Jan 262013

In organic gardening circles compost is sacrosanct. So when somebody with a resume like Steve Solomon says we can use too much compost, as he has in his new book The Intelligent Gardener, organic gardeners recoil in horror.

JI Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine introduced organics to North Americans.
Steve Solomon summarizes Rodale’s approach as follows: “To grow an abundance of highly nutritious vegetables and fruit, make and then dig in compost. Lots of it.”

Rodale encouraged bringing in or importing lots of organic material and putting it in the garden. And then his recommendation was to counteract acidic soil to by adding crushed limestone to bring the pH close to neutral. Roedale said if you’re going to add lime it’s better to use a sort called dolomite because dolomite contains both magnesium and calcium and magnesium is as much a vital plant nutrient as calcium is.

Some compost in the garden is, of course, good. Making composts satisfies our desire to recycle the plant material from our garden waste. Compost increases the organic percentage of the soil and turns to humus which helps the garden hold moisture. And, it does provide some nutrients but, at a point in time, the benefit of compost is lost. And, depending on the materials used to build the compost there might have been much nutritional benefit to start with.

The real problem with using the composting method of organic gardening is that we don’t know the mineral or nutritional makeup of our compost. We are flying blind. We don’t know exactly what our inputs consist of. Thus, if we just keep adding compost we don’t really accomplish very much.

Excessive inputs of compost will usually imbalance the soil’s profile with the result that nutritional outcomes will be degraded. And if, in addition, one adds dolomite as one’s lime source the magnesium in the dolomite will change the behavior of the clay in the soil making it stick to itself and you’ll end up with tight or clumpy soil in your garden beds.

In the Puget Sound region the soil already holds huge supplies potassium but insufficient calcium and magnesium to properly balance that potassium. Plants concentrate potassium into their structural parts. So if we import lots of grass clippings, straw, spoiled hay, tree waste, etc. into our compost we are  adding enormous additional quantities of potassium which will have a devastating effect on the nutritional quality of our food, even though it makes plants seem to grow great.

Here’s the problem with potassium: If potassium gets out of balance, that is top heavy in relation to the other important minerals like calcium and magnesium, plants grow differently. Instead of making proteins they make more carbohydrates. The bottom line is this. Crops on high potassium soils produce about 25% more carbohydrates. At the same time their protein content is lowered by around 25%.

By continually adding compost we end up with the situation where our food looks good, grows well but we’re producing more calories and less proteins. Plus according to Steve Solomon the nature of those proteins changes.

In the Intelligent Gardener he writes, “Proteins are long complex chains chains of about 20 different amino acids. A few amino acids usually are scarce. In plants grown with excess potassium these are even scarcer lowering protein quality and leading to diseases in all the animals eating them including us. Another shift occurs in the food’s mineral content. As soil potassium increases the mineral content of the plant growing on that soil also shifts. Excessive potassium in the soil results much higher levels of potassium in the plant tissues but correspondingly lower levels of calcium and phosphorus and minor nutrients. Our bodies can hardly get enough calcium magnesium phosphorus but
We do not need high quantities of potassium.”

We need some potassium, yes; but not lots.

We don’t have naturally balanced nutrient rich soil in our region. Part of this is because of constant winter rains which leech nutrients particularly calcium from the soil. If we bring in fertility by importing local vegetation we further imbalance our soil.

So this is why the composting method isn’t necessarily the best method and why getting a simple soil test and balancing the nutrients in your garden makes all the sense in the world.

We’ll take up this subject in more detail and learn an easy way to build a customized fertilizer for our particular garden at the Gardener’s Network meeting, Feb. 11, 6:30pm at the Lummi Island Grange.

Jan 222013

Near the end of his new book, The Intelligent Gardener, long-time garden guru Steve Solomon makes a significant point: “There is no place on this planet that remains free of toxic residues.” He then suggests we would be far better off if we quit worrying so much about toxicity and, instead, concentrated on growing and eating nutrient dense food.

I’ve been able to follow, and participate to a degree, in Mr. Solomon’s metamorphosis from expert “organic” gardener to expert “nutrient dense” gardener. Solomon, in my opinion, has long been ahead of the pack as evidenced by his books “Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades” and “Gardening When It Counts.” Through his early gardening experiences and from starting the Territorial Seed business he devised his Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF) which was an attempt to balance garden soil. COF is still a good way to go for people who don’t wish to go any farther and the formula is easily found on the internet. (Also in The Intelligent Gardener pps. 84-85).

In the last half dozen years through association with Michael Astera’s Nutrient Dense Project and a re-study of the work of scientists like William Albrecht and Victor Tiedjens, Steve Solomon has become a convert to the concept of “nutrient dense.”

The concept of nutrient dense food is pretty simple. The gardener works over time to balance the soil with the proper mix of minerals. The result will be soil that encourages the life forms (worms, bacteria, etc.) that help with soil symbiosis and soil that provides the nutrients plants need to grow properly. Balanced soil will mean healthier plants, resistant to pests. Balanced soil will result in food that is nutrient dense, providing us with the vitamins and minerals we need to be healthy.

Steve Solomon spends a lot of time debunking the concept promoted by J.I. Rodale that compost would solve all problems and that by continuing to heap organic matter on a garden a garden would only get better and better. This is not the case as Solomon explains in detail in a chapter titled: SAMOA (The Shit Method of Agriculture). More important is bringing calcium and magnesium into proper balance. When garden soil is properly balanced, according to Solomon, the garden will create its own nitrates.

Balancing calcium, magnesium, potassium, sulphur, sodium and other minerals is the key to nutrient dense food. Getting this balance correct begins with a $20 soil test. Then, with a copy of The Intelligent Gardener in hand, one can use the worksheets provided to come up with a prescription for a custom fertilizer designed for one’s own garden. Solomon’s colleague and co-author, California gardener Erica Reinheimer has developed a website where you can find copies of the worksheets found in Steve’s book. On this same website you will find a link to “OrganiCalc” which allows you, for a small fee, to compute your custom fertilizer prescription on line.

The Lummi Island Grange Gardener’s Network will have a discussion of The Intelligent Gardener at their Febuary 11 meeting: 6:30PM at the Grange Hall.

Jan 182013

Hawaii is on a mission to label GMOs. More than that, the pure food groups would like to kick Monsanto right off the islands. A big demonstration at the capital on Jan. 15 coinciding with the opening of the legislative session got things going followed up by the Vandana Shiva tour.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is one of the rock stars of the food movement world wide and we were lucky enough to get seats for her talk Wednesday night at the amazing Salvation Army Joan Kroc Community Center in the Kapolei area. This $133 million community center was something to behold and it’s too bad that MacDonald’s Joan wasn’t into healthy food. Then, perhaps, her $1.6 billion gift might have gone to an organization like Hawaii Seed. It’s ironic that a hamburger-funded facility hosted such an event which also featured the very impressive Andrew Kimbrell from the Center for Food Safety and Walter Ritte the guy who got the military to stop practice bombing the island of Kahoolawe.

In many ways, the GMO issue is the most important political issue of our time. Topics like Right to Life and Gun Control get more press but are side shows. Because, everything is about food. And, as it is with so many other things the public has been sold a load of crap by corporate interests to modify our behavior so they can make more money.

Both Dr. Shiva and Mr. Kimbrell made the point that our modern food system of chemical monocroping is a continuation of WWII. The big chemical companies did really well with explosives. Sadly, the same materials used for bombs can be turned into fertilizer. Farmers were convinced to use these modern methods to increase yield. Shiva pointed out that it’s all about control and the strategy of the chemical industry has been to “Occupy the Seed.” If you control the seed you control the farmer and the food and the public will be forced to eat what you present to them. Patenting seeds, plants and animals and genetic engineering are tactics in the stategy of occupying the seed. (The chemical industry has succeeded in morphing the phrase “genetic engineering” to the less inflammatory GMO or “genetically modified organism”).

All of us need to learn a lot more about the hazards of GMO. There are no studies to determine the side effects. Modern agriculture has convinced most of the world that to feed the billions their chemistry will be required. The sad truth is that chemical agriculture makes us sick, destroys the soil and affects the culture and local economy by undermining traditional food systems.

Here’s the exciting thing about the food issue: it’s a political issue that you can do something about immediately. This minute. You can decide to never eat genetically engineered food. You can decide to grow some of your own food. You can decide to boycott any store that sells unlabeled GMO products. You can decide to support local agriculture and local farmers. You can contribute to organizations working to defeat Montsanto and the other four or five giant chemical companies who have worked so diligently to turn their war chemicals into fertilizer and who are determined to control the world’s seed stock.

Makana, one of our favorite Hawaiian performers opened the show. He’s written a number of anti GMO anthems and sung for us last evening. Here are the last few stanzas:

Monsanto and the others all make great claims

Of feeding the world… and pests they overcame

But yields are shrinking and the pests are getting bigger
And no one knows what’s coming cause they pulled an early trigger

Remember the butterflies and bees that all died
And the quarter million farmer suicides
You think you might start asking why?
So many living things would die from a thing that’s meant to save the world

The makers of Agent Orange and Roundup too
Were all excited over a new breakthrough
Just before their patent on herbicide was up
They found a way to keep farmers drinking from their cup

They built their product right into the crop
Turned Mother Nature into their own shop
Now they can patent your food
While family farmers are sued for the crime of saving their seeds

And all the cheerleaders talk of ending world starvation
But it ain’t from lack of food, it’s from economic segregation
They say Genetic Engineering is old as growing food
But we know it ain’t the same in fact it’s way more crude

It ain’t science when you’re aiming a gun
And praying the DNA don’t come undone
They’re playin’ cowboy with our genes
Ignoring all the unforeseen risks, they made a laboratory of the world

50 nations label transgenic food
But out here in the US the consumer’s gettin’ screwed
It didn’t change the price of food to label it elsewhere
Now they’re spending millions just to keep us unaware

This is the story of the GMO
It’s on your plate and you probably don’t know
There never was a dry run
Put on a grocery shelf, not one test to prove the safety of the food

Jan 142013

The recent discussion on Nextdoor about UFO’s reminds me that I haven’t covered everything that could tip the balance of the way we currently live. Obviously, alien invasion/infiltration should be included in my list of possible crises that could change our society. And, I had no idea that Lummi was a hot spot for alien spacecraft.

Back in the very early fifties my friend Dicky and I were avid UFO investigators checking out every book the Vancouver, Washington library had on the subject. We would lurk about Lake Vancouver as late as Dicky’s parents would let us, trying to spot a UFO or, better yet, get abducted. That sounded like a lot of fun. This kind of curiosity and sense of adventure no doubt served Dicky well in his career as an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I lost track of Dicky and am guessing that he might finally have been abducted. I expect the aliens would like to know what Dicky and I knew.

I continued to pay some attention to the UFO phenomena, never discounted the possibility, watched some X Files, etc. but never could be certain that it was something I needed to worry about. After all, what can be done against civilizations so advanced as the ones who created the UFOs we occasionally read about?

For a period of time in my life, one year to be exact, I was in the thick of things as part of Project Blue Book. This was an effort by the US Air Force to systematically study unidentified flying objects. The way this worked was that if a UFO sighting was reported it was channeled to the closest Air Force Base where the report was assigned to one of the Wing Intelligence Officers to investigate. That’s where I came in. We used to fight over these assignments. We’d get to check out a government vehicle, put on our class A uniform and go interview the person who made the report. I was enjoying a delightful year in Tampa, Florida and Project Blue Book was one of the year’s highlights.

Two officers went on each call. Lt. Billy Joe and I got to visit a very  weathly and attractive young woman in St. Pete who served us coffee in bone china cups as she described her sighting which turned out to be Venus. The whole thing should have lasted five minutes but Billy Joe and I stretched it out to a couple of hours, standing where she stood, drawing diagrams and getting her to tell it a couple of times while we stared attentively.

In another case we were in back country Florida on a set out of Deliverance with a bunch of crackers who talked all at once and presented us with a 3′ x 5′ drawing showing the space ships and how they hovered over the telephone lines.

There was the case of obvious fraud where we drove for hours to determine that someone, possibly the reporter of the incident, had made a device to imprint what was supposed to be landing gear marks in the dirt. We saw the device leaning up against the side of the house.

My favorite has always been this description: “Ma’am, can you tell us what it looked like?” Response: “It looked like a despondent woman’s bosom.”

Our experience as a Project Blue Book investigators was pretty much as the same as the Air Force’s final conclusion: “There was no evidence indicating that sightings categorized as “unidentified” were extraterrestrial vehicles.”(Obviously, some kind of cover up).

I will  be interested to learn more about Lummi Island UFO sightings. I expect they may be interested in us because of our excellent ferry service. More likely, they have heard about the Willows Inn.

Jan 072013

Blogging has been light in the doom and gloom department due to the holiday season and many other distractions. Who knows what will happen in the coming year. There are still many predictions of collapse or at least decline caused by (take your pick) the economy, climate change, war, peak whatever. Whether you believe it or don’t believe it, it still makes sense to prepare for hard times.

Lummi Islanders rekindled Disaster Preparedness in 2012 and are much more organized than we were before. Recent earthquakes in Alaska, awful hurricanes and unseasonably warm winter weather in the PNW remind us that it’s good to be ready for anything. Our island Disaster Preparedness took a leap forward with a MURS radio network, CERT and First Aid Training, increase in the number of authorized Red Cross Shelters, additional disaster supplies in place and neighborhood organizations.

On a longer term basis everyone needs to make their own assessment on their personal preparedness. Here’s mine:

1. Location, location, location: I contend that if there is trouble of any kind whether civil unrest, shortages, etc. that an island is a pretty good place to be. The fact that it is difficult to get to will be more advantage than disadvantage.

2. Community: If you live on the island you are de facto a member of a club and one that is very supportive. All the writers about collapse (Dmitri Orlov for example) emphasize the importance of having friends, a group that has your back. Having lived several places in my adult life it’s easy to report that Lummi Island is the strongest community I have lived in. To summarize points 1 and 2, step one in our own personal plan was to move to Lummi Island.

3. Food security: Pretty much everything revolves around food and it’s somewhat ironic that the Willows Inn has put Lummi on the map because of food. What I like about the Willows is the emphasis on local and wild foods. It’s an important emphasis and everyone needs to pay attention to the imagination and creativity shown by Mr. Wetzel.

In the last five years vegetable gardening has taken a great leap forward on the island with a Gardener’s Network, an Edible Garden Tour sponsored by the Beach School Foundation, a community garden on the Curry Preserve, two community orchards, several new gardens and participation by many people in Whatcom County CSAs. Nancy Ging has single-handedly raised awareness of local food through her Whatcom Locavore blog and columns in her Bellingham Herald articles.

I’m coming closer to my own goal of growing 50% of our food, following the planting plans of The Resilient Gardener Carol Deppe and the nutrient dense ideas of Michael Astera and Steve Solomon.

I’ve just added a 12′ x 12′ hoop house to the garden which, hopefully will extend the growing season.

It makes sense to me that, to supplement garden produce, we build up long term food storage in the Mormon style. It would be comforting to have about six months of rations available in the event that transportation problems develop over the short or long term.

4. Water: It doesn’t look like we’ll have a water problem of any kind this coming year. This rain should be giving everyone a good recharge. But it’s still important to practice conservation. People who water their grass should be mocked and scoffed at. Many people, including myself, have added rainwater catchment since the State changed the rules on rainwater collection. I am able to water my vegetable garden entirely with rainwater which would take pressure off the well in any drought years (assuming I get those tanks filled in the winter months). I could easily filter and pump this water to the house. Another benefit of living on the island is that we all have private water systems. This creates the added responsibility of using water conservatively and wisely.

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