Growing Healthier Fruits and Vegetables - Just like "they" did before the soil was strip mined

I moved and started my current garden 9 years ago. All of the top soil had been removed from our property and my soil was 100% clay subsoil. It was a struggle to get anything to grow, but I was determined to improve my soil naturally.

The first 7 years were hard. Really hard... Crops struggled, not even weeds would grow, and the digging was intense. When I grew root vegetables, I had to dig them out all the way to the bottom or they would break.
Cherries are forming on my Northstar Cherry tree...isn't it a beautiful thing?

Insects decimated my crops. Blights, infections, viruses. I'm telling you these plants suffered.

But I was determined to do it naturally....

Each year, I added compost, manure, leaf mould, organic mulches (pine straw, hay straw, shredded maple leaves, and cocoa bean mulch mostly). Each year the carrots and beets were easier to dig out. But I still had to dig. It wasn't until I started using Fish Rich Fertilizer that I started to get real growth and quality produce.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't understand why and I turned my direction toward "sustainable" gardening and started ONLY using products I could source on my own property. I had the worst garden year ever. The tilth of the soil had improved considerably but the growth and quality of the plants was at it's worst and the insect pressure at it's highest. Years of organic material had made the soil quite workable and almost "soil-like" but it was still infertile.

It was around this time I first read The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food. This book was an eye opener. The author, Steve Solomon had tried to get most of his diet from his organic garden and he became unhealthy. His teeth came loose! When he ate conventionally grown food full of pesticides...but full of minerals....his teeth tightened up (not US grown food, he was in another country at the time, in a mineral rich valley.) You'll have to read it for yourself to get the full story. I rented this book from the library and later bought it because of all the great information contained within.

Chives are one of the most gorgeous edible perennials.

Why did his teeth start falling out? Because his soil was not well mineralized. Yes it was full of organic material....but there is so much more to the story. Any good book on "real food" or holistic gardening will tell you that you don't feed plants, you feed the soil. We are soil farmers.

I thought that meant providing the soil with plenty of organic materials to feed the microbes. It does, but it means more than that. It means getting the fungal relationships right. It means having the right mineral balance. That's hard. At least at first, but there are pretty good shortcuts to doing a mostly good job, versus having perfection. If you want perfect, then read Steve's book and do some googling about fungal/bacterial dominance in plants to get your environments right for the plants you grow.

But if you are okay with "good enough" then here are the  cheats I use - If it is a tree, it is most likely to be fungal dominant. If it is an annual vegetable, it is most likely to be bacterially dominant. If it is a fruiting shrub or bramble - it will be a mix of the two.

What does that mean?

It means if you are growing something that requires a higher bacterial biome, then you will give it more compost, less bulky organic/forest like mulches. If it in need of fungi, then you will replicate the forest environment and provide it with fallen leaves and other forest materials to provide the right diversity.
Rhubarb I grew from seed last spring. Sharing space with garlic and black raspberries.

Here's an example. I have been growing blueberries for 9 years. I have fought with them for 5. They struggled to hang on, even when I had the pH right and babied them like crazy. Then....I started mulching them with pine straw. Something about that pine straw (which I sourced from multiple locations) created the fungal situation those plants needed and now they grow like they were always meant to be here.

Pulling back that pine straw reveals nice dark, rich earth teaming with life. And the blueberries are happy.

I compost into the garden directly and I reserve my composting behavior for my annual vegetable beds. Why? Because most of my compost materials are food scraps or green garden waste - those are bacterially dominant.
Asparagus growing on the edge of my forest with raspberries
I treat my raspberries like forest dwellers that occasionally step out into the prairie - lots of maple and oak leaf mulch, straw, and occasional compost.

Things improved greatly.

But this is the first year I have put Steve Solomon's mineralization into action. I did not do soil tests or any of the difficult calculations in his book. I would like to, but I still have this overall belief that gardening should be easy and free. It has never worked out that way, but I still believe it....

So I have modified his recipes to fit my gardening needs.

Last fall I added a few buckets of llama manure - well composted  - see about that here.
Then I added this mix to all my planting areas early this spring to remineralize my soil and feed the microbiome below.

1/4 cup of this mix per established plant or 1 1/2 cups per 30 sq ft.

1 quart blood meal
1 quart bone meal
1 quart sea kelp
1 pint gypsum

Gypsum provides calcium and sulfur, blood provides nitrogen, bone provides phosphorus, and the sea kelp provides a plethora of micronutrients like iodine and other trace minerals.

Steve's book asserts that plants may get diseased or eaten by pests because that is the role of pests and disease. To rid the world of the unfit; unhealthy plants get destroyed so they can not reproduce. It kind of makes sense. I am going to put that theory to the test.

This mix should revitalize my soil (over time of course) and I should have stronger, healthier plants as a result. I will keep this post updated.

Currants waking up in early spring.
I still add straw mulches, leaf mould, manures when I can get them, and composted yard/kitchen waste.

This year is the first year I have seen rabid worms in any area but the blueberries (mentioned above as arriving after the pine straw).

Digging through the soil was easy and rewarding, and almost gross (because of how many worms were found!)

For the first time ever, weeds popped up in my garden this spring. Lots of them. I am hopeful this will represent great fertility.


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Thank you for your comments! I appreciate all your tips, advice, and well wishes!


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