gardening a whole lot easier.

But as we found out last year, soil tests are wonderful but only if you have somebody amazing to analyze them. Last year I did the tests and then stared blankly at the results, clueless as to how to interpret them. Even Steve with his degree in Chemistry wasn't sure how to translate the test into practical action.

We heard rumor of an amazing guy (Michael Astera) who knew how to rebalance worn soils with organics and minerals but we didn't quite know how to find him. Eventually, the soil tests found their way to the middle of a pile on my desk--lost but not forgotten--and gardening season began.

Unable to solve the mysteries of our soil tests, I took a class from Steve Diver about raising high nutrient vegetables. He talked a lot about the importance of remineralizing the soil and activating the soil organisms that make the minerals more accessible to the plants. I applied just a few of simplest things he said to in my garden and kept up with my usual biodynamic practices. The results were astonishing. We had the BEST garden we have ever had and the taste of the food was phenomenal. Taste is directly correlated to nutrition so I knew we were onto something.

So, this year when Michael Astera appeared on my biodynamic list serve and said he was looking for people to participate in a study about using soil minerals to raise the nutrition in food (as measured by the brix level with a refractometer and tissue samples and more soil testing) I ignored that fact I didn't really understand what he was saying and that science is not part of my vocabulary and quickly said I'll do it, I'll do it. And this is how I find myself with two tons of minerals arriving on our doorstep.

Oh please, cosmic muses of mineral distribution appear in the night and instruct me as to how to do this monstrous task of distributing these many pounds of rock dust with ease of back.

I will figure this out because just the simple remineralization I did last year made such a radical difference in soil tests from last year to this. I can only imagine what will happen when we follow an individualized prescription such as the ones given to us by Michael as his part of the study. My part of this study is buying the minerals and then doing the actual work of applying them and then recording the results--oh how I wished I had paid more attention in those high school biology labs.

One reason I am willing to haul two tons of rock dust around the place is that nutrition, and specifically the declining mineral status of our foods, is directly correlated to the rise in chronic, degenreative disease that runs rampant in our culture. Since Steve and I are of an age when these diseases start appearing, I am thinking the more minerals we eat the better off we will be in the long run. I look at Steve's poor aching back and think what an even better diet might do. I think of me and my RA and think, yes, this might be an answer (or at least one step in the journey), so heavy, mineral laden wheelbarrow here I come.

I will let you know how we feel AFTER we lay down two tons of minerals. It will be interesting. All I have to say is where are the wwoofers when you need them!

Oh and by the way, at the very least you could add 14 oz of borax to every 1,000 feet of garden you have. (Twenty Mule Team borax from the grocery store works fine.) Borax will help your plants have more access to calcium and silica, both of which are basic building blocks of healthy plant tissue. (And if I got the reason why wrong, I got the amount correct. Sorry, science is not my basic language.)

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