How to Grow Nutrient Dense Food

Just because we garden or farm organically, it isn’t automatic that we know how to grow nutrient dense food.  We’ve learned this the hard way, and we have gardened all of our adult lives.  When we were beginning to garden seriously on our first homestead, trying to grow all of our own food, we read stacks of Organic Gardening and Farming magazine cover to cover, over and over.  We had enormous compost piles steaming away with goat manure, cut weeds and whey.  We hauled cartloads of rich forest leafmold and dug it into our soil. But, we and our garden suffered with plant diseases and insect pests. The truth of the matter is that despite working really hard to make and apply compost, we still had a really hard time growing our food.  We ended up eating food that was kind of sub-par, cutting out the bad spots.

Fast forward several decades to our current garden here in California.  One of the main reasons we moved to this particular location is to have a better garden.  The climate is pretty darned good (we’re in the avocado belt), not too close and not too far from the ocean.  Orange trees and apple tress live side by side.  There is plenty of room for our 2600 sq. ft. garden. The soil looks nice and sandy, which seemed quite alluring after years of working with clay or muck.  By now we are pretty seasoned gardeners.  We’d been members of Portland Tilth, a really wonderful organization devoted to helping people grow truly healthy food. We’d had a large garden, a greenhouse and a plant business up in Portland. We were devoted organic gardeners. So the first year we brought in (you guessed it) tons of compost, rototilled it in and started gardening.

The results were less than spectacular.  The corn grew 3 feet tall and stopped, without making ears. The eggplant didn’t make it. Erica’s beloved cabbage grew, but it took lots of coddling with fish emulsion to get it to head up.  We decided that corn and eggplant weren’t really California crops after all.  Perhaps there isn’t enough heat, or the sun is too intense.  We made excuses.

It’s not that we didn’t get soil tests and we didn’t add minerals.  We did get soil tests, the ones with the charts with three levels for each nutrient – low, medium and high. And we acted on them, spreading around some minerals of varying amounts. We were able to grow a bit more food of a bit better quality. But basically we were lost, not knowing what to do. I remember buying a bag of potassium sulfate, thinking “maybe this is it??”  Nutrient density eluded us; we were just trying to grow the basics.

Then Erica found out about remineralization and tried it on our garden.  The results were amazing, spectacular.  It turns out we really can grow corn and eggplants, and Erica’s beloved cabbages are sweet and juicy. Our food became super flavorful. Erica took both first and second prize at the great Tomato Tasteoff held annually by the master gardeners.  We now come very close to growing all of our own produce, at least during certain times of the year. Then we started really working to help the biology, incorporating biochar and bokashi vermicompost. Really, it made all the difference.  Now we are much closer to knowing how to grow nutrient dense food.

This is what we want to do: help you learn for yourself how to grow nutrient dense food.  We lay out the basic steps for gardeners and farmers who are trying to take their food to the next level.

Here is the basic philosophy…

  • Food tastes good because it has exactly the nutrients your body needs (unless it is full of “natural flavors” and sugars that trick your brain).  See The Dorito Effect.  Nutrient dense food naturally tastes better because it is nourishing your body.
  • In order to get the nutrients your body needs, they must be in the plant, or in the plants the animals eat.
  • To get nutrients into a plant, they must be available to the plant in a form the plant can take up easily.
  • When plants have all the nutrients they need, they are also less susceptible to diseases and insects.

Our task as growers is to get all of the conditions right for plants to grow as well as possible.

  1. Remineralization is usually the first step.  To make that easy, we wrote OrganiCalc.  You get a soil test, fill out a form and get a list of recommended OMRI organic amendments tailored exactly to balance the minerals in your soil.  You can read the testimonials.
  2. Get the soil biology going.  This is where we get to concentrate on putting and keeping living carbon in the soil.  We turn towards life.
  3. Open up to and work with the energetic life of the garden or farm.

We spend a lot of our time learning more about how to grow the best food.  Erica has become something of an expert in remineralization.  These are very exciting times in the world of agriculture as we move towards systems that promote life in a natural way. More and more is being discovered about how to build soils regeneratively in a way that brings communities, farms and people back to health. We wish our work to be of benefit to all.