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How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food – Chapter 8

The [Grow] Network is pleased to publish Colin Austin’s 10 part series, How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food. This article is Chapter 8 of 10. You can read the other chapters here:

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action


Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
colin-and-xiulan I have talked about a two stage composting process. If you are one type of person, you could look at this and say, “what a beautifully functioning ecosystem.” If you are another type of person you may say, “what a pile of messy yuk.”

What’s to Come in Chapter 8
Now we have to look at the process of extracting the nutrients and active biology, and transferring them to the growing region. Then I have a little anecdote about the history of wicking beds and managing ecosystems.

Bio-Baskets

Now I have to get the biology into the areas where I want to grow my plants. I fill my bio-baskets with a mix which will be highly attractive to soil biology with all good things for them to eat. Come to dinner, little bug!

I grow plants in these baskets, which develop a strong and active root system which grows through the mesh at the bottom of the basket and down into the soil well beyond the basket. I have selected plants which actively attract the biology.

Then I sit back and wait for the little microbes to accept my bait – it takes a bit of time, but nature has its own pace. After all, it’s been doing this for a few billion years and no doubt will be continuing to do this after the next financial crash has thrown the world into chaos and we have abdicated in favour of the cockroaches.

I call these vessels ‘bio baskets’ and essentially they are a mature rhizosphere with an intact root system, full of biology. In them, I have trapped a living breathing biological system which I can transfer to the area where I want to grow my plants.

Transporting the Biology

When the rhizosphere is thoroughly impregnated and full of biological action I can lift out the basket – with the root zone intact and take it over to my garden beds.

I can irrigate through the bio-basket which will flush the biology into the surrounding soil. The bio-basket will be full of worms, and I can tempt them out by giving them food – vegetation from the bio-zone – outside the basket.

Back to the biological war zone. I think I have shown my prejudice against trying to kill off all the badies with chemicals. I don’t dispute that economically this may be the most cost effective solution, but I am not running a business – I am trying to stay healthy.

So my approach is to feed the goodies and hope they can out-compete the badies. In all honesty, I would classify this as moderately successful. I never get rid of all the badies and they keep on coming back, but at least I get a plentiful supply of nutritious food.

The Second Stage of Composting

The first (yukky) stage aims to grow what I call my soil plants, e.g. plants purely grown to improve the soil.

In the second stage I take the fresh juicy leaves from these plants and use them as food for the soil biology, which will in turn provide food for my food plants.

There are a number of ways I use these green leaves. One way is to put them in trenches in my cropping areas. The trenches also provide irrigation channels to help spread the water.

Composting is room temperature and therefore slow. I may have three trenches in various stages of decomposition in a sort of rotational composting.

One of the nominal disadvantages of having such a highly organic system is that it is continuously decomposing, requiring topping up. I don’t believe in digging – that’s for youngsters – so I get the worms to do it for me by a regular application of mulch and burying my green compost. This is 90% successful – I occasionally need to aerate the soil by pushing a fork into the soil and just levering back until the soil cracks – but no digging.

Serious gardeners may be appalled by this apparently messy process which does involve sacrificial land which is not directly productive. But it does satisfy my aim of producing top quality nutritious soil with the minimum of work (and cost).

Wicking and Sponge Beds

I live in a very dry area which can have no effective rain for nine months of the year, so water is a big problem and most of my vegetables are grown in wicking beds – both open and closed – and sponge beds.

I have written much about wicking beds at www.waterright.com.au. I am not going to go into detail with them here – other than to mention that their big advantage is to prevent the loss of both water and nutrients beyond the root zone. My numerous newsletters and articles contain a mass of information on wicking beds.

Wicking Beds – It’s the Soil that Matters
However I do just want to tell a little story about wicking beds which will be useful for when I get around to talking about the power of community action.

About fifteen years ago I was asked to go to Ethiopia to see if I could find a way of providing sustenance food in time of drought.

I had two ideas. One was to collect local weeds – which were inedible but plentiful – to provide nutrients. The second was to make a trench lined with plastic – put the weed in the base – then the soil on top. The weeds would provide nutrition while the plastic would store water in an underground reservoir.

This is a very simple and effective system, suitable for people who are earning $2 a day. It works just as well as the complex and expensive wicking beds I see marketed now. Where did this idea that things have to be complicated in order to work come from? Mobile phone companies, I guess.

I wrote about this on my return and the idea was picked up by one particular person who failed to understand the need for nutrition and thought the weeds would rot down so the bed would need topping up. This, of course, is true but is solved by adding a bit of mulch – no problem.

She decided to promote this idea of wicking beds on her website and she was very good at this, much more artistic than a grumpy old engineer like me. This website was highly successful and the word started to spread like wildfire. I am very happy about that.

But there are two important lessons to learn from this about how community action and the internet work.

On her website, she replaced the nutritious organic material with stones covered with cloth, which provide no nutritional value.

This has now established a paradigm – which verges on religious fervor – that wicking beds must have stones. Sadly, this is wrong – so people are just not getting the nutrition they should out of their wicking beds.

I also get a string of questions from people whose wicking beds have gone putrid. You need to let the roots get down into the water level – it’s about the rhizosphere. Oh dear, here come the little men in white coasts with the straight jacket.

But one really important lesson from this is the need to follow what is now an accepted protocol in community activities and is now embedded in the principle of Creative Commons. A fundamental principle is that while work can be copied and used for private (non-commercial) use, the original source should be acknowledged.

Unfortunately, she did not follow the normal convention of acknowledging her source so people could see the original system, and now the stones and cloth wicking bed system has become the norm. Stones and cloth has almost become a religion. At least it’s not as dangerous as ISIS, but still a lot of people are missing out on vital nutrients. The fact is, stones just don’t wick, and a good open soil will hold more water than stones. They simply do not give the nutrition of a good soil.

The wicking bed story – which has literally exploded around the world – has shown the power of the internet to spread information – but also the importance of following the principles of Creative Commons where people can copy and use information for private use but need to recognize the source. This gives people the opportunity to go back and study the original works.

That’s enough ramble – back to the main theme.

Sponge Beds
As sponge beds are a relatively new experiment for me, I will just say they are essentially a wicking bed, but instead of having a waterproof base to stop the water and nutrients leaking away, they have a soft sponge underneath which works like a baby’s diaper to hold he water.

I have used plant material from my first stage composting to form a sponge in my experiments. My sponge beds are terraced so that water can flow from one to the next. I think the Chinese beat me to this by about 4,000 years.

Soils for Wicking Beds
A few words on soils for wicking (and other water-retention) beds.

Soil is the single most important part of a wicking bed – but the requirements for a wicking bed soil are very different to a general purpose soil.

You could just nip down to the local supermarket and buy a bag or three of potting mix and the plants would grow quite happily into good looking plants. This is certainly the easiest and cheapest way of filling a wicking bed. It will give you good looking plants, but they won’t be high in nutrients – you need both minerals and biology.

fad-diets-dont-workBut my aim (and hopefully your aim) is to grow plants with the maximum nutrient content – that’s minerals, vitamins and those elusive phytonutrients which are important for health. This is a bit more complex and expensive than just buying a bag of regular soil mix.

Unfortunately, getting the key minerals into the plant is not as straight forward as adding minerals and fertilizer to the soil. I could simply say, “you need minerals and soil biology to make them available to the plants,” but I think it is much better to explain how the system that nature has developed actually works.

The Synergistic Triplet

Plants have not evolved in isolation – they evolved in conjunction with both soil biology and animals in a complex synergistic relationship. (Synergistic means working together for the benefit of everyone – just like the directors of food processing companies and our politicians do.)

Plants do one thing superbly well – and we all depend on this ability. They take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and extract the hydrogen molecules from water and combine them together to create complex hydrocarbons.

These hydrocarbons are the energy source which power the whole cycle. If plants did not photosynthesize, you would not be reading this article, so give them a friendly smile.

The bulk of a plant’s mass is created from this carbon dioxide and water. Only a very small proportion of the plant’s mass come from the soil. It is the minerals they extract from the soil that enable this whole process of photosynthesis to work.

But plants can only take up minerals which are in solution – plants simply cannot extract the critical minerals like calcium, zinc, potassium, magnesium etc. from insoluble rocks. Any minerals in solution are likely to be washed away in the next rain storm – the soil biology releases them slowly like a slow release fertilizer.

Plants and Soil Biology
So the plants have chummed up with the soil biology in the deal of a century (actually millennia) in which the plants emit exudates – largely carbohydrates and sugars – which provide food for the soil biology. Mycorrhizal fungi is just one example. Plants also die, and their decaying remains provide food for a whole range of soil biology. Just google Elaine Ingham if you want to get stuck in the detailed science.

In return the soil biology is continuously dissolving the minerals – providing a steady stream of nutrients for the plants. It’s a slow release process, so the biology delivers breakfast, lunch, and dinner to the plants on time. This is a very simple synergistic relationship and you don’t have to be an ecologist to see the benefits to both parties.

Unfortunately, soil biology is a mix of goodies and baddies – the conventional approach for getting rid of the baddies is sterilization – which may be acceptable to many people who just don’t like the idea of bugs – any bugs (even though we are full of bugs providing an essential service in digesting our food). But these bugs are essential to a healthy diet and this obsession with killing them all is one of the root causes of our lack of nutrients.

In a natural environment, the goodies and baddies reach a stable equilibrium – if we want to take advantage of the beneficial microorganisms, we have to learn to manage this balance.

Learning from Nature

Controlling the badies without resorting to toxic chemicals is an ongoing problem. But there are some actions we can take.

My two stage composting system is one. I developed this as a way of disposing of potentially hazardous wastes – but the fact is growing beds can become infected with badies as well. It is virtually impossible to get rid of badies simply by hot composting, but this system of two stage composting – where the contaminated compost is never used on the growing beds but used to grow plants whose leaves are used – provides an effective barrier.

Look at what happens in nature. Plants just do not grow in nice uniform rows of the same species – it is a total shambles with different plant all growing together. We can now see why this works so well.

If a plant is under attack, it produces chemicals to fight off the attack. But in addition plants can communicate with other plants by a mycorrhizal network. It sends out chemical signals which travel down into the mycorrhizal network and are received by other plants like an air raid warning so these plants’ defences are also activated.

This is where the neat bit comes in. Many plants we grow for food do not have very effective defense mechanisms, so the badies win and the poor plants get well and truly worked over.

However, if we look at what happens in nature, we can forget our love of regimentation and put more effective defender plants in our food crops.

Smelly plants like marigolds, pyrethrum daisies, etc. are good candidates.

When our food plants are attacked, they send out their distress signal to their mates next door and up comes the cavalry to the rescue.

When we look at nature, we see that many plants survive as a species by producing vast quantities of seeds. This is true of many vegetables such a lettuce and the Chinese cabbages and mustard greens.

I understand that if you are a commercial grower supplying the supermarket, they want to receive a delivery of the same size plants on a given day so the grower has to clear the beds and start from scratch for each crop. But if you are growing for yourself, why bother? In your case you want a continuous supply of vegetables – not a truck load on one day.

I will let some of my plants go to seed, for two reasons. I want the seeds which are produced in abundance so I can seed at a high density and progressively consume or transplant. But secondly, I want to maintain the soil biology, and they need a root zone to live in. So I never completely clear my beds – I just leave a home for my little wriggly friends.

When I first went to Africa and looked at how the local tribes were growing their plants, I thought at first it was a total mess. They would dig up a plant to eat, or because it was past its prime, and then just put a new plant in. Their beds looked a mess of young, middle-aged and dying plants. I now realize that for them this is a very effective way of growing in their situation.

Anyway I am a messy man, so I say you can keep your regimented gardens – I am going to live up to my name of ‘messy man’ – because it is a better way to grow (for a private grower).

Plants and Animals
The benefits the third group – the animals – make are far less obvious. But the fact is that animals and plants have lived and evolved together for millions of years.

Most plants cannot move about, the only exceptions I know are John Wyndam’s triffids (read the book it is a classic story) and my pumpkins which have the capacity to march across my garden, immune to my attempts at control with the lawn mower.

Animals (particularly birds) provide an obvious service to the plants in transporting their seeds far and wide. Animals also provide a service in providing manure as a concentrated fertilizer, and the heavy animals also provide a service by working the surface to aid seed propagation. The mutual benefits are clear.

But animals also eat plants, and if I were a plant I would need some convincing that being eaten benefits me. However, when I look at my baby greens I can see a benefit. The top of the plant is chewed off, in this case by me, but the plant bounces back producing very vigorous regrowth. At the same time the plant is increasing its root structure and hence its ability to grow.

This is a pretty steady state process, me eating and the plant regrowing very tasty new shoots, much more nutritious than mature leaves. But I – being human and messy – will eventually miss my part of the cycle and the plant will produce massive seed heads – far more than if the plant had grown without my continuous attacks.

I think we both come away winners in the end.

Coming Up in the Next Chapter
More on the basics of soils which will grow plants to make us healthy.


Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

© 28 July 2015 Colin Austin – Creative Commons – This document may be reproduced but the source should be acknowledged. Information may be used for private use but commercial use requires a license.

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