By Hans Hansen

Not for my Paleo or Weston Price leaning gardener and farmer friends but it’s entirely possible.

A student of one of our soil workshops held a few weeks ago posed an interesting challenge to consider. The student had been on a macrobiotic diet for years, was an accomplished gardener and was very interested growing the highest quality nutrient dense food possible (gardening is hard work, you might as well get the most out of your effort). She understood that in order to achieve optimal soil and soil nutrient balance, therefore peak nutrient density in her produce, she was going to have to take a step beyond packaged fertilizer blends. What was different about her specific challenge was that she wanted her blend to be 100% vegan (contain zero animal products). Quite doable.

Here’s hitch number one with hanging too long on the packaged / bagged fertilizer track, particularly without a periodic soil test to monitor nutrients. It’s extremely difficult for a fertilizer manufacturer (no matter how good the product ingredients) to craft a fertilizer that fits everyone. Think about walking into a clothing store that has only 3-4 sizes of each item. One size fits all fertilizer is not only awkward, it can actually be counterproductive.

It’s very easy to over-apply nutrients and an excess of one nutrient can actually cancel others. In other words, your soil may already have plenty of a specific nutrient, it may just not be available to the plant because of interference by either soil pH (too high or low) or an overabundance of another nutrient. For example, too much phosphorus interferes with zinc and iron absorption, not to mention excess phosphorus becomes a pollution issue (surplus ends up in our waterways). If soil pH is off while phosphorus is abundant, your plants may actually show signs of a phosphorus shortage (green but compact growth, accentuated purplish hue on Broccoli for example). Lawns and gardens are classic examples of phosphorus over-fertilization. A symptom of phosphorus excess is chlorosis, a yellowing between leaves (iron deficiency) or a bleached appearance of leaf tissue (zinc deficiency). Btw, zinc from vegetable sources is harder to come by – vegan gardeners do not want to come up short on vegetable/fruit zinc sources they work so hard to grow and eat. Therefore, more packaged fertilizer is not the answer and can actually exacerbate a fertility issue. With this example, periodic soil tests and selection of individual nutrient sources can be quite useful.

One thing I emphasized in this workshop, and actually began the workshop spending a fair amount of time on was that our goal is in growing good soil; the nutrient part tends to fall into place, with a little help, if we focus on growing a healthy soil food web.

Nutrient per-occupation is something to avoid. The current food paradigm has gotten tripped up on its own successes / accomplishments of the past few decades, and still hasn’t pried itself loose from this fixation. Breakthroughs in understanding and therefore our command of chemistry/technology has taken great leaps but has also encouraged false hope that each breakthrough is mastery – there are no “silver bullets” in a fully evolved food production paradigm, be it chemical or genetic.

Soil ecology first, nutrients second is our answer. Genetics is certainly another key component though our breakthroughs in understanding have gotten a bit ahead of wisdom on this front. The point is that each component has it’s proper place. We aren’t ignoring the science of the last few decades, we are actually taking the best of what we’ve gained and reintegrating it into a more dynamic and healthy understanding and relationship with natural systems. Kind of a 5 steps forward and tracing two steps back thing – so that we can step more thoughtfully into a healthy sustainable future.

The following link provides comprehensive list of different raw ingredients and their nutrient make-up, that one can use to blend their own fertilizer. The organic raw ingredients are several pages deep into the list (keep scrolling!). Don’t be turned off from the list of inorganic nutrients at the front of the list, it’s actually quite informative, though I would have listed organic materials in the beginning.

The workshop was based on our individual soil tests, the goal was to devise a custom fertility program for each of our attendees to achieve full spectrum fertility. To accomplish this requires 1) a good soil test 2) a few calculations to convert nutrient recommendations given by the soil lab to the size of garden or bed size (the labs usual recommended lbs of nutrient per acre) 3) selection and calculation of raw nutrients needed. 4) of course a good grasp of the basics of good healthy soil (soil organic matter, carbon, soil food web etc).

I’ll share more on each part of this process in future posts. Stay tuned.