Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Friday, April 22, 2016

Farming, Drugs, and Drink

2-3-2!  Man, those are high N-P-K numbers for an "organic" fertilizer.

That's what was crossing my mind when I opened up the bag of Black Hen in the kale patch this morning.  This was a desperate situation, and it called for desperate measures.  You know, as desperate as an organic-approved 2-3-2 composted manure fertilizer can be anyway.  But the thing is, those numbers actually are high enough to warrant some care in application, because of their level of refinement or, said a different way, because of their level of extraction (and abstraction) from the whole system from which they were refined.

For example, I have no idea what the numbers for whole fresh comfrey leaf are, not even a very good guess, but I know comfrey is a dynamic potassium miner and accumulator, and I know that when I apply it around other food crops - herb, vine, or tree - it ALWAYS does magical things.  I know I can eliminate black spot in Prunus fruits with it - usually in less than two weeks - just by applying a decent layer of comfrey leaves on the ground around the tree, and that it's probably one of the best general plant immune optimizers out there.

In it's whole form.

Isolate and standardize "the active ingredient" potassium from within, however, and suddenly you're not dealing with an immune optimizing, biomass building, wound-healing wonderplant anymore.  You're just dealing with a mineral: potassium.  Just an element.  Just some granules from a bag that you probably shouldn't touch with bare skin.

What happened?  The comfrey we started with was large and robust, fuzzy and fleshy, with attractive purple-blue flower stalks - something you might carry around with you just to rub it on your bare skin.  And here's the important bit: you could probably pile comfrey leaf a foot thick around the target plant and get nothing but even better results.  I really don't recommend doing that with potassium granules!  Removing and isolating the potassium from its whole system makes it dangerous.

Isn't that funny?  All three of the major plant nutrients - Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium, the very things plants cannot live without - can become red-hot toxins in excess.  That's why fertilizers come with very specific dosage instructions, and why soil test results are so important.  If you're applying something that can KILL your garden if it's present in excess, you're going to want to know precisely how much your soil needs.  And add no more than that.

You can only overdose on comfrey the same way you can overdose on cannabis: by physically laying it over the target organism thick enough to smother it.  No one's ever died from a cannabis overdose because at some point the herb's gonna put you to sleep.  Then your body will rest and recover.  You can keep at it every day if you want to, just to verify my claim, and you might get pretty forgetful, maybe a little stupid, and you might get ostracized by your more pious friends, but I promise you will get tired of smoking the stuff long before it kills you.  Same with comfrey.  Lay it on, and lay it on thick.  More comfrey only makes things better.  And when you remove the potential for toxicity doesn't that take away some of the potential for failure too?  Some of the anxiety and paranoia?  (Pot paranoia is a product of the law, not the plant.  And the red eyes come from smoking the chemical fertilizers used to grow the pot, not the pot itself.  Try an organic version some time, and see if I'm lying.)

Any number of pharmaceuticals can kill you if taken in excess.  So can liquor.  For the very same reason I laid out in my potassium argument!  To my mind, that fits the definition of "drug" a lot better than cannabis does.  Just as chemical fertilizers strike me as a lot more toxic than organic biomass fertilizers.  At least that potential is there.

I've met so many herbalists whose main concern is standardization and dosage.  What?  Why?  Have you refined your ingredients so thoroughly that you've made them toxic?  If so, is that really still herbalism?  Granted, one should try any new food or medicine in small quantity to see how the body responds, but from then on, aren't we all smart enough to keep increasing the dosage slowly until our body tells us that's enough?  We are if we're not dealing in toxins!  And if we're used to thinking that way.  I don't know about you all, but that's how it works for my family.  And has for a decade now with fine results.  Try that approach with a standardized pharmaceutical isolate, though, and you're taking your life in your own hands.

See how that works?  Whole medicines, properly "tasted," like whole fertilizers and whole ferments (as opposed to refined liquor), just don't have the toxicity issues involved.  Yes it requires more of it to do the job sometimes.  Grab a friend one night and one of you shoot tequila as fast as you can and the other drink beer as fast as you can and see who ends up in the emergency room first.  Likewise, the amount of plant material in a teabag is probably vastly bulkier than a comparable pill.  So?  The tea dregs are also wonderful compost material.  Can I have yours too?  I can also simply step out the door into the kitchen garden and pick it for free...and come back for more free medicine half an hour later if needed!  I don't need the (understandably expensive) advice of someone highly trained in toxicity issues if I'm not dealing with toxins!!

Understand what I'm getting at here?  The medicine we're after is the same, whether that's a lone mineral like potassium or zinc, or the most complex organic molecule ever recorded, but one form is isolated, standardized, and toxic, and in need of strict dosage requirements, while the other is whole, subjective, and not just non-toxic, but also possibly synergistic.  You don't get unexpected synergistic healing from pharmaceutical isolates.  Ever.  They do lots of things that are worded to look like marginal problems (really? stroke, paralysis, death??) and talked about in hushed tones as "side" effects, but they definitely don't have any shot at synergy.

OK, yes, herbal medicine requires a little knowledge on the user's part.  Of course it does.  But I hope you're not taking any pharmaceutical medicine without researching it a little bit first either!  Buyer beware.  In all cases.  Especially the toxic ones!

This whole train of thought began about a week ago when I asked my more conventional father for his advice on phosphorous deficiency in a new garden plot.  Of course I got the very educated insistence that it couldn't be fixed (not in a timely way anyway) without chemical fertilizer.  And if I really did want to eat that kale this spring I would have to use something like triple 13 to get it done.  Now this might shock you, but I didn't take his advice!  Instead I used comfrey leaf and flowers, and bone meal, and the Black Hen composted chicken manure this post opened up with.  The stuff with N-P-K numbers high enough to get my attention.  High enough to open the door to toxicity.  To my mind a desperate situation!

Well, I've had that 40 lb. bag of Black Hen for a couple of years now and just used it up this morning.  I'm not likely to buy something with numbers like 13-13-13.  Numbers like that might as well be printed in fiery red with flames licking off the edges to me.  Caution!  This shit is toxic!!

And probably works wonders for your garden-variety biochemist, like my father.  Me?  I'm an ecologist.  A biophile.  I don't want a recipe.  I want a garden absolutely thronging with biodiversity and natural negative feedback loops to minimize damage.  Just like I want thriving children whose bodies are well-versed in general immunity due to natural exposure and organic plant-based medicine.  And I want to admire all of them from the porch swing with a cold hard cider on a hot afternoon.

Whether it's reductionist solutions in the garden, "active ingredient" medicines, or concentrated ethanol down the hatch, they're all symptoms of the same problem of isolation.  I want to live life in situ, not isolated.  Isolation is toxic.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!
Tripp out.


  1. Hmm, if your father is the chemistry geek you imply, he'd probably enjoy Steve Solomon's most recent book, The Intelligent Gardener. I certainly did, and happily geeked on it like I was back in college. You may enjoy it, or not, depending on how far into you get and how your mind likes information presented.

  2. I guess this is another example of the tradeoff between the discrete atomization that science has done to better understand the individual parts of the universe, versus the holistic, systems analysis of relationships and whole systems. If a researcher isolates phosphorus, and determines through simple experiments that it helps plants grow better, that's as far as is easily confirmed, but the overall chemical and biological interplay is vastly more subtle and complex. Lore passed down though generations might be a slow and crude way to accumulate useful knowledge, but even if the "science" behind indigenous practice is still yet to be learned, real world results count.

  3. GO Tripp!! As it turns out the balance of calcium and magnesium are what will drive the plants ability to uptake N, P, K no matter what the availability rate is. So turns out you're both right. I'm in NSB now and have a nice bunch of bananas growing that will probably be ripe when you're here.

  4. DFR, thanks for the recommendation, and I'll pass that along.

    Steve, I'm with you. The natural economies in our gardens are so vastly complex I'm not sure we'll ever truly understand what's happening, so like Fukuoka, I'm quite satisfied to just observe and poke the system in what seems like a useful direction, without having to know the scientific details. I am a scientist for sure, but more of a whole systems thinker now than one enamored with reductionism. Cheers.

    Nathan, thanks for pointing that out. I've been applying dolomitic lime whenever I can, and will try to attain some sort of balance over the next year or two in these new gardens. For what it's worth, after 4 years at my homestead, my garden soil is pretty nice. We can do it in the new project areas too I'm sure. Can't wait to pick bananas! Thanks again for that generous offer.

  5. Yo, Tripp - This is how I get rid of fleas ... Take a bowl of water and put a bit of soap in it. I have a small solar flashlight. When I go to bed, I flip over a small table, secure the flashlight to the table leg, shinning into the water in the bowl. The fleas leap into the light and drown in the bowl of water. I have to do that for several nights, running. But, it's a non chemical way to get rid of fleas. Lew