Book Review: Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon March 29, 2016 07:47

The Intelligent Gardener

I already liked Steve Solomon's approach to west coast gardening, so I had been excited about reading this book for some time. As many food gardeners already know, if you can produce healthy soil, excellent vegetables will follow. The book explores the idea that since most soils are depleted of minerals (often from growing and exporting crops), we use fertilizer to remineralize the soil to create the best soil for vegetable gardens, and thus the best vegetables for human (and animal) health. The best soil contains a ratio of specific nutrients, so in order to fertilize effectively we should analyse our soil in order to effectively correct nutrient deficiencies.

The book challenges the Rodale school of organic gardening through repeated applications of compost. If the minerals aren't in the soil from your region, they won't be found in compost produced from that soil, and compost can't magically add back minerals it doesn't have. As a result of natural geology, local weather conditions, and bad agricultural practices, typical soils in North America and around the world are seriously depleted and incapable of growing truly nutritious food. So in addition to adding compost, we should add specific soil amendments based on the results of yearly laboratory testing of soil samples.

The method promises plants that are faster growing, disease resistant, more flavourful, more filling and more nutritious than even your best vegetables have tasted before. I like this approach because it's measurable: analyse the soil, amend deficient minerals, grow crops, repeat. It's a similar process used by agribusiness, except with a different equation: rather than maximum yield and maximum profit (resulting in low nutrient-density food), the goal is maximum nutrition and optimum health.

I had the privilege of attending a soil testing workshop a few weeks after I read the book. Emma Holmes, the workshop facilitator, is a local soil scientist and was eager to share her enthusiasm and expertise. While taking soil samples and sending them to a lab for testing is a relatively simple procedure, knowing what to do with those test results is much more complex, and requires spreadsheets, some math, an understanding of soil chemistry and soil amendments, and a bit of puzzling to get the best fit between your mineral target levels and the soil amendments available.

Intelligent Gardener - Inside the book

The book is primarily a chemistry-based approach to soil, with the idea that healthy biological soil ecology will naturally follow from soil with high nutrient levels. The role of microbial, fungal and animal life toward contributing to mineral availability is considered secondary to the existence of those minerals in the soil (as seen by a soil test). The book does not specifically address any techniques toward encouraging the soil ecology, and how that relates to mineral availability.

The book might also be science-heavy for some. The approach is based on soil chemistry and there's some math to figure your optimum amendments. If you're not into all that, the first half of the book may be all you need. After discussing the background and motivations for soil remineralization, he author offers a simple do-no-harm recipe for a complete organic fertilizer, that while not as effective at remineralizing with a bespoke mix, will be effective at improving the nutrient content of your soil without putting your soil out of balance. 

If what you're looking for is inspiration and an understanding of how a healthy garden relates to healthy humans, then this book could be a game-changer for the way you think about soil, your food garden and your health.

I'm eager to learn about about the potential of soil testing for remineralization. If you'd like to do some soil analysis of your own, I'll be sending out soil sample batches for testing from Homestead Junction this spring, and I'd like to host a workshop on analysing test results to create optimum soil amendments. Send me an email at  karlis@homesteadjunction.ca or ask at the HJX if you're interested. Happy Gardening!