Living in Harmony with Nature and teaching others to garden the natural (organic) way, with emphasis on practices that lead to NUTRIENT DENSE produce!

Harmony Gardens

Harmony Gardens
Bey Home designed by Stitt Energy Systems, Inc. 2002

Welcome To Our Site

Our intent is simple: to provide useful information on gardening, health and sustainability issues. We will include class and meeting announcements, gardening information, and book reviews. The articles that Calvin writes for Garden Thyme, the Master Gardener Newsletter will be included. We will try to make this site easy to use and relevant.

About Me

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Fayetteville, Arkansas, United States
Harmony Gardens is the home of Calvin and Doris Bey. As the name implies our goal is to live in harmony with the Laws of Nature. We are concerned about the environment, energy efficiency, organic gardening, alternative health, and sustainability issues. We love our Stitt Energy Systems Inc. energy efficient home, which received a First Place NAHB National Award for 2003. Calvin is a retired USDA Forest Service scientist. Each year he teaches classes in Organic Gardening in February and March and again in September. Doris is a retired RN. Calvin and Doris have put their energy efficient house up for sale (by owner). See first post for description, pictures, and house design.

December 20, 2009

Agriculture-Nutrition History

Calvin F.Bey


Agriculture history goes back thousands of years to the time when the hunter-gatherer people began planting seeds and tending their crops. Although archeologists can trace some of the early agriculture history through seeds, it is the written material of the past 100-200 years that gets most of our attention. So what are the standout agriculture "discoveries" of the past 100 years? History books list machines, genetics, fertilizers, pesticides, and some cultural techniques. No doubt there have been some revolutionary changes, but, unfortunately, little attention has been paid to the integration of basic concepts into holistic systems. What has happened along these lines?

We might begin by asking, "What do Drs. William A. Albrecht, Royal Lee, Cary Reams, Weston A. Price, and Sir Albert Howard have in common?" These were holistic scientists, working in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, establishing the relationships between soils, farming practices, and consumer health. They answered many questions of their day, and in "alternative agriculture" circles today, their approaches and conclusions have great value. If you sum up their contributions in one diagram, it is the following:

Healthy Soils Healthy

Plants Healthy Produce (High

Brix) Healthy Consumers

Dr. William A. Albrecht, a distinguished and well respected soil scientist, worked at the University of Missouri. He wrote volumes of papers, including a major summary on organic matter and nitrogen for the 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture. His studies showed that farming with corn, wheat and oats, (without the addition of manure) drastically reduced the soil organic matter. He showed how nitrogen became depleted, how it related to other minerals, and how it could be maintained and restored. His studies also included how mineral depleted soils adversely affected the plants and health of the animals that ate them.

In a similar vein, many other scientists did essentially the same thing -- showed the relationship of the soil to the health of the plants and the consumers. While this is not a foreign concept, it is rarely the emphasis in commercial agriculture today.

So if this information was so valuable, why was it not incorporated into best-management practices? Unfortunately, the answer lies in the fact that promotion of new products (commercial fertilizers and pesticides) actually pushed out the holistic concepts. In some cases, as with Albrecht, holistic scientists were criticized, demoted, and told to curtail their research. Chemical companies grabbed control of the commercial agriculture industry.

My point in this article is that much of the older research is as valid today as when it was published. Ignoring much of it for generations has not been in the best interest of consumers' health. At the root of fixing health care problems today is the remineralization of our soils. It seems to be a difficult lesson for us to learn. I wonder why. Maybe some reflection on and study of agriculture history would be useful.

October 30, 2009

Biochar - What is it all about?

Biochar is a fine-grained highly porous charcoal. It can be made from any organic material high in carbon, like wood, switch grass, or many others. It is produced by pyrolysis or gasification, essentially baking biomass in the absence of oxygen. Indigenous people often make charcoal by burning wood covered with a layer of soil.

Some time ago I read in National Geographic a very interesting story about the rich black, man-made soils that were discovered in Amazon Basin in Brazil. These 6-foot deep soils were called Terra Preta, meaning "dark earth" in Portuguese. They were unusual in that after several thousand years of heavy rainfall and continuous forest production, the soils were still deep, rich and productive. These soils were in sharp contrast to the soils on adjacent lands where the natural soils were acidic and depleted of minerals. That story left me with a one big question, "How could we recreate soils like that?"

For those keeping up with new agriculture developments, you know that the question has been addressed and the current interest in biochar is high. Although relatively few scientists are addressing associated issues, an international conference is planned for November. Interest has been prompted by those wanting to use biochar to increase soil productivity, and those looking for a way to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the air.

Those studying the original Terra Preta soils believe the indigenous people actually made low-temperature charcoal and added it to the soil. The carbon in biochar resists degradation and thus stays in the soil for centuries. As a rule we think of charcoal coming from wood. In reality, it can come from anything high in carbon, even chicken litter. That is why Tyson is interested in making biochar.

A series of early experiments have demonstrated that biochar does great things for the soil. It provides some nutrients, reduces leaching of nutrients, improves water holding capacity, increases microbial activity, moderates soil acidity, stimulates nitrogen fixation, and in the process increases plant growth. One article talks about it being effective to remove contaminants (heavy metals, pesticides, oil, etc) from the soil. Another dimension, which has not been addressed, is the fact that burned material has an increased paramagnetic value. Because of this, the soil microbes and the plants benefit from increased magnetic energy.

Like variability in compost quality that I wrote about last month, all biochar is not alike. The quality depends on the processes used in manufacture.

In short, I am excited to hear what is happening on this topic. It may or may not turn out to be practical. I have joined an International Biochar study group to keep posted on the subject. I will be looking for a supply of biochar and doing some testing and demonstrations. As this all develops, stay tuned. If you have extensive knowledge about the topic, outside contacts, and /or a keen interest, let me know.

September 22, 2009

Compost Evaluation and Winter Worms

The Washington County Fair is mentioned elsewhere in this issue, so I won't dwell on it here. It was fun to work with many Master Gardeners, and to meet folks bringing in vegetables. Above all else, the real highlight of the Fair was to see the delight of 5-year old Oliver, who had entered a sunflower seed head. He proudly told me how he had planted it, watered it, and now it had won a ribbon. The color of the ribbon was not important. The beaming smile on his face was proof positive that the fair was a rewarding experience for him. That genuine sense of awe that comes from a youngster partnering with Nature and following through is what I will long remember about this year's Fair.


Compost Quality—All compost is not alike! Even though it is all derived from organic material, it can be very different in quality. Quality of compost is determined by what goes into the pile and the process itself. High quality compost is microbial diverse, stable, and mature. If you are buying compost, ask for some kind of an analysis that addresses these factors.

Microbial Diversity -- In addition to compost being full of nutrients, you should expect your compost to be high in microbial diversity. These microbes will include bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, and Pseudomonas. These organisms are there to digest the organic matter in the soil, make the minerals available for the plants, and help to detoxify the soil. Compost with high microbial diversity will be more complete and responsive in its role of ameliorating the fluctuating and stress situations in the soil.

Compost stability refers to the degree to which the organic matter has been decomposed into more stable materials. In stable composts, the rate of further decomposition is very low and very little carbon dioxide is being given off. If you buy compost that contains large pieces of organic matter, or if it still heats up, you do not have high stability compost.

Compost maturity is another way of evaluating compost quality. It is a measure of how toxic the compost is when tested on germinating seeds. Immature composts contain more growth inhibiting compounds like salts, phenolic compounds, ammonia, and organic acids. Look for composts that are very fine and granular.

Winter Worms – If you are using red wigglers to eat your garbage, then start to think about how you will help them survive over the winter. If your worm box gets below 40 degrees, you may lose worms and they will not be eating very much garbage. I leave some worms outside for the winter, but I cover them heavily with straw and other materials. I also put many worms into the proper worm medium in 20-gallon containers and bring many in to my furnace room. It is convenient for feeding them the peelings and other kitchen scraps over the winter, and they survive and reproduce very well.

Soil Testing Time

It's a good idea to get a late summer soil test, and apply appropriate fertilizers with the fall/winter cover crops. Over the past 5 years I have looked at hundreds of Arkansas Soil Test Reports for gardens. I am aware that many gardeners, who get the soil test, don't fully understand the report. And further, many gardeners have a still harder time making the necessary calculations to figure out what organic fertilizers to use and how much to apply on their beds. It's not my goal to try to explain all the details in this article, but as some of you move to organics, and are using the Arkansas Soil Test, here are some guidelines.

Taking Soil Samples: First, get some soil boxes from the Extension Service. If your garden is small and fairly uniform, one sample will be sufficient. That pint box should be filled with soil from subsamples taken from 5-10 different places in the garden. Don't include the coarse material on the soil surface. Take those subsamples from the 2-6 inch layer of soil. For larger and/or more variable gardens, include more samples. When submitting the samples, explain specifically that you want a test for Nitrogen. The test results will take 2-3 weeks, so plan ahead.

Interpreting the Soil Test Report: Compared with some other states, I really like the Arkansas test results. They do the analysis of 11 different elements and give the results for each element in actual pounds per acre. I have also checked and the Lab results are consistent, i.e. we get the same results from duplicate samples from the same soil. They also provide the soil pH and the estimated base saturation (i.e. the soil Cation Exchange Capacity). The CEC is a measure of the positive minerals (Ca, Mg, K, and Na) in the soil that are attached to the clay and humus particles. For growing nutrient dense produce, you should have those elements in specific ratios.

The soil pH measures the acidity or the alkalinity (i.e. sweet or basic) of the soil. Soil pH of 7.0 is neutral. Lower numbers are acidic and higher numbers are alkaline. For most vegetables, strive for a pH of 6.4 (slightly acidic). Some plants like blueberries, azaleas, and rhododendrons like a more acid soil. Lime raises the pH. Sulfur, sulfates and acetic acid (vinegar) will lower the pH.

Caution: There are some things in the report that are superfluous: Under the Nutrient Availability Index section you will see concentrations in ppm. That means parts per million, and is the number that the Lab determines from their chemical analysis. If you multiply the ppm by 2 you get the pounds per acre. It is based on the assumption that an acre of soil (7 inches deep) weighs 2 million pounds. As a gardener, you have no need to use the ppm values.

You will also have an Estimated Soil Texture name, which is not a real soil texture measurement. It comes from looking at the CEC, which comes from the amount of clay and humus in the soil. The higher the CEC, the more likely you will get a soil texture classification of "clay." You can get the same classification with highly organic soils without any clay in the soil. Just ignore the soil texture name provided.

Be alert that the recommendations for application of Nitrogen are not specific to your soil. I have 6 recent Soil Reports with corresponding rates for Nitrogen of 0, 54, 62, 214, 262 and 596 pounds per acre, and the recommendation for adding nitrogen is identical in all of them. The fact that you get a recommendation for nitrogen, even when they do not do a nitrogen test, should put you on high alert that this recommendation is not meaningful.

Critical Numbers: More than anything else, I look at the pounds per acre for each of the 11 elements. How do you know what the "right" pounds per acre numbers should be? I have spent a lot of time analyzing that tough question. Because I am most interested in recommendations that are developed for growing nutrient dense produce, I have had to go to another source outside of Arkansas for the answers. Pounds per acre numbers for nutrient dense produce have been developed, originally by Dr. Cary Reams, and subsequently by many others. Unfortunately, the Arkansas soil test methodology (the Mehlich 3 system) is different than the soil tests used by Reams and others (the Morgan soil test system). In essence, a stronger acid is used for extraction of the elements in the Mehlick 3 system.

To figure out the corresponding pounds per acre numbers for nutrient dense produce for the Arkansas test, I have collected soil samples, mixed them very well, split them in two parts, and sent each part of the sample to the Arkansas Soil Laboratory and a private laboratory (International Ag Labs) that does the Morgan test and has the pound per acre numbers for growing nutrient dense produce. With the pounds per acre numbers from 17 split samples from both labs, I have now derived estimates of pounds per acre needed for each element that are most appropriate for the Arkansas test. This project is continuing.

As a rule, the soil tests will reveal 3 to 5 elements that need adjusting. I have seen the test results and there are big differences in pounds per acre for elements among different garden soils. Without the soil test, making fertilizer recommendations is simply a guess. Don't gamble with your garden. Above all, don't start adding fertilizers indiscriminately to new garden areas with native soils. I have seen several examples where the gardener "ruined" the soil by over fertilizing. As a rule, new soils, even if they are low in nutrients, can be easily adjusted. Get the soil test, and if you want help in deciding what organic fertilizers to apply, please contact me.

Fall Gardening - Nutrition Matters

Fall gardens: August is the time to get some vegetables and fruits ready for the Fair, which begins on August 31. It's also the time to get the fall vegetable garden established and plan for a cover crop for the winter. For the cover crops, I use Oats and/or Austrian Winter Peas. You probably won't find them in less than 50 pound bags. I will have oats and peas available in small bags for 100 to 500 square feet areas. If interested in a small amount, let me know. Both of those cover crops should be planted in early September.

For the fall vegetable garden, I plant beets, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, Swiss chard, lettuce, radishes and turnips. Although it will still seem very much like summer, mi to late August is the time to begin fall gardens. Only a few nurseries will have broccoli and cabbage plants available, and they don't last long. If you want to grow your own, start them in early August. I plant seeds of these in the garden and then transplant them later. Because these are cool weather crops, they will benefit from a little afternoon shade.

Nutrition matters: For the majority of the time that I spend helping other organic gardeners, I deal with questions regarding the re-mineralization of the soil (fertilization). Growing vegetables is not the same as growing vegetables with high nutrition, which I advocate. In a good fertilizer regime all the minerals needed for good growth and nutrition are there in their proper amounts. What to apply depends on what is already in the soil. Without a soil test, it's pretty much a guess. Sometimes it is an easy process to get the correct amounts and ratios, but in general the process of getting all the minerals and ratios correct takes several years.

Boron is more than a minor element. It is fortunate that in our Arkansas Soil Test program we get a test for the mineral or element called boron. Like many minerals, boron does not act independent of other minerals. It is closely tied with calcium, and in fact calcium will not provide its many benefits if boron is in short supply. It begins with its role in photosynthesis, i.e. the production of sugar. Next, it plays a critical role in releasing sugar to the root system each night. This sugar exudes from the roots and feeds the microbes in the rhizophere, which in turn helps to fix nitrogen, make phosphorus soluble, recycle minerals from crop residues, remove toxins, produce growth stimulants, and protect the plant from pathogens. All this and more is partially dependent on the correct amount of boron.

Although the Arkansas Soil Test program provides the pounds per acre of boron in the soil, there are no recommendations given for adding boron, even if the values for boron are zero. It is important that you look at this number on your soil test report each year and add boron if needed. Boron is a mineral that is leached from the soil, especially in soils low in organic matter.

You can fix the boron deficiency problem easily by simply adding borax (yes, the Twenty Mule Team product). Four pounds of boron per acre is adequate. Do not over supply, especially in calcium deficient soils. Borax is 12 percent boron, so for each pound per acre that you are deficient in boron, add 1 Tablespoon of borax per 100 square feet. Mix it in water, apply, and water it in. It can also go on as a foliar spray, and is especially helpful if done prior to flowering.

Boron is not just for the welfare of the plants and the soil. Animal and human health nutritionists now know that it serves in a diverse range of functions in animals and humans. A shortage in the diet can lead to health issues. It all begins with having it in the soil. Want to read more about this, check it out on the internet. See for starters.

July 1, 2009

Heirlooms, Hybrids, and Genetically Modified Organisms

Heirlooms: If you have been a vegetable gardener for a long time, some old, standard varieties of seeds will likely come to mind. Detroit Dark Red Beets, Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage, Danvers Half Long Carrots, Country Gentleman Sweet Corn, Oak Leaf Lettuce, and Brandywine Tomatoes are likely to be on your list of known varieties. These listed varieties all have one thing in common. They were all selected and named in seed catalogues in 1900 or before. They all result from plants that are randomly, open-pollinated (not deliberately crossed as in hybrids), and were likely in certain families and local localities for many years before introduced for sale. We call these kinds of seeds "heirlooms," and there are thousands of them listed in seed catalogues and in seed storage facilities, and many more still unnamed. They are a valuable genetic resource for the present and for future generations


Hybrids are simply the result of deliberate crossing of certain selected lines. They are the result of natural breeding processes that have been used for thousands of years. Hybrids are generally not as broadly adapted (narrower genetic base) as open-pollinate, heirloom varieties, but they can have some very desirable characteristics. They are often promoted for their disease resistance potential. Hybrids are acceptable in the USDA certified organic grower's program.

GMOs: While one could say that hybrids are genetically modified seed, in today's lexicon, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) refers to DNA material that has been randomly inserted into a species, at the cell level. The procedure has only been used commercially for the last ten years. It is highly mutagenic and routinely breeches genera barriers. In the USDA organic certification program, the GMOs are NOT allowed.

Why the opposition to GMOs in the organic certification program? There are three major reasons for the opposition. The GMO crops have not been fully tested for their propensity to invade and affect other plant species in the environment in which they are planted. Second, they have not been tested for ability to effect human health. And third, where planted they impose a threat to polluting open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. This is an issue of major social injustice by big seed and chemical companies "invading" developing countries with GMOs and contaminating their long-standing, reliable native varieties. The relatively poor and helpless farmers and peasants are at the mercy of the invading companies. The video, "The Future of Food" explains this very well. Watch too for a movie coming soon called "Food, Inc."

Of course there is controversy on the issues. Big companies advocate that they can feed the world through higher production yields with GMOs. The Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed 12 studies and indicates otherwise. To paraphrase, "The several thousand field trials over the last 20 years for genes aimed at increasing operational yields of major food/feed crops show no increase in yield with the exception of Bt corn."

Perhaps the most direct effect of GM food is how they might influence human health. The studies to verify that GM foods are safe for humans have not been done. Many studies have been done on animals and the results are scary. Serious health risks associated with GMOs include infertility, immune dysfunction, accelerated aging, protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney and spleen. It is clear that there is much more to food safety than just the nutritional quality. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine is very concerned about this safety issue and has just released a position paper stating, "Because of the mounting data, it is biologically plausible for Genetically Modified Foods to cause adverse health effects in humans." Among several items, they are asking, "Physicians to educate their patients, the medical community, and the public to avoid GM foods when possible and provide educational materials concerning GM foods and health risks."

Consumers can hardly avoid eating some GM foods today. Much of the corn, rice and soybeans grown today is derived from GMO seed. You can minimize GM food intake by sticking to organic products, buying locally and growing your own vegetables. More and more folks are doing just that.

For those wanting to see the studies referenced, see

May 14, 2009

Free Nitrogen

Economic crisis or not, we generally like to get things "free." Sometimes there are strings attached and what appears to be free is not such a great deal. Among the thousands of natural phenomena, there are some amazing processes that give us "free" products. The process of photosynthesis is an example. It includes the use of free carbon dioxide, free sun energy, and free rain, all working in connection with a lot of natural minerals. The result is system that makes our food. It can work just fine without any input from us. I guess it is our nature, but we have a tendency to want to control the processes and take credit for things that come naturally.

We know that plants need nitrogen for growing. The nitrogen used by plants does not all come from the soil. The air is 75 percent nitrogen and plants utilize some of it on routine basis. It actually moves into the plant through the stomata, just as does the carbon dioxide. Beyond using the atmospheric nitrogen for growth, some plants are able to take that nitrogen and "fix" it in the soil. The biggest group of nitrogen fixing plants comes from the legume family, which includes peas, beans, peanuts, vetch, black locust trees, and many more.

The nitrogen fixation process is actually a little more complex in that it requires the help of Rhizobium bacteria, which are found naturally in the soil. Caution! Soils that that have had a lot of abuse through the use of high salt fertilizers and pesticides may not contain the necessary bacteria. Without the bacteria, no nitrogen will be fixed. Fortunately, you can purchase the bacteria to re-inoculate bacteria-deficient soils.

I use Austrian winter peas as one of my primary winter cover crops. I plant the peas in September and they grow about 12 inches tall in the fall and then begin to grow again in the spring. By early May they are 2 feet tall and beginning to flower. When they begin to bloom, I cut them off and either leave them right in place for garden mulch, or use them for compost, or sometimes feed them to my red wiggler worms. Corn is heavy user of nitrogen and does very well where the peas have grown.

I dig up some pea plants each fall and spring to see if they are producing nitrogen. The presence of nitrogen is easily detected by the whitish-pink nodules on the roots. The amount of nitrogen that is being "fixed" in my garden appears to be growing each year. The peas are profusely loaded with nodules this spring. I expect there is 100 - 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre on the roots. The picture below with the Austrian winter peas and the nodules show just how the nitrogen fixing system works.

In addition to the accumulation of nitrogen on the roots, the biomass of the vegetation is huge. I weighed a sample of the Austrian winter peas from my garden and estimate that I have 13 tons of organic matter (green weight) per acre. Our farming ancestors knew the value of nitrogen fixing cover crops, crop rotations, green manures, and other similar systems. The same is true of many current alternative and organic gardeners/farmers, the Amish, and others. These are the practices that lead to more sustainable farming.

The real plus in the cover crop-rotational system is that the nitrogen produced in this way is in an organic form and is released slowly, often just the way the plant needs it. It's another example of how important it is to understanding the workings of Nature. This "free" nitrogen story is about as good as it gets in Nature.

Tuning in to Nature

Tuning In To Nature is the title of a book by Philip S. Callahan, Ph.D. (a University of Arkansas grad). The book is about infrared radiation and insect communication systems, and it deals with how insects are equipped to search out and attack weak plants. The plants emit specific electromagnetic radiation frequencies and certain insects are tuned in and attracted to those plants. Those antennae on the male cercropia moth (shown below) are not there for decoration, but for the functional sensing. This whole concept is a logical step from what starts as one of the Laws of Nature. Stated succinctly, this Law says "The Default Position in Nature is Health." Putting it another way, "Plants are Designed to be Healthy."

So how does that Law fit with insects and disease? Is it insects and disease that cause plants to be unhealthy? No. Plants are unhealthy because of stress caused by toxins or by mineral/biological deficiencies, which are generally soil problems. Excess minerals can also act as toxins. With that stated, it makes sense that insect and disease are the symptoms, not the problems. In fact, the corollary to the Law is this: "Insects and disease are the Appropriate Response to the Existing Conditions." They are the garbage collectors, the cleanup crew, appropriately taking care of the weak and waste in biological systems. When we approach the growing of plants in this manner, we tune in to nature and begin to cooperate with nature rather than try to control it.

The take home, practical lesson from understanding this is very simple. Apply the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm." In practice, first and foremost, don't apply toxins to the plants or the soil. Second, strive to fix the soil mineral/biological deficiency conditions. We can see what happens if we do otherwise. By applying toxins (chemical pesticides), the plant/soil system is weakened and insects and disease appears. So then we apply more chemicals (toxins) to kill the insects and pathogens, and the vicious, downward cycle continues. It's what many folks in alternative agriculture refer to as rescue chemistry. There are thousands of acres under alternative systems to demonstrate that farming/gardening does not have to be done that way.

The insect and disease phenomenon, as described above, is one example where organic and conventional garden/farming are viewed differently. I know from much experience that the concept is new to many gardeners. If it strikes you as a new idea and different from how you have always viewed insects and diseases, I hope you give the topic some study and thought. Take some time to digest the significance. It is a well accepted concept in the eco-agriculture arena, the place where gentle-on-the-land, low input, and sustainable farming practices abound.

More than ever before, I am getting questions about how to get started in organic gardening. I suggest, that even without knowing all things you need to do, make a commitment and begin. Vow to NOT use the pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Next, start concentrating on creating a healthy soil. That may involve compost, raised beds, minimum tillage, cover crops, and natural fertilizers. The important thing is to get started. We have all made some mistakes, and will make more in the future, but do not let that deter you. One thing is certain. If you stick with it, the organic adventure will serve you and society very well. You will be surprised how you can improve your soil in a few short years. Ask me for advice if you need it.

March 22, 2009

The Organic Gardening F. A. S. T. E. R. Introduction

As you begin your gardening activities this year, I encourage you to switch in the direction of using practices that are more organic, more nutrient-dense for vegetables, and more sustainable. This article sets the stage for gardening with some general conceptual material. F.A.S.T.E.R. is simply the acronym for the key words in my 2009 organic gardening course introduction. It sets the stage for sharing of ecological principles and organic gardening practices.

F is for Forgiveness.
In regards to gardening, it is the direction you are headed that is really important, not how organic or sustainable your practices have been in the past. Though we are all at different points on the "organic scale," comparisons are unnecessary. I like to think of everyone at the same starting line. Forget the past and think about the future. Don't feel guilty if you have not used organic gardening practices in the past. Forgive yourself of past practices; don't live with the past as a burden, and save your energy for increased efforts in your new and/or continuing goals.

A is for Adventure. Think and practice organic gardening as an adventure. It is an adventure that includes learning, discovery, surprises, Laws of Nature, sharing, fun, community building, and more. Organic gardening is not a "project" like washing the car, with a definite beginning and ending point. It is complex, diverse and often challenging. The adventure develops it own persona, it pulses with the moon and the seasons, and it never ends. For us the gardeners, it is about our development and relationship to Nature. The adventure is meant to be enjoyed.

S is for Soil.
Organic gardening is built on the premise of the development of a healthy soil. I like to say that organic garden is all about health care. From that healthy soil, comes healthy plants, healthy produce and healthy consumers. The journey though the various stages will vary in time, space, and complexity of the gardening practices, but there is no substitute for the building of the proper foundation of a healthy soil.

T is for Time.
The time for converting to organics is now, not later. There is a real urgency. Soil is a finite resource. Yes, it can be developed, but it continues to be depleted and polluted. For the US, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service reports that we are still losing soil at the rate of almost 1 percent per year. Our average original top soil depth of 20 inches is now down to 7 inches, and at current erosion rates will be 3.5 inches in 100 years. Our average original soil organic matter content of 5 to 10 percent is now less than 2 percent. In Arkansas, it now averages 1.25 percent. The well being and standard of living for our civilization is directly dependent on this finite soil resource. Bluntly stated, continued depletion and pollution will lead to the collapse of our civilization as we now know it. It's happened in other places and it can happen here. The clock is ticking.

E is Everything Else.
After the stated urgency and focus on the development of a healthy soil, everything else is details. Paying attention to the details is important. In organic gardening there are some substitution practices and self-correcting systems, but if we don't pay attention to the details, we can find ourselves working against the Laws of Nature, rather than with them. For example, when working for the ultimate goal of producing nutrient dense produce, all the soil nutrient amounts and ratios need to be correct. The numbers are not right until all the numbers are right.

R is for Rewards. The rewards for being an organic gardener are as diverse and complex as the gardening is itself. They begin with the self-satisfaction that you are being gentle on the land. They come with the feeling of being a cooperator with Nature, and as you begin to understand that in Nature the default position is Health. The rewards come with new understandings of natural relationships and in the sharing of new knowledge. The rewards are there when your bare hands are covered with soil, and when you bite into the first-pulled carrot or when you sit down with friends to enjoy fresh sweet corn. They come in unexpected times and places.

March 7, 2009

Calcium: More than a Soil Sweetener

Calcium (Ca), number 20 in the Periodic Table, is the element that we think about when our soil is acidic (pH is low) and it needs some sweetening. Lime (calcium carbonate) is the usual material for this correction. Yet Ca is much more than a bag of lime for a soil with a sweet tooth. In the first place, Ca is not the only element that sweetens the soil and raises the pH. Magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), and sodium (Na) are also positive ions that also serve in a similar capacity. Soils can be high in K and Na, and give a high pH, and be deficient in Ca. Soil pH is technically the measure of the hydrogen ion concentration, which is really a reciprocal of the calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium ions.

Why is Ca often called the king of the nutrients by the holistic eco-gardeners? It's the king because it is so prevalent in plant tissue, and so vital in many of the growth and development processes in plants. In short, it is involved in plant membrane permeability, cell wall structure, enzyme activities, and in interaction with photohormones. Like every element that a plant needs, Ca does not act strictly on its own. Ca must be in the correct amount and in the correct ratio with other elements for the production of nutrient-dense produce.

One important ratio is that of the nutrients of Ca and Mg. Strive for a ratio of 7:1 or slightly greater. Too much Ca will cause Mg, phosphorous and minor element deficiency. Too much Mg results in compacted soils, and phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen deficiencies. Another little fact; without boron, Ca uptake and utilization is inhibited. If your soil tests show that no boron is present, add borax to bring it up to the 4 pounds per acre level.

All "liming" materials are not alike. If you are adding lime, choose one that fits your garden soil needs. Don't count on all local suppliers of lime to understand the differences. Read the labels. Of several "liming" materials that are available, here are the percent averages of the various elements.


High calcium limestone 38 % Ca

Dolomite 22% Ca 14%Mg

Epsom salt – Magnesium sulfate 10% Mg 14% Sulfur

Calcium sulfate – Gypsum 22% Ca 18% Sulfur

Sul-Po-Mag 11% Mg 9% Sulfur 21% Potassium

On your Soil Test Report, the Estimated Base Exchange (%) is given, but rarely explained or used by gardeners. It refers to the soil's ability to hold plant nutrients. This is called the Cation Exchange Capacity, and it is the relative amounts of Ca, Mg, K, and Na, ions held in the soil. For those elements, I like to see numbers of 68, 12, 5, and 1 percent, respectively. Generally, when you get to these levels, your soil pH will be in the ideal area of 6.4. That is a slightly acidic soil, in which the microorganism are fully active and the plants are able to use the elements.

Fixing the Ca levels is just one step in the balancing of nutrients for your soil. I start by looking at the pounds per acre of Ca, and the ratio of Ca:Mg. Then, if needed, I decide what "liming" fertilizer is best for the situation. The process is often not a simple formula or cookie-cutter approach. I try to error on the side of adding too little rather than too much. The processes of Nature are complex and corrective, always striving to adjust the soil that leads to healthy plants. Of course that is done most effectively when the soil is free of toxic chemicals. Making the soil amendment adjustments slowly puts me in the camp of working with Nature, not acting like I am the one in control. In the long run, that strategy gives the best results.

If you are inclined to use the organic approach and are confused about what to do, how to interpret soil tests, etc, feel free to contact me. I'll do my best to help.

February 1, 2009

Rodale Institute and the Organic Green Revolution

For many years I have been concerned about world health issues. In particular, it bothers me to see the world hunger situation in such dire straits. This month I want to share with you some information from a recent article, that I hope peaks your interest. First, let's examine a bit of history. As early as the 1930s and 40s some scientists were becoming skeptical of what was considered conventional agriculture. They saw the loss and deterioration of the soil, accompanied by the lack of nutrition in food for animal and humans, as a serious problem. These scientists did not get much attention. In fact, some were ridiculed, considered old-fashioned, and even condemned for their scientific contributions.

J.I. Rodale was one man with many concerns in this era. In 1941, he bought a farm in Pennsylvania, and in 1942 started a magazine, "Organic Farming and Gardening," with the goal of developing and demonstrating practical methods of rebuilding natural soil fertility.

In the 1960s many agriculture scientists, and others in government and industry, began advocating that the US had the solution to the world food shortage problems. The movement was called the industrial Green Revolution. In agriculture, that meant "get big or get out," an actual quote from Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. The emphasis in agriculture was on genetics (hybridization and eventually GMOs) and chemical NPK fertilization for increased production. If you look at the agriculture scientific journals for the last 40 years, you can see how this theme prevailed.

As time went on, there was more and more emphasis on chemical herbicides and pesticides. The word "green" in the industrial Green Revolution had nothing to do with its general meaning today. To be "green" in agriculture today implies efforts toward sustainability and a non-invasive, friendly approach to the environment. The industrial Green Revolution was anything but green. While the Revolution was powering its way through the US and the world in the 60s and 70s, more and more people questioned the wisdom of chemical agriculture practices.

By1981, J.I. Rodale had died. His son, Robert, had taken over the "Organic Gardening and Farming" magazine, and had won USDA support to begin the Farming System Trials. These were tests to compare the conventional and the organic systems in farm-size trials. The criteria for comparison included crop production, as well as soil development characteristics, and energy inputs. It would be holistic, long-term, and comprehensive testing.

The Rodale/USDA tests were not the only ones making this kind of comparisons. Many farming-practice tests were being done in other places throughout the US and the world. Results trickled in and were published in Eco and Alternative Agriculture magazines. Throughout it all, conventional farming soils were still being degraded and the answer for more food production was generally the same…pour on more cheap NPK fertilizer. As the soils became poorer, the more fertilizer that was required, the more pest problems that developed, and the more pesticides that had to be applied. This has been referred to as rescue chemistry. No-till farming was developed, but was not the answer to reduction in use of chemicals. Along the way, the disease and insect folks tried to moderate the application of pesticides, through an Integrated Pest Management approach.

So how did the industrial Green Revolution do in answering the call to feed the world? Consider this. Of the 6.5 billion people in the world today, 923 million are seriously undernourished, more than 2 billion suffer from micronutrient malnutrition (hidden hunger), and 25,000 die each day from starvation. FAO reports that the fuel and financial crisis of the past year have plunged an additional 77 million people into malnutrition. The world's most vulnerable people have been hit the hardest. Soils have continued to be depleted and degraded, and the developing countries of the world have become dependent on others for much of their food, fertilizer and seed supplies, i.e. they moved closer to becoming welfare States. Few, if any, of the developing countries were successful in becoming self sufficient in agriculture.

All of this has not gone unnoticed. This world-wide issue involving agriculture and human health has been on the front burner for the United Nations (UN), World Bank (WB), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO) and many other organizations. The issues of food and health have come to an even more poignant junction with the recent increases in high energy costs. It's fair to say that although the intersection of environmental issues, energy, and the economy is messy and complex, it is clear that conventional farming practices need to change. This is not my conclusion, but the confirmed findings and recommendations of the recently released report of the International Assessment of Agriculture Knowledge, Science and Technology panel, supported by over 400 experts from FAO, UNEP, WHO, WB, UNESCO and more. See article "The Organic Green Revolution," by Drs. LaSalle, Hepperly and Diop. Go to, and click on Famine Prevention to find the article.

Here are a couple quotes from some of the base reports:

"The way the world grows its food will have to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if the world is to cope with the growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse."

…" the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the world may be far higher than many had supposed."

The new Organic Green Revolution proposal is based on two guiding principles: Build soil organic matter through the use of cover crops, crop rotation, and compost; and improve ecosystem health and human nutrition through plant and animal diversity.

The authors list the following benefits of the regenerative organic farming systems that they have proposed.

  • Competitive yields
  • Improved soil
  • Money savings
  • Energy savings
  • Mitigation of global warming
  • Enhanced biodiversity
  • Water conservation
  • Improved resiliency to weather variations
  • Increased food nutrient density
  • Reduced toxic load

I personally believe the time in ripe for this Organic Green Revolution. Without it, the road ahead looks dismal. For those of us already on board with an organic approach, we extend our welcome and helping hand to those wanting to make the transition. If you missed the first train, don't worry. We will keep the light on until you arrive.

Garden 2007

Garden 2007
Heirloom "Country Gentleman" Corn