The most important and needed plant food is everywhere. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. You can’t control it or buy it, but it is available for free everywhere. It is as light as the wind, but it makes trees weigh many tons. After I found out what the most needed plant food was, it has totally changed the way I look at plants and think about feeding them.
Over and over I ask God to teach me how to farm, and He has been teaching me some things that I find very exciting. I do not want to take the credit for what I am learning and sharing with you. I did not grow up on a farm, nor am I smart enough to discover the things I am learning on my own. God is the one who is showing me how to put together the different "pieces of the puzzle" that others have found so that I can see the bigger picture. The more I learn, the more I realize that farming is one of the most unexplored frontiers when it comes to understanding how to raise plants and animals so that they have the highest nutrient value that produces the greatest health and longevity for us as people.
At least 80% of the nutrients that a plant needs to grow comes from the air. Air is the most important and needed plant food. I first learned about this concept from Carey Reams who discovered it a number of years ago from his research. Recently I was reading in the 2005 edition of Biological Science by Scott Freeman. In the early 1600’s Jean-Baptiste van Helmont planted a five pound willow sapling in 200 pounds of soil in a container. He predicted that the soil mass would decrease by the same amount that the plant mass increased. After 5 years, the tree weighed 169 lbs, 3oz. The soil weighed 199lbs, 14oz. He concluded that since the soil had not significantly decreased, the additional 164lbs 3oz of tree had come from the water. Later research has found that conclusion to be incorrect and that most of the mass of the tree came from the air, most of it being carbon dioxide.
This past week Cathy and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. We went over to beautiful West Virginia and drove through parts of the Monongahela National Forest and surrounding areas. One of the places that I wanted to show Cathy was the Dolly Sods Wilderness area. I had visited it 30 years ago as a teenager when our family vacationed in the area. Dolly Sods is a unique area. It is a high plateau with a cool climate. The tundra-like landscape is described as similar to parts of Alaska and Canada. It receives as much as 290 inches of snow each winter. 30 years ago, most of the trees were short and scrawny and appeared to be struggling for survival in the harsh climate. Many of the trees had branches only on the east side because of the strong winds from the west. Large rocks were visible everywhere.
Last week, I was surprised at the change that had occurred in 30 years’ time. Only a few of the trees had branches only on the east side. In most of Dolly Sods, the vegetation was lush and dense. The land is healing itself. As we thought about it, we realized that the healing to the soil was coming from the air. A bit of history of Dolly Sods will shed more light on the nutrients coming from the air.
The history is drawn from the wikipedia.org article on Dolly Sods.
In 1852, Dolly Sods was described as a tract of land entirely uninhabited, and so savage and inaccessible that it had rarely been penetrated even by the most adventurous. Settlers on its borders spoke of it with a sort of fear as they described it filled with bears, panthers, and impassable mountain laurel thickets that had caused hunters who had ventured too far to perish. The area was covered mostly by a dense Red Spruce and Hemlock forest. Some of the trees measured 12 feet in diameter. Years of accumulated needles from these trees created a thick soil humus seven to nine feet deep!! (Note where the deep top soil had come from, not the ground or fertilizer applied to the soil, but from the air! The nutrients that the trees took in from the air grew the spruce needles and when the needles dropped to the ground they increased the depth of the topsoil.)
In the late 1800’s, logging moved into Dolly Sods, and the huge trees were cut down. The thick soil humus dried out and sparks from railroad locomotives, logger’s fires, etc. started fires which burned the humus in the soil. Fires repeatedly swept through the area in the 1910’s until the deep seven to nine foot deep humus topsoil had burned down to rock leaving a thin layer of soil.
As I viewed Dolly Sods this past week it was another object lesson to me that plants do take in nutrients from the air and in the process can enrich the soil so that the plants can have the deep topsoil that they need for the nutrients that they get from the soil. It was also an object lesson to me that when we don’t understand how plants work, we can be very destructive like the loggers were and like chemical agriculture is today. If the loggers had understood how plants work, trees could have been harvested from Dolly Sods and the area managed in such a way that would have produced incredible amounts of lumber indefinitely. Unfortunately, ignorance is not bliss. It is very destructive.
This is a view of the north end of Dolly Sods, which is still a lot the same as it was 30 years ago. Note how short the trees are and how they have branches mostly on one side.
This is what most of Dolly Sods looks like today. The trees are getting tall and creating enough wind break that branches grow on all sides of the tree.
The mountain laurel is coming back. It was just starting to bloom last week. It is reported that there are spectacular displays of mountain laurel in bloom in late June. Note how lush it is, and the dense growth of ferns in the foreground.
How we are applying this knowledge here on the farm
In the American chestnut orchard, we have been letting the grass grow a foot or more tall and then mowing it short. The result has been a significant increase in the growth of the grass compared to the pasture outside the chestnut orchard fence. In addition, the chestnut trees have been having significant growth last year and this year. The chestnut orchard has been my classroom where I have been learning some important lessons on how to capture the energy in the air with the grass and put it into the soil to improve the health of the plants so that they can pull more nourishment out of the air.
The American/Chinese cross chestnut trees this spring have showed significant new growth. The light green is the new growth. These three year old trees, planted as nuts in the spring of 2007, added at least two to three feet of growth on each side and in height in the last two months.
We purchased a tractor and a sickle bar mower this spring to mow the pastures so we can build/deepen the topsoil with the mowed grass. Carey Reams found that grass should mowed with a sickle bar mower and not be mowed with a rotary mower if you want to keep the most nutrients from the grass. A rotary mower or bush hog chops up the grass too much, and many of the nutrients in the grass evaporate into the air again and are lost. We mowed a section of pasture last year with a sickle bar mower and left it laying on the ground. The grass grew back with much more growth than where we mowed with a rotary mower.
We have found, too, that mowing the chicken pastures on a regular basis has significantly increased the brix reading of the grass. The higher brix grass has more nutrients, protein, and omega-3’s increasing the nutrient density of our eggs, and chicken and lamb meat.
There is much more about plants getting their nutrients from the air that remains to be discovered and applied. If any of you have a piece of the puzzle, please share it with us. We would be glad to hear about it.