Ted’s essays

Growing A Healthy Environment

I wrote the following article for the August issue of the Sonoma County Environmental Impact Reporter a couple of decades ago. With a few tiny changes, I re-publish it here as it is still perfectly relevant and accurate.

As you read, keep in mind the target market this was aimed at. Your priorities may vary, but the results are both personal and global anyway. – Ted

Did Johnnie Appleseed leave a path of wormy apples behind in the frontier?

Did the ancient Roman Empire make their wine from rotten grapes?

Did roses flourish before we came to dust the aphids?

Plant species did not evolve succumbing to insect attacks. What has changed?

Obviously, a little time has passed since plants could grow without us supporting them, but that is just a heartbeat in a very long history. The rapid decline in plant health began with our mechanical age; our ability to cut, till, haul and spray on a large scale.

We can plow up huge tracts of land so that nothing is living in it. Or we can spray it with chemicals to get the same result. We can take all the plant matter off a large area, put it into plastic bags and ship it to a place that will bury heaps of it under layers of dirt. We can level an entire valley, pave strips of it and scatter houses around. The microorganisms, earthworms, insects and animals simply go away. Some of the elements in the soil blow and wash away, others die. The entire ecosystem is gone. Then we stick seeds or plants into the dirt, add water and watch with great expectations.

What do they need? They need air, sunlight and water. In 1840 we added nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to that list. The list is getting longer as we continue to study, but it would be nice to know what that list would contain 20, 40 or 100 years from now. Feeding plants the complete spectrum of elements on today’s list still requires extensive use of chemicals to prop-up and defend those plants against pest damage. It is still a battle against natural forces.

It is not only possible to grow healthy plants without refined chemicals, it is easier than “conventional” growing.

Instead of talking about minimizing damage to the environment, we can talk about improving it.

Stop considering limiting the loss of topsoil, build it.

Pull carbon and nitrogen out of the air and use it to build life in and on your soil.

Reduce carbon/nitrogen dioxide/monoxide in the atmosphere while you create a living ecosystem in your soil. Then show others how it is done.

Around the world, individuals and groups are doing just that. Test plots in Germany’s dying Black Forest are lush green and have 4 times the wood volume of trees in the surrounding woods. Similar results are coming in from an experiment in the acid-rain damaged Appalachians.

Farmers and gardeners on every continent are growing bigger, better and pest-free while some of their chemically-dependent neighbors pause from their battle against nature, to learn a little. After observing for a while, they end up doing it, too.

The cornerstone of this healthy plant growth is rock powder; basaltic rock, crushed into powder. Certain rock formations contain the complete mineral diet needed for a healthy living soil – including the plants growing in it. The gases (like nitrogen & carbon) that the plants need can come from the air. As long as there are sunlight and water, the only nutritional ingredients missing from the basic ecosystem are the minerals.

There are a group of soil microbes who, when the broad spectrum of minerals are available, expand their population to “digest” those minerals. They, in turn, feed other soil organisms. Bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematode, earthworm and plant populations expand, balance and work together.

One gram of healthy soil will have over 10 billion individual organisms living in it – or as much as 33,000 pounds per acre.

There is more life under the earth’s surface than above and the life above the surface is totally dependent on the life underground for its survival.

When I first began refining and bagging rock, I compiled a list of every mineral sought by conventional, organic and hydroponic growers. I tested my rock powder for all 20 and found some of each. Based on the health of rock powder fed plants, I expect that this untreated rock has a trace of every mineral that will be on the list of desirable elements 100 years from now.

Obviously, a broad spectrum of minerals without the soil organisms won’t do much. Chemicals and over cultivation can keep life from building in spite of the mineral balance. Restoring abused soil and building deep topsoil will require more input or a lot of time.

In forests, rock powder is added to soil that has some life in it and is left untouched for decades while the microbial populations and humus builds on the mineral diet. In pastures and grasslands the re-mineralization may be accompanied with spreading of manures.

Though raw manures are not balanced or stable, they do provide an inoculant of microorganisms and some raw materials for them to work with. In a few years, the balance will be reached.

In yards, gardens and farms we may not have good microbial populations, don’t want the odor and excess nitrogen of raw manure and don’t want to wait decades for results. Compost is the answer. Manures, decaying vegetation and such are mixed, moistened and turned. The microbes work it over until it is soft, fine, full of life and ready to support more life.

How much compost you need is dependent on how much impatience you can afford. For quick rehabilitation of lifeless soil, a layer 4 inches deep should be tilled in – that is one cubic yard of compost on every nine square yards of area. A more economical approach is to spread it thinner and take a little more time.

This is not the place for a discussion of compost qualities, but look at several offerings and talk to their producers before spending your money. It should not look and smell like the raw materials that went into it. Nor should it contain long-lasting herbicide or pesticide residues.

Oyster shell flour is also an important amendment. These ground oyster shells are 96% calcium carbonate and play an important role in microorganism and plant growth. Their ability to use the minerals around them are dependent on adequate supplies of calcium and oyster shell flour is a wonderful source.

Don’t skimp on rock powder or oyster shell flour as they are the mineral nutrition for the soil ecosystem. Use the application rates listed on the bags or brochures. The rest can come from the air, water, sun and soil over time. The minerals have to be brought in by outside forces if they are not present.

Once you have the foundation for life in your soil, don’t squander it.

Cut, pull, spray, kill – is that any way to treat Mother Nature?

Bare dirt is dead. Soil is alive and has to be kept that way. Cover crops are beautiful. Dust and mud are not. Put some thought into how you treat all of the soil.

Grow clover and fescue between your plant rows. Mulch your walkways. Learn to love a big, vigorous cover crop in your orchard and vineyard.

Don’t pull weeds (any plant growing in a place you didn’t put it) out of the soil. Park your hoe. Set your mower on it’s highest setting, rest the mower and cut even taller with a scythe. Don’t cut at all until it turns brown. There are many strategies to give the plants you want growing an edge over their companions and competitors. Employ something more thoughtful than a scorched-earth strategy.

Life above ground represents life below. More life in and on the soil means more carbon and nitrogen in the bodies of living organisms, where it should be and less in our air.

If we all start with the land we are responsible for, and expand from there, we can make a difference.