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Ask the Plant

By Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler

Editor’s Note: This is a combination of two smaller excerpts from Acres U.S.A. original book, Ask the Plant, written by Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler. Copyright 2010, softcover, 286 pages. $30.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE $20.00.

It takes a cloudless night an adequate distance from the city’s light pollution to really appreciate the beautiful planet on which we live. Telescopes can take us well beyond the Milky Way, yet the unaided eye can find some planets in our solar system, and a little book learning can supply the intelligence that we have been here some 14 billion years, more or less.

This organism called Earth is no more than a speck in our planetary system, one that is swung on a gravitational string in a 300-million-mile orbit around a nebular sun. It wobbles slightly on its axis so that each hemisphere can be blessed with summer, winter, spring and fall.

Geologists tell us that planet Earth has many more mineral compounds than our sister planets, all of them fashioned from those elements that are blocked with such orderly symmetry on the Mendeleev chart.

How can these minerals have evolved from the same elements that service other planets? This evolution of inert minerals is aided and abetted by the life forms called microorganisms. Our microbial workers did not raise mountains from the deep. A fiery heartbeat from the center of the earth did that, striking land masses with tsunamis, sending water up or into a frigid air envelope, igniting ocean warming and great ice ages.

Some four million years ago, humanity appeared on the living planet. There developed, we reckon, a symbiotic relationship between life forms, with man asking the plant, and the plant handing off answers.

Those minerals that floated in on the air or migrated through the soil asked for their blessings from the microbes, either in the sap of the plant or by the soil’s billions of unpaid workers.

Ask the Plant

Even Texas seems puny under an umbrella of stars. Quite recently astronomers informed us that discernible planets orbited a star well removed from our solar system, and still credentialed and settled science suggests that the elements of the universe are fixed. Some few elements fall from the heavens, but for the most part planet Earth’s supply is fixed. That supply services not only bacterial fixers, but also plants, animals and human beings.

The high plains in the Texas Panhandle, the hills west of Austin and San Antonio, the undulating grasslands, the black soil corridor, the rainbelt to the east that merges with Louisiana’s sugarcane acres, and cropland around the world all challenge the food producer. None of them, however, field the diverse challenges of the Rio Grande Valley.

Here, Esper Kaylor (K.) Chandler, proprietor of the Texas Plant & Soil Laboratory, modestly wears a reputation that brings agronomists from across the nation and around the world to his digs. Chandler asks the plant and teaches farmers its language and how its answers give the crop and its end-line consumers permission for life. He walks a razor-thin line, counseling quality when an industry asks only for bins and bushels.

Chandler is the daring adventurer whose downloaded knowledge will, I believe, annihilate the existing order. Sir Albert Howard counseled that two false premises — partial and imbalanced fertilization and toxic rescue chemistry — have invaded the republics of learning. Chandler’s critiques have been tested, and they sting like a driven nail as the plant tells agriculture to learn its language. The lessons contained therein start right now.

Come walk with me, or ride in my pickup truck; learn how to see what you look at. Meet the growers and their consultants and the plants that tell them what to do. James “Bubba” King and visiting plainsmen will tell you they resonate with what Esper K. Chandler knows and, more important, what the plant knows.

“Factory calculated fertilizers are made soluble,” says Chandler, “and it’s a mixed blessing. As Albrecht says [William A. Albrecht, former head of the Department of Soils, University of Missouri], they should be insoluble but available.” In a drip line or sprayed as a foliar, the discourse goes on, “It’s up to microorganisms to make them ready for plant uptake. What we worry about is the plant going hungry before we know it.”

So-called conventional agriculture pretends to know all the answers. Its absolutes reach back to the days of Justus von Liebig, the “father of modern fertilization,” who found the connection between nitrogen and plant growth and defined as his absolute the primacy of that element. Albrecht Daniel Thaer said absolutely that humus was crown prince if not king, and Robert Lawe proved absolutely that nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, N, P and K, were the essentials best made factory soluble for field use. Lawmakers have since enshrined NPK as legal writ, complete and settled.

“And nature smiled a sphinx-like smile,” wrote a poet, “and let them have their way, and waited patiently for the fools to go away!” The pickup rolls past a bat cave.

A Lesson About Fertility from the Lowly Bat

Chandler had his experience with phosphoric acid as manufactured and under the auspices of bat guano. “When I was mining bat guano in the caves, we were after phosphate naturally made,” Chandler recalls. “Those bat caves have limestone cathedral ceilings, which is where the bats spend daylight hours. Trickles of water penetrated the limestone from the soil above. Ammonia rises from the fresh guano and hits the lime water. Ammonia water then cuts into the limestone, and fallout peppers the fresh guano on the floor of the cave. Some falling material is the size of an automobile. As the limestone is showered with the flush of fresh droppings, composting goes to work. A veritable mountain of material develops over time. Texas bats consume billions of insects even in the upper atmosphere, intercepting predatory insects heading to northern and Midwestern fields.

“We took off the fresh manure pile to reach an early formation of rock phosphate. As those phosphoric acids reacted with the calcium, large rocks would fracture with the tap of a sledgehammer. A bit deeper, the product to be mined is truly rock phosphate,” Chandler explains. “That’s what we mined and sold. And we used the petiole test to evaluate the uptake of guano phosphates by plants.” This was the start of Chandler’s career in plant analysis consulting services under the direction of Dr. Albin D. Lengyel, Phoenix, Arizona, at the request of local Winter Garden Farmers in Texas.

Organic standards, to be explained later, do approve of hydrogen peroxide. They don’t quite approve of urea. Is phosphate produced by bat guano acceptable? Does nature approve? Yes!

Growers who accept a whole battery of organic products hold open the final answer, pending the arrival of new databases that will be rejected or ratified as the organic movement asserts itself, and as the new innovators assert themselves, always asking, “Does nature approve?”

Nature’s way decrees that plants love company, not necessarily their own. A pasture that appears to be a monoculture will have, say, 40 to more than 50 species. The tomato plant treasures sweet basil, probably because the two plants trade auxins to their mutual benefit. Academia has largely ignored this strange plant alchemy, but gardeners have asked questions for centuries. They might better have asked the plants. Chandler takes note of what talented amateurs have discovered, for which reason he is interested in area gardeners who have bush beans living peacefully with chard and beets, and corn trading auxins with almost every member of the bean family.

Weeds are an index of what is wrong with a soil system, and sometimes what is right. Our earlier book, Weeds — Control Without Poisons, attempts to plumb the range of this practice, secure in the knowledge that Chandler has been there before. Certainly, the plant that arrives first declares the kingdom for the year.

Reading the Plant

It is not practical to have companion plants in most field situations, but it is possible to read deficiencies and surpluses of plant nutrients even without the certainty of a petiole test, a refractometer readout, or a laboratory’s final audit.

K. CHANDLER (1926-2008) recalled a grower saying, “You are always talking about asking the plant — what language do you use?” Chandler answered, “It’s sign language. We have to learn a new language when we are growing plants. There are many types of sign languages.” Chandler was a professional agronomist and soil scientist who traveled the country consulting with growers in a quest to improve yields, quality and profits. He was the owner of Texas Plant & Soil Lab for more than 27 years, was a founding member of the National Organic Standards Board, and a Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg) credentialed by the American Society of Agronomy. He has been widely proclaimed as a leader in the soil fertility and plant nutrition field.

CHARLES WALTERS (1926-2009) was the founder of Acres U.S.A and has penned thousands of articles on organic and sustainable agriculture. He has also authored (or co-authored) dozens of books on this subject including Eco-Farm, Weeds: Control without Poisons, Hands-On Agronomy, Grass, the Forgiveness of Nature, Dung Beetles, Reproduction and Animal Health and more.