Let me give you an extensive quote from the book “The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense food” by Steve Solomon with Erica Reinheimer.
I request that you take a moment to step back from those opinions and have a good look at them. If your opinions favor organics, you should know that the information that shaped them almost certainly originated from J.I. Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and the many books Rodale Press has published. Rodale’s vision was so powerfully and confidently presented that Rodale’s Organic Doctrines are now accepted by most contemporary garden writers. Oldies like me learned their basics straight from Rodale; the following generation of garden writers learned their stuff from my cadre and from Rodale; Rodale still carries on.
Rodale firmly established a set of positive feelings and opinions about Organic. Product brand names were similarly promoted. I’d bet Warren Buffett one of the world’s wealthiest financial manipulators and investors, would pay an arm and a leg to have purchased the organic franchise way back when. Starting in 1942, Rodale Press magazines and books repeatedly asserted, suggested, inferred and implied both subtly and overtly, both straight out and between the lines, that organically grown food is far more nutritious than chemically grown food — a half-truth. J.I. Rodale was an ideologue at heart. Absolutely certain about the rightness of his own opinions. If J.I. didn’t agree with you, your name was never mentioned in Rodale publications, and the gardening public never discovered you. That is why most gardeners these days have never heard of William Albrecht.
J.I. Rodale’s agricultural opinions powerfully impressed the North American psyche. Organic Gardening and Farming magazine had a circulation of 1.4 million in 1980, which is when I began renting their subscriber lists for my seed business. In that same era, Rodale Press’s main profit earner, Prevention magazine, had several million subscribers.
The soil-fertility building methods our current batch of food gardening books recommend are little changed from Rodale’s Press’s 1940s doctrines. These methods have been stated and restated — and repackaged with little alteration by garden writers ever since. This repetition has continued so long and been so widespread that the ideas have come to be considered almost scientific truth, the very ground we can confidently stand upon, because Everybody Else has said it so many times before.
Today’s organic gardener needs to catch up. Contemporary certified organic farming uses far better agricultural science than what was available in the 1940s. That’s because organic farmers and market gardeners are disciplined by being in business. They must make a profit, and to do that they must be efficient producers of good-looking food. By the 1990s, some organic vegetable farmers had built big businesses, and money buys political clout to influence the rules defining acceptable organic practice.
Ironically, as organics morphed into an industry able to charge higher prices (and make higher profits) because it owned J.I.’s mental franchise, Rodale’s dogmatic belief system was found to be ineffective. Efficient practices that J.I. would have condemned for ideological reasons are now allowed by organic-certification bureaucrats because they actually are in harmony with healthy biological agriculture. An example: certified organic producers are now allowed to use a limited range of chemical fertilizers that do not harm soil life or the soil itself. But most organic gardeners still believe all chemical fertilizers to be artificial substances and so, “of the devil.”
Rodale’s original organic gardening system was built on the following articles of faith:
- Organically grown food provides far superior nutrition compared to conventionally grown stuff; it produces great health and well-being in those who eat it.
- A successful organic gardener builds soil fertility mainly by importing organic matter, and, to a far lesser extent, through the importation of natural rock flours — especially of lime. Nothing should go into the soil that has been chemically processed or otherwise altered from a natural condition other than being finely ground up.
- Almost all soils are capable of growing super-nutritious food in abundance. If the soil is not performing, the reason is that it lacks organic matter. The presence of more organic matter increases the rate that nutrients, previously locked up and unavailable to plants, are naturally released. Get the soil biology sufficiently active (by adding compost and/or manure), and it will release enough nutrients to grow good crops.
- You can’t possibly have too much organic matter. Organic matter provides needed plant nutrients. Organic matter lightens up the soil, loosens it, “builds it up,” as the old timers say; the fluffier the soil remains during the whole crop cycle, the better the plants grow. Since earthworms eat organic matter, soil fertility is best gauged by the earthworm-per-shovelful method. So compost and/or manure should be repeatedly spread several inches thick.
- In humid temperate regions, the soils are naturally acidic, so lime is used to bring the soil pH close to neutral. Soil pH is the only essential test needed; liming is done according to this test result. And if lime is to be spread, the best sort is dolomite because dolomitic lime contains both calcium and magnesium. (Later, I will show you how excess magnesium brought in via dolomite causes loads of problems.)
- Chemical fertilizers are unsustainable, their manufacture and transport needlessly wastes energy resources, their use inevitably damages soil microlife and kills earthworms. They also deplete the soil of organic matter. Use them, and soon you’ll have to spray chemical poisons on your sick plants.
- The way to distinguish positive, good, useful soil amendments from harmful, negative, evil ones, is by their naturalness. If the substance occurs naturally, it may be used to build soil fertility. If it is a highly mineralized rock, it may be ground to a fine powder so it more rapidly decomposes to feed the soil, but no chemical processing of these rock minerals is acceptable. Anything that comes directly from the soil can be used as an organic fertilizer, including animal manure and crop waste. Organic materials are allowed to be considerably more processed than rock-based minerals; they may be composted or even chemically processed and still qualify for use. (In this last respect, I am thinking of oilseedmeal, which is what is left over after the oil is squeezed or more usually, chemically extracted from oily seeds.) Processed (ground, dried, heated) slaughterhouse wastes, like bonemeal, bloodmeal and meat meal are highly desirable soil amendments. (This is one article of faith that did get reconsidered — once fear mongers raised the issue of Mad Cow disease.)
J.I. Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming (OGF) magazine introduced organics to North Americans. Over-the-top with earnest, almost revival-tent enthusiasm, OGF preached Rodale’s take on the SaMOA method; approaches that differed from the Rodale Organic Doctrine were not mentioned; in the early years, they were directly criticized. I started gardening as an OGF subscriber. I closely studied every issue from 1972 to the mid-1980s. A decade later, I spent a long afternoon at the OSU library in Corvallis, Oregon, critically reading the early issues of OGF (1945–50) in an attempt to heal the damage caused by my earlier, uncritical acceptance of that magazine’s belief system.
I can fairly summarize the essential aspects of Rodale’s approach in two sentences: To grow an abundance of highly nutritious vegetables and fruit, make and then dig in compost. Lots of it.
We were repeatedly told that the successful organic gardener must import heaps of organic waste and then compost it before feeding it to the soil. Or else, you could spread that waste thickly over the soil and then shallowly till it in, letting it sheet compost. The magazine urged us to obtain organic wastes from wherever they could be found for the hauling, especially around one’s own neighborhood. Bring the organic matter level of your garden ever upward. Bring this black gold home! (So I bought a pickup truck.) And then, if the soil is acidic, counteract that undesirable condition by adding crushed limestone to bring its pH close to neutral.
According to Rodale, soil acidity is “bad,” and measuring it is easy and cheaply done. J.I. often said if you’re going to add lime, it is better to use a sort called dolomite because this type contains both magnesium and calcium — and magnesium is as much a vital plant nutrient as calcium is.
And that about summarizes the organic system’s essentials according to J.I. Rodale. His magazine and book publishing company taught several generations of gardeners that it takes manure, compost and lime to grow a great garden that will make your health rapidly improve — because your food will become as nutritious as food can possibly be.
If, along the way, something did not grow all that well, the solution was either to add more lime if the soil pH was still too acidic, or to add more compost — or better compost. Usually the choice was to add more compost. And that is why I put that mysterious lower case “a” in the acronym SaMOA. Because what the Rodale Organic Doctrine essentially comes down to is this: if it don’t grow well enough, then just add SaMOA.
This method has great instinctual appeal. It matches the human genome imprinted by tens of thousands of years of surviving through raising food that way. Baby not happy, give it some milk. Plant doesn’t look good; give it SaMOA water. Or SaMOA something.
About those rewards: A new organic food garden usually grows great for the first few years. The gardener starts out by digging in compost and/or manure. These decompose, supplying mineral nutrients that feed the plants while the carbohydrates in this decomposing organic matter fuel a rapidly multiplying soil ecology. Increased soil microbial activity releases the soil’s existing mineral nutrient reserve more rapidly. Consequently, the crop gets a double dose of nutrients — decomposing compost plus enhanced nutrient release. So the garden grows well, just like the organic literature predicts. In humid parts of North America, lime is routinely added; lime releases calcium into the soil, and magnesium too, if dolomite lime is used.
After a few years, heretofore unknown and/or previously unexperienced diseases and/or insect attacks usually arrive. The usual explanation offered by the local ag authorities is that it took a few years for the insect or disease to stumble into your garden, but now that it is present, there’s no getting rid of it. This actually is possible, and the certainty of the ag agent might make it seem probable. The solution proffered by your local extension agent usually requires repeated spraying. The actual solution, the one that eliminates the problem instead of fighting it, is beyond most of them.
The organic solution is to bring the soil to an even higher level of fertility by digging in some more compost or maybe mulching with it. Actually, that answer goes in the right direction, but it is still the wrong answer. Yes, the soil needs to be brought to a higher level of fertility, and yes, properly nourished plants are usually little damaged by insect or disease; this is really true, but ordinary compost and a bit of lime are rarely what is needed to achieve sufficient nourishment.
Vegetables grow poorly in tight, airless soil. Organic gardeners lighten soil by mixing a great deal of compost into it. Farmers without debts can grow green manure crops. Either action ups the soil organic matter level, which almost instantly transforms soil. The expression gardeners typically use for this transformation is “building up the garden,” because when you increase the soil’s humus level, the earth actually does lift itself up, because it contains more air than it did before. (I have seen my own beds literally elevate themselves several inches as a crop of strong pasture grasses filled them with roots.) But soil compaction can be hard to conquer in some organic gardens. Sometimes, no matter how much compost is put in, the soil doesn’t seem to stay loose. This seems mysterious because, according to the Rodale Organic Doctrine, organic matter effectively lightens compacted soil.
J.I. Rodale’s publications repeatedly expressed a strong preference for dolomite lime. Pound for pound, dolomite lime raises pH more than high-calcium lime does. So, by using dolomite you seem to get SaMOA for the same effort and cost. However, high magnesium levels change the behavior of clay, making it want to stick to itself and pull itself together into an airless, hard, compact mass. The organic gardener, surprised that additions of dolomite lime and compost have not sufficiently loosened the soil, usually assumes that even larger quantities of organic matter are what is needed.
But compost rarely contains the ideal mineral balance to grow nutrient-dense food. Excessive additions of compost usually imbalance the soil’s mineral profile and degrade nutritional outcomes. William Albrecht clearly explains how this works, but when I started gardening, no garden writer that I read said anything about Albrecht. Thanks for that, J.I.! Whenever the gardener of my era consulted OGF or the countless how-to-garden books in print at that time, the answer usually was to add more compost and lime, preferably dolomite.
Here’s the truth: If too much high-magnesium lime gets added to a soil with clay in it, compaction, airlessness and tightness can increase — despite huge additions of compost. Magnesium excess can tighten up a clay subsoil beneath a sandy topsoil, preventing the crop from putting roots there. Magnesium’s effect is amazingly powerful when the soil has a lot of clay in it, even ten percent clay and too much magnesium can make soil become rock hard and airless, even if it has had heaps of organic matter put into it.Gardening books in the tradition of the Rodale Organic Doctrine (ROD), which is almost all of them after 1950, suggest that when there are enough worms, when the humus level of the soil has gotten high enough, when the soil has been limed so its pH is between 6.2 and 6.5, then everything will work sweetly. These books conveniently overlooked the many people who had already gone down this path and, after four to six years of growing by the organic book, found the garden they were so proud of began to grow poorly. And it wasn’t making them healthy.
Perhaps you think I’m confusing my own imagination, or my own unique experiences with what happens to most people. However, when I became a volunteer lecturer on organic gardening for the OSU/WSU joint Master Gardener training program, I talked to a lot of people about what happened with my teeth and overall health after eating too many vegetables from my organically grown, unbalanced trials ground. I had people bravely come up after my talk to tell me that their health had similarly deteriorated when they depended heavily on their own organically grown food. They thanked me for clearing up the mystery.
Here’s what happened to me and my family: initially, the biologically enlivened soil did a great job of making mineral nutrients available. But, after a few years of heavy withdrawals, some of these nutrient elements declined below a critical concentration. This might never have happened if everything taken out of the garden had been returned to it, but few gardeners return their family’s urine and humanure. Organic gardening literature implies, and sometimes directly asserts, a sub-rule of The Law Of Return, I call it the “Law of Equivalence.” It says that imported compost and manure should contain all the plant nutrients we sent down the toilet. This assertion is almost inevitably incorrect, although there are some extremely fertile regions in North America where the Law of Equivalence applies to local compost and manure.
The typical organic garden has usually been limed frequently, so it contains excess calcium, and usually, excess magnesium if dolomite was used. It will have an extraordinarily high level of organic matter, so there probably will be plenty of nitrate nitrogen present, or at least in the heat of summer there will be. But crippling deficiencies (or damaging excesses) of other vital nutrients have probably developed. I expect imbalances develop differently in every part of the continent, depending on climate and the soil’s parent rocks. The area I know best is Cascadia. There, the soil holds huge supplies of potassium but insufficient calcium and magnesium to properly balance that potassium; these soils are also typically short on phosphorus. Willamette Valley soils are ideal for growing low-protein, nutrient-undense soft white wheat. Upland soils are perfect for non-food-producing tree crops, like Douglas fir. Plants inevitably concentrate potassium into their structural parts, so enormous quantities of potassium are brought into a typical Cascadian home garden from imported grass clippings, grain straw, spoiled hay and forest-industry wastes. Excess soil potassium makes plants seem to grow great, but it also has a devastating effect on the nutritional qualities of that food. More about potassium, to come…
Buy the book. I recommend it.