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Book of the Week: Weeds — Control without Poisons by Charles Walters

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, Weeds — Control without Poisons, written by Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters. Copyright 1999. #4005. Softcover. 352 pages. $25.00 regularly priced.

By Charles Walters

Andre Voisin, the great French farmer and scientist who wrote Soil, Grass and Cancer and Grass Productivity, once declared that most of what he knew came not from the university, but from observing his cows at grass. And so it is with much of what we know about weeds. Walking the fields with the late C.J. Fenzau in areas as separate as Indiana, Iowa and Idaho, I was able to take note of what weeds were trying to tell us during the early days of the Acres U.S.A. publication. Admittedly, this knowledge has been fleshed out since then. And recent findings build on, rather than tear down, those field observations.

Weeds – Control without Poisons

Weeds are an index of what is wrong — and sometimes what is right — with the soil, or at least with the fertility program. In every field on every farm, there are different soil types, and each has a potential for producing certain weeds, depending on how a farmer works the soil. Fall tillage, spring tillage, tillage early or late, if it takes place when the soil is dry or wet, all these things determine the kinds of weeds that will grow that season. As far back as the Dust Bowl days, it became transparently obvious to my Dad — after viewing rainbelt territory near Conway, Missouri — that dryland weeds generally don’t grow in territory that has rain pelting the soil with a steady squall. Thus the pres­ence of salt grass, iron weed, tumbleweed and all the wild sages in soils where flocculation is gone, and wind wafts dust skyward. There are soil conditions that almost always have restricted amounts of water, and consequently they do not require and cannot grow weeds that thrive when there is plenty of water. Continue Reading →

When Less is More: Understanding Fertilizer and Solubility

The amphiphilic nature of humic substances allows them to work in water and hydrophobic environments, providing the critical conditions necessary for biological processes when they are closely associated with clays.

Make the gesture “just a little bit” by squeezing your thumb and index fingers as tight as you can; tighter, tighter — the amount of fertilizer you could hold between your fingers is about the amount dissolved in soil solution … per acre! That’s right; there is very little if any dissolved “plant food” in the water of a typical soil.

The amount of plant nutrients dissolved in soil solutions is so small that it is expressed as parts per million (ppm), not hundreds of pounds or tons per acre. While synthetic fertilizers are sold primarily on the basis of their water (aqueous) solubility, the emphasis on aqueous solubility is generally misunderstood and somewhat misguided.

It is generally known that over-application of extremely soluble synthetic fertilizers has been responsible for disrupting ecosystems and numerous environmental problems. What is not generally known is that all highly soluble soil inputs, including sulfates, chlorides and fluorides, disrupt the structure of water molecules, impeding the biochemical energy flows that affect the metabolism of plants, making them more susceptible to insect pressure and diseases and decreased water use efficiency.

It is also a well established fact that highly soluble phosphate fertilizers become “tied-up” soon after application. When there is an overabundance of dissolved phosphates in soil water, the soil system responds chemically by forming more stable forms of phosphorus, usually by chemically combining with calcium cations and complexing with lanthanides (rare earths) and organic matter. All of these materials can release phosphorus as plant nutrients through microbial activity.

Although water is critical to all life forms, there are numerous metabolic pathways in biological systems where it gets in the way and must be pushed aside; it’s called the hydrophobic effect.

Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Food Power from the Sea by Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons

Editor’s Note: This is a combination of two smaller excerpts from the 1977 book, Food Power from the Sea, which was published by Acres U.S.A. and is still one of our best sellers.

By Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons

Since Romans, Bretons, Scots, Vikings, and Spaniards used seaweed for fertilizer ever since the time of Christ, it is not surprising that Portuguese settlers near Cape Cod used this resource in growing vegetables for Boston markets. Old timers of that area remember stories of the seaweed harvests by market gardeners after every storm, when they piled their carts high with the briny stuff to use in growing potatoes, corn, turnips, carrots, cabbages, and other kinds of produce. Their crops claimed highest prices because of the fine flavor and quality attributed to the seaweed.

Food Power from the Sea, by Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons

Nor is it surprising that tobacco growers of Connecticut learned to use seaweed to fertilize tobacco well over 100 years ago. Seaweed is high in potash (about 3 percent) and potassium is a favored nutrient for growing fine tobacco.

The demand for seaweed must have been strong, since Luther Maddocks of Boothbay, Maine, a skilled fisherman, quit fishing in 1869 and went into production of seaweed fertilizer for sale to Connecticut tobacco farmers.

He says, in his autobiography, “That was 1869 . . . I sold out my fishing gear to the Suffolk Oil Company and decided to locate at Boothbay Harbor, where I have lived ever since. My first undertaking at Boothbay Harbor was to build the Algea Fertilizer Company plant. I was making the fertilizer from dried and ground sea­weed. I had a United States patent on it and a con­tract with the Quanipaac Company of New Haven (Connecticut) for $30 per ton for all I could dry and deliver in three years. This looked better to me than the fish business, and in the fall of ’69 I built and equipped the factory which I have since used for many purposes and which is now a canning factory.”

Luther Maddocks then goes on to describe the difficulties of drying and grinding seaweed which, he says, “Becomes tough like leather and impossible to grind.” However, he learned to cool the seaweed suddenly, then grind it into a suitable texture for use as fertilizer.

Living from 1845 to 1932, Luther Maddocks was America’s first entrepreneur to harvest seaweed and process it for use in farming, for tobacco farmers of the New Haven and Hartford areas.

Oscar Wood’s Giant Beanstalk in 1975

Living in West Seattle near Alki Point, Oscar Wood has walked along Puget Sound beaches for fifty years. He is known to his neighbors and friends as an old semipro baseball player who played several seasons for the Seattle Indians; and who worked for Ma Bell’s telephone company in the Seattle area for thirty-seven years.

Recently, Oscar Wood has been seeing how high he could grow a bean plant, using the Scarlet Runner variety. He does this, he says, “Mostly for fun and for seed to give away, and to see how high it will go.”

In 1974, Oscar Wood’s bean plant reached a height of 19 feet and its picture was shown in the West Seattle Herald. However, in 1975, Oscar fed his beans seaweed, and they at­tained a height of 24 feet.

Says Oscar Wood, “I plant two circles of seed, but of course it is one particular vine that reaches to the top. As to the seaweed, it is the green ribbonlike and ruffied variety, and sometimes the tide has left our beach covered with it. Our son-in-law raked up and loaded about six wheelbarrows full onto his trailer and put it in his compost, and he really raises a garden. One hill had forty-four large potatoes in it, besides about twenty little ones this year. We wash some of the salt water off the seaweed first. We only applied it once.”

To our knowledge, during forty years of hearing farmers and gardeners tell about their big crops, Oscar Wood has the world record beanstalk.

Author of such classic works as The American Farmer and Earth Foods, the late Lee Fryer was undoubtedly one of the greatest minds and voices in the service of sustainable agriculture. In addition to his powerful writing, Fryer worked to improve American agriculture through 30 years’ experience in the USDA and the farm and garden supply industry, where he helped hundreds of farmers and gardeners to grow safe, nutritious food crops. A longtime associate in Fryer’s research, writing and work with fertilizer technologies, Dick Simmons was a marine biologist, chemist and fertilizer agronomist.

Homemade Fertilizers

With the economy and farm finance more and more problematic, interest is growing in running farms with fewer, more accurate and less expensive inputs and homemade fertilizers can help cut costs and keep fertility on the farm.

homemade fertilizer

Vermiwash made in a small biodynamic apple orchard in the
Himalayan foothills of Uttaranchal in sight of Nanda Devi, India’s second highest
mountain.

Formerly we’ve overdosed with a plethora of harsh fertilizers — especially nitrogen. As a result we’ve burned up the better part of our soil carbon, and this has reduced our rainfall.

By burning off carbon, we have created droughts even as ocean warming has sent more evaporation into the atmosphere. We have ignored that few things have more affinity for hydrogen than carbon, and if we want rain to adhere to and permeate our soils we need to build soil carbon.

We thought salt fertilizers were cheap, and the stunning results encouraged us to wish away any hidden costs, no matter that earthworms disappeared simultaneously with the food chain that supported them. Our soils got hard and sticky as magnesium stayed behind while nitrates leached, carrying away silicon, calcium and trace minerals. The soil fused when wet, shed water when it rained, and we continued to get less for more.

As if this wasn’t enough, the mind-set we were sold was get big or get out. As our net margins dried up and our future prospects evaporated, our water dried up and our land became exhausted. Continue Reading →

Liquid Organic Matter Can Save Costs, Increase Yields

Plants, when delivered liquid organic matter, have been proven to use less and make a higher yield.

Organic matter improves tilling properties and increases soil water holding capacity in soil. It also makes nutrients in soil more readily available to plants as they leach through soil at minimum rates. Most importantly, due to their unique chemical and physical compositions, organic matter-bound nutrients have been proven to be very efficiently utilized by plants. Organic matter is no doubt one of the most important key ingredients to increase soil productivity, which ultimately results in higher crop yields.

However, there are many types of organic matter with different methods of application, in which practicability and efficiency can be a concern. Canadian Humalite International Inc. of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has been making an effort to mitigate this challenge by utilizing low-quality coal (non-hazardous material, energy value around 7,000 BTU/lb) as a source of organic matter. This material is transported from the mine, crushed, liquefied, combined with nutrients, and then applied to soil and/or plants. Rather than using it as a non-efficient source of energy, this coal material is developed into products which are beneficial to soil.

The products are applied to soil/seeds, seedlings, and plants up to 15 percent flowering through drip irrigation and pivot/spray systems. Significant yield increases have been observed on various crops grown in different types of soil and climate regions in Canada and the United States. The following example is one of the most recent findings obtained from a field trial completed in Forrestburg, Alberta, Canada, in 2013. Continue Reading →

Wood Ash: How to Make Your Own Fertilizer

Straight wood ash on the right and wood ash mixed with ground up charcoal on the left. Both will benefit most soils.

Straight wood ash on the right and wood ash mixed with ground up charcoal on the left. Both will benefit most soils.

Wood ash, as Jon Frank shares, can be a resource for making your own super fertilizer: You’ve heard of super foods — foods especially endowed with nutrition that merit special attention. I would like to suggest a simple, effective fertilizer you can make yourself. Often overlooked and many times deprecated because it was over-applied — it is time to give wood ash its due. If you burn wood for home heating you already have a ready supply. If not, all it takes is a bonfire and you are in business. I like to incorporate plenty of charcoal in combination with the wood ashes. This approach is more closely aligned with the creation of Terra Preta. To cut the dust, I like to mix wood ashes with moist leaf mold. You may want to en­hance your fertilizer by mixing 1 pound of kelp meal and 1 pound of sugar for every 20 pounds of ashes. If phosphorus is low in your soil, add bones to the bonfire and crush them with the charcoal.

I suggest using anywhere from 5 to 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Avoid using on soils with a pH above 7.8. The use of wood ash does not replace soil test and fertility recommendations; rather it supplements it and reduces the overall need to purchase costly off-site inputs. The beauty of using wood ash is that the spectrum and ratio of minerals present in the ash have already been preselected by plants. Its fine dust is very fast-act­ing in soil. Wood ashes are very rich in trace and secondary minerals, without adding nitrogen.

Beyond Wood Ash

To create an optimum growing environment in your garden take these actions:

  • Keep the mineral levels in your soil well supplied;
  • keep soil-applied nitrogen very low;
  • keep the soil consistently moist, and
  • make your own super fertilizer.

And now for the word of caution. Externally applied nitrogen is a safety net. Its use should not be discontinued in the following situations:

  • Indoor growing — Greenhouses and high tunnels are very intensive and require more production to remain profitable.
  • Commercial grain production — Don’t even think about it.
  • Soils heavily sprayed with herbicides and pesticides — The microbial system struggles in this environment and requires applied nitrogen.

by Jon Frank

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