Healthy Beginnings

Small Bites

soil“A Rough Patch”

I was waiting for a meeting of the Winnemucca Farmer’s Market Association to begin. We’re reorganizing the farmer’s market to gradually assume local control, with the ultimate goal of providing more locally produced food. As happens at such times, we were discussing the upcoming gardening season.

“Have you tried micronutrients?” Sheila asked me.

“Probably,” I said. “I’ve tried nearly everything at one time or another. Is that the one where you use a small plate?”

“I suppose you could,” Sheila said. “But it would be awkward. My mom always used a pitchfork for the seaweed, since she lived close to the ocean, where there’s a good supply.”

“I had a pretty good seaweed salad once,” I said. “And I know it is low in calories. But could you lose much weight if you ate it with a pitchfork?”

I hate getting noogies in public.

And the rest of the farmer’s market crew filled me in. Ron, who retired from a career as a soil scientist, explained that most Nevada soil has an organic content of only about half of one percent. That isn’t enough to grow healthy garden plants. Ron claims that if the soil is healthy, the plants will be also. He strongly recommends testing the soil every few years, to make sure that the micronutrients plants need are available. Ron believes, as many organic and natural growers do, that proper plant nutrition staves off disease and pest problems as it maximizes production.

We’re all aware of the “big three” macronutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are the nutrients represented by the NPK on the labels of fertilizer packages, which give a percentage of those nutrients. We can get plants to grow in our barren soil simply by adding those nutrients.

Growth, even rampant growth, doesn’t mean that the plants will be healthy. It’s somewhat analogous to raising a child on a diet of jerky and corn chips; the child will grow, perhaps too much, because it has the absolutely essential nutrients of carbohydrates, fat and protein. We push vegetables and fruit on our children because they are a source of micronutrients that are important for health.

Likewise, micronutrients are important for plant health. Hydroponic gardeners attempt to grow plants in a solution which is supposed to supply all the nutrients necessary. I’m not much in favor of hydroponic gardening, partly because it seems to be expensive and partly because I’d have to find a new excuse for my occasionally dirty fingernails.

Another reason hydroponic gardening is problematic is that even scientists don’t necessarily agree about which micronutrients are necessary. Typically, boron, chloride, copper, manganese, molybdenum, iron and zinc are considered essential. The list of beneficial but perhaps not necessary nutrients is lengthy and disputed.

I suppose I should make some attempt to find out exactly what is necessary for plant growth, but if scientists can’t agree, I’m not likely to be able to add much to the debate. What I can add is organic material to my soil. If you’ve a diversity of organic material in your compost heap, you are likely to have the nutrients you need.

The experts don’t necessarily agree about the amount of organic material soil needs to contain; a quick perusal of websites yielded amounts ranging from five to sixty percent. In Nevada soils, we can probably afford to err on the side of more.

I got my fingernails dirty yesterday when I went out to scratch around in the garden beds. Some of them had been mulched with bark and wood chips for last season’s crops. When I dug into the soil underneath the bark, I got in touch with a soil scientist whose opinion I value above all others. He was a nice fat earthworm, and before I covered him up, he assured me that all was well in that bed at least.

When Teresa Howell isn’t testing new dining utensils, she teaches English at Great Basin College.