Blaming Weeds

My garden would be great if only I didn’t have these two weeds: Crabgrass and Bindweed.

Crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis). Every year this grassy weed quickly covers my soil with tiny seedlings from spring through summer. If I don’t aggressively keep the soil well swept of these millions, they’ll march rapidly ahead of my young vegetables, and if allowed to advance any further a dense smothering mat forms. If I weed often enough I can mitigate that damage by using a hoola-hoe or similar weeding tool cutting the young tender roots just below the soil surface. Inevitably I miss a few, many actually, and my only option of control is to pull each by hand, sometimes uprooting a nearby vegetables along with it. I learned this the hard way my very first gardening year, naively thinking how attractive the garden had become covered in so many harmless little green sprouts. What a disaster year that was. This is how the joy of gardening becomes work.

crabgrassA hundred crabgrass seedlings cover only a few inches of earth.

Field Bindweed (Convolvuls arvensis) is the most wicked weed of them all, even defying poison sprays as its roots grow six feet deep in almost no time at all, far from harms reach. Frustrating my best efforts, I seriously considered spraying with a toxic stew of man-made chemicals out of gardeners vengeance. In the end I decided against it, and believed that somehow I must manage this through weeding alone. Against this foe however, the more you weed, the more you break its roots, the more numerous it becomes. Where you pull one, two will grow, where you pull two, four will grow, and so it goes. When totally uncontrolled this dastardly organism can not tolerate coexistence with your more delicate vegetables, sprawling across the garden seeking out your tomatoes, peas and peppers, grabbing hold of them and choking them down to the ground as no plant could hate another so intensely. Desperately I searched for an answer from a wall of organic gardening manuals, finding but two possible solutions: spray poisons for many years or cover the soil with a suffocating plastic for many years, preferably both. It seems eradicating this plant can only occur by exhausting every last ounce of energy from its deep roots. Each year is the same as the one before, cursing and weeding, weeding and cursing.

bindweed1Bindweed spreading out in search of vegetables to prey upon.

I paused my work one afternoon and pondered this gardening fate. Was my soil short on chemicals to rescue it from these ills? Must I accept this botanical curse? I looked curiously at the bindweed I was trying to free from climbing a pole intended for peas, and realized my foe may actually be struggling. An unhealthy plant growing alongside a robust and healthy pea, sick and under attack by some unknown fungus. I found another not far away in a recently reclaimed area where I had planted potatoes, but it was healthy as any plant could be. Later that fall I sent in two soil samples for analysis and when combined with my notes it become quite clear, the soil conditions were ideal for my two great enemies, the recently reclaimed plot even more so.

bindweed2Weeds are the protectors of the soil and exist to restore fertility where degraded. My soil was in poverty having been mined of all its riches long ago, and constantly frustrated from restoration. A mineral balance ideal for weeds and grasses, but not for vegetables. Nutrient and energy restrictions supported a thriving weed population that competed well against what I had intentionally sown. The soil was often dry, receiving almost no rain all summer and fall and a dormant biology when I needed them most. Soil low in humic acid and struggled to perform effective aerobic breakdown of organic matter, a condition preferential for weeds. A subsoil that was also very dry, magnetically tight, airless and compacted preventing proper fermentation of plant residues. The surface was often left bare, suffering from intense summer sun, erosion and harsh winter weather, inducing crabgrass hormones to go ecstatic and sprout like mad as soon as a little water was added. The only means to combat the deep roots of bindweed is with antagonistic fungi, something my soil was in very short supply.

I understand now the folly of applying herbicides and covering the ground with plastic. These suffocating measures only work through total destruction of fertility, an extermination so intense that even the hardiest organism succumbs. Poverty soil for poverty vegetables.

The cause of my two weedy problem: a fragile natural environment disrupted by my ineptitude, a garden steward forcing plants to grow where they are not adapted and rejecting the ones that were. I had blamed the weeds when it was I that had granted them the right to thrive.

Having recognized this the task now is to restore fertility and beat out the weeds through nutrition, health and energy. The first thing I could do was establish a balance of the major minerals by applying amounts of gypsum, sulfates, manganese, zinc, copper, sodium, soft rock phosphate, etc. I added the missing rare earth minerals and improved the energy profile of the soil by applying finely ground basalt dust and humic acid. I then added food for the biology in the form of meals, raw milk, molasses, trace minerals, enzymes and vitamins. I provide support to all the plants now to produce excess carbons and encourage them to deposit their sugars into the soil for the biology to consume. I created and apply probiotic solutions to repopulate the earth in soil bacteria and fungi using good compost, teas and other live cultures. And I created a better biological home by adjusting my cultural practices, growing more green manures, avoid unnecessary digging and tilling, halted the removal of organic material from the surface, leaving it in place to decay and protect the soil as a digestible mulch.

Each year now improves and joy returns to gardening.

~Sean

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Measuring Success – Brix

If you read my last post reviewing the butternut squash competition that illustrated the correlation between brix and nutrient density, you may have wondered where my initial assumption had come from, the grades given by each squash’s refractometer value:

6 - Poor
8 - Average
12 - Good
14 - Excellent

These values didn’t come from me, but rather a lifetime of agricultural research by Dr. Carey Reams. What’s interesting for us though, is what these grades actually mean:

  • Poor – zero to terrible flavor, rots very quickly, very bad nourishment
  • Average – bland to somewhat flavorful, lasts longer in storage but still not very nourishing
  • Good – great flavor, stores a long time without decay and good nutrition
  • Excellent – legendary flavor, dries out long before rotting, superior health through food is now possible

We have already shown how nutrient density relates to brix, but also flavor and storage too? Indeed it does, but I will save those explanations for a later post when we discuss monitoring plant health and the role that insects and disease organisms play. Our goal here is to give you a new tool, the ability to relate your own brix readings to a meaningful measurement of quality.

Following this are the charts that you will need. It was the genius of Dr. Carey Reams that deserves full credit for compiling the original data and then freely giving it away in the early 1970’s. Since then, there have been several updates and additions made by the observations of other agricultural researches. What I’ve done here is created a greater composite chart of all of them together, choosing the highest values available.

The charts use the PAGE method: Poor-Average-Good-Excellent. There is an additional column in there called “Resistant”, I will explain that later, feel free to ignore it for now.

brixchart

In the process of writing this I discovered that I had used Dr. Reams’s original values for my article on the Squash Contest and not the values I have listed here. That was an over-site on my part. So instead of the 6-8-12-14 values I should have used 6-10-14-16. If you go back to that article and look again, you will see that no one had submitted the best possible class of fruits to the contest.

~Sean

Brix & Nutrient Density

Is anyone still wondering if any two vegetables are created equalIn 2013 International Ag Labs conducted a competition to see who could grow the best Butternut Squash, and the data is openly available. For each fruit that was submitted we can see a nutrient analysis and a Brix reading. I was able to copy the data into a spreadsheet and pulled out some interesting information.

First, lets look at the Brix readings. Let us assume that a low Brix value is bad, and a high Brix value is good in this way:

6 - Poor
8 - Average
12 - Good
14 - Excellent

If we then sort the available data by Brix, lowest to highest, we have a graph that looks like this:

brix

If we can now apply the same scale as established above but instead graph out the various mineral nutrients from the data, we find that:

CaMgas Brix increases, so does the Calcium and Magnesium,

Kand Phosphorous,

Pand Potassium,

ZnMnand Zinc and Manganese too,

FeCuand lastly the Iron and Copper content as well.

There does seem to be a correlation between Brix and mineral nutrients.

In the 1953 Yearbook of Agriculture (USDA), it is proclaimed that the “Lack of fertilizer may reduce the yield of a crop, but not the amount of nutrients in the food produced.” In essence, they’re saying that a Squash is a Squash is a Squash.

For the testing of these squash, 100 gram samples of each fruit are taken and scientifically dried. Once all the water has been removed, the leftover material is carefully weighed and we have what’s called the Dry Matter, the sum of all the material of the plant: minerals, proteins, lipids, etc. More dry matter means more nutrients. If it is as the USDA say’s it is, and a Squash is a Squash is a Squash, then all samples should be equal. Lets see what the graph says.

DryMatter

As Brix increase there is a doubling of the Dry Matter!

If you have been looking carefully at the charts, you will see some variations in the data. The sample to the very right serves as a good example of this. In a detailed explanation of the results, Jon Frank of IAL says that particular variety was called Honeynut and “it was genetically patterned to make more sugars but it didn’t back it up with more minerals.” This exposes itself to us with its high Brix value but a lesser Nutrient profile. A lot of factors come into play to produce a nutrient dense product, and in this particular case it appears that the selected variety is genetically predisposed to be higher in sugars, thus giving a strong Brix reading. This means that relying solely upon Brix by itself is not a sure fire way to identify a top of class product, although it is a very strong indicator.

There are two more bits of information in our data we haven’t looked at yet and that’s the Protein content and the Free Nitrates. Here they are:

ProteinProtein content doubles as the Brix increases,

Nitratesbut the Nitrates decrease!

What is the significance of this? Reviewing the Nitrates chart, notice that the first half of the graph the free Nitrates (Nitrogen) are very high and erratic, but then stabilize in the middle. Now look at the peaks and valley’s in both charts, there is a matching pattern in there, again more so on the first half of the graph while the Brix is still low. Nitrogen and Protein relate, and this takes us to our first small lesson on plant physiology.

Nitrogen is a required element for protein construction. A sick plant however doesn’t do a good job of this, and the protein synthesis can fail at any point. This can give you a large number of partially completed proteins, the degenerative kind that are unstable and decay rapidly, leaving a lot of extra Nitrogen floating around inside the plant. At the same time, all farmers and gardeners know that in order to get lots of green leafy growth you should add lots of Nitrogen, making an already bad situation worse. Further, in the laboratory setting when the Protein content is analyzed, it’s only tested for crude protein, and that’s only done by adding up all the Nitrogen found. What it does not tell us is how much functional protein is actually in the plant. Look at that last chart again, and drop the protein content even further downwards on the left side, because the free nitrogen is excessive and the proteins are not any good.

For gardeners, there’s no need to send a plant sample to the laboratory for an expensive count of the Protein and Nitrogen, just test your Brix and look for Aphids instead. These little bugs, and other sap-sucking insects, have a digestive system specially designed for processing low sugar sap and incomplete proteins. The excessive Nitrogen then becomes a signal to the insect, one that can be detected at a distance, and says “I am a plant in poor health, come eat me.” If however the Aphid inadvertently feeds upon the sap of a healthy plant, the high sugar and complete proteins can actually kill the poor little bug. Thus not only is a healthy plant more difficult for Aphids to identify, but the plant can effectively protect itself from attack. The digestive system of insects does not work the same as they do in animals, who obtain health from consuming healthy plants and illness consuming sick one.

One more small tidbit about identifying nutrient dense food. Some people can get a digestive upset consuming salad lettuce, my wife being one of them. This can be due to the presence of excessive free nitrates in the lettuce leaf. The farmer, organic or not, is spreading the nitrogen thick on these crops to get good leaf growth as rapidly as possible to take to market. Your lettuce should never give you a stomach ache, it should always be very crisp and free of decay, and should last for many months in the refrigerator.

Brix testing is one of the most powerful tools you can use to measure both the health of your plants, and the quality of your food. As you saw here, there are some pitfalls to be aware of, but that’s for another day. For now, get a refractometer.

~Sean

Assessing Quality – Refractometer

In the early 1800’s, European vintners were seeking a reliable way to determine the perfect time to harvest wine grapes, an important objective when a high quality bottle sold for hundreds more. Several methods were pioneered, but the one that most interests us most is the measure of total dissolved solids: the amount of stuff in the grape juice. With this understanding European vintners were better able to manage plant health and produce consistently higher quality grapes. This technique can easily be applied at home with a nifty little gadget called a refractometer.

The refractometer measures in degrees Brix (°Bx). The scale is based upon the quantity of dissolved cane sugar in water and equates to percentage. Thus a reading of 1° Brix is 1% dissolved sugar and 99% water, and 25° Brix is 25% dissolved sugar and 75% water. The tool is calibrated to 0° using distilled water.

The refractometer works like a prism. When light is passed through different substances it bends and reacts slightly differently from one another. To take a measurement, a small drop of liquid is placed on the refractometer window and pointed at the light. The degree of light bend is then displayed on a scale you can read through the eyepiece.

zerobrixThis is what a drop of water and 0° Brix looks like through my camera phone.

Since a large part of plant juices are made up of sugars and water, this is an excellent way for us to obtain a usable and very accurate reading. For example, grape must is mostly glucose, not sucrose, but the Brix is still within 0.1 degrees, a level of accuracy more than sufficient for our use. Like grape must, all plant juices contain a whole lot more than simple sugar (minerals, proteins, fats, vitamins, amino acids, etc), so when the tool is used  in this way it is referred to as “total dissolved solids” or “total soluable solids”.

In addition to 200 years of use among grape growers, the refractometer is well known within the food industry for things like fruit juice, jams and jellies, soft drinks, beer and numerous scientific and industrial applications.

There are numerous types of refractometers on the market, but we just need one: a hand held refractometer with a scale from 0-32 degrees. The only garden vegetable you will encounter that exceeds 32° are garlic cloves. The brix reading is also somewhat temperature sensitive, so getting a device with ATR (Automatic Temperature Regulator) will save you from doing some extra math.

This is what I recommend:

  • Refractometer, 0-32 degrees, with ATR
  • small pocket notebook and pencil
  • garlic press

Brix testing is one of the easiest and most informative tools available for gardening. You can use it to monitor your plant health, including the health of your weeds, and it allows you to grade the quality of fruits and vegetables at harvest.

I record all my readings into a notebook sorted by plant type: apples, oranges, carrots, broccoli, etc. To take a measurement carefully squeeze a drop or two of liquid from your plant leaf, fruit or vegetable. If the plant part is refusing to give you a good drop, use the garlic press. Place the drops onto the prism and look through the eyepiece and record the reading. You now have a point of reference you can use to measure your success with.refractometer

You can actually use your refractometer to measure any liquid, and I’ve had a lot of fun with mine. I test milk, tap water, bottled water, coffee, tea and all the soda’s at work. I also test every fruit and vegetable I can get my hands on: the store, the farmers market, backyards; and I always record whether it was organic or not.

The refractometer has proved itself in giving results in the field for 200 years of viticulture, and is an accepted tool in biological agriculture. It’s a great tool, but it’s not the only tool, and it does take some knowledge to use effectively, but more detail on that later. You can get a refractometer quite inexpensively, I bought mine (Vee Gee BTX-1) off of Amazon.

Happy Brix’ing,

~Sean

Success with Weeds

Weeds do not grow in old-growth forests, it’s not their environment. Like all organisms, weeds grow well when they are within their particular ecological niche, one that supports their needs the best. This brings us to the theory of Ecological Successionthe observed process of change in a species structure of an ecological community over time. This describes how environments change due to life processes and thus supporting differing kinds of organisms in the same place over different periods of time.

sprgLets begin with an inhospitable environment, slowly colonized by hardy pioneering plants capable of surviving and thriving in that terrible place. Through their actions of living and growing, the conditions to support other plants are now met and new species move in and eventually replace the pioneering ones, as the conditions are no longer conducive to them. This processes continues over and over again until a stability of sorts is met, called a climax community, like an ancient old-growth forest. Ecological succession can take many hundreds or thousands of years to occur naturally.

Plant succession can be seen just about anywhere. Take you family on a hike through a natural area. Starting in the parking lot, a very inhospitable environment, you can see early pioneering plants peeking through cracks in the pavement and growing through gravel. As you enter the trail you can see very hardy plants growing on the well trodden trail. As you pass through a field you can see grasses and wildflowers succeeding to bushes and small trees and at the forest edge tall trees take over and the plant species change yet again. In time, the field and parking lot may too become forest.

bindweedPlant succession can also be witnessed in the garden, converting a section of your lawn to a vegetable plot is a good example. The lawn is a sort of Climax Community, while the combined actions of the lawn mower and Weed & Feed keep the conditions static. Till up the grass and you have now caused a drastic change in the environment, no longer suitable for lawn grass. Initially your garden soil may be somewhat rich that first year and weeds are wimpy and easily swept away. The next year however may be different and your weed pressure increases. Now the garden is being heavily attacked by very noxious weeds such as bindweed and quack-grass. No matter how hard you control them they just seem to win, and by mid-summer gardening is fast becoming a real chore. You now consider applying an herbicide to remove those pesky weeds once and for all, but they return the following year intent as ever to take over your lot.

Most garden weeds are lower succesional plants, meaning that they are the pioneer plants capable of growing well in disturbed, unbalanced and inhospitable grounds. These weeds can be found anywhere people have seriously disturbed the area by stripping away the topsoil, applied toxic compounds or mined the soil of its limited minerals. Observe the plants growing along the sides of a road, a farmers field, the front lawn or your own garden plot. Most fruits and vegetables on the other hand are higher successional plants found naturally growing only in the deep rich soils near streams and rivers.

bglsFor robust and successful weeds, all you need to do is observe the conditions that allow the weeds healthiest growth and practice soil management in a way that continuously converts soil to dirt. Be sure to break up the ground frequently with lots of digging and tilling. Limit and destroy the microbiological life by applying herbicides, pesticides and other toxins. Use plants to mine the soil of nutrients and minerals and never return them. Apply fertilizers and compost excessively. Remove all plant residues, including grass clippings and leaves, and if necessary throw them into the garbage. And always make sure the soil stays bare for as much of the year as possible.

That is the irony. The misconception is the conditions that allow for healthy vegetable growth are the same conditions that allow for healthy weed growth. That just isn’t true. If your weeds are overpowering your garden, your soil conditions are not suited for vegetables. If however your vegetables are overpowering your weeds, then you’ve got one awesome garden.

~Sean

50 Years of Lost Nutrition

I keep talking about food quality but haven’t yet mentioned what that might actually mean, let’s start that discussion now. There are a number of qualitative factors that can be applied to food, but one that’s familiar to most people is the nutritional value. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of many important vitamins and minerals, aren’t they?

min-vitIn a 2004 study (1) of common garden vegetables there was found to be a significantly reliable decline from 1950 to 1999 according to USDA data. It’s actually quite easy to look up the information yourself, and I did just that for three vegetables: broccoli, carrots and corn. The chart to the right shows the numbers from 1950 (2) and the latest information from 2001 and 2008 (3). I added an extra column showing the percent difference.

Broccoli is frequently touted as a high calcium food but as you can see here it contains 2/3 less calcium than it did only 50 years earlier. To get the same nutrition as your grandparents you would need to consume up to three times more! Nearly all of the vitamins and minerals for these foods has declined, and there’s nothing unusual about these three either, as the data shows similar declines for every vegetable, fruit and grain.

USDA data only goes to 1950, but the British have information that goes back to 1936, and a similar 50 year study from the United Kingdom (4) demonstrated the exact same thing, consistent dilution of nutritive value of all foods.

There were significant reductions in the levels of Ca, Mg, Cu and Na, in vegetables and Mg, Fe, Cu and K in fruits. The greatest change was the reduction of copper levels in vegetables to less than one-fifth of the old level.

ukcarrotsIf any cause for this decline is ever given, I believe it to be poorly conceived. In the Davis study the author boldly says “any real declines are generally most easily explained by changes in cultivated varieties.” I am not questioning that plant genetics can make an impact, but that soil quality makes a far greater one. This fact is occasionally mentioned but never discussed in detail.

There are also a number of documents showing how differing soil across the US can significantly change food nutrition. The study Variation in Mineral Composition of Vegetables (5) illustrates this quite clearly. Tomatoes grown in Indiana contained 250% more calcium (15 mg) than those grown in Georgia ( 6 mg). Today the USDA says tomatoes contain 10 mg of calcium.

A huge variation also exists between two otherwise identically looking products. In the same study the best tomato had 23 mg of calcium, while the worst had only 4.5. Spinach is even more amusing as it’s known for being high in iron. I found this website that ranked spinach at #8 in the top 10 sources for iron, and the number given isn’t even accurate, it’s 1/3 higher than the USDA says it is. In the study the best spinach contained 1,584 ppm of iron, while the worst had but 1.

cationsexchangeableinsoilPlease don’t think that I’m saying 50 years ago food quality was high, it was better for sure, but was it great? Unfortunately, it was already well known long before 1950 that the nutritional value of our food had been in decline, already beyond the point of giving good human and animal health. The most glaring example comes from the 1936 US Senate Document 264, an article written about the problem:

The alarming fact is that foods —  fruits and vegetables and grains — now being raised on million acres of land that no longer contains enough of certain needed minerals, are starving us, no matter how much of them we eat.

And what about your own garden? I was shocked when I realized just how poor much of my garden produce was, but I also had a few successes and that encouraged me. As a gardener you are in the best possible position, for you have an opportunity to take charge of your food, your environment and your health by growing exceptionally nutritious food.

~Sean

1 Changes in USDA Food Composition Data for 43 Garden Crops 1950 to 1999. Journal of the american College of Nutrition, Vol. 23, No. 6, 669-683 (2004)
2.Composition of foods: raw, processed, prepared USDA Agriculture handbooks, 1950, http://naldc.nal.usda.gov/naldcPUB/search.xhtml
3. USDA National Nutrient Database, USDA National Agricultural Library search engine, http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/search/list
4. Historical changes in the mineral content of fruits and vegetables, Anne-Marie Mayer, British Food Journal 99/6, 1997, 207-211.
5. Variation in Mineral Composition of Vegetables Firmane E. Bear, Stephen J Toth, and Arthur L Pice, Soil Science Society of America Proceedings 1948, Volume 13. pp. 380-4, The Soil Science Society of America, Madison, Wisconsin, 1949

Go get your soil tested

It’s almost spring and now is a good time to get your soil tested if you didn’t do it last fall. This gives you just enough time to interpret the results and make some changes before you fill your beds with plants. Otherwise you will have to wait for late summer or fall.

I bet you didn’t know that soil science is also a study in philosophy and culture. Different groups have conflicting viewpoints of how soils work like the organic community, biodynamic farming and even hired professional farm consultants. The most influential group is the agricultural colleges and land grant universities.

soiltestUniversity teaching is geared towards chemical agriculture and their experts do not necessarily subscribe to some of the competing ideas from the other groups. Unfortunately the typical University material downplays the differences in food quality despite abundant evidence to the contrary. The belief that an apple is an apple is an apple works well for industry, but not for the consumer. I’ve found the most useful information actually comes from a handful of agricultural consultants and black sheep professors. The ag-consultants jobs are dependent upon results, and not upon published papers, and results are what we care most about. My article on pH was a small example of this conflict in ideas.

Because of this, not all soil testing labs are equal. Understandably, most labs are oriented towards chemical agriculture and work well for that particular use. I hold the belief that our results can far exceed that and picking the right soil test is part of the puzzle. I’m over simplifying here but there are basically two groups of soil test labs out there. The first are those that attempt to identify total nutrients using strong acids to extract the minerals from the sample, this is the type normally used by universities and chemical-ag. The second group are those that try to identify what they call available nutrients by using weak acids, under the belief that this more closely represents what plant roots have access to. Both types have value for different reasons, but I put a lot more emphasis behind available nutrients.

The other thing to consider is what nutrients are tested for, and not just how they are tested. My local soil test lab only covers various forms of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. These are the big three nutrients from chemical-ag philosopy, also knows as NPK. Unfortunately you can not get a best of class product using the NPK method. Great produce is only possible in well balanced soil, which means testing for a whole lot more. At a minimum the test should cover at least 10 nutrients if not 20 or more, 3 is just grossly insufficient.

Soil balancing is a very big topic, but I don’t want you to wait for me to write 20 more articles when you can make the necessary improvements to your own gardens now. Go get a soil test and pay the extra cost for the recommendations. Please remember that soil testing is just one of many tools we will be using. It is not the final and only thing you can do to improve your food quality.

Soil Test Labs  I recommend:

  1. Logan Labs – this is the lab that I use
  2. International Ag Labs
  3. Midwest Laboratories
  4. Kinsey Ag

For more information in book form on the topic that are well suited for gardeners:

  • The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon
  • The Art of Balancing Soil Nutrients by William McKibben
  • The Ideal Soil by Michael Astera

~Sean