Recent studies show that supermarket foods are as much as 70% lower in nutrition than 60 years ago.
By Phil Nauta
Here’s a cool term that’s been getting more popular in recent years: NUTRIENT-DENSITY. It basically refers to how nutritious our food is – or isn’t.
I imagine the reason it’s getting more popular is because word is starting to get out that our food is much lower in nutrients than it was only 60 years ago. At the Acres U.S.A. conference in 2009, Dr. Arden Andersen said it’s as much as 70% lower.
Most of the health books I read these days attribute the recent upward trend of certain human diseases at least partially to the nutrient-poor food we’re consuming.
Fortunately, if you have a garden, you can do something about it. You can grow food that is many times more nutrient-dense than food from the grocery store, even food that comes from the organic section.
The thing is, it’s not quite as simple as throwing down one of the new organic fertilizer blends on the market. We need to get a little more involved than that. Here are 3 goals that are always on my mind when creating and maintaining a garden:
1. Increase Microbial Diversity
Microorganisms – bacteria, fungi and protists – are actually responsible for making nutrients available to plants. They also protect plants from predators and improve soil conditions for the roots.
The problem is that they’re often lacking in the soil because of various things we do – tilling, compaction, chemical use, pollution, and on and on. Fortunately, we can bring them back and that’s exactly what we need to do.
Compost is the best for this, but we’re also increasingly supplementing compost with microbial inoculants for their low cost and efficiency. My favorites are compost tea, effective microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi.
By increasing the microbial diversity in our soil and on our plants, we can get more nutrient-dense, pest-free plants – as long as those microorganisms stick around.
2. Bring The Soil Back To Life
While we’re bringing these beneficial organisms into the garden, we need to make sure we give them a nice place to live. Otherwise they won’t hang out for long. The great thing is, they need the same things our plants need.
They need organic matter in the soil, and again, compost is usually the best for this. It’s nice if we can incorporate it into the soil a little bit, not every year because we don’t want to till too much, but at least one time if you haven’t done it before.
Along with that, we need an appropriate mulch on top. Leaves are by far the best mulch and straw is a decent alternative until you can get your hands on some leaves. The natural mulches are in line with how nature works. They provide habitat, food and protection for a whole range of beneficials.
Of course we need to water properly while we’re at this, because all organisms need water. And for the most part, we should probably stop tilling in the long term if we want certain microorganisms like fungi to stay around. They bring important nutrients such as phosphorus right into the roots of our plants, so we don’t want to cut them to pieces.
And if we’re really interested in nutrient-density, we can also think about fertilizing.
3. Supplement Broad-Spectrum Nutrients
Now that we have the microbial life that will feed nutrients to plants, and the quality soil to support them, we can move on to fertilizing. Good compost does most of this for us, but in the early years of a garden, a little bit of fertilizer can help.
I’m not a big fan of the organic fertilizer blends that often have ingredients which aren’t all that great for many soils. And I’m not a big fan of using things like lime without a soil test (a pH test isn’t sufficient because it doesn’t tell us anything about how much calcium or magnesium we already have).
But there are some “single-ingredient” fertilizers that can be used on any garden without a soil test. Sea minerals, liquid kelp and rock dust are 3 of my favorites. Fish products are great, too, but they’re becoming less of a sustainable option because we’re overfishing our oceans.
So that’s just a quick overview. I hope I’ve given you some interesting things to think about.
Bringing more nutrients into our food is an important and exciting goal. We just need to remember to take a holistic approach instead of relying only on one method. We may use some fertilizer, but we also need to improve the soil and increase microbial diversity to achieve the abundance we’re looking for.
Phil Nauta is a SOUL Certified Organic Land Care Professional. He’s the author of the book ‘Building Soils Naturally, published by Acres U.S.A. He has taught for Gaia College and been a director for The Society For Organic Urban Land Care. He was an organic landscaper and ran an organic fertilizer business before starting www.