Does your soil need a pinch of this?
Of all the inorganic substances, salt is probably the most familiar to us. It comes out of us in sweat, it goes into us via seasoning on food, and it swirls around us when we swim at the beach. We are so familiar with it that we scarcely realize how much we don't know about it.
While table salt, or sodium chloride, is what comes to mind when the word "salt" is spoken, natural salt is so much more than merely a single compound. It is precisely the knowledge of the true nature of natural salt, or more accurately, salts, that leads us inevitably to a truth that has eluded most of us as gardeners, and yet is so obvious as to be almost silly in its simplicity.
Journey back through the (salty) mists of Time
Please take a moment to accompany me on a short voyage, a long distance into the past. Aeons ago, when the Earth was far more pristine, and before humanity began wholesale degradation of the planet's ecosystems, fertile soil was a rich mixture of organic matter, coarse and fine mineral substrates, and a multitude of available elements. Many of these elements were present in minute quantities, but they were there, nonetheless. As plants and trees grew, animals ate the plants, other animals ate those animals. Then as animals perished and decayed, their precious cargo of nutrients was released back into the ecosystem for new plants, trees and animals to utilize. Bacteria and fungi played the roles of middlemen, converting complex organic compounds to simpler ones and helping in the release of the fundamental elements back into the soil in available forms.
This process could have continued indefinitely, but humanity saw fit to "improve" it, felling and burning the forests, planting millions of acres in monocrops, and pouring chemical fertilizers onto the ground. The delicate natural balance of nutrients, microorganisms and soil biota was severely disrupted, and when rains came, the precious trace nutrients were gradually leached away into streams, rivers, and ultimately, to the ocean. These minerals, dissolved in the water, were salts of elements such as magnesium, iron, manganese, sulfur, zinc, and many others. Their addition to the vast ocean had minimal effect on the overall percentages of each of them in the ocean, but their loss from the land has left millions of acres devoid of vital micronutrients. By and large, these are not being restored by the return of rich, nutrient-packed organic matter to the soil, but rather replaced by a limited number of elements in chemical fertilizer form.
Back to the Future!
I realize I've painted a grim scenario which is all too familiar to many, if not most of you. But what is the answer to the depletion of minerals from our soils, if not the addition of chemical fertilizers? The answer, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, is so obvious, yet, so hidden. The ocean itself is the richest source of all of the minerals that plants need. The salts (not just "salt") that are so vital to plant growth and healthy produce are all present in ideal quantities in sea water. But what about all that sodium chloride (NaCl)? Isn't sea water mostly sodium chloride? Well, a significant quantity of NaCl is present in sea water, but surprisingly, in the right quantities, this is not harmful to plants at all. The idea is not to pour undiluted sea water on your plants! Damage arises from unbalanced mixtures, the excesses of one or several elements at the expense of others, causing toxicities.
An interesting aside, however, is that after the tsunami in Indonesia, which poured millions of gallons of sea water onto the farmlands near the coast, farmers found that they had more bountiful harvests than ever before from this "tainted" farmland. To read more, go to "Tsunami Aided Crops in Indonesia".
Now, you could collect some sea water and evaporate off the water, leaving just the sea salts, but you'd have a hard time doing this, as if you put the sea water outside, an unexpected rain storm would spoil your work, and if you kept it inside, it would take a long time to evaporate off. Fortunately, others have thought of this and figured out the solution. One man in particular, Dr. Maynard Murray, did what I consider to be the ground-breaking work in this field. What he concluded is that the sea solids had to come from a place where the temperature was very hot and where rain was almost nonexistent. In this special place, unpolluted ocean water could periodically wash into tidal pools to be dried in the hot sun into rich sea solids, undiluted by rain or other fresh water sources. His book, Sea Energy Agriculture, gives the details of his work and findings. Though a number of companies now offer sea water-based solutions for use in gardening and agriculture, the one company that supplies the actual sea solids spoken of by Dr. Murray in his book and work is SeaAgri. I have obtained some of their product, known as SEA-90, and am using it currently to see for myself what kind of results are possible. So far, the results are quite promising, which is no surprise to me. I'm using it with soilless media, which is essentially devoid of available elements. Using the sea minerals in conjunction with an organic nitrogen source should supply a balanced mix of vital mineral nutrients for the most optimal plant growth as well as the growth of beneficial soil biota. These sea solids can be used in hydroponics, and primarily, for remineralizing depleted garden and farmland soils. Even livestock can benefit greatly from the addition of these natural sea solids to their feed in place of the chemicalized, unbalanced salt blocks often provided.
So now you know a way you can do your part to restore your little corner of the Earth: recycle sea minerals back to the soil by adding a "pinch" of (sea solids) salt!
Photo credit: SeaAgri