Barefoot Gardener: ‘You Are What You Eat’
I am often asked why one should pursue soil building through organic gardening as opposed to just sticking plants in the ground and using a commercial fertilizer. “I’ve gotten good yields using this or that fertilizer,” I’ve heard.
In a book entitled The Truth About Organic Gardening, author Jeff Gillman makes a point of poo-pooing organic gardening by saying: “It makes no difference to a plant whether it gets a molecule of nitrogen from alfalfa or from a factory. Nitrogen is nitrogen, and ultimately, it all comes from the air.”
You definitely can get a crop out of infertile soil by using chemical fertilizers, but going the organic route is better. Here’s why:
Let’s say you start planting in infertile soil. By adding soluble chemical fertilizer, a good crop can be grown. The soil merely acts as an anchor for plant roots and the fertilizer provides most of the plant’s nutrients. The soil remains infertile and fertilizer needs to be re-applied for every crop.
When problems develop later on—usually in the form of poor plant growth, insect infestations and/or disease—a vicious circle begins. The natural biology of the plants isn’t receiving the kind of nutrients formed by complex processes that take place in naturally sustained, healthy soil. The result is that commercial pesticides are used, which further stresses already traumatized plants.
It is like a person who is raised on junk food as opposed to someone who grows up eating healthy foods; the former will inevitably develop health problems and will have to take more and more prescription drugs, further compounding their illness.
On line with the health metaphor, health issues are definitely something to consider. That old saying, “You are what you eat,” definitely holds true when it comes to produce. As plants take up chemical fertilizers through their roots, those chemicals are absorbed into the plant and the vegetables they produce. Additionally, plants also take up pesticides through their roots, and many pesticides contain additional chemicals known as “stickers.” These chemicals allow the pesticide to “stick” to the plant through wet conditions, so rinsing vegetables in the sink with water does not remove the toxins.
And then there’s taste. If you are skeptical about the taste superiority of organic gardening, try this: Buy a commercial banana at grocery chain store and compare the taste with a locally grown organic banana. In fact, you can do this comparison with just about any produce.
‘Nuff said; I think you get the point.
The bottom line is, your crop isn’t in your veggies, it’s in your soil.
If organic gardening is chosen, then fertile soil is created by adding the ingredients that distinguish fertile from infertile soil. Fertile, living soil will naturally produce excellent crops. What creates fertile soil is organic matter and minerals. By adding organic nutrients to the soil, it becomes self-sustaining and repeated applications of chemicals become unnecessary.
Healthy soil is derived from two sources: previously living organic matter, also called compost and humus, and finely ground rock powders make up the mineral elements. As soil is built, these elements naturally produce themselves through chemical and biological processes within the soil structure.
For optimum growth, superior taste and health benefits, most vegetables require rich soil—truly rich soil, not just chemical additives. Through the addition of compost and minerals, microbiological organisms in the soil live and decay, releasing carbon dioxide and making minerals available for plants.
Organic material also attracts “friendly” fauna, such as earthworms (earthworm castings are some of the best fertilizer there is) and ladybugs.
Companion plantings add nutrients to the soil. For instance, legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, making an excellent environment for the subsequent planting of leafy green vegetables.
Soil microbiology is a complex and fascinating subject, and there are many websites available for research. Understanding soil structure is the key to healthy soil, which in turn is the key to healthy crops.