Home » Feed the Soil, the Plant and the Leaf: The Principles of Fertility

Feed the Soil, the Plant and the Leaf: The Principles of Fertility


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. 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 three 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 to deliver trace minerals.

The greatest success in Reams Agriculture comes when all three “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 fewer 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 four 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 nature’s requirements if you want top quality.

Let’s illustrate this with a typical soil test followed up by a decode of the soil pattern, shown in the image above. All nutrients are in pounds per acre on the Morgan soil test.

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 third 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 0.05:1 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 that this soil is easy to fix. The bad news is that 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.
  • A complete feeding to the soil will impact roots and microbes. As the pattern changes toward ideal crop health, 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 based in southern Minnesota. For more information, visit growyourownnutrition.com.