Best Soil Amendments: Why Chemicals in the Garden are Necessary

Posted by on Jul 15, 2015 in Grow Better Greens Podcast | Comments Off on Best Soil Amendments: Why Chemicals in the Garden are Necessary

In Episode 6, we discuss the best soil amendments and the controversy around using chemicals in the garden. We offer up a time when we find it completely necessary to garden with chemicals and discuss when this can be considered an entirely organic practice. You can listen here:




Soil Amendments: Why Chemicals in the Garden are Needed

What are chemicals?1:18
Separating natural chemicals from synthetic chemicals, and then what?2:20
Is it time to change the conversation around growing food with chemicals?3:22
Toxic chemicals? Excesses vs. Deficiencies4:11
Identifying Which Chemicals Make Up YOUR Garden6:58
Can your garden even hold on to chemicals? Understanding Total Exchange Capacity10:35
Your scarcest resource & the Law of the Minimum14:35


View a full transcription of this episode here.

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What Are Chemicals?:

The short answer to this question is that chemicals ARE life. Chemicals make up all matter, be it necessary for our survival, such as food, water, and the air we breathe or unnecessary – matter such as iPhones, tennis shoes, and motor vehicles.

Water, air, vitamins, and minerals are all chemical elements or chemical compounds (two or more elements joined together).

The tricky part about chemicals, is that when we’re speaking of them in the context of our home gardens, they seem to take on a different definition. We generally place them in a negative category made up of things we try to avoid using in the garden. We might even say that we are ‘chemical-free gardeners’ who ‘don’t grow or buy food that’s been raised or treated with chemicals’. I know that I’ve said these words many, many times!

Hmmm.. but of course water, oxygen, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous are all chemicals that we would welcome into our gardens, right?


Separating Natural from Synthetic Chemicals:

Adding to the confusion surrounding using chemicals in the garden is the divide between naturally-occurring chemicals and man-made synthetic chemicals. Although it’s really tempting to use the terms ‘organic’ and ‘non-organic’ (or ‘inorganic’) when discussing this divide, those words are inaccurate and are rather used to reference a deeper conversation around carbon-based chemicals.

Natural Chemicals are those that are found in and produced by Nature.

Synthetic Chemicals are created by humans, either to mimic a natural chemical, or to be something completely new and different that does not occur in Nature.

Again, generally speaking, synthetic chemicals are most often avoided or shunned by home gardeners and organic gardeners. On a personal note, I feel unable to readily demonize this group of chemicals without knowing more about them, how they are created, and what their intended uses are. My gut tells me that I want nothing to do with synthetic chemicals, but based upon my limited knowledge I would be very much speaking out of turn. I have even read some encouraging words about using synthetic chemicals to boost the nutrients in your food!


Is it Time to Change the Conversation Around Growing Food with Chemicals?:

Yes, I definitely think so. By consistently pushing chemicals to the side in our gardening conversations, we’re missing out on a huge opportunity to grow higher-quality foods than we currently do. We seem to have chemicals in general confused with harsh herbicides and pesticides that can damage our immediate environments and leave carcinogenic residues on our produce.

This philosophy has really driven the organic movement, which has evolved into a list of things we don’t want involved in our food production.

But on the flipside, raw minerals (pure chemical elements) may be the exact remedy that allow our plants to fend off pests and diseases without any extra help from us in the form of bug-killing sprays, sprinkles, and powders.

By shifting the conversation towards using chemicals in the garden, we can open up to the idea that both plants AND humans rely on chemical elements to attain true health.

And that’s what we DO want. Healthy fruits and vegetables grown on healthy plants with heightened immune systems. If we want to be healthy and have our own heightened immunity, shouldn’t we source our food from plants that demonstrate those ideas perfectly?

Growing food with heightened natural immunity and more nutrients per calorie is known as Nutrient Dense Farming, or Biological Farming. You can learn more about it by signing up for our free video series below:


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Toxic Chemicals: Excesses vs. Deficiencies

But what about Toxic Chemicals? What exactly earns an element the title of Toxic and how worried should we be about this happening in our gardens?

To start, ‘toxic’ simply means ‘in excess’. So natural or synthetic, good or bad, necessary or unnecessary, all chemicals can occur at levels that are so intense and overpowering that they become detrimental to their ecosystem and to our human health.

For example, we know that Magnesium is a chemical element that is necessary to human health. We can even find it listed on the government’s Recommended Daily Intake list of nutrients so that we can calculate how much any individual should consume based upon their gender, weight, and height.

But, just like any other nutrient, we must recognize that taking in too much Magnesium can lead to Hypermagnesemia – aka Magnesium Toxicity! This is especially important for people who rely on over-the-counter milk-of-magnesia products to regulate their digestion. So, while Magnesium in the proper amounts is vital to human health (and plant health!), too much can lead to trouble, just like with any other chemical element.

Equally as dangerous as chemical excesses (toxicities) are chemical deficiencies. Sometimes, we just don’t have enough of what we need nutrient-wise to underwrite all of our body’s processes. Humans, animals and plants all rely on proper levels of nutrients to operate effectively and efficiently. We are complicated beings, in the most beautiful sense.

Bringing this philosophy into the garden is a great way to make sure that your soil is delivering to your plants exactly what you want your plants to deliver to your body – balanced nutrients.


Identifying Which Chemicals Make Up YOUR Garden:

So, how do you know if your garden has chemical toxicities or deficiencies? The simple answer is to get a proper soil work up done by a specialty soil lab. The results will inform you about the levels at which nutrients are present in your soil, both as macronutrients which should make up about 85% of your soil and as trace minerals, which occur in small yet powerful amounts.

Here’s where you’ll find out if you need to add anything specific to your garden AND if you should avoid any nutrients that you already have in excess. Both of these actions are aimed at bringing your garden’s nutrient levels to a sweet spot that supports superior plant health and allows you to harvest healthier, more nutrient-dense vegetables.

Click here to learn more about testing your soil.


Can Your Garden Even Hold on to Chemicals? – Understanding Total Exchange Capacity

The truth is, different soils have differing abilities to actually hold on to the nutrients that we gardeners may add to our gardens during the season. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? In fact needing chemicals in your garden is only half the story – but don’t worry, your soil test will fill you in on how ‘clingy’ your soil will be with the nutrients you turn in, so that you can determine your next steps.

The amount of nutrients that a soil can keep in place, even through rainy periods, is called it’s Total Exchange Capacity.

Knowing your soil’s Total Exchange Capacity (TEC) is key information for a few reasons! First off, if it’s low (most commonly a symptom of sandy soil), you’ll want to do what you can to increase it by adding elements and organic matter that are known to elevate TEC. There is a big payoff attached to increasing your TEC. If it’s high (likelier in clay soils) then you’ll need to be attentive about mineral excesses, especially with regards to Calcium and Magnesium; adjusting this ratio can actually loosen tight soils, making them more workable and loose.

TEC is a fascinating topic and one that should really be at the forefront of the home gardening conversation, as putting more nutrients in your veggies is hard to do without understanding this basic concept. You can read more about Total Exchange Capacity by clicking here.


Your Scarcest Resource and the Law of the Minimum:

While our Total Exchange Capacity most often deals with the bigger players in our soils – such as Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Sodium, the teensy amounts of trace minerals in our soil tend to have a massively huge voice!

One of the key ideas around regulating our TECs has to do with making sure that we keep our macronutrients to a maximum of 85%, leaving the remaining space available for our trace minerals, aka the micronutrients.

The truth is that overall health is not always determined by big players. In fact, what makes nutrient issues in plants so difficult to monitor is that many times we get the same negative outcome from vastly differing causes.

For example, yellowing leaves may signify a Nitrogen deficiency – but a handful of trace minerals are involved in the uptake of Nitrogen. So, adding more Nitrogen may not solve your problem at all, especially if it was a Manganese deficiency that was interfering in your plant’s ability to access Nitrogen.

What’s really affecting your plant’s path to ultimate health is it’s Limiting Factor. If there’s not enough Manganese available to support all of your plant’s biological functions, then Manganese is your limiting factor. Who cares how spot-on your Nitrogen levels are or that you’ve got perfect amounts of Calcium and Magnesium – no Manganese, no insect-resistant plants growing health-boosting vegetables for your dinner table.

This concept is known as Liebig’s Law of the Minimum and it focuses on the power of your weak spots. Which is great, because if you can address those nutritional weaknesses in your garden, you can soon be humming right along with naturally immune plants.

Click here to learn more about Liebig’s Law of the Minimum and Determining Your Garden’s Limiting Factors.

A Quick Summary of Using Chemicals in the Garden:

  • all life and matter is made of chemical elements and compounds – chemicals are life!
  • natural chemicals are produced by nature, while synthetic chemicals are made by humans. Both can be either good or bad for you.
  • Toxic chemicals are just regular chemicals in excessive amounts.
  • Knowing which elements make up your garden and in which amounts can help you to grow food with more nutrients per calorie!
  • So, the time when you should absolutely use chemicals in the garden is when you’ve learned of a deficiency that needs to be addressed, an excess that must not be made worse, and the Limiting Factors that you need to remedy.

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