Nutrient and Mineral Deficient Food: Part 2

Summer squash from our first garden. 2005 in Provo, Utah
When my husband and I moved back to Utah in spring 2005, I got RIGHT to work that June in planting somewhat of a garden in our little garden plot. It was ironic to me that as an adult I relished in weeding my garden when I had despised working in my parents’ garden growing up. It was so fun to watch new life sprouting up from the ground and growing and growing all summer long and then being able to harvest my own produce!

After having nominal success with our garden for about 3 or 4 years, my mom shared with me a couple of gardening books she was currently reading:  Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times (Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series) by Steve Solomon (original founder of Territorial Seed Company in Cottage Grove, OR) and  Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long by Eliot Coleman (owner of Four-Season Farm in Harborside, Maine). Having grown a garden for 30 years at this point, she excitedly shared with me all the things SHE was learning! It surprised me that my mom, whom I perceived as an "experienced gardener", was learning so much. I knew if she was learning as much as she claimed, I would learn a lot as well. Since I was very interested in what she shared with me, she gave copies of both books to us for my husband’s birthday. I jumped right into Solomon’s book finding chapter 2 “The Basics” VERY informative. I soon began to realize that in order to have a successful garden, I would need to actually study and learn the things that would make it successful rather than just planting some seeds in the ground, keeping it watered and weeded, fertilizing with Miracle-Gro occassionally, and hoping for the best... as most people do when they garden. And with the Vitamin Cure article in the back of my mind, I also realized that I did NOT want to grow sub-par food if I was going to go through the time and effort to garden. I wanted to grow and harvest mineral dense and nutrient rich food from my garden.
In the section “Helping plants grow” (starting on page 17 in the book), Solomon teaches us that “Plants also need a wide assortment of organic chemicals produced by the soil ecology” and that Russian researcher, Krasil’nikov, named these “phytaimins”. The process of how phytamins are created is still not well understood, but agronomists know that they are created by microorganisms in the topsoil. (I can write an entire article on how the topsoils have been destroyed by petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers - but that will be another day, today we are discussing mineral defeciencies in our food.)

Solomon then goes on to say: 

However, the mineral nutrition of plants is more straightforward. Agronomists are confident about which minerals are required, and in what proportions.” 

He then gives various examples of how even if a plant has all the calcium it needs, but is lacking magnesium, sulfur or boron - then they grow as poorly as if they were lacking calcium. Solomon continues: 

Before World War II most North Americans got their food from farms located not far from where they lived. As a result, difference in average human health due to local soil conditions were apparent. Albrecht [Dr. William Albrecht, chairman of the soils department of the University of Missouri during the 1940s and 1950s] provided this example: In 1940s the United States instituted a draft registration for military service. All young men had to report for a physical examination. In Missouri, the prairie soils in the northwest are far more fertile than the once thickly forested soils in the southeast of that state. If you draw a line across a map of Missouri from northwest to southeast, and test the soils all along that line, you’ll find that they get progressively poorer as you travel toward the Mississippi river, precisely as the amount of annual rainfall increases along that same line. Accordingly, approximately 200 men out of 1,000 examined from the northwest of Missouri were found to be unfit for military service, while 400 young men out of 1,000 from the southeast of the state were unfit. In the center of Missouri, about 300 per 1,000 men were unfit.
Map of Missouri indicating 1940s US draft registration physical exam results
Original picture from

Suppose the soil in your area contains abundant mineral nutrients in a near-perfect balance. In that case, the plants grown in your district will be healthy. If you take the manure from the animals eating that vegetation and/or take the vegetation itself and rot it down into compost, and then spread that compost or that manure atop your garden, what you have done is transported minerals in the right proportions to your garden and increased the overall levels of minerals in the garden’s soil in the right proportions. The result is a much better garden producing the same highly nutritious food the surrounding land grows.

But suppose that the soils in your area do not contain a perfect balance of plant nutrients. This means the average vegetation in your area is not as healthy as it might be, and neither are the animals grazing on it. When you bring a load of that vegetation into your garden in the form of manure or compost, you are increasing the amount of organic matter in your soil, which is good. You are also amplifying the imbalances of those minerals. Importing large quantities of imbalanced organic matter often leads to trouble because rich and ideally balanced soils are rare, not common. When you depend on your garden to provide much of your food, your health will suffer to the degree that your soil is out of balance. Homesteaders, mainly eating out of their gardens, even from organically grown gardens, have developed severe dental conditions or other health problems as a consequence of incorrect soil building.

If the soils around you are not rich and balanced, you should, if possible, take steps beyond ordinary manuring or composting to improve them. (pages 19-20, Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times)

Solomon then goes on to explain in the next section, “Complete organic fertilizer”, that since half of his family’s yearly food intake comes from his garden, he maximizes his vegetables’ nutritional quality. “Based on considerable research, I have formulated an organic soil amendment that is correct for almost any food garden. It is a complete, highly potent, and correctly balanced fertilizing mix made entirely of natural substances, a complete organic fertilizer, or COF.” (You can read more about Solomon’s COF formula and how to make your own COF in his Mother Earth News article “A Better Way to Fertilize Your Garden”)

After reading chapter 2 and learning how Solomon creates his COF, I understood that had I used Solomon’s COF in my previous gardens, they would have done infinitely better than the "nominal success" I had experienced. I also appreciated that Solomon didn’t just offer his COF as the “only way to successfully garden” as I had felt with other methods I had learned. He provided other, less expensive options, for various ways of improving your soil fertility for the very poorest gardener up to the high-end gardener. He then teaches you how to accommodate planting your garden to make up for not being able to use his COF formula (if you didn’t have the financial resources to secure all of the materials needed to make his COF), or even not having as much water available. Solomon also teaches in his book that there are “Low-demand vegetables”, “Medium-demand vegetables” and “High-demand vegetables”. Low-demand are the easiest to grow while high-demand require more attention in the form of vigilant watering in arid regions and mineral supplementation.

In his section “Chemical fertilizers” (also in his Mother Earth News article), Solomon expands on what he explained earlier about the mineral nutrients plants need. He stated:

Chemical fertilizers are too pure. Unless the manufacturer’s intention was to put in tiny amounts of numerous other essential minerals, the chemical sack won’t supply them. What is especially troublesome is that chemical fertilizers rarely have any calcium or magnesium in them. This is particularly true of inexpensive chemical blends, so-called complete chemical fertilizers like 16-16-16 or 20-20-20 or 10-20-16. They are entirely incomplete. They only supply nitrates, phosphorus, and potassium. Depending on how the fertilizer was concocted, there may also be plenty of sulfur (S) in them, but not necessarily. Plants do need NPK (and S), but they also need large amounts of calcium and magnesium, and a long list of other essential minerals in tiny traces. Plants lacking any essential nutrients are more easily attacked by insects and diseases, contain less nourishment for you, and often don’t grow as large or as fast as they might.

The sad thing about this fact is that the conventional produce you buy in the stores is grown with these chemical fertilizers - which as Solomon teaches, are incomplete. They lack the calcium and magnesium that vegetables require. After reading Solomon’s book, I was convinced even more that not even organic produce necessarily is nutritionally superior because I had no way to gauge if it has the right proportions of minerals that the plant, and thereby my body, needed. If I wanted to have a viable garden producing nutrient dense food, then I would need to find some way of making sure my plants were getting all the minerals they needed.

In reviewing Solomon’s research about calcium and magnesium commonly being left out of most traditional farming methods as I wrote this blog post, I am reminded again of the Vitamin Cure article I referenced in Mineral Deficient Food: Part 1

Here is what one of the inserts to the article stated:

Magnesium: It’s long been known that magnesium can act as a sedative. Some studies have also found magnesium deficiencies in patients with depression, although the evidence is inconsistent. The mineral may help other mood-stabilizing drugs work better. Researchers at the Chemical Abuse Centers in Boardman, Ohio, found that combining magnesium oxide with the drug verapamil helped control manic symptoms in patients better than a drug-placebo combination.

And on the 2nd page of the article it states:

Other research has shown correlations between low levels of various nutrients—zinc, calcium, magnesium, and B vitamins—and depression.

Two minerals that plants AND humans need in order to thrive, yet as Solomon pointed out these minerals are not included in chemical fertilizer. And if an organic farmer is relying on local manure and vegetation for their compost - and their local soil is minerally imbalanced, then as Solomon stated - they are only going to AMPLIFY the mineral imbalance in the soil UNLESS they add amendments to their compost and or soil. Their fresh produce, no matter how organic, is not going to have the calcium or magnesium it needs to thrive or provide those minerals to the human consuming them. 

The only organic farmer I know of that supplements his soil with calcium is Eliot Coleman at his Four-Season Farm in Maine. I came across a PBS gardening show this last November (2012) that was visiting Coleman’s farm in Maine. In the interview about his sustainable, organic farming methods, Coleman talked about when he first started adding mineral amendments to his soil and was tilling in crushed up seashells for the calcium. A neighboring conventional farmer said, “That won’t break down for at least 100 years!” Coleman replied, “Good, that means there will still be calcium in the soil when my grandchildren are farming it.”

In thinking again about the family I mentioned in my previous post with the daughter who suffered from depression even though she ate more fresh produce than her four siblings, I want to recall another insight from the article Vitamin Cure:
Of course, not everyone with a vitamin deficiency grows violent or sinks into a clinical depression. So why might a nutritional supplement help only some people? Kaplan has a possible explanation: Some of us have “inborn errors of metabolism.” We are born with unusual nutritional requirements that can affect our mental function. Mental illness appears to be partly heritable (bipolar disorder, for one, runs in families), yet no one has discovered a gene for the disease. Perhaps, Kaplan speculates, what’s passed down is a gene that affects the metabolic pathways influenced by various nutrients. Some people may simply inherit a metabolism that demands higher-than-normal amounts of vitamins and minerals. “What’s optimal for me may not be optimal for someone with a mental illness,” Kaplan said at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 2003. “I’ve been blessed with a stable mood, and I could probably eat a terrible diet and not have any problems. Others may need additional supplementation.”

If the conventional produce we eat and feed our families was grown without correct mineral supplementation (either in our own gardens or on conventional or organic farms), then is it any wonder the cases of mental illness are higher now than they were during our grandparents’ generation? If the current population isn’t even getting the basic amounts of minerals in fresh produce that our grandparents were getting, and if those with a metabolism that demands ‘higher-than-normal amounts of vitamins and minerals’ also aren’t even getting the basics, then it is any wonder these mentally ill patients struggle so much their entire lives and have to adjust their medications all the time? If we are going to start discussing as a society how we can better take care of the mentally ill population in our nation, then certainly their nutrition should be the FIRST thing we discuss and change!

The mental illness "epidemic" isn’t even taking into consideration all of the other "epidemics" our society suffers today, from obesity to Type 2 diabetes to cancers. Surely these are also linked to mineral deficiencies in our food AND how easily our body can absorb the foods and supplements we put into our bodies. Part 3 in this series will cover the actual research showing the mineral deficiency in our soils since 1914 when they first started testing the soil.

While I appreciate what I learned from Solomon and Coleman’s books, I do not have the financial resources to create a high quality COF, nor do I have the time or energy to do so being the mother of two young children. In part 4, I will share with you a proven gardening method that ensures ALL of your plants receive ALL of the minerals they need. Not only is it cost-effective, it works in ANY soil without having to constantly test or improve your soil with soil amendments. We have seen GREAT success with it over the last two years - our food tastes better just like the food from Solomon's garden and Coleman's farm.
Strawberry-spinach salad entirely from our 2012 garden.
Read Part 1 here


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