Who Cares About Nutrition?
Over the past several decades, numerous studies have uncovered ways in which today’s food supply is less nutritious than that of the past. Government reports on the levels of vitamins and minerals in fresh food today, in the 1990s, and from several decades ago reveal significant declines in calcium, iron and other nutrients (including vitamins A & C and potassium) in many raw fruits and vegetables.
The most probable cause is the deterioration of soil, water and air quality, as demonstrated in numerous other government and independent reports. Amazingly enough, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture is not even considering running studies to learn more about this steady deterioration of food value and quality.
Getting Control Over Food Quality
If we want to eat well, it seems that we need to eat organically grown food. Growing at least some of our own food is a definite possibility for most gardeners. Like me, many of you are probably eating your own salad greens, herbs, and at least some vegetables. Thanks to a large and ardent deer population, nearly all my food gardening occurs in big tree pots on my back deck. Even those with very little space can grow a bit of food, so why not try a little more?
For backyard food farmers, making at least some of your own compost is the next important step. By improving the quality of your garden soil, you also improve the nutritional value of the food you grow. It’s interesting to note that specific compost ingredients can positively affect specific nutrient levels in homegrown food.
Better Compost, More Nutritious Food
As an example, grass clippings contribute potassium and copper to composts. Of course, it’s important to use clippings from lawns given natural care with organic rather than chemical products. The ashes from a wood fire offer both potassium and calcium; potassium aids root growth and calcium (which out native Northwestern soils are usually low in) is vital for overall plant health. Again, when working with soils used for food crops, only use ashes from wood you know is free of chemicals. Never use ashes from treated or painted wood, both of which may contain toxins and heavy metals.
Leaves of all kinds contain a variety of minerals, and the wider the variety of leaves you use, the richer the nutrient base your compost will have. There are a few caveats here; large, leathery leaves (such as laurel), huge ones like bigleaf maple, and tough, durable foliage such as oak leaves can take a long time to break down. During the degrading period, before it is fully composted, leafy matter is toxic to plant roots. Thus, all leaves are best shredded (run them over with the mower) before adding to a compost heap so they will break down quickly, making their stored nutrients available for our plants.
What About Wood By-Products?
Fresh sawdust, wood chips, and wood shavings all take time to break down into compost, and all use nitrogen to do so. Any of these wood by-products can be used as a “smother mulch” to kill off weeds (including ivy) when fresh. After about 6 months, the well-rotted materials can be added to compost heaps and/or used as mulch in garden areas.
Aged, finely shredded bark can be blended half-and-half with compost and used in any part of the garden, with edibles and ornamentals. Blueberries in particular seem to grow well with an aged sawdust or wood shaving mulch, especially when blended with richer, more complex composts.
Variety Is The Spice
With compost, as with so many things in life, a variety of feed stock increases nutritional quality. We can make perfectly acceptable compost by combining grass clippings and dried leaves, but the more kinds of foliage we add, the richer the result. Adding all kinds of garden waste also increases the range of nutrients and minerals in the final product.
Compost making is not just a summer activity. Right now, a big pile made in November has already cooked down by about a third and is ready to turn. I’m adding more leaves (of many kinds) as well as the rotting pumpkins left over from our autumnal display. (Do remove the candle stubs if you are using elderly jack-o-lanterns; they don’t break down well and the do attract mice.) By the time I’m ready to plant, my now-steaming compost will be ready to enrich our summer food crops. Onward!