Cider vinegar in the making. (Mary Lowther photo)

Cider vinegar in the making. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Increasing the mineral content of soil without costly imports

My regular readers (both of you) will not be surprised when I write about the need to replenish the soil as produce leaves the farm gate, carrying the minerals with it. As these become depleted the nutritional value of ensuing crops declines and, because the customer is reluctant to pay more to defray the cost of rebuilding their medium, commercial crops over time have contained fewer nutrients, leaving the populace weaker and more vulnerable to disease. Evidently, I tell this to David so often that when he leafed through my Small Farms magazine, he came across an article about Nigel Palmer’s new book, The Regenerative Grower’s Guide to Garden Amendments and convinced me to buy it.

David claims I am hard to shop for. He complains that I do not wear jewelry, avoid chocolate and prefer overalls and gumboots to Versace and Gucci, all of which is perfectly true, most of the time. I knew he was the one when he bought me a truckload of manure for my birthday! He also knows I prefer a good gardening book to any novel, however lurid, and is dreadfully smug to have found me one I was not even aware of. I suspect he is also relieved to have found an acceptable gift that does not require rain gear and a shovel.

In his book Palmer discusses how fermentation increases the bioavailability of minerals, and how he uses this process to extract minerals from local sources instead of importing expensive and increasingly scarce minerals. He provides several methods of fermentation to obtain minerals from weeds, fish, bones and shells. The health benefits of fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut have been well studied. Palmer’s experiments show how we can increase the mineral content of our soil without costly imports. I already knew fermented compost tea prevented disease in my crops; now I know how other fermentations can extract minerals.

Take dandelions, for example. Palmer uses sugar to ferment them into a juice that contains minerals that plants pull from deep in the soil to incorporate into their structures. He uses a weak dilution of the resulting weed juice to feed his plants, either by spraying on their leaves or drenching the soil, applying it every seven to 10 days during the growing season. Since corn stalks contain corn syrup, I’m going to try to extract it from mashed stalks instead of buying sugar. I’ll use it next year, assuming I live that long.

I am itching to get started now, though, with an apple cider vinegar that Palmer uses to ferment minerals from bones and shells. He takes fallen apples that aren’t being used for anything else, trims off the bruised parts, cuts the apples into quarters and stuffs a jar half to two thirds full with them, adding water to the top. He weighs this down to keep the apples submerged (I used a smaller jar that fits inside and also used my fermenting jar), labels the jar with the date and contents and covers it to keep out debris. He lets it sit for a month, at which time the apples will probably remain submerged so the weight can be removed. When the pH falls to four or five he decants the cloudy liquid. (I imagine one could buy pH strips at the drug store.) The fermenting liquid can be left for another month or more and a mother (SCOBY – symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) should form on the surface. Then he strains the shelf stable liquid into labeled jars and covers it tightly for storage. Palmer uses this vinegar to extract minerals from bones, shells and eggshells, presumably crushed. When I get that far into the process, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

In the meantime I have a new reason to go for walks on the beach. It’s always good to have an excuse.

gardeningLake Cowichan