The Regenerative Growers Guide to Garden Amendments: Using Locally Sourced Materials to Make Mineral and Biological Extracts and Ferments
By Nigel Palmer
Chelsea Green Publishing
Soil life is the foundation of our life, and soil life depends in no small part on the minerals, nutrients and microorganisms that the soil contains. Thus it is troubling that much of the incredible amount of money that Americans spend each year applying amendments and fertilizers to their lawns and gardens (lawn care alone is a thirty-billion-dollar business) is unnecessary or worse—counterproductive to supporting and improving our soils.
Nigel Palmer hopes to offer an alternative to the bagged soil amendments so commonly used and depended on by gardeners and growers. The goal isn’t just to find a more sustainable way to steward our soil but to help us adopt an approach that answers Palmer’s fundamental question: “Are these the most nutrient-dense tomatoes possible to grow?” Palmer wants food that is not just clean and sustainable but also health-promoting for the eater as well as the earth. And health-promoting food should not just be free of harmful chemicals but must also be nutrient-dense.
For decades, soil was treated as little more than a matter of chemistry. More recently soil biology has gained greater attention. Yet, it is only when we begin to understand all three facets of living soil—not just chemistry and biology but also energy—that we can begin to truly unlock the potential of our growing spaces and care for them properly. This book seeks to equip the reader to bring all three facets into fruitful balance. To this end—and this starting place may surprise some readers—the book’s first chapter begins with a long sidebar exploring soil energy.
Palmer points out that plants and soil exist in a symbiotic relationship. Plants are able to do the unimaginable—process incoming solar energy and turn it into stored and transportable energy (sugar). Almost nothing else on earth has this ability! The plants then give large amounts of this energy (sugar) to the soil microbiome in exchange for all sorts of things that soil life is able to make available in trade that are otherwise difficult or impossible for the plants to access—minerals, nutrients and other compounds. As the plants produce more sugars, and the soil microbiome trades more and more things in exchange for this energy, both become stronger—including more resistant to pests, diseases and other problems. The more we strengthen this symbiotic soil-plant relationship, the healthier our plants and foods will be—and the healthier we will be.
Palmer’s book balances techniques and tactics that promote all aspects of soil integrity, sometimes alone but more often together. Palmer recognizes that chemistry without biology can lead to catastrophe, while biology without chemistry leads to barrenness. When done properly, though, both can increase soil energy. Thus whereas soil tests are necessary to know how to care for your soil, it is very important to realize that only a strong soil biology can make proper use of the fertilizers and amendments that soil testing may indicate.
I was glad to see Palmer address how to deal with excess minerals in soils. Over the past five years, doing consulting work for gardeners and larger-scale growers, I have found that excess minerals are a problem far more often than insufficient minerals! This is usually because people skipped the very important and low-cost step of consistently testing their soils, which would have saved them from applying unneeded amendments and imbalancing their soil’s chemistry. Just a reminder: Don’t neglect your annual soil test(s)!
Fermentation is a topic that appears repeatedly in Palmer’s work. Just as fermentation of food improves human health, fermentation is also a powerful (and underutilized) tool to promote soil and plant health. Palmer also mentions and extensively recommends mulches and cover crops—recognizing that more roots mean more
solar energy conversion, which means more underground microbiome activity. Moreover, contrary to what many growers think, plants generally benefit from being in close proximity to other plants instead of abandoned in desert islands of garden isolation.
Another theme that the book emphasizes is customization. Just as a food or diet that works for one person may be a poor fit for another, so it is with caring for your soil. Your soil test results, local resources, crop selection and numerous other factors will determine how you take the varied techniques and options that Palmer presents and apply them to your particular place and space.
My favorite part of the book was the final chapter titled “Amendment Recipes.” Many books talk about the importance of using various techniques and approaches to support soil and plant health, but this long chapter shows readers exactly how to accomplish it and furnishes a host of examples. Here you will see exactly how to extract, ferment, capture and apply a wide range of minerals and biologicals to bolster plant health and yields—every one with full recipes and step-by-step instructions. This makes it easy to modify and customize according to your particular plant and soil needs (again based on your test results).
I thoroughly enjoyed The Regenerative Growers Guide to Garden Amendments. Not only does Palmer understand what promotes soil and plant health, but he gives readers many practical ways to apply these techniques, either with different crops or as a system to use across an entire growing cycle each year. Much of the information that he provides mirrors exactly what we teach when we offer classes on our farm/homestead to help new growers understand the beautiful interplay between chemistry, biology and energy that grows food and soil at the same time. Whether you are an experienced grower or new to the gardening game, Palmer’s book is worth reading. Two thumbs up.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2020