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

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