The Connection Between Human Health and Soil Health

What’s the connection between soil and human health? It’s an intriguing question that family physician and author Dr. Daphne Miller discusses in the lecture above and in her book Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing. In the research for the book Miller visited farmers who, as she put it, “farm in the image of nature,” who approach the farm as a living organism.

While she cautioned that there is little research behind the connection between farming practices and health, she suspects that biodiversity on the farm may be an important factor in our well being. To back this idea up she cites:

  • Erika von Mutius, who found an intriguing connection between children who grew up on farms and their lack of asthma and allergies later in life.
  • Research that is taking an Integrated Pest Management approach to cancer, treating it as a symptom of a lack of internal biodiversity.
  • Studies that have shown the higher nutritional value of eggs from chickens raised on pasture.

It seems obvious that there’s a connection between the health of a farm and our own health. Biodiverse soils produce healthier, more nutritious food. And way too much of the food we eat comes from farms where the soil is treated as a sterile growing medium. As Miller notes, “We are the soil.”

USDA Soil Maps Online

Screen shot 2013-05-22 at 2.24.20 PM

Attention soil geeks. You can access USDA soil maps online here. Ninety-five percent of US counties are available with the rest promised soon. The web interface was pretty slow with my connection, but I’m looking forward to playing around with this tool. There are also archived soil surveys that you can access much faster here.

Garden Amendments as Placebos

I just finished writing an article for Urban Farm Magazine on the subject of aerated compost tea (ACT for short). It proved to be one of the most contentious subjects on which I’ve ever tried to, as Mark Twain liked to say, “corral the truth.”

It got me thinking about other controversial soil additives popular in organic gardening and farming circles right now such as rock dust, mycorrhizae additives, and biochar.

Now I prefer not to touch these topics with a hundred foot pole. But let me go out on a limb with a thoughtstyling outside of the usual debate about the benefits or worthlessness of these soil potions. I’ve started wondering if the strong anecdotal evidence supporting things like ACT, biochar etc., might indicate a kind of ecological placebo effect at work.

Note: I’m not saying that placebos have no value or that, “It’s all in your head.” Quite to the contrary: the placebo effect is powerful and causes real changes in the physical world. Even hardcore skeptics agree with me on this (note also the downside to placebos in that article). As the fifteenth century alchemist Paracelsus said, “You must know that the will is a powerful adjuvant of medicine.”

So could working with these soil additives be a way of focusing human will, of changing human consciousness towards the goal of healing the damage to nature that we’ve caused? And what about biodynamics? I suspect a consciousnesses shift within human hearts and minds is what Rudolf Steiner was really trying to do with his, admittedly bizarre, preparations.

On the opposite, non-interventionist side of the gardening spectrum, I’ve been re-reading Masanobu Fukuoka’s books. Fukuoka advocates a radical, almost (but not entirely) hands-off approach to natural systems. Paradoxically, Fukuoka was striving for the very same shift in consciousnesses, though by entirely different (Eastern) means. As he put it, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

I think we would do well to spend more time investigating the intersection of human consciousness and ecology in the years ahead. Our survival may depend on it.

Now, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.” So let me know what you think in the comments . . .

What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

  • Fermentation
  • Beekeeping
  • Soil Fertility
  • Human beings

Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.

Peat-free Planting Mix Recipe With Coconut Coir

Nancy’s coconut coir-based planting mix. Here she’s doing the squeeze test, which we talk about below.

From an environmental perspective peat moss is a nightmare. Mining of this material is unsustainable, contributes to global warming and destroys habitat for many plants and animals. But, for starting seeds, we’ve used it for years. Our friend Nancy Klehm taught us recently how to make a seed starting mix with coconut coir instead of peat moss. Thanks, Nancy! Here’s how to make it:

Ingredients

Watering the coir brick to break it up. Once saturated, this brick will expand to fill the tub.

COIR:  A fibrous material made from coconut husks. It is sold in compressed bricks which expand greatly when wet. It is pH neutral and has no nutrients. Its role in planting mix is to hold moisture. Coir is the environmentally correct alternative to peat. Peat is mined out of peat bogs, which is a disruption of an ecosystem. Coir, meanwhile, is a by-product of the coconut industry. Of course, it has to be shipped in from the tropics, so is not particularly sustainable in that way. Nothing is perfect. So, if you have peat on hand or prefer peat you may use it in this recipe instead of coir, just substitute it, 1:1.

PERLITE: Perlite is a volcanic glass which, upon being subjected to extremely high temperatures (850C +), puffs–sort of like popcorn, or a Pop Rock. Obviously, though its origins are natural, it is an industrial product, but it is very useful for making soil fluffy and light. You will recognize it as the “white stuff” that you see in the soil of nursery plants. As it is essentially a rock, it is a neutral player in the mix. It simply keeps things light.

Note: you should avoid breathing perlite dust when working with it.

Store-bought worm castings. Homegrown, of course, are the preferred alternative!

WORM CASTINGS: Castings bring healthy microbial activity to the mix, as well as balanced nutrients and trace minerals. In addition, they hold moisture well. They are invaluable players in this mix. You can buy worm castings at the nursery, or you can keep a worm bin and harvest your own. Store bought and homegrown castings have very different textures–the store bought tends to be very fine, almost a black powder, whereas castings fresh out of the worm bin have more of a open, grainy, soil like texture– and this effects the recipe.  

For the purposes of this recipe, we will assume you are using fine-grained, store bought castings. If you have your own castings, congratulations! But you will have to play with this recipe a little bit. You will use a little less coir, because your castings (probably) have loft or springiness of their own. We can’t tell you exactly how much less coir, because castings vary.  Start, say, with half the recommended quantity of coir in the recipe below, and then test the mix, and add more coir as necessary. The proof will come in the squeezing. Do the hand test described in the instructions below. If the mix won’t hold form when you squeeze it, you have too much coir, if the clump you make doesn’t break easily, there isn’t enough. Again, see below.

Quantity

This recipe makes about 4 gallons of planting mix. To make more or less, just use the same ratios. 

Equipment

We like to mix ours up in 5 gallon bucket, but you can do this on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow or whatever you like.

You will also need something big, like a cement mixing tray or tub to soak the coir brick in. Remember, one brick swells into to a big bag’s worth of wet coir. If you don’t use all the coir, you can store it in a plastic bag. If it dries out, it can be re-hydrated.

You will also need a measuring tool. For this 4 gallon recipe you will need a quart measure to scoop the materials out of the bags–like a big yogurt/cottage cheese container, or something with same volume. Again, you can make as little or as much as you want using the same proportions, so your measure could be a 1 cup scoop or a 3 gallon bucket.

Prep

Prepare to make the mix by soaking the coir in a large tub of water for maybe a half hour or so. Break it up as it expands. It will drink up a lot of water and grow proportionately huge. Add water if necessary so that it all gets evenly moistened. When finished, it should be wet but springy, like a wrung-out sponge.

Put it together

3 quarts/parts worm castings (store bought, see notes above for homegrown)
8 quarts/parts coir
4 quarts/ parts perlite

Measure out the worm castings and coir into a five gallon bucket and toss them together with your hands until they are evenly and thoroughly mixed. This mix should be moist and dark, again with a nice “wrung-out” sponge level of dampness.

Only when those two are mixed should you add the perlite. It’s easier to mix the perlite in last–trust us. Mix the perlite into the coir/casting blend until it is also evenly distributed–the mix should be absolutely consistent–no patches or clumps should be visible. You might find it helpful to dump the mix back and forth between two five gallon buckets to speed mixing.

After it is mixed, pause to analyze the texture. Gather up a fistful, squeeze it hard and open your hand. The mix will form a ball in your fist, but if you turn your hand over and drop the ball a few inches, it will break easily. Overall the mix should be moist, light and springy. We can’t emphasize that enough. Moist, but not soggy. Springy, not heavy.

If the mix seems a little clumpy/dense/heavy don’t be afraid to add another part of perlite. It is better to err on the side of too much perlite than too little. Lightness is everything.

Measuring into the buckets with a quart-sized yogurt container. If you have two buckets, you can pour the ingredients back and forth between them to speed mixing. Otherwise, just toss the ingredients with your hands in one bucket.

Notes on growing

The seedling feeds itself from its seed body up through the formation of the first set of leaves, the cotyledons. After that, it is dependent on the nutrients in the soil. Your seedlings will be fine in this planting mix until around the time of the full unfurling of their first true leaves (the ones that come after the cotyledons). At this time–or no later than the opening of the second set of true leaves–you will want to feed your seedlings by watering them with some kind of diluted organic fertilizer of your choice. Do this maybe once a week until you transplant them.

Feeding accelerates root growth which is even more important to plant health than leaf growth. It prepares the plants to thrive after transplanting.

For most seedlings this means the first feeding would occur about 3-4 weeks after planting. The seedlings should be transplanted by 6 weeks of age–either into the garden or into bigger pots with real soil.

Recycling

You can re-use this mix to plant more seedlings, but you’ll want to recharge it by adding in more worm castings. Just dump out your seed starting trays, mix it all up and let it air a bit. Also, the coir breaks down over time, so you find you need to add more of that as well. And if you add enough castings and coir, you’ll probably want to add more perlite to balance it. There’s no recipe–you’ll have to use your intuition to create a consistency that resembles the original mix.

Or you could compost it and start fresh. It’s safe to compost perlite, as long as you don’t mind having little white perlite bits all over your yard!

This is the surface of the finished mix. It’s so light and moist that it has holes in the surface. Note the even integration of the three ingredient: no lumps or patches left unmixed.

Options
 
Another planting mix option is part coir and part compost. This is provided your compost is of the best quality–bagged compost from the nursery is not good enough. This is a hard area to generalize about because compost varies wildly in both quality and consistency, but you’d want to use lovely, lively, springy, sweet smelling compost.

Gardening guru John Jeavons starts his seeds in mix which is 1 part compost and 1 part garden soil–soil dug from the same beds the seedlings will be going into. This way the seedlings are already accustomed to the local soil and don’t go through so much shock upon transplanting. It also makes his garden a “closed loop,” meaning he doesn’t have to buy anything or bring any materials in from the outside. This saves money, keeps things local and prevents the accidental importing of diseases.

Using compost and soil works for him because he’s got top-notch compost and rich, fluffy soil–the kind of soil you can plunge you hand into up to the wrist without meeting resistance. This should be a goal for all of us to work toward, but in the meanwhile, while we’re developing that soil in our own yards, we’ve got perlite, worm castings and coir!

Testing the Lead Testers

Varian ICP-MS from Wikipedia

Dear readers,

Excuses for a technical post here, but we need your scientific expertise. If you have experience in soil laboratory testing techniques, or know someone who does, please send us an email at [email protected] or leave a comment. We’re attempting to reconcile slightly different lead results from three different labs and I’d like to be able to write about soil testing methods. Two of the labs we sent samples off to (UMass and Timberleaf Soil Testing) use inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP) to test for lead. Wallace labs uses an extractant, AB-DTPA (ammonium bicarbonate Diethylene Triamine Pentaacetic acid).

Here’s how Wallace described their lead testing techinique,

We use AB-DTPA (ammonium bicarbonate Diethylene Triamine Pentaacetic acid).

It is a gentle extractant and it mimics roots in extracting minerals from the soil. Most often environmental tests are made with boiling acids which are more aggressive than roots. The AB-DTPA method is a standard testing method of the Soil Science Society of America. It is called the universal extractant. It measures the bioavailable or plant available minerals which is expected to be adsorbed by plants. Most of the background heavy metals are occluded and are unavailable to plants. Our testing does not see the occluded metals.

Total lead is approximately 10 times higher than our AB-DTPA measured lead. We recommend that AB-DTPA lead be less than 30 parts per million for home production of edible produce.

UMass says,

We use a modified Morgan solution (dilute glacial acetic acid and ammonium hydroxide) to measure extractable lead (using ICP).  Total Estimated Lead is calculated using a correlation established during a study performed here at UMass that compared total digestion levels to extractable levels using 300-400 soils.

I divided one soil sample into three parts and sent a portion to three labs. While all three labs indicated the presence of above natural levels of lead, there were enough differences between the tests to warrant a closer look at the techniques. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated and we’ll share what we find out.

Too Much Phosphate

Symptoms of chlorosis. Image from the Washington State University

Our possible backyard lead situation is a good reason to get a soil test, but if that didn’t convince you the Garden Professors at Washington State University just blogged about another important motivation: the bad effects of too much phosphate.

An overabundance of phosphate can interfere with a plant’s ability to uptake iron resulting in interveinal chlorosis, a yellowing of the leaves between the veins. So adding fertilizer that contains phosphate to soil that doesn’t need it is a waste of money, damages the environment and can kill your plants. Of all the soils I’ve tested in Los Angeles, all are already high in phosphate, meaning that most fertilizers, both organic and chemical are both unnecessary and potentially toxic to plants.

As the Garden Professors also note in another post, it can be very difficult to diagnose problems just with visual cues. Chlorosis, for instance, can also be caused by other factors.  As Garden Professor Linda Chalker-Scott puts it, “You can’t fly by the seat of your pants on this one, folks.” While I’m probably a bigger proponent of intuition and “woo-woo” than Chalker-Scott, I think it’s a good idea to balance our left and right brains. No reason you can’t get a soil test and talk to those plant Devas.

Till vs. No Till Poll Results

US Department of Energy

Our highly unscientific till vs. no-till poll results are in:

17% of you said you till
43% of you don’t till
23% of you double-dig
15% are undecided

Looks like most of you fall into the permacultural no-till camp.

For more information on no-till ag see the no-till section of our publisher Rodale’s website.

Meanwhile, we’re on our book tour of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Check out our schedule here and we hope to meet all you all!

Till vs. No-Till

A 3-D view of tilling in Russia c1915

My post on lasagna gardening, which linked to a brief article by horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott seems to have opened a can of worms, so to speak.  Two issues came up in the comments on my post: the wisdom of using cardboard in a lasagna mulch and the pros and cons of double digging/tilling. Let’s address them in separate blog posts, beginning here with double digging/tilling.

There are some very persuasive arguments in favor of a no-till, leave the soil alone approach. Chalker-Scott in the comments section of her post on lasagna gardening says,

. . . double digging (the equivalent of tilling in agriculture) disrupts natural soil building. No-till agriculture is increasingly preferred as being more protective of the soil ecosystem. I think the same philosophy could be applied to home gardens as well. You’re right, you can boost production with a more aggressive approach to soil amendment – a similar argument is often made in conventional agriculture (compared to organic agriculture) to till, use excessive fertilizers, pesticides, etc. I guess it depends on how you regard the soil – as a medium for growing vegetables or as an ecosystem (and I’m not being judgmental). It’s a philosophical choice.

No-till agriculture advocates argue that tilling oxidizes organic matter leading to a loss in soil fertility and the creation of carbon dioxide which, in turn, leads to global warming. A case can also be made that tilling creates a soil “crust” that interferes with water penetration. And tilling disrupts mycelial networks and other soil organisms that, research has shown, form important symbiotic relationships with plant roots. 

But what about heavily compacted soils? How do you turn a lawn or driveway into a garden? It’s in these cases that I, in the past, have used double digging.

Double digging proponents would argue that the practice should be distinguished from tilling in that, unlike tilling, you don’t invert the soil structure as much when you double dig. Double digging keeps the same soil profile while loosening heavy compaction. Double-digging advocates distance themselves from the use of roto-tilling machines which invert deeper layers of soil with surface layers that contain more organic matter.

But there are alternatives to double digging and tilling that will break up compacted soils. Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch turned a former construction parking lot into a productive edible landscape without double digging or tilling. Kleinrock used what I’d call a kind of toolkit of de-compaction strategies:

  • The application of a thick mulch (Chalker-Scott suggests a minimum of 12 inches). It’s surprising how many earthworms start doing the tilling for you with a thick mulch layer.
  • Planting soil busting cover crops with thick tap roots like Daikon radish
  • The use of a broadfork or deep spader
Peaceful Valley’s “Deep Spader”
A broadfork in action

Broadforks and deep spaders get air and water into compacted soils without the damage tilling can do. Unfortunately broadforks and deep spaders are very expensive (around $200) and heavy. The deep spader Kleinrock used came from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. I’ve tried it and it works nicely, though it’s still hard labor. If you knew how to weld you could probably make a home brew deep spader or broadfork. I’ve also successfully used a regular, inexpensive garden spading fork in moderately compacted soils.

This is clearly a topic on which reasonable people can disagree, but the no-till folks seem to have the upper hand in terms of the science. As with all gardening problems, though, context is king. Environmental factors and economic issues (those expensive broadforks) intersect in our urban gardens in complex ways. You have to make up your own mind. I’d say if you’re going to double-dig do it only as a last resort and after considering all the alternatives. While, under some circumstances, I might double-dig I would never till with a roto-tiller or invert soil structure with a shovel. But after seeing the dramatic improvement in soil at the Huntington Ranch in less than a year, I’m more inclined to try de-compaction alternatives. You could also just build raised beds and import better soil (though that strategy gets expensive).

I’ve created a poll on the right side of this blog on which you can cast a vote on tilling vs. not-tilling vs. double digging. And consider leaving a comment–I’m interested in what readers think about this complex issue.

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