Balancing Soil Minerals.

Balancing Soil Minerals here at the Sustainable Smallholding has been occupying my thinking for a few weeks now. It started a while back after reading ‘Advancing Biological Farming’ by Gary Zimmer, but my thinking took a huge leap forward after reading ‘The Intelligent Gardener’ by Steve Solomon, and settled after reading ‘The Ideal Soil’ by Michael Astera and  ‘Soil Fertility’ and Animal Health by Albrecht. Until this reading bout had started I was reasonably sure that my fertility building regime was good, but I realised that I was missing out on what may be a vital part of any soil building strategy. So what have I learnt about Balancing Soil Minerals, and more  importantly what have I done about it? Well read on and find out 🙂

Balancing Soil Minerals: Why Bother?

I would guess that most people reading this will believe that adding sufficient organic matter to their soils is all of the fertility building that they need to do. This attitude has been promoted by Organic Gardening advocates for more than 50 years. So why worry about minerals? I think that I’ll try and answer that with a question for YOU. If your soil is missing essential minerals, where will those minerals come from? If they’re not in the soil itself, your own composting materials will be short of them, so the compost that you make will also be short. If your organic matter is coming in from outside how do you know if it conains the minerals that you need? If they are there, how would you know?

Reading Albrecht really opened my eyes to the consequence of mineral shortages. If I am what I eat, and I am eating food that I produce myself, if my soil is short of any essential mineral, then I will be too. Whilst Soil Fertility and Animal Health is ostensibly about animal health problems resulting from mineral deficiencies, the same will apply to us. So balancing soil minerals is also helping to improve the nutritional quality of my own food, and consequently my health. That’s a good enough reason for me to want to find out more.

Soil Testing

There is no real way of knowing what is in your soil without a proper test. So balancing soil minerals depends on the results of a soil test. Using indicator plants, and a bit of educated guesswork, my best guess was that my soil was acidic, low on Calcium, and possibly Phosphorous, but high in Magnesium. (Magnesium binds clays more tightly, and my soil is very heavy). I started to investigate the best sources of these minerals before sending off for a professional soil test. I’m really glad that I waited before spending my cash. My soil test results are below.

My Soil Test Results

This is the report that I got back from the Laboratory in PDF format in case any of you want to play around with it yourself..

2013 soil test

The JPG looks like this.

balancing soil minerals

2013 Soil Test Results

There are two test results on the form. The left hand one is from my first vegetable growing area. It has been growing food for me for 10 years now. The beds are dug occasionally, I suspect about four or five times since I began, including the initial weeding. The second column is for an area that is going to be the site for a polytunnel. It has never been cultivated, but has been dug and weeded once, last year. Before then it was where I dumped most of my weeds. Any that regrew were scythed. So it has had raw organic materials added, whereas the vegetable area has been maintained using compost.

Soil Test Inititial Thoughts and Comparisons.

I’ll be doing a full analysis of the results in another post, but there are a few interesting things that can be pointed out and aired here.

Soil Management

The results are quite similar, which I was pleased with. It means that my soil management, and soil fertility building are doing OK. If there was a significant reduction in minerals in the vegetable test, compared with the polytunel site, I would have been concerned. In fact many of the minerals that I will be looking at are present at a higher level in the vegetable area than in the polytunnel site. This suggests to me that we are importing fertility from outside. Calcium and Phosphorous are potentially coming in as poultry food, bedding, or manure, including the calcium added to their feed for keeping the egg shells hard. As this all ends up in my compost, it is a potential source of some of those surplus minerals. The higher level of calcium in the polytunnel test was surprising, but may be down to the occasional use of that area for burning wood and other rubbish, including my recent experiments.

The more observant amongst you may have noticed the higher level of organic matter in the polytunnel site. This might lead some to suggest that not digging has built up higher levels of organic matter there than in the area that has been dug. I would counter that with the fact that the target level for organic matter is 7% in a cool climate, which is what I’ve got. No need for any more than  that.

Soil Mineral Levels

If you look at my earlier guesses about my soil mineral content, you’ll see that I was wrong with my assumptions. Soil Ph was neutral or as close as it could be. Calcium levels were high, as were Potassium and Phosphorous. Magnesium was low, not high. I am also  low on Sulphur and Manganese. Without the accuracy of a soil test, my attempts at balancing soil minerals would have created a bigger imbalance, as well as wasting money. Now I have an accurate base line to work from, and a way to evaluate the efficiency of my attempts to build soil fertility, including balancing soil minerals.

I will go through my analysis, and calculations in another post, including how I intend to proceed with my soil mineral balancing. In the meantime, there is plenty of information on the soil mineral.com website. You can also read much of Albrecht’s work, including Soil Fertility and Animal Health, for free from the Soil and Health Library. I can also recommend the Michael Astera essay, but warn you that both could challenge the way you look at Mulch gardening for ever.

Enjoy

Deano

.

..

 

20 thoughts on “Balancing Soil Minerals.

  1. Tom

    Are we being fed a pack of lies then by the permaculture / biointensive folks? How about we do what we are already doing and every five years dump a sack full of rock dust on the plot? If we are saying it is not possible to have a closed loop sustainable agriculture how is it we fed ourselves for several thousand years before fossil fuels?

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Tom
      Almost all of the early centers of agriculture were based around rivers with large catchement areas. These would flood annually, dumping silt, rich with minerals, onto the land being used to grow crops. Here in the UK, most hay meadows were alongside rivers and streams. These too would get a regular ‘dump’ of silt, which in turn would produce hay. This mineral rich hay was fed to farm animals in the Winter, and the subsequent manure was spread on gardens and fields. The animal feed was supplemented with forage brought from the ‘commons’. Therefore importing minerals has either been responsible for creating or maintaining many of the soils in the longest established agricultural areas.
      As for permaculture/biointensive growing, I take what I feel is useful from them, and mix it with whatever else seems to make sense. Adding missing minerals makes sense, but is relatively new for me, and it will be a while before I can evaluate how effective it is.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Tom
      I’ve pieced it together from a range of historical sources, and other texts on agricultural practises. There is lots of interesting stuff in ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’, including how Chinese farmers would dredge mud from the flood relief canals to fertilise their fields. In India they had reservoirs that would fill with flood water. The water (mineral rich) would be used for irrigation, and the mud at the bottom would be scraped out and used in the fields.
      We’ve caged he rivers in and built on those flood plains, but we’ve cut off the source of the fertility that may have made them an attractive place to live in the first place. Now those minerals are replaced by rocks that we grind ourselves, rather than leaving it to water, ice, wind, and volcanos. Most soils will lose some of their mineral content, especially calcium, if the rainfall exceeds 700mm (28 inches a year). I’m fortunate to be in the ideal rainfall pattern, 600 – 700 mm per year, fairly evenly distributed.

      Reply
  2. Darius Namdaran

    Thank you for this Deano. How much does a test cost?
    I know that Holmgren talks about the importance of mineral balance in Pathway beyond sustainability. Not much, but indicates its importance. Also mentions how sometimes no dig and mulching can lose steam after 5-7 yrs and needs opened up/airaited. Its seems that we are often quick to latch onto a one size fits all methods.
    I like how you interrogate things.

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Thanks Darius
      If you want to use the same method and worksheets that I am, it’s £54 from Laverstoke Park, or $20 from Logan Labs in the USA. I had the results from the states in about 10 days from posting (air mail), including clearing customs. There’s a few really simple forms to include, but not much. You don’t need those for a UK based test obviously.
      Thanks for the reference to Holmgren. Nice to see that the source is open, even if the disciples have forgotten 🙂
      Hope that all is well
      Deano

      Reply
  3. Tom

    I’m never going to form an arrangement with a meadow owner or pig farmer, therefore what does this mean for the urban “transitional” sustainable gardener? I instantly thought of some nice allotments next to the river Frome when you said this but I realised that the banks are high for a reason and anyway a select few going for sustainability is not really the point.

    What if I start bashing some rocks with a hammer and using the dust? Does it matter what rocks?

    I know there’s nothing wrong in bringing in the odd bag of fertility but it would be nice to know there are DIY alternatives.

    Cheers mate,

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Tom
      If you don’t know what your soil contains, it’s difficult to know what to add, if anything, particularly if you’re working on a budget. In terms of minerals I think that there may be a basalt quarry in your area. if so, you might be able to pick up some cheap rock dust from the stuff that they don’t use. No way to know if that is balancing your soil minerals or making it worse. You could try a DIY biological approach. This website Gil Carandang contains recipes for bio fertilisers made from simple and cheap ingredients. It’s normally possible to use wheat bran, which you can pick up from health food shops. I’ve never got around to trying it out, so would be interested to hear how it works for you, if you decide to give it a go.
      All of the best
      Deano

      Reply
  4. Marianne Winfield

    Hi Deano, I’ve just come across your website, thanks to a link from a Guardian commenter. I’m looking forward to many hours browsing!
    I honed in on your article on soil testing since I’m currently exploring the potentials of compost tea.
    I’ve been reading articles by Elaine Ingham who stresses the need to reintroduce/ encourage soil biota. The tests you have done are for mineral content. Do you know of any company that will do microbiological analysis of soils in the UK?
    Marianne

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Marianne
      Laverstoke Park should do them. They were the UK lab for the Soilfoodweb group.
      I use compost tea all of the time during the growing season, and would recommend it.
      All of the best
      DEano

      Reply
  5. Manu

    Hey everyone!
    I’m a student/gardener/follower of the permaculture pathway, from Barcelona, Spain. I’m reading and trying to put in practice The intelligent gardener right now, and I also feel relief and excitement as you should, because it feels like we have finally found the last piece for building with our hands a truly powerful agriculture which can be the basis of a healthier and wiser world!
    From now on, it wil be a nice trip on finding ever more local and sustainable sources of minerals – not just organic matter, as we have always thought. For instance, the simphytum plant which can extract K from deep in the subsoil.
    Keep working on that, the dirt revolution is starting!

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Manu
      Sorry for the delay in replying to your comment on my Balancing Soil Minerals Post. I think that the emphasis on compost, organic matter, or green manures, without addressing the importance of the minerals in our soils has been a weakness, but one that we can rectify. The interdependence of plants, organic matter, soil microbes, minerals, and water is something that needs to be looked at holistically.
      Wishing You well
      Deano

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Chromatography, Soil fertility, and Biodynamic Agriculture - The Sustainable Smallholding

  7. stu

    Have come across your blog surfing the soil mineral balancing angle.. really like the way you think and the approach you are taking.. I wondered a bit about the Melich lll testing chemicals and how that differs from using Lamotte weak acid testing reagents..
    The manganese thing is something I’m just learning a bit more about myself. If you surf the mad cow issue, manganese is going to show up there too. It’s needed in small amounts and in a ratio to Iron, and copper is involved. It all gets complex!!
    Dr Andersen said the iron should be around 40pound and acre. The question becomes the best way to balance things when high.
    Don Huber say the glyphosate can mess up biology needed to make iron available.. Loius Kevran in his Biological transmutation work say the manganese and iron can transmute back and forth through bacterial action but Ph and conditions are different for the direction of transmutation. This angle of mineral balancing deserves consideration.
    In corespondance with a USDA microbiologist,, I’ve learned that compost bacteria are distinctly different from those found in the root zone of plants. if farm chems or weather conditions eradicate beneficial soil and root zone microbiology,, that may need to to be looked at and start working with innoculants.
    Biology and chemistry! we need to be scientist with labs to grow good food.. If nothing else,, the bug and refractometers readings can help a bit..
    Keep up the good works. stu

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Thanks for the comment Stu
      I’m not sure of the difference in the soil testing chemicals, but I liked the approach of the Intelligent Gardener, and decided to choose a lab using the Mehlich method so that i could use all of the worksheets etc.

      Reply
  8. guy

    Hi Deano
    Sorry i just posted a comment to another post of yours asking if you had found a UK lab to do the Mehlich tests… and then i found this blog post. It looks like i’ll have to work out which is best value taking into account postage costs. I remember reading about Logan Labs in the book itself but naturally enough wanted to find a UK lab that uses the same test. You’ve also prompted me to check up on rainfall levels where i am (outskirts of Bath). Cheers

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      The postage was really small, less than £10 for two soil samples, both of which could have been smaller to save costs.

      Reply
  9. Wojciech Majda

    Hi Deano,

    Logan Labs is also doing a test called AEA Plus, it’s a standard Mehlich-3 soil test, plus they test for selenium, cobalt, silicon, molybdenum and EC. It cost just 30$

    Cheers

    Reply
    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Thanks Wojciech
      I’m due another test now. Will get the more detailed test done this time.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *