On May 22, I attended a Nutrient Dense Gardening class, taught by Bill Scheffler of Pure Prairie Farm, and sponsored by The Resiliency Institute in Naperville, Illinois. So most of the ideas here don’t come from me, but from notes I took and have applied with great success. Keep in mind, these ideas are particular to northern Illinois, but some can be applied nearly anywhere.
Preparing the Soil
Since plants don’t have a stomach, the soil acts as their stomach. So everything needs to happen in the soil if you want to grow abundant crops. It’s crucial to keep up the soil biology and nutrients! Microbes in the soil make everything available to the plant. What do microbes need? They need six things:
- Warm temperatures
- Carbon (food)
- A little nitrogen
- Oxygen (air) from “fluffy” soil or mulch. Soil compaction is death to plants. It is the number 1 problem in gardening. See Compost below for more on this.
- High calcium environment
Insects and disease come if plants are hungry and/or the roots can’t breathe (compacted soil). Plants will make their own insecticides and herbicides if they are adequately nourished. Sweetness comes from the sunshine, and flavor comes from the minerals.
In Illinois, the soil is clay. To break up clay soil, a calcium blend (explained below) and carbons (leaves and wood chips) will open up and soften the soil to ensure roots get adequate amounts of air.
October is the time to add nitrogen.
If you don’t use sustainable gardening methods (no-till), and you rototill, October is the best month to do this, not the Spring.
Watering, in Illinois, is best done during the night. This won’t cause disease like in other climates elsewhere in the country.
Soil pH and Temperature
pH – Healthy plants have a pH of 6.4. Raise pH by increasing phosphorus, lower it by decreasing calcium.
You will know your soil temperature is between 50-55° (or more) when dandelions bloom. Microbes become active in the soil at 45°. Moderate frost is 32°, killing frost is 26°. Soil temperature is more important than air temperature. Apple cider vinegar will not only dissolve minerals in the soil, making them more available to the plant, but it also helps raise soil temperature and make microbes become more active. White vinegar is hostile to microbes even though it will dissolve minerals. So be careful that it’s real apple cider vinegar, not white distilled vinegar with caramel color.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, you can plant cold crops such as onion sets, radish, carrot, or sugar snap peas.
In Illinois, we don’t need very much organic matter in the soil. The soil here is at the correct level of 5% organic matter.
It is not advised to rotate crops. Each plant sets up its own environment. Moving them to new locations yearly makes it more difficult for them because they have to set up house anew each time.
Early on, plants don’t need a lot of food, but they consume 50% of their food between flower and fruit. By the time fruit reaches the size of about a large marble, it’s already taken in the majority of calcium it ever will, so sufficient calcium during this stage is critical to a good crop.
Once plants begin flowering and producing fruit, they consume enormous amounts of food (they are essentially “pregnant”), especially at the end when most people stop feeding nutrients. So if you continue feeding past this point, you are likely to get larger crops that go later in the season. Plants put sugars, vitamins and minerals into the fruits in the last three days prior to falling from the plant. So be sure to feed even at the end.
Whether you grow your starts from seed or buy them from a nursery, they can be planted after Memorial Day (in Illinois) but be prepared to protect them should bad weather come.
Once you put plants in the ground, pinch off the flowers for the first 30-40 days to ensure a lot of root growth. The larger the roots, the larger the harvest.
Foliar sprays take about 20 minutes for the plant to uptake. Root feeds take about 12 hours for uptake.
Bone meal (calcium phosphate) is really nutritious. Mix it into the soil, peat moss or potting soil, otherwise it may attract flies. Feed a handful of bone meal to each plant when dropping them into the soil, then another handful every one to two months. It’s very high in both calcium and phosphorus (calcium phosphate), which makes it ideal for warding off pests. High phosphorus content in plants tastes bad to insects. It won’t kill them but will repel them due to the taste. Leaves are another excellent source for phosphorus.
Molasses is great for a starting fertilizer. Mix one ounce (2 tablespoons) per gallon of water and water the roots weekly with this. You can mix large batches at a time with appropriate equipment. Molasses feed plants and microbes in the soil.
Juiced Weeds are really high in minerals. Put weeds in a bucket or garbage can, add water and let them soak. You can use this in just a couple of days or let it soak longer. A few days soak acts as a microbial stimulant, a week it will smell rank but has become an actual fertilizer. After a month, the smell will be gone but still full of nutrients.
Calcium is the mineral most needed by plants. It regulates the internal activity of the plant, makes a stronger plant structure in the cell walls. Cell walls are made of calcium pectate. Use equal parts of lime (calcium carbonate) and gypsum (calcium sulfate) and give each plant about a handful when planting, along with bone meal (calcium phosphate). Lime and gypsum are inexpensive. Also keep in mind that certain weeds make themselves much more scarce when there is adequate calcium in the soil. Calcium softens clay soils. If calcium is lacking, foods will taste bitter.
Gypsum will neutralize excess sodium in soil (from manure, see below) and bind heavy metals and other substances. Gypsum takes approximately 2 weeks to break down in the soil.
Lime takes about two months to break down in the soil. The type of lime to use is important! Magnesium-heavy dolomite lime (calcium/magnesium carbonate) will change soil pH, but applying this type of lime may lower calcium availability because magnesium ties up calcium. It also compacts the soil. Beet lime comes as a byproduct from processing sugar beets. It contains extremely high amounts of aluminum, which ties up all the phosphorus. Too low of phosphorus introduces insect problems. Pelletized lime binds the aluminum, the preferred choice. SuperCal 98G pelletized lime (for example) is 98% calcium and does not contain magnesium.
Calcium controls diseases. Phosphorus controls insects.
Compost – The best compost is comprised of 2 parts brown to 1 part green. Add brown if there is a bad smell. If it has an earthy smell, it’s stabilized. If pungent, add more browns. To ensure soil does not compact, use browns such as wood chips, leaves, aged straw. A mixture of different browns is best for different textures to give roots air. Compost, wood chips and leaves break up the soil.
Boron – Brassicas are heavy feeders of boron. Calcium needs boron. If you have hollow fruit, think strawberries, they have a boron deficiency. Mushy fruit also has a boron deficiency. The easiest and cheapest source of boron would come from borax, such as 20 Mule Team Borax. You don’t need to add this weekly, but it can be added to one of the weekly feeds, 1 tablespoon per gallon of water. You can mist this on the leaves of the plant for faster results, or as a root feed.
Fish Fertilizer is best used only to stimulate the biology of the soil, not for nitrogen. It can burn plants if used for a source of nitrogen. When using it, be sure to add carbons.
Caution about manure: Be very careful with manure compost (mushroom compost). It is high in ammonia, which plants love but it’s also very high in sodium which will cause disease problems after 3-5 years of use. Read all about the problems with manure in my other article How Organic is Your Garden? Gypsum will neutralize salt if you’ve used manure for a number of years. You also need peat moss to act as a sponge to absorb, or make sodium inert.
Once you stop pinching off the flowers (after the 30-40 days), start this weekly plant food regimen, but only for plants you want to flower. This recipe is a real and genuine bloom booster. Lettuces, basil and other leafy vegetables will bolt unless you cut this recipe in half.
Full Recipe for Weekly Feeds (cut in half for leafy vegetables)
2 oz. household ammonia or Miracle Grow at half strength
2 oz. apple cider vinegar (make sure it’s real apple cider, because some brands are distilled vinegar with caramel color, which will harm your plants)
2 oz. milk or yogurt (can be spoiled milk or plain yogurt that’s gone moldy, scrape off the mold)
1 oz. molasses
1 gallon water
Be sure to feed this formula weekly. You can make this in a large trash can in larger quantity and fill up your watering can. I find it usually takes about 1.5 quarts per plant, or half a row or so of lettuces. I have enough plants that I need roughly 15 gallons worth, and about 8 gallons for my leafy vegetables at half strength.
This recipe can’t be overdone unless it contains Miracle Grow.
Ammonia tells plants to make flowers. It keeps plants roots warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
Vinegar tells plants to flower, and dissolves minerals in the soil to make them available for plant uptake
Milk has three kinds of calcium, in water soluble form, to help with immediate plant uptake. Powdered milk is best because it contains no fats or oils which can interfere with calcium absorption. Non-fat Yogurt is the same but also contains microbes to boost soil productivity.
Molasses are packed with minerals (water soluble) and feed microbes in the soil to do their work.
If you want your annual (not perennial) flower plants to continue blooming longer, use this formula: 2 oz. ammonia, 2 oz. vinegar, 1 oz molasses per gallon of water.
Plants tend to get diseased when there is a depletion of calcium and phosphorus in the soil. You can boost the depleted soil by doing a weekly feed of 2 oz. vinegar, 2 oz. milk in one gallon water. Be sure not to add the vinegar and milk first, as this will make the milk curdle.
Blossom end rot can take out a whole crop if not dealt with within less than 24 hours. You can stop blossom end rot by this recipe: 2 Tablespoons milk (powdered and reconstituted), 2 Tablespoons molasses in 1 gallon water. Put in a spray bottle and spray the leaves and fruit thoroughly.
In another article, I’ll be discussing pest control that’s non-toxic and non-killing. Japanese beetle season typically starts around June 20. Cucumber beetles come much earlier than that.
Your local feed, farm or home improvement stores should carry ammonia, molasses and apple cider vinegar in gallon sized containers at greatly reduced prices than a grocer. Here in Illinois, Blain’s Farm & Fleet or Menard’s are great resources for those items, plus the gypsum, lime and bone meal.
aglabs.com – soil testing
agrienergy.net – SP-1 is a blend formulated to supply the greatest diversity of bacteria, fungi, algae, enzymes, carbon substrates, vitamins, and minerals to help support the growth of microbial life.
biozome.com – microbes for digesting minerals in the soil
biconet.com – organic gardening supplies for controlling pests like Japanese Beetles, etc.
tandjenterprises.com – BioVam and Microbe Tea work exceptionally well. Great photos.