The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

The Intelligent Gardener

The Intelligent GardenerThe Intelligent Gardener, by Steve Solomon, is a fascinating and well-written, if potentially controversial, explanation of how to grow more nutrient-dense vegetables by balancing your soil.  If you've heard of William Albrecht and/or Michael Astera, but didn't feel comfortable wading through old classics, Solomon's book is the quick and easy way to access the same data.

Steve Solomon stumbled across the work of Albrecht after coming to similar conclusions on his own.  He and his family lived for nine years in Oregon, where they grew most of their own food on worn-out soil that was deficient in several major nutrients.  As a result, Solomon and his wife began to get sick, with lowered energy levels, loose teeth, and soft fingernails.  A six-month vacation in Fiji created drastic changes in their vitality, due (Solomon believes) to the local produce grown in soil fertilized by silt from volcanic rocks.  This experience led him to the work of Weston Price, who argued that we really need four (or more) times the recommended daily allowance of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins A, D, and E for best health.  To get those high levels of vitamins and minerals, Albrecht adds, you must garden in well-balanced soil full of minerals.

The conclusions Solomon comes to from studying these older scientists is in stark contrast to conventional organic gardening wisdom, most of which derived from texts published by Rodale Press, so many of us might find parts of Solomon's argument to be heresy.  The Rodale way is to focus on organic matter and pH only, adding compost and lime as necessary until soil is in good shape.  Solomon argues that this focus on lime (often dolomitic, meaning lots of magnesium comes along with the calcium) makes sense for Price on nutritionchemical farmers, since their fertilizers acidify soil and leach calcium, but organic growers need a more nuanced understanding of soil chemistry.  Meanwhile, Solomon posits that too much organic matter actually unbalances your soil.  (More on his solution to both of these issues in later posts.)
While The Intelligent Gardener is easy to read and presents the data very well, I still have questions about the kookiness level of the information itself.  For example, all of the reasoning behind remineralizing soil is based on correlative (not causative) studies, meaning that no one took the time to do a side-by-side comparison of nutrient density of vegetables grown in balanced and unbalanced soil.  Solomon admits this fact freely, when he writes: "Despite Albrecht's brilliance, it is quite possible he succumbed to the same malady many garden writers suffer from --- succeeding in his backyard and expanding it to include the whole continent."  But the information is worth considering with a critical eye, so I'll be regaling you with the highlights of the book as this week's lunchtime series.

"After reading this book, I am genuinely excited for a Trailersteading adventure," wrote one reviewer of my newest ebook.

This post is part of our The Intelligent Gardener lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I just got the book and am about half way through it. It's interesting -- "kooky" is definitely a good word to describe the author and some of his ideas (as an infectious disease doctor, I find the idea that the natives of the New World wouldn't have died from Old World infections "if only they had been eating nutrient-rich food" to be risible), but he makes some good points. I'm certainly going to get a soil test done when the soil thaws; I should have already, only I've been putting it off. I will be interested in what it has to say, and I'll be looking into amending with trace minerals as needed.
Comment by Bess Mon Jan 14 12:30:38 2013

Hi Bess,

Soil test a good idea. Get a good one - Mo, Co, Se, Ge, Zn, Cu, B for openers.

An impressive number of very smart people make statements like:

"All disease is the result of a mineral imbalance."

Please do your own research. I suspect you will come to agree.

That said: Just what minerals in what ratios ARE needed?

A VERY good question! Some of the vet manuals give a pretty good idea of cause, effect and cure. There is probably more unknown than known. If you find a good answer I am all ears :).


Comment by john Mon Jan 14 13:53:41 2013
If your nutrition lacks some minerals or other nutrients, wouldn't it be much more efficient to take a supplement yourself? Certainly you'd have to add much more to your soil to get the level in your food plants up than you'd need if you took it yourself.
Comment by Roland_Smith Mon Jan 14 14:13:49 2013

Bess --- Yeah, I wish he'd left that anecdote out. It's the very one that set off my kooky-meter. :-)

Roland --- That's a good question, but I tend to think it's worth fixing soil deficiencies rather than taking a multivitamin for a variety of reasons. First, I've seen data that suggests we don't uptake vitamins and minerals as well in pill form as in food form (and we've been discovering new vitamins and minerals throughout the twentieth century, so I'm not yet ready to assume we know everything the human body needs.)

Perhaps more relevantly, fixing the soil improves flavor and yields since the plants growing there are healthier. For us, it's all about flavor, and anything we can do to make our strawberries taste even better is well worth it. :-)

Comment by anna Mon Jan 14 14:54:25 2013

Hi Anna,

Many of the farmers I know taste test their food as the ultimate test.

Check out A year or so ago I got a few Brix 10 tomatoes using his method. Yummy. It's the only method I know that actually delivers real results.

FWIW the lettuce I test around here has a Brix of 2 :(. Well below POOR !

I haven't gotten into growing lettuce yet, but it's on the list :).


Comment by john Mon Jan 14 15:05:37 2013

Hi Anna,

Have you read other soil mineralization texts such as Michael Astera's "The Ideal Soil"? The reason I ask is that I'm just jumping into this whole soil test/mineralization stuff for my garden and I would like some perspectives on which authors offer the most reasonable advice (reading between the lines...I want to purchase the book that has maximum scientific backing with minimal kook factor). Are they all based on Albrecht's theories or do they offer additional insights into soil mineralization? BTW I love your blog!

Comment by Mike Gaughan Thu Jan 17 16:58:16 2013
Mike --- This is my first foray into the topic, but it does seem like a good book to start on. Solomon is pretty mainstream, and he based his work on Astera and Albrecht both. I think that of our readers, John has read most about the topic --- he may chime in with a single book that is the best one to start with, but if not, my recommendation is for this one. :-)
Comment by anna Fri Jan 18 18:22:59 2013

On multi-vitiamins... I tend to believe the nickname "Bed Pan Bullets" is likely fitting. I haven't personally done any studies or read any research on the subject but I feel that unless something is assimilated naturally (in food in this case) it probably isn't as effective (if at all). Simply looking at instances where we know this is the case leads me to this conclusion. An example would be breast-fed babies compared to formula/bottle fed. We probably have no idea of the adverse health effects of formula feeding babies. Not trying to step on any toes-- I formula fed my own babies -- I just wish I hadn't have done so.

On soil amendments... I want to run and hide from charts with mathematical formulas! Haha! Seriously, I'm so thankful for people who thrive on that side of the brain, but if learning to do those calculations were requisite to successful gardening I'd probably have to quit. I think what human beings do best is make very simple things extremely complicated. (Something I've been very successful at doing in many areas.) But the idea of homesteading is about living simpler. It's hard physically to be sure. But it shouldn't be mentally exhausting. I also don't want to have to be dependent on getting large amounts of this and that from some company. My boys and I collect rocks all over our property for raised beds and such, and one of our biggest delights is examining the soil throughout the forest floor. No one is amending it (but God) yet the life and health that springs forth from it has clearly been provided for. I think adding amendments is good -- I add manure to everything. I just don't think it has to be so complicated. We are so limited in our understanding of chemicals and how they react to one another that our best bet is to leave it to natural processes as much as possible. I know we have figured out a lot, bit I believe it's a fraction of a drop in the bucket compared to what we don't know.

Another instance of adverse effects of interfering with natural processes is with poultry. Some say it has been bred out of chickens to hatch out their eggs. We were overjoyed to have a pasture-raised hen hatch two clutches, but more often than not, eggs are hatched in incubators and the natural habits of chickens are growing extinct. I'm not against incubators, but at the same time I treasure a hen who will act like a mama hen, hatch out her eggs and train/protect them. SO SO fun to watch!! thanks for allowing my ramblings... = )
~Jehovah-jireh~ "The Lord Provides"

Comment by Jamie in VA Sat Jan 19 16:42:20 2013

Very wonderful reading!

Thank you

Comment by Joanie Sun Aug 19 19:21:03 2018

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