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Reams Principles: Feed the Soil, Feed the Plant, Feed the Leaf


During my first year making fertility recommendations for gardens, I made a wrong assumption. I had witnessed the steady fertility gains made in row crops with relatively modest fertility inputs.

I copied what was working in row crops to the newly developed garden program and was surprised to find a failure in the making. The level of reserve fertility was in significant decline – especially calcium and trace minerals. To compensate I had to dramatically increase the nutrients I recommended and that fixed the problem.

Vegetables remove far more earth minerals that grains, pastures and fruit trees by a factor of 2-10 times.  And this difference in crop removal has to be accounted for by increasing fertility inputs.

As I learned the principles of Reams teaching, I began to make a connection. Everything he taught in the abstract with detailed theory ultimately led to specific actions and inputs. What started in the theoretical always ended up with practical application. After more time listening to Dr. Carey Reams’ audio courses it dawned on me that all these actions and inputs could be consigned to 3 basic ideas.

• Feed the Soil

• Feed the Plant

• Feed the Leaf

Feed the Soil is about optimizing soil toward an ideal pattern. Feed the Plant is about giving a helping hand to the microbe/plant root barter system. Feed the Leaf is about foliar nutrition to further enhance yield and deliver trace minerals.

The greatest success in Reams Agriculture comes when all 3 “buckets” are used in a complete program. Without a doubt, the greatest quantity of inputs is needed to Feed the Soil. The other buckets take far less inputs. The rest of this article will discuss the inputs needed to Feed the Soil.

But first let’s address the question of why. Why use inputs? Because the proper use of inputs, with the help of plants and microbes completely changes the pattern of the soil.

Imagine a chef commissioned to make the world’s best chocolate cake in less than 4 hours. What is he going to do? First, he is going to find the very best chocolate cake recipe, then he his going to assemble the finest ingredients, and lastly, he is going to follow the recipe meticulously.

The highest quality cake is made with very specific levels of ingredients in very tight ratio with each other. Anything added too much or little or out of balance with other ingredients can completely ruin the cake. Just triple the salt and baking soda and the cake is not fit to eat.

The same with soil. Instead of calling it a recipe we call it a pattern. The pattern of soil is determined by the levels and ratios of available minerals. If we want a better output of high-quality crops or nutrient dense foods then we must create the proper pattern in soil. You can’t get a prize-winning cake with a lousy recipe and neither can you achieve nutrient dense produce with deficient or imbalanced soil. You have to meet natures requirements if you want top quality.

Let’s illustrate this with a typical soil test followed up by a decode of the soil pattern. All nutrients are in lbs. per acre on the Morgan soil Test.

Nutrient                                 Lab Result                  Desired Level     

Phosphorous                         16                                 175

Potassium                              290                               175

Calcium                                  900                               3,150

Magnesium                            125                               450

Ratio                                      Result                   Desired Ratio

Phosphorous to Potassium         .05:1                    1:1

Calcium to Magnesium               7.2:1                    7:1

Calcium to Phosphorous             196:1                    15-18:1

Calcium to Potassium                  3:1                         15-18:1

To calculate the ratio, take the lab result for the first nutrient and divide it by the lab result of the second nutrient. To calculate the Calcium to Magnesium ratio, divide 900 by 125 to get 7.2. This soil has a Ca:Ma ratio of 7.2:1.

This general pattern is found all over the south and the eastern 1/3 of the United States. But in many instances the soils have even less fertility than this example. So, what does this pattern tell us? Here is the decode.

• 16 lbs. of available Phosphorous indicates low brix and poor energy production in the plant. The energy cycle in plants depends on phosphorous since it is the P in ATP.

• 290 lbs. of Potassium signifies there will be a crop.

• Calcium at 900 lbs. means low yield, very poor root development, and inadequate feeding of soil microbes. Inputs to help the microbes are needed.

• Magnesium at 125 lbs. is a sufficient amount for leaf function but still low.

• The P:K ratio of .05:1 indicates broadleaf weed pressure.

• The Ca:Ma ratio of 7.2:1 indicates a soil that is workable and not sticky.

• The extreme Ca:P ratio of 196:1 further highlights how critically low phosphorous is and suggests insect and disease susceptibility. If Copper is also low and the year is wet, you might see a fungal attack.

• The Ca:K ratio of 3:1 is the other extreme. Such a high level of potassium relative to calcium indicates poor cellular integrity of the crop. This happens when Potassium substitutes for Calcium in the cell walls.

Altogether this is the pattern of a depleted soil. This soil can not produce high brix or nutrient dense food or crops in the near future. Animals eating forages grown on this soil will not perform well. The good news is this soil is easy to fix. The bad news is it is not cheap.

Inputs to grow the upcoming crop and improve the overall soil pattern could include the following:

• Soft Rock Phosphate

• Low-Magnesium Limestone

• 11-52-0 Mono Ammonium Phosphate

• Calcium Nitrate

• Epsom Salt

What is not suggested for this year is an application of compost or manure. They should be avoided because potassium will increase and it is already too high.

By giving a complete feeding to the soil it will impact roots and microbes. As the pattern changes to toward ideal crop health and yield improves. And so, does the nourishment of people and animals.

Next month we will cover the inputs to Feed the Plant and Feed the Leaf. In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying a diet of nutrient dense foods and that occasional slice of decadent chocolate cake.

Jon Frank is the owner of International Ag Labs (aglabs.com), based in southern Minnesota. He is a soil consultant with more than 20 years of experience in his field. He is the founder of High Brix Gardens (highbrixgardens.com), the market garden/backyard garden division of IAL. Jon is fascinated with the correlation between minerally rich soil and nutrient-dense food and its subsequent impact on human health.