The Lummi Island Community Garden and the Gardener’s Network group have been doing soil sampling recently. The question is: what do you do with the report when you get it? It’s akin to getting a blood test then trying to read it yourself. You need a soil doctor.
This year, via the Soil and Health Group run by Steve Solomon, I began to work with Michael Astera author of The Ideal Soil: A Handbook For the New Agriculture. On Micheal’s Soil Mineral website he describes in detail how to take a soil sample and how to get it to him for analysis. A soil sample costs around $20 and his prescription is $45.
Organic gardening has evolved from mimicking chemical agriculture to a point now where it’s possible to build soil that grows highly nutritious food rather than “huge volumes of lush, watery crops.”
As new gardeners we just want to grow some stuff. It’s only natural, as we progress, to want to grow better stuff. To do this properly I’m convinced we need a soil doctor to assist us.
Recently, Michael explained his background and philosophy to one of the participants in the Soil and Health Group:
“I put together my first Rodale-style organic garden in 1973, believing that more organic matter, compost, and manure tea were all I needed. In the mid-1980s I found Steve Solomon’s COF and used variations of that up ’til 1999, when Gary Kline of Black Lake Organic in Olympia WA turned me on to Albrecht’s work. The last eleven years have been spent studying and experimenting with soil minerals and mineral balance. I am not exclusively focused on minerals and soil chemistry; I only have eleven years hands on experience with them, as compared to over thirty five years of organic gardening experience.
The results of each step in this learning process has been an order of magnitude greater than the one before. I would say at this point that the most important and necessary change in agriculture worldwide has to be the understanding of soil minerals. There are no shortcuts; generic rock dust is NOT going to do it, any more than “more compost and manure” or “permaculture” or “Biodynamic preps” are an answer in themselves. They are all valuable tools, but used in isolation apart from an understanding of soil minerals they are about as useful as teaching physical exercise without mentioning nutrition. If a person is just growing a few veggies for summer salads while the rest of their food comes from elsewhere, maybe it doesn’t matter much what minerals are available in the soil. If the goal is to feed one’s family and livestock without long-term health problems, balancing the soil minerals is of primary importance.
The usual Rodale-style “organic” garden has an abundance of Nitrogen and Potassium from all of the compost and manure. N and K are big guns if the goal is to grow huge volumes of lush, watery crops. These crops often have toxic amounts of nitrates and way too much Potassium. High N and high K are precisely what chemical agriculture uses to produce bushels and bales of low-nutrient crops; the Rodale technique simply copies that paradigm in a “natural” way. The only real difference between the two is the absence of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and often the nutritional quality of the chemically farmed food is superior.
I don’t expect most growers and gardeners to be willing to learn the science and skills of balancing soil minerals, but I am quite sure that planetary health vis a vis agriculture will not advance significantly until this knowledge is widely applied; so far that is only happening in Australia, but it is making a big impact there. At some point I see each community having a resident soil physician, much as communities used to have a family doctor.
Getting back to your specific case, I’d say the best bet is to send a new soil sample to Logan Labs, http://loganlabs.com. For around $20 they will do a standard soil test for 12 elements, pH, CEC, and organic matter. Usually you will get your results by email within 3 days of them getting your sample. I don’t get any kickback from recommending them, but of all the test results I see from all over, I have found Logan the most dependable. The extraction method they use for soil, and the equations they use to calculate CEC and desired mineral levels are based on the Albrecht BCSR system and can be trusted.
As for elemental Sulfur, if the soil needs S, and the use of Epsom salts, KMag, gypsum, or sulfate of potash is precluded due to already high levels of Calcium, Magnesium or Potassium, then what other choice is there? Perhaps it may harm some microbes and earthworms; other microbes will thrive for a while, and then a new balance of soil flora and fauna will establish itself. The question to me would be are you trying to farm earthworms and avoid harming bacteria, or are you wanting to grow excellent food?
As a side note, I’ve recommended elemental S for a number of years when the situation called for it, and have yet to get a single report telling me that it harmed the soil life.