Article #5: Fertilization of the Soil by Dr. Herbert M. Shelton
In 1950, I visited the Savage experimental Gardens in Nicholasville, Kentucky. It was late in the fall and the region had seen two heavy frosts. All the gardens in the area were destroyed—all, that is, except the Savage gardens. From these gardens an abundance of fine, tasty vegetables was still being taken and served. The Roy Health Home was serving these vegetables to its patients, and I enjoyed a few meals of fine vegetables fresh from the garden while there.
Why had the frost not damaged the gardens of Arthur Carter Savage, when it had destroyed all the other gardens for miles around? Mr. Savage explained that when he gets an abundance of minerals into the sap of vegetables and trees, they have high resistance to cold. He gave it as his opinion that, if he had the funds with which to carry on the experiment, he could grow oranges as far north as Michigan. Assuming that he could grow the trees that far north, it is not probable that they would ever produce a crop of oranges as the season is too short. But the mere fact that the remineralization of the soil produces such remarkable resistance to cold as to lead one to think that orange trees could be grown that far north is a thing worthy of our closest attention and study.
Minerals constitute plant food. To state this differently, plants live on minerals. True they need carbon, which they extract from the air, converting this, by means of photosynthesis (with the aid of sunlight), into carbohydrates—sugars, starches, cellulose and pentosans. It is interesting to know that cotton fibers (cellulose) is made from sugar which, in turn, is made from a gas that floats in the air. The sugar of the sap of the maple tree or of sugar cane, and that from the date and banana, is made from the same carbon taken from the air by the green leaves of the plant, as is the fiber of the cotton plant. The plant is nature's great food factory.
Plants also require nitrogen and this is taken both from the air, where there is an abundance of it, and from the soil, where there exists another great storehouse. In the process of extracting nitrogen from the soil, the plant has the assistance of certain soil bacteria, with which it exists in a relation of perfect symbiosis, the plant supplying the bacteria with food substances in return for their assistance. Nitrogen in the soil is, in large measure, derived from the decomposition of organic materials. This decay is a bacterial process.
When plants decay, they return not only nitrogen to the soil, but minerals as well. It is thus, that when a forest has stood for ages on a tract of land, and returned to the soil the materials in its leaves and cast-off limbs, and the logs of dead trees, the fertility of the soil is built up, for trees strike their roots deep into the earth and bring up minerals from great depths. Such soil, when the forest is removed, is called virgin soil and is rich in minerals. Crops grown on this soil yield abundantly for the first two to four seasons, then the yield begins to fall off, due to depletion of the soil of minerals, and perhaps, also to some extent of nitrogen.
Ages ago man learned that by fertilizing his soil with animal manures and decaying vegetables (compost) he could restore a measure of fertility to his soils and thus maintain their fertility for a considerable also discovered that he could not maintain a high degree of fertility in this manner indefinitely, for, in spite of the return of organic material to the soil, these did not return to the soil all that had been taken out, so that there was a gradual deterioration of the soil. He referred to the soil as "worn out". Compost fertilization has been dignified in recent years by being called "organic fertilization." It should be known, however, that among plants, only parasitic and saprophytic plants live upon organic matter. Other plants require that their food be reduced to soil before they do well upon it.
That compost makes poor plant food is demonstrated by the rank growth of plants on old, rotted-down haystacks and on cow lots, the vegetation of which animals refuse to eat. Fruiting plants grown on such compost heaps either do not produce fruit or the fruit fails to ripen. Oversized plants (plants afflicted with gigantism) are of poor structure and are deficient in food value. Trees, sugar beets, and other plants grown in overnitrogenized soils, that is, soil overdosed with manures and sewage, develop cancer. Tomatoes rot on the vine. Wheat turns yellow and dies after reaching four to six inches in height. Overcomposting with leaf mold and wood mold in the flower garden destroys the plants and flowers. All of these facts indicate that mineral rather than organic materials are the best foods for all normal plants.
The experiments of Hensel in Germany, Samson Morgan in England, and Lindlahr, Carque, and Savage in this country all indicate that remineralization of the soil is a superior means of soil fertilization. Does this mean, then, that the use of compost should be abandoned? It does not. It does mean, however, that we should conform more closely to the natural method in returning compost to the soil. Old Mother Nature deposits her compost on the soil in thin sheets and permits it to decompose upon, not within, the soil. The elements of the compost filter down into the soil with the water, when it rains, after they have been fully decomposed. This means simply that composting in nature is a slow and gradual process and that the minerals of the compost are returned to the soil in a completely decomposed form. Composting that consists in adding partially decomposed compost to the soil and then turning it under, permitting the decomposition to take place in the soil, produces rank growth, poor food, sour soils, and the foods thus produced smell of decay. When the Grahamites founded the world's first health store in Boston in 1836, they sold fresh fruits and vegetables to those who desired to eat healthfully. They followed the rule laid down by both Graham and Alcott, that all such foods, to be acceptable by the store for sale to their patrons, must either be grown on virgin soil, of which there still remained an abundance at that time, or the compost must have been thoroughly decomposed before adding it to the soil.
In writing on the subject of "organic fertilization" during recent years, I have pointed out that our organic materials partake of the deficiencies of the soils upon which they are grown; hence, returning these to the soil does not adequately fertilize our already markedly depleted soils. If we take materials from one tract of land and add them to another tract, we merely rob one tract of land of valuable substance in order to build up another. This process of "robbing Peter to pay Paul" cannot be kept up indefinitely without depleting both tracts. Also, as we never return to the soil all that we take from it, organic fertilization alone can never do more than slow down the rate of soil depletion. It can make our soils last longer, but it can never build them back to their pristine fertility. This statement is intended to mean that they cannot do this universally. It is obvious that if we draw organic materials from a wide area and add them to the soil of a small tract, they can rebuild the soil of this small tract to a high fertility, but we lack sufficient surplus soils from which to continue to draw in order to maintain the fertility of the smaller tract.
Remineralization comes to our rescue at this point. Soil is disintegrated rock. In the rocks of earth, and we have a superabundance of these in our hills and mountains, exist sufficient rock, if pulverized and added to the soil, to maintain the fertility of our soil for untold ages. This was the program employed by Hensel, Morgan, Lindlahr, and Carque. This is the program now employed by Savage. These rocks are often abundantly supplied with the trace elements that are so often lacking in our soils, hence lacking in the compost derived from these soils.
When I asked Savage if he used organic fertilizers on his garden soils he replied that he used a very small amount. Then I asked him what he did about earthworms. I have never seen any real reason why we had to go into the business of raising earthworms and shipping them over the country to be added to soils. The soils that I knew were always, except in droughts, abundantly supplied with earthworms. Savage replied that he found no need to import earthworms; that when he got enough minerals into the soil, he always had an abundance of earthworms.
It is minerals and not earthworms that we remove from the soils in harvesting our crops. The few earthworms that are taken from the soil to serve as fish bait make little detectable difference in the earthworm population of an area. A fertile soil supplies an ideal condition in which these worms live and multiply. Doubtless, the added minerals in the organic material that they help to work over and return to soil enable the worms to thrive and grow as they do the higher forms of life.
Hardier, healthier plants, more abundant yields, stronger bones and harder, stronger teeth of the animals grown on remineralized soils all indicate the superiority of this form of fertilization. Powdered rock, however, is not good plant food. It must be prepared for the use of the higher plants by bacteria and pioneer plants, and this takes two to three years. The presence of organic material seems to facilitate this work of preparation; hence the need for a small amount of organic fertilizer in addition to minerals. This avoids the common overcomposting that is practiced. We are so bent on production, production, and more production (for it is out of production that we derive our profits) that we overcompost to force production, just as we overfeed our hens on rich fare to force egg production, without any thought of the deterioration of the food value of our product as a result. We are as reckless in our handling of plant nutrition as we are in handling our own nutrition.
I do not say that organic fertilization should be abandoned, or that it is always an evil; I say that, alone, it is inadequate; that it is being overdone and that compost is being added to soil prematurely. I have repeatedly urged that we make a more thorough study of plant nutrition and the valid needs of plants, to the end that we may raise better food crops. This does not seem to me to be an unreasonable demand.
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