Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Book Review: Grow Your Soil! by Diane Miessler

Harness the Power of Microbes to Create Your Best Garden Ever

Storey Publishing, January 2020

  • Price: $16.95
  • Size: 6 x 9
  • Pages: 176
  • Format: Paperback ISBN: 9781635862072
  • Other formats: Ebook

Grow Your Soil! is an introduction to soil biology and gardening in eight chapters. It is written as if describing how to build a house (but starting with the roof!). Diane Miessler writes in plain English, with a light style, and her book has the endorsement of Elaine Ingham, who writes the foreword, saying that Diane’s humor and tongue-in-cheek joy make this book a joy to read. People were once told that using inorganic fertilizers and pesticides was the only way to grow enough food for a starving world. Elaine simply states “That was a flat-out lie.”

Diane’s encouragement to garden in partnership with the soil food web lists the many benefits of a healthy environment, healthy flavorful food, and the satisfaction of doing what you believe is right. She has a ten-point list of suggestions for creating healthy living soil using no-till systems, lots of mulches, home-grown fertilizers, and by encouraging biodiversity. The fundamentals of soil science are explained – soil is about 45% minerals (sand, silt and clay), 20-30% air, 20-30% water and 5-10% organic matter. A teaspoon of good soil contains more microbes than there are people in the US, more species than all the vertebrates on Earth, several yards of fungal hyphae, a few thousand protozoa and several dozen nematodes (mostly good ones). Soil is our planet’s third largest carbon sink (after the oceans and fossil fuels). Healthy soil is continually pulling carbon dioxide from the air and sequestering it in the organic matter and humus. We want to have as much sequestered carbon as possible, both to reduce the amount in the atmosphere and so that we can use it to grow food.

 Diane’s mulch recommendations are to generally aim for a mix of one-third green matter (which feeds bacteria) and two-thirds brown (which feeds fungi), but steering towards more green matter for annual vegetables, more brown for woody perennials, in line with the predominant life-form each type of crop does best with.

The cover crops section first describes the plants, then how and when to use them. I had a brief worry that people would go out and plant buckwheat or sweet potatoes in winter, until I read on! In fact, Diane does suggest you can sow buckwheat whenever you like, and it will be dormant until the right spring weather occurs. In our central Virginia climate this does not work. Buckwheat seed rots in cold wet soil. Buckwheat can germinate in a warm early spring spell and be struck down by a following frost before it has made much growth at all. As always, it pays to discuss ideas you haven’t tried before with nearby gardeners.

This book has a good basic description of the Soil Food Web, for new gardeners or anyone who is a bit mystified about what’s happening in the soil. And for those over 50 whose biology classes only included the two plant and animal “kingdoms”, here are explanations of the classes of bacteria, fungi and archaea, the main types of soil microbes. Archaea are neither bacteria nor eukaryotes (tiny organisms that have their DNA in a nucleus). Archaea are similar to eukaryotes in some ways, but have more resistance to extreme conditions. In the soil they work as decomposers.

Next up are the algae, protozoa and nematodes. The algae spectrum goes from one-celled photosynthesizing life-forms to giant kelp. In the soil they provide nutrients and increase plant resistance to diseases. Protozoa are one-celled animals, which release excess nutrients from their meals of bacteria and fungi, in a plant-available form. They help balance the numbers of bacteria in the soil. Nematodes are (mostly) microscopic roundworms that are mostly benign, from our perspective, and healthy populations keep the destructive nematodes in check. Arthropods (including insects, spiders, mites, ticks and scorpions) are shredders of organic matter in the soil (while eating smaller life-forms).

Bigger soil-dwellers include worms, slugs, snails, and small mammals. By the way, Diane explodes the myth that coffee grounds can control slugs, and claims to have videos to prove it untrue. And she tells us that fence lizards eat harlequin bugs. (I think she lives in California). Western fence lizards are centered in California, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, Eastern fence lizards are found between New York and northern Florida and as far west as Ohio and Arkansas. I want some!

The next section of the book explains Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), a measure of how many positively charged ions (cations, nutrients like Mg, K, Ca, ammonium) can be held by the negatively charge soil particles. Diane likens this to the pantry. Soils with a low CEC can’t hold many cations, and the key to increasing the CEC is to increase the soil organic matter content. Clay soils may have a high CEC, but the nutrients may be held too tightly to be useful to plants. The solution to this problem is also to increase the soil organic matter content.

Diane offers several ways to increase the organic matter, and one of her favorites is biochar. Biochar in its original form is more or less sterile, not nutritious at all, but in the soil it can act like humus on steroids – it is very good at absorbing water, hosting microbes, reducing plant diseases and lasting a long time in the soil. I have been skeptical about some of the claims for biochar, and of the net gains in reducing global heating. Diane does not make any wild claims (she’s not selling the stuff). She is open about the fact that the mechanism for suppressing disease is not yet understood.

As I said, Diane is not selling biochar. In fact she describes how to make your own on a small scale with an “upside-down” outdoor fire (with all due safety precautions). Big pieces of wood are arranged on the ground in an open airy stack, and a small fire is lit on top with tinder and kindling. This means the fire produces little smoke (all smoke is air pollution). The fire is thoroughly doused with water once everything is glowing but not flaming. Those wanting to make biochar on a bigger scale are referred to a double-barrel biochar burner on YouTube.

Diane Miessler

The next section is on photosynthesis, minerals and soil testing. Diane describes the effects of too much, too little and just right amounts of the main soil nutrients first. A deficiency of phosphorus shows up as blue-purple colors on the older leaves. She doesn’t mention phosphorus surplus, although she does confirm that excess phosphorus added to the soil will usually be locked up and become inaccessible to plants. Potassium deficiency can cause yellow leaf edges. Next up are other macro-nutrients, such as Calcium, magnesium and sulfur. Calcium deficiency leads to stunted new growth, brown around the edges, perhaps with yellowing between the veins. Bulb and fruit formation can be damaged, as with blossom end rot of tomatoes, caused by insufficient calcium reaching the fruits. By contrast, a magnesium deficiency leads to older leaves becoming yellow between the veins and around the edges, perhaps with purple, reddish or brownish discoloration. Sulfur shortage can lead to “unthrifty” plants. Shortages of any of these can be remedied by the addition of more organic matter.

Micronutrient shortages can also be helped by organic matter, although in Virginia I have noticed that we do sometimes need to add boron on its own (in tiny amounts).

Diane describes how to test soil, understand the results, and remedy the situation. Try adding organic matter first, and only tinker with the specifics if the general remedy is not enough. For instance, if your soil biological activity is low, you may find that piling on organic matter doesn’t help. Use compost to add  some more life to the soil and get a better balance of diners to dinners. There is a helpful one-page “Order of Operations for Fixing Soil”: Correct the pH; correct the calcium level; correct any excesses (usually by adding gypsum); correct the macronutrient deficiencies and lastly correct the micronutrient and trace element deficiencies. Clear instructions like this are so valuable to newer gardeners!

There is a chapter on making compost and compost tea. She suggests thinking of compost as a sourdough starter, and mulch as the flour. Both are valuable, and they work well together. Making good compost is a valuable skill to learn. Try for the a good balance of high nitrogen materials and high carbon materials, with enough water. Turn the pile, assess its progress, add what it seems to need. Rinse and repeat. Diane recommends against spending money on fancy compost bins. “Compost needs love, not a container.” There is value in turning the pile and seeing how it’s doing. If it’s fully enclosed in a tumbler, you might miss the signs that it needs a specific kind of care. Here is encouragement to learn the art and science of compost making.

Worm bins are a great way to use kitchen scraps to produce worms and compost, especially in winter, as worm bins need to be in a non-freezing place to stay alive. I disagree with Diane about using the liquid leaching from the bottom of the bin as a “compost tea” See my review of The Worm Farmer’s Handbook by Rhonda Sherman. This liquid might not be good for your plants. To make compost tea, put some of the wormcastings in water and bubble air though it. Instructions are in Diane’s book a few pages later.

Another small industrious worker is the black soldier fly. The (harmless) maggots of these (harmless) flies will out-compete other (disease-carrying and/or biting) flies in eating up kitchen scraps in an odorless way. They are also a favorite food of poultry, and there are clever ways of setting up a bsf bin so that the pupal stage will “self-harvest” by walking up a ramp and dropping into a collecting box. See YouTube for all the details.

After explaining these various aspects of growing good soil, Diane pulls everything together into a chapter on Building a Garden That Feeds Itself. Here you can learn about sprinkler irrigation,  mulching, planting, and selecting good tools. The next chapter covers being a good neighbor, by having a good-looking, good-smelling, productive garden that gets frequent attention. Diane advocates for pulling weeds and dropping them on the bed, without worrying about weed seeds or plant diseases. I can see this would work best in a smaller garden where things don’t get out of control, and in drier climates with fewer diseases and less chance for weeds to re-root. There’s a panel about roses that I didn’t read. (Roses are a great trap crop for Japanese beetles; I’m not a flower grower!)  A big help to beginners is the glossary at the end, and the bibliography of books on soil life.

If you are a beginner organic gardener, or you’re looking for a book for someone in that category, this book has a clear user-friendly approach. It won’t scare off newbies with too much detail.

Growing and eating healthful produce

Organic crops need healthy soil.
Photo keep the Soil in Organic

I’ve written before about my queasiness about hydroponics  recently and also earlier this year here and here. Big hydroponic “organic” industries have lobbied and got included as certifiably Organic, when most of us realize that growing food without soil is the opposite of Organic, with or without a capital O.

The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (fondly known as SSAWG) has posted in their E-newsletter Seeds of Sustainability, about the Great Nutrient Collapse. This article written by for Politico. You can read it all here.

Irakli Loladze by Geoff Johnson for POLITICO

Irakli Loladze (a mathematician by training)  was in a biology lab in 1998, studying for his PhD at Arizona State University.

Biologists had discovered they could grow algae faster by shining more light onto them— which should have helped the zooplankton which lives on algae, by increasing their food supply. But although the algae grew faster, the zooplankton did not. They had plenty to eat—but more food did not lead to more growth.This was a paradox.

The increased light was causing the algae to grow faster, but they contained fewer nutrients. By growing faster, the algae had turned into junk food! The zooplankton had large quantities of food, but it was less nutritious, and they were starving. Irakli Loladze used his math training to help measure what was happening. He and the biologists devised a model of the relationship between a food source and a eater of that  food. They published their first paper in 2000.It didn’t make a huge splash because not so many people care deeply about zooplankton or algae.

Irakli Loladze was intrigued by a much bigger question that the experiment raised in his mind. “What struck me is that its application is wider,” Loladze explained in an interview. Could the same problem affect grass and cows? What about rice and people? “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said.

The real-life issue isn’t that plants are getting more light than they used to. It’s that  they’re  getting more carbon dioxide than they used to. Carbon dioxide is as vital as light for plants  to grow. If extra light results in faster-growing, less nutritious algae, then it is reasonable to assume that increasing carbon dioxide could do the same. What could this mean for the  people eating those plants?

It is well-documented that CO2 levels have been rising, but little research had been done on how that affected the quality of the plant foods we eat. For 17 years, Loladze searched the scientific literature for studies and data. The information all seemed to acknowledge that the junk-food effect he had learned about with the zooplankton and algae was also occurring in farms and forests world-wide. Loladze reported: “Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising. We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.” To demonstrate, he tossed sugar over vegetables to represent how the sugar content of the plant crops we eat is rising due to rising carbon dioxide levels.

It has been accepted for years that many of our foods have been getting less nutritious. Measurements of fruits and vegetables show that the minerals, vitamin and protein content has dropped over the past 50-70 years. We thought we knew why – we’ve been breeding varieties for higher yields, rather than nutrition, and they have become less nutrient-dense. But this may not be the whole story.

In 2002 Loladze published a research paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, arguing that rising CO2 and human nutrition were inextricably linked through a global shift in the quality of plants as food.Very little research had been published, and Loladze’s paper was first to link the impact of CO2 on plants to human nutrition and health. He has continued working on this issue, which is starting to gain wider interest and attention.

USDA researchers recently took varieties of rice, wheat and soy they had stored from the 1950s and 1960s and planted them in various sites around the U.S. where they were grown decades ago, in order to better understand how today’s higher levels of CO2 affect them.

In 2014, a team of scientists published a large, data-rich study Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition, in the journal Nature that looked at several important crops grown at several research sites in Australia, Japan and the United States.  They found that rising CO2 led to a drop in protein, iron and zinc.

On that same day in 2014, Loladze published his own paper, (Hidden shift of the ionome of plants exposed to elevated CO2 depletes minerals at the base of human nutrition), which was the result of more than 15 years of work, and was the largest study in the world on the impact on plant nutrients of rising CO2.  Across 130 varieties of plants and more than 15,000 samples collected over the past 30 years, the overall concentration of minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and iron has dropped by an average of 8% . The ratio of carbohydrates to minerals is going up. The crop plants are becoming junk food.


Fauxganic hydroponic tomatoes. Photo from Keep the Soil in Organic

Reading this article lead me to make a connection with hydroponics. It made me wonder again about the nutrient quality of hydroponically grown food. Have any studies have been done on the issue of nutrient density (or lack of) in hydroponically-grown vegetables?

Glenn Kern, the Organic Policy Coordinator for Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said: “Off the top of my head, I don’t know of studies that have looked for and found the kinds of nutritional differences discussed in the article about CO2. I agree–this is an important question.” He reported that the National Organic Standards Board Crops Subcommittee’s current proposal on hydroponics includes some discussion of published academic studies evaluating observed biological differences between crops grown in soil and crops grown hydroponically. You can find the Crops Subcommittee’s proposal here. Under “Resources,” click on “Meeting Materials.” The Crops Subcommittee’s proposal starts on page 63 and the discussion of plant physiological differences begins on page 71.
I’m with the Keep the Soil in Organic movement. Well-cared-for soil is at the heart of organic farming. It is extremely arrogant of people to imagine that any synthesized solution supplied to plants held in inert media or plastic pipes can provide all the benefits of soil. There is much we do not know about the soil, and the interactions of the soil food web. I doubt we even know everything about micro-nutrients, never mind enzymes that promote growth, inhibit diseases, promote recovery from diseases, strengthen resistance to physical stresses and all the rest of it.
Artificially grown crops are the opposite of organic. Organic farming encourages us to feed the soil, not the plant, to look at the long-term well-being of the planet, the wider effects of farming practices on all around, and the health of the people growing and eating the food.
NOFA Vermont has made a short film with Eliot Coleman and Dave Chapman talking about why soil matters.

Why is soil important to all of us? As global citizens, this is a very important question. This film was made to reach out and inform the NOSB. Please check it out.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Op3J5GFmfzo&feature=youtu.be

The Keep The Soil in Organic website is keepthesoilinorganic.org.
Their Facebook Page is Keep The Soil In Organic
Their Twitter account is @keepsoilinorganic

Presentation at VABF Conference

My next presentation will be at Healthy Soil, Healthy Crops, Healthy Livestock, the Virginia Biological Farming Conference  at the Holiday Inn-Koger Center in Richmond, Virginia, February 8-9. I’m also hosting one of the Farm Tours on the Thursday before the conference (see below).

My presentation is on Saturday Feb 9, 10:30 am – 12:00 noon

Session 4. Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops, Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks Community, Louisa, VA:

Pam Dawling writes for Growing for Market magazine. She has been growing vegetables at Twin Oaks Community in Central Virginia for over 20 years, where the gardens feed 100 people on 3.5 acres. Her book Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, published by New Society Publishers on February 1, 2013, will be on sale at the conference. The workshop will discuss cover crops suitable at various times of year in our Virginia climate, particularly winter cover crops between vegetable crops in successive years. She will provide ideas to help you design a sequence of vegetable crops which maximizes the chance to grow good cover crops as well as reduce pest and disease likelihood. She will include examples of undersowing of cover crops in vegetable crops and of no-till options. She will discuss formal rotations as well as ad hoc systems for shoehorning minor crops into available spaces.

I’ll be at the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange booth when I’m not at a workshop, perched on the end of their table, with a big stack of books, signing and selling. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange will be selling the book at their booth at all the events they go to throughout the year, and through their catalog.

vabfThe Keynote speaker Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company will describe an Integrated System for Production of Poultry and Compost. The Friday plenary will feature Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain who will discuss Using Mycorrhizae to Improve Soil Fertility and Plant Health. Other speakers include: Kristin Kimball, author of The Dirty Life,  and her husband Mark Kimball, on crop and soil management at Essex Farm in New York, where they run a complete diet CSA, (I just reviewed her book!); Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teaming with Microbes, for a primer on the soil food web; Kit Pharo of Cheyenne Wells, CO, on minimum input beef cattle production, and me, on Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops. I’m on at 10.30 am on Saturday February 9.

Full sessions schedule found here.

New this year: Conference meals will feature all major ingredients from Virginia’s sustainable farms! (Friday lunch and dinner, Saturday lunch). Friday dinner will feature our new “Fresh Chef Trifecta”: Three local chefs will face off to offer the best and most delicious demonstration of local, seasonal fare. (In February, no less!)

If you can’t make it to the entire conference, tickets are available for just the Friday night dinner, cooking demonstrations, and keynote speech by Karl Hammer.

Separate from the Conference itself, VABF is hosting two workshops and Farm Tours on  Thursday, February 7th (Registration is separate but located on the same webpage.) There are two all-day workshops and two farm tour options. Workshops take place at and tours depart from the same hotel/conference center as the Conference.

Farm School for Beginners: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm – This One Day Farm School course utilizes the Whole Farm Planning curriculum developed as part of the Virginia Beginner Farmer and Rancher Coalition from Virginia Tech. The course is designed for those with 10 years or less farming experience, and includes presentations from successful farmers as well as extensive hand-outs and resources from the Whole Farm Planning curriculum. Complementary Farm Tour component on Friday morning. $75 – Lunch is included. 

Farm School – Advanced Vegetable Production: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm – The owner of Victory Farms, Inc., Charlie Collins has grown for restaurants and farmer’s markets in Phoenix, Arizona and Richmond, Virginia for nearly 20 years, most recently running a 400+ member CSA.  His methods yield significant production and very high quality.  He has been Certified Naturally Grown for all 10 of CNG’s years as a farmer-run certification program. With specific focus on vegetables, greens, herbs, and vining fruits, Charlie will offer insight into medium to large-scale production, harvesting and storage techniques, transportation and distribution, and farm business management. He will also talk about how to establish workable roles on the farm to avoid burn out, delegating to employees, interns or volunteers, and the cycle of a farm and CSA over several years.  Discussion is encouraged so bring your questions! Minimum enrollment required. $85 members, $95 non-members – Lunch is included. 

Farm Tours: Will depart from the Holiday Inn-Koger Center at 9 am. $40 members, $45 non-members. Lunch and transportation provided.

Option 1: Commercial Compost, and Dairy/Poultry/Pork/Beef – Watkins Nurseries‘ commercial compost operation and Avery’s Branch Farms in Amelia, where the Alexander family tend a herd of dairy cows and raise grass-fed beef and poultry, in addition to pastured layers and pork. $40 members, $45 non-members – Lunch is included. 

Option 2: Hydroponics, and Vegetable Production (High Tunnel and Over-wintering) – Windmill Produce Farm’s two greenhouses growing hydroponic lettuces, herbs, and microgreens, followed by Twin Oaks Community‘s 3.5 acre vegetable operation, which provides most food for 100 people year round through the use of their two greenhouses. $40 members, $45 non-members –  Lunch is included. 

Register here