Dynamic-Accumlators

The Facts about Dynamic Accumulators

Within the world of Permaculture we often find reference to plants known as Dynamic Accumulators. In brief, this is the idea that certain plants (often deep-rooted ones) will draw up nutrients from the lower layers of the soil, and these nutrients will be stored in the plants’ leaves. When the leaves fall in autumn and winter and are broken down, those stored nutrients are then incorporated into the upper layers of the soil where other plants will benefit from their deposition.

As a physician, I strive for scientific accuracy. I understand the scientific method and the world of academia. I know, beyond doubt, the benefit this arena has provided for the world. However, I also know, beyond doubt, that there is a lot of truth that has not been proven in a lab. This may be due to many factors. To name but a few: the topic has not yet been studied, there are flaws in the design of the study, or the topic is too complex for reductionist evaluation.

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Comfrey (Symphytum species) is one of the most popular Dynamic Accumulators.

So with our scientific minds turned on, let’s examine the concept of dynamic accumulators.

We will start with the scientific evidence… Unfortunately, there is not much. In fact, I can find almost no research into dynamic accumulators. Strike that. I can find NO research into this concept at all. None. Many sources site references, but these references just don’t pan out. There are circular references, there are references to non-existing sources, and there are references to (just being honest) less than reputable books or authors. My lack of results was a bit disappointing.

As it turns out, it appears that the concept of dynamic accumulators has been passed down and around for so long that it has been accepted as fact. This concept did not originate with Permaculture, but it has been adopted and advocated by it for a long time. So much so, that many people associate dynamic accumulators with Permaculture.

Well then, how did this concept of dynamic accumulators get started? Where did it originate?

Although he didn’t develop the concept, I think we can safely blame Robert Kourik, organic gardening/landscaping author for bringing the term “dynamic accumulators” to the forefront of our minds. In 1986, he wrote Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape—Naturally. On page 269, he created a list of “dynamic accumulators”. This list was compiled from a number of sources including: Weeds: Guardians of the Soil (Joseph Cocannouer), Practical Organic Gardening (Ben Easey), Stalking the Healthful Herbs (Euell Gibbons), Weeds as Indicators of Soil Conditions (Stuart Hill and Jennifer Ramsay), Weeds and What They Tell (Ehrenfried Pfeiffer), and The Organic Method Primer (Bargyla & Gylver Rateaver).

This list of plants was a good-faith attempt to provide guidance about what gardeners were throwing into their compost piles. Robert Kourik now openly admits that he regrets including that list in his book. He realized that the list was mainly based on informal and anecdotal reports, but this realization came too late. Pandora’s box was opened. Since then, many authors have shared the information from this chart (I am guilty as well!). Some authors added additional information based on even more informal or anecdotal information. We can now find reputable authors sharing these “scientific facts” with trusting readers.

I have had informal communications with both Toby Hemenway (author of the fabulous Gaia’s Garnden and upcoming book on urban Permaculture) and Dave Jacke (author of the highly recommended Edible Forest Gardens and upcoming book on Coppice Agroforestry). They both feel that the dynamic accumulator charts listed in their books were, at a minimum, unnecessary and unsubstantiated additions to their work.

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Chickweed (Stellaria media) is another popular Dynamic Accumulator with many additional benefits.

With all this said, what evidence do we actually have about this idea of dynamic accumulators?

We do know that some plants accumulate minerals in high concentrations in their tissues. In the botanical community, this concept is known as “phytoaccumulation” or “hyperaccumulation”, and this has been very well researched. These plants are able to grow in soils with high concentrations of certain minerals. Researchers are using hyperaccumulating plants in areas that have been contaminated with heavy metals or high-value metals. The plants pull out (phytoextract) these minerals from the soil. The plants are then harvested and processed to extract the minerals from plants to be recycled or dealt with in a more ecological manner. This “phyomining” has been used, with success, on significantly contaminated sites.

In addition, there has been an extensive database put together by botanist James “Jim” A. Duke Ph.D. which provides information on thousands of plants. Specifically, and for our purposes, the database provides information on the concentration of minerals found in the tissues of plants. His Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database is hosted on the USDA ARS site (United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Research Service). This is a wealth of information that would take a long, long time to fully peruse and appreciate. Using the information from Dr. Duke’s database, a free, downloadable Nutrient Content Spreadsheet was created. I am not sure who created it, but I found it on Build-A-Soil.com. This is well organized spreadsheet with multiple worksheets (pages).

With this information, can we connect the dots for dynamic accumulators?

For instance, according to Dr. Duke’s database, we can see the phosphorus (P) concentration in Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album) is over 36,000 ppm (parts per million). This is a high concentration. Therefore, it would make sense to grow Lambsquarter on our site. We would let the Lambsquarter die back in the winter and compost in place. By spring, we should have higher concentrations of phosphorus (P) in our soil. Right?

Unfortunately, while this scenario sounds good, we have no proof that it will work. Our logical pathway sounds plausible, but the reality is that nature is never quite as simple as we would like. First, minerals don’t appear out of nowhere (alchemy is still not science!); if the soil or subsoil has no phosphorus to begin with, then the Lambsquarter cannot accumulate it. Second, if the soil has no biology (i.e. Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web), then there is a good chance the phosphorus may not be bioavailable to the roots. Third, while our scenario sounds good, we have no scientific proof (research data) that if the Lamsquarter did accumulate phosphorus it would indeed be returned to the soil in a usable form to future plants. Maybe it will, but would it take six months, one year, five years, or twenty-five years to become available again? This is information that we just do not have.

In addition, we cannot use anecdotal reports about dynamic accumulators. People will often site their own garden as “proof”. Unfortunately, this anecdotal information is not scientific evidence. I am not saying that their soils did not improve with the planting of dynamic accumulators, but was it the dynamic accumulation or another factor that caused the improvements? Was it mulching, composting in place, biomass accumulation, biodiversity, microclimate creation/enhancement, etc.?

As a good friend of mine likes to say, “The plural of anecdote is not data.” But, to be my own devil’s advocate, it is the repeated anecdotal report that often leads to scientific research which eventually “proves” a long-held concept to be true. For example, almost a year ago on this site Ben Stallings shared his experience using comfrey to improve his soil. This article is a great example of single data point that should spur more research.

Unfortunately, high-quality research is both time and money intensive.

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Lambsquarter (Chenopodium album)

What then should we do with the concept of dynamic accumulators?

Take the information for what it is, soft data. We can make some logical assumptions, i.e. “guesses”, and hope for the best. But we should not treat or teach the concept, the theory, of dynamic accumulators as scientifically proven information. We should not treat it as fact. We should definitely not rely solely on dynamic accumulation as our single solution for degraded soils. Of course, if we are appropriately applying and practicing Permaculture, we wouldn’t do this anyway.

Personally, I will continue to use dynamic accumulators in a holistic approach to soil improvement. It may help our soils for our intended purposes in exactly the way that we think, or it may help for entirely another reason. If it works, I don’t really need to know why. Having more diversity on our sites will almost always be of benefit… scientifically proven or not.

John also has his own blog site, Temperate Climate Permaculture, please visit John here for this and other articles.

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50 thoughts on “The Facts about Dynamic Accumulators

  1. Great article! I think that in permaculture and other alternative movements, there are too much “facts” that aren’t really proven after all. Of course, if something seems to work for example in gardening or improving soils, it should be taken a closer look. But even a plethora of anecdotes is not proof. People tend to be more open about their successes than failures. How many times people have planted comfrey in their gardens without any special results? Also, in most cases, things have both good and bad consequences.E.G. a “dynamic accumulator” plant might be inhibitory plant for some beneficial microbes, or locally invasive and out compete other, useful plants.
    It is important we apply the same level critical on permaculture and organic farming methods as on everything else, such as corporate agribusiness monoculture farming.

  2. Thank you for this call to research on a very important topic.

    The soils are not degraded of minerals – upon a total grind and combustion they would have enough of any mineral to grow even the heaviest nutrient removal plants. The minerals in “deficient” soils are just not in the soluble pools- they are locked up in sand silt and clay particles held tightly by strong bonds.

    But the microbes need minerals and moisture to grow and thrive. So any plant that can take minerals from below an anaerobic slime layer from compaction, and bring them into the surface to be future microbial food is building the soil Foodweb ecology in its microclimate and making pathways for others. It is natre’s way of healing and balancing the system, by bringing back nutrient and water cycling where it was once shut down.

    As far as plants that pull minerals that are in excess, perhaps they are pulling it out of the soluble pool and making a more balanced mineral cycle. The fact that it takes a part of a year to a year to come back into the microbial food chain/ mineral cycle is giving a chance for the system to balance because the forms of the mineral are changed and moderated, opening windows for succession.

    We would love to do research on these topics on our farm, which we are building into a regional training center for Permaculture, Holistic Management, Biological farming, and energetics.

    Please include us on your mailing list so we can keep growing deeper – together!

  3. Good read thanks. There are many things that science cannot prove beyond this physical world, I enjoy the fact that some things remain a mystery, for the great mysteries bring much contemplation and experimentation. I think there is no one size fits all solution, but a good diversity of seed of (dynamic accumulators, soil and mineral improving species) should be sown and than you can see what wants to grow and thrive. Thanks again for an interesting article, don’t be skeptical people just do your own experimenting :)

  4. The follow up comments are highly educational and encouraging to those who write in the first place to observe that others are following up the research and adding to the pool of knowledge (and mystery).

  5. But the microbes need minerals and moisture to grow and thrive.

    Not the mycorrhizal fungi which make insoluble nutrients and possibly water available to plants in exchange for carbohydrates.

  6. Thanks for the great article. I have been wondering for some time as to the evidence of dynamic accumulators. I figured people did soil tests after growing certain crops and letting them compost on site, but apparently not. I also believe that we need more of an emphasis on the science in the “Design Science” of Permaculture. After all, there isn’t much of a point of doing something if it really doesn’t work.

  7. Nice article, John – I think it hits the mark for quite a few claims that get kicked around in Permaculture. It’s not that they’re wrong – they may be very very right – but we need to be able to test them in a scientifically rigorous manner. That’s the true sceptical approach – NOTHING is beyond question, and if something is True, then we should be able to make testable predictions based on it. If those predictions turn out to be accurate, we develop a lot more confidence that the original suggestion was correct. This may not matter much in the tinkering back garden scenario, but if we are planning Big Stuff like greening deserts and shifting agriculture, we need the numbers. Of course, as it turns out, this doesn’t have to be that hard. It’s entirely possible to set aside a number of small plots and randomise them to comfrey vs no-comfrey (for example), and collect the data by testing soil samples. Yes it takes time and effort, but maybe it’s something permaculturists should be looking into more. After all, if these principles are going to be anything more than backyard farting about, we need to be able to show that it works, can be profitable, and can bring real benefit to people, their environment and the wider ecology.

  8. we need to be able to test them in a scientifically rigorous manner

    Correct. But it seems to me that people will not test or, more precisely, know that they should test, when respected members of the permaculture community like Dave Jacke and Toby Hemenway include material in their books without sufficient critical examination. All that they needed to do was examine Kourik’s sources. They didn’t. This information is taken at face value and not questioned. Someone with horticultural expertise might question but most permaculture students don’t have that expertise and a fair number of experienced permaculturalists also don’t have that expertise. PDC students becoming PDC teachers is not the same as having horticultural expertise. In fact, the model of teachers teaching students who become teachers teaching students who become teachers and on and on causes dynamic accumulator type misinformation to be repeated and repeated and imbedded.

    I would call on all permaculture writers to be extremely critical of any material that they use before they include it in their work. We all know that there is a lot of incorrect information on the Internet. There’s also a lot of horticultural “lore” that doesn’t make sense when examined.

  9. Nice that you brought this topic to air; i am a horticulturist living and working in Brazil where I teach Permaculture. I work among other things with recuperation of environments. through the years I have learnt many things about what you refer to as Dynamic Acumulators. It’s important to see the soil as a living, evolving being. It draws to itself those plants which help it as a being (Gaia) evolve. what we may call weeds or acumulators are there in every type of environment exactly to bring what the soil needs. each plant being different, accumulates just the nutrients it needs. In each period of its life it may have different needs, according to whether it is actively growing, flowering, setting seed or dead. This idea of letting the plant grow till it dies for the nutrients to be available, in Permaculture is not exactly like that. We cut them when they are full of nutrients so that the green plant which is easily consumed by the microbes, worms, fungi etc can feed the soil and yet again re-grow so that we can cut it again. Likewise weeds are almost worthless if you pull them out. If you leave them there and keep cutting them, they change the soil chemistry and will soon disappear, as they are in given places at given times exactly to help the soil evolve. All plants are accumulators, you just have to observe and know how to cultivate them. Don’t let them go to seed too quickly, as that way you will loose what they have accumulated. They all work together in a web; the plant guilds which evolve together with the soil. You and I accumulate knowledge, but it is useless if we don’t share it. If it works, use it !! regadrs Pete

  10. Life in the soil, like life above the soil is a constant ebb and flow, which like other complex organic systems makes it hard to pin facts down and repeat them. from place to place and from time to time they simply appear and disappear. part of what we do cultivating plants to cut and help produce soil fertility is real alchemical stuff and that’s why you don’t find so much ‘ scientific’ proof. Science is rational and linear. Nature is holografic; the plant, people, soil; all one big 3 dimentional mandala. Like a friend above mentioned, there are mysteries. Try it; if it works, use it . If it doesn’t, try again
    If you wait for scientific proof, you may die before you get it.

  11. A few weeks ago I completed a week-long edible forest gardening workshop with Eric Toensmeier, Dave Jacke’s co-author for the two volume set Edible Forest Gardens. Both the workshop and Eric were top-notch. To his credit, Eric no longer teaches dynamic accumulators because, as the above article points out, the evidence is not as solid as was once believed. Again, this is not an indication that dynamic accumulators don’t work, it simply means that there’s no scientific evidence as yet to prove or disprove their effectiveness.

    My specific question about dynamic accumulators relates to the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham. According to Dr. Ingham, all soils, even the most degraded soils, have all the nutrients that plants need. For instance, Dr. Ingham states that:

    “… if the proper sets of organisms are present in the soil, and you are growing plants so that there is food for those organisms, nothing else is needed. The plant puts out the exudates from photosynthesis to feed those bacteria and fungi that specifically make the enzymes to solubilize the needed nutrients from the rocks, pebbles, sand, silt, clay and organic matter… There is an infinity of all plant-required nutrients in any kind of parent material. There is no parent material on the planet that lacks the nutrients needed to grow plants. Until the day you run out of rocks, sand, silt, or clay, there should be no need to apply a mineral fertilizer.”

    and

    “You do not need to do a chemistry test because all agricultural soils have the needed nutrients in them to grow plants. Everything except carbon dioxide, sunlight energy, and nitrogen are in the soil. If there is a fertility problem, what is lacking is the correct set of soil organisms to do nutrient cycling. If a plant does not have enough boron, what is to be done to fix that problem? Pump exudates—cake and cookies—into the root system to feed precisely those bacteria or fungi that solubilize boron straight from the rocks, pebbles, sand, silt, clay, or organic matter.”

    The key would seem to be having the proper soil food web present to convert soil particles into nutrients. If this is correct, the concept of dynamic accumulators is a moot point. If all soil already contains all necessary nutrients and, if a proper soil food web makes these nutrients available to plants, then dynamic accumulators simply aren’t necessary.

    All of this makes sense to me intuitively, however, since we’re having a discussion about science in permaculture, I’d like to respectfully ask: what is the scientific basis for Dr. Ingham’s statement that “all agricultural soils have the needed nutrients in them to grow plants.” Further, where can I, as a permaculture practitioner, easily find the evidence substantiating this and other soil food web-related statements?

    There’s a list of science-based works authored by Dr. Ingham on her website SoilFoodWeb.com, and the answer to my question may be in these works. Yet how can I, a permaculture practitioner without an extensive scientific background, easily access this information? Just obtaining copies of the more than seventy-five sources listed would require a significant investment of time and money.

    The reality is that I and most other permaculture practitioners can’t easily or effectively access this information. Our only option is to take the author at their word. The same can be said for other commonly cited permaculture concepts, including hugelkultur and biochar. Permaculture very much needs a process through which the concepts we promote are evaluated based on evidence. This evidence must then be translated into an easily understandable and accessible form.

    As the issue of dynamic accumulators demonstrates, it’s not enough to simply take an author or practitioner at their word, no matter how much we may respect them, and no matter how much what they say intuitively makes sense. If permaculture is to be evidence-based, then the scientific evidence to back up our claims must be readily available, and it must be sought out and utilized by those of us who practice permaculture. Absent this evidence, permaculture runs the risk of being labeled “woo-woo”. Urban Dictionary defines woo-woo as “… any belief not founded on good evidence, the poorer the evidence the more woo-woo the belief.” As permaculture designers it’s possible for us to do great work and at the same time take the necessary steps to ensure that solid evidence is available to support our work.

    References for Dr. Ingham’s quotes:

    1. http://www.permaforum.hu
    2. http://www.shumei.org/mag-online/shu-300.pdf

    1. Tom, I think you’ve touched it with a needle. Since it seems unfortunately probable that humanity will keep on destroying the planet for a while, the scale of needed ecosystem repair is going to be huge. In this situation we cannot afford using techniques that are either ineffective or even harmful. The latter could be the case e.g. when we are utilising species that are locally invasive. The problem of invasive species is still being denied by many permaculture practitioners. Of course it is true that invasive species are most effective invading damaged ecosystems – but sometimes, and actually quite often, even rather healthy ecosystems can be severely and even permanently damaged by alien species. The best (or worst) examples are from remote islands, to which humans have brought e.g. snakes, which were formerly absent. Such ancient species as tuatara (a sort of lizard) are in trouble with all these new predators that they are not adapted to. And it is not only animals that cause problems, invasive organism can be of any kindgom or size.

      Still, I think that we should probably all ready start doing research on recombinant ecosystems, as a back up plan, just in case we run into situation where large ecosystems have been destroyed and many species have died out. By recombinant ecosystems I mean ecosystems that are being combined from species al around the world.

      About Dr. Ingham’s claims I must point out that they sound rather suspicious. How can she know about all the soils of the world? Has someone researched all the bedrock variations? Surely, if some are is growing plants the soil probably has present the nutrients that are needed for those plants to grow. But they could well grow better in some other soil, and might not be as healthy as they could be. Also plants have different nutritional requirements, especially when we are talking about trace minerals. And further still, we humans have again different nutritional requirements than those plants, and in agriculture that is the ultimate goal (or one of them at least); feeding and nurturing our selves.

      Of course we could just be so lucky that all the mineral compositions of the rock basins around the world contain all the minerals we need – but that certainly is not self-evident.
      And even if this was true, the content could be very low in some areas. I think that it is quite good a guess to say that plants can absorb their nutrient more easily if they are plentily available the soil.

    2. From what I remember Dr. Ingham saying about assaying mineral content-you need to use a strong enough solvent(?) to be able to test for all the minerals there, not just the bioavailable or whatever the term was.

  12. @Tom Garner
    “… if the proper sets of organisms are present in the soil, and you are growing plants so that there is food for those organisms, nothing else is needed. The plant puts out the exudates from photosynthesis to feed those bacteria and fungi that specifically make the enzymes to solubilize the needed nutrients from the rocks, pebbles, sand, silt, clay and organic matter… There is an infinity of all plant-required nutrients in any kind of parent material. There is no parent material on the planet that lacks the nutrients needed to grow plants. Until the day you run out of rocks, sand, silt, or clay, there should be no need to apply a mineral fertilizer”

    Please look at the words she is using “should be no need”. Is she talking about some sort of ideal world? If yes I agree with that… People should not have the need to steal, kill each other too, but some of them do that in real world.

    She is technically not lying but not really correct either. You can always grow SOME plants in almost any soil. But that doesn’t mean that plants grown for food for humans or animals can be grown in any soil. Where is the plant (and animals) supposed to take their selenium, iodine or zinc if the soil is deficient in those minerals?

    Also there IS a limited amount of nutrients in the soil. Just do a total acid digest and you will know exactly how much.

    Her attitude – using soil biology to mine soil more efficiently on a commercial scale is not sustainable. You need to put back the nutrients you have taken from the farm, otherwise you are depleting the soil. Just look at the tropical clay soils, how poor in nutrients they are. Sure, you can stimulate soil biology to take even more from the soil, but man I wouldn’t like to eat food grown on that impoverished soil.

  13. Where is the plant (and animals) supposed to take their selenium, iodine or zinc if the soil is deficient in those minerals?

    Also there IS a limited amount of nutrients in the soil. Just do a total acid digest and you will know exactly how much.

    Soil in one location may be deficient but soil rich in soil organic matter that is not tilled and is always covered will have a rich mycorrhizal population. How far do mycorrhizal fungi reach? At least 30 metres according to this research – Architecture of the wood-wide web: Rhizopogon spp. genets link multiple Douglas-fir cohorts. More importantly this paper is saying that there is an interconnected mycorrhizal web. And this paper, Underground resource allocation between individual networks of mycorrhizal fungi says

    The indicated ability of AM fungal mycelia to anastomose in soil has implications for the formation of large plant-interlinking functional networks, long-distance nutrient transport and retention of nutrients in readily plant-available pools.

    using soil biology to mine soil more efficiently on a commercial scale is not sustainable.

    This by Gabe Brown – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yPjoh9YJMk – says that it is. He builds soil organic matter by multiple species cover cropping. He is no till. He never leaves the soil uncovered. He mob grazes cattle. He uses no chemicals and no amendments and he produces 127 bushel corn in an area that produces 100 bushel corn on 5400 acres. And he does it at a cost of $1.42/acre vs an average cost in the US of over $5.00/acre.

    1. @DeepGreenGreenie
      Plants do not need many elements that are needed for people and animals to live and/or thrive. Like for example selenium or iodine. They tend to not acquire a lot of them. Why should they?

      Regard to Gabe Brown…. The guy has made his business more profitable, he also is doing it in a cheaper way. Good Job. But is he growing food or corn for ethanol? Should a sustainable farmer (who is supposed to feed the world) be concern with nutrient density of the food he is growing?

      I am assuming, he is farming in Idaho, so the annual rainfall there is about 12″. That’s very little water, soils in those regions are not very washed out yet. He probably has great mineral reserves and probably a great mineral balance (lot of calcium, phosphorus…). He can probably do it for hundreds of years. Still he is mining his soil for nutrients, while he increase the organic matter level of his soil. The nutrient cycle is still broken, now he is extracting nutrients from his soil faster using biological methods.

      Try the same approach in region with higher rainfall and watch the consequences. The same if you farm on sandy soils.

      Now, I will sound like an asshole, but I need this to prove my point… Mr. Gabe Brown, good man he might be, but he looks very unhealthy. He is fat. I really don’t understand WHY. I assume he is a rancher, so he spends a lot of time outside, I assume he works very hard doing manual labor – that’s what farmers/ranchers do. So we are not talking about couch potato that is too lazy to move his butt. I assume plenty of weight lifting and cardio here.

      Something is causing his body to not work well. It could be something else than his diet (he could be stress etc.) but… The fact that he is balding, fat and wearing glasses proves me that he is not the healthiest human being on the planet Earth. I am guessing he has access to organic, grass-fed beef that is truly free of pesticides. Probably he also enjoys the privilege of eating organic fruit and vegetables (grown in his backyard).

      Still something is wrong with his metabolism. My educated guess would be… lack copper, iodine, selenium. Maybe excess of iron in his diet. (Big) Maybe lack of chromium?

      I also wonder is his cattle getting a salt block that is fortified with minerals (it’s a rhetoric question, as no rancher in his right mind would deny this to his herd). Usually thouse salt licks are custom made to fit particular pattern of soil fertility. Maybe Ms.Brown should use the same salt lick in his salt shaker that he is providing for his cattle. The best way to get minerals is in an organic form through nutrient dense food, but if it’s not available, then it’s better to consume them as minerals than to not take them at all.

    2. @DeepGreenGreenie

      “using soil biology to mine soil more efficiently on a commercial scale is not sustainable.
      This by Gabe Brown – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yPjoh9YJMk – says that it is.”

      I am not saying you can’t do it on a large scale. You can (as many farmers shows), but the way they are doing that is not SUSTAINABLE – they are only taking from the soil, and they hardly put anything back. Except of carbon and maybe a bit of nitrogen. The nutrient cycle is broken. It’s a one way street. Nutrients are extracted from the soil,than the animal is going to the slaughterhouse and (eventually) nutrients go to the sea.

  14. I don’t know how many Permaculturists have asked themselves about the Periodic Table of elements which is in the heart of the Permaculture Manual that Bill wove together. Here we find the organization of ‘ families ‘ of different minerals and their relationships. Our rational mind separates them all and says they are all different because they have different atomic numbers etc. but in fact they are all closely related. We can also see that they all have a basic origin in Hydrogen, which is the most gregarious element in the universe. When we realize that all the minerals are related and that through the fungi, micro-organisms etc that feed on all plant matter and whose exudates of enzymes, acid and alcaline, antibiotics etc all is brought int flux, then Elaines statement just as the practice of Permacultur makes sense, because there is everything in the soil. The plants help the soil to ‘ communicate ‘ and relate just as the animals, birds and butterflies help the plants to relate. part of what our great teachers present to us is that we too as humans have our part in instigating these relationships. If we are rigid in our thinking our perception becomes limited and we actually become blind to the incredible web of life where all things are communicating. Better that we participate and integrate, because that’s what the other living beings do. Just like the weeds; find your place and infiltrate. Soon you will activate and accumulate !! Just remember to share……………………….

  15. Much of the virtue of dynamic plants is the critters they attract to their rhizosphere. I will have a greater concentration of epigeals, subsoil/endogeic worms, beetles, centipedes when planting alfalfa, comfrey, clover and the like. Sometime it’s important to think in those terms when looking at this. They’re doing the bulk of the work. There will be higher cation-exchange capacities as well. Micro-nutrients that like to run from the profile (zinc,boron) are kept with the help of 3 different earthworm groupings. Best –

  16. @ Wojciech Majda, I’d appreciate your thoughts on the two research papers that I linked to. The science clearly indicates that mycorrhizal fungi, given the right conditions, can make insoluble minerals (the ones that don’t show up on normal soil tests but do show up on total soil tests) in the soil available to plants over long distances. This is why Ingham says “all agricultural soils have the needed nutrients in them to grow plants.”

    Try the same approach in region with higher rainfall and watch the consequences. The same if you farm on sandy soils.

    If you build soil organic matter, you increase the water absorption rate of soil. If you build soil organic matter, you get life back into the soil. If you don’t disturb this living soil and you keep it covered at all times, the soils productivity increases in a healthful way. As you say, you can farm on sandy soils but not for long. But you can convert sandy soils to long term food and medicine production by doing what I outlined in the first two sentences of this paragraph. That’s essentially what Lawton did it Jordan and what John Liu has observed elsewhere in his documentary film, Green Gold. It would be interesting to know the nutrient content of the food that Lawton’s green desert is producing. If it contains measurable amounts of anything more than N,P,K and maybe Ca, where did these minerals come from? How did they get there from a soil that has been continuously destroyed for millenium? If Geoff remineralized (and he may very well have in order to kickstart the process rather than wait for Nature to do it), the question is answered. If he did not, there’s something going on here and we don’t know what it is except it a very miniscule way.

    Remineralizing the soil is a great technique but it’s not sustainable in the long run either if you can’t transport the input from where it is to where you need it. The only thing that is sustainable in the long run is to make the soil as healthy as you can and use practices that maintain that level of healthfulness as we harvest from it. It helps if you live in one of the areas of the planet where you have loess soils but even that can be destroyed as China’s Loess Plateau shows.

    Re: why Gabe Brown looks the way he does, I’m guessing that his food comes from a supermarket. Not very many folks in North America, at least, produce their own food. It’s a hard, unpredictable, full time job from before sunrise to after sunset to feed yourself. That’s why the species has been moving off the land for 1000s of years when and where it could as the tools and technology allowed. That’s not to say that that process of moving off the land is right only that it’s happened. BTW, I don’t think that the cash cropping that Gabe Brown is doing is the right thing to do nor am I defending his way of farming (cash cropping monoculture commodities) but within the limits of fuel for his machinery, it is somewhat sustainable. I say somewhat because beside his dependency on oil, he’s also buying in the seed for his cover crop cocktail. Nonetheless, some of the key things that he’s doing are key to small scale, local food (real food not commodities) production – building soil organic matter, not disturbing the soil, and keeping the soil covered at all times. If you’re going to graze animals, don’t let them overgraze. If we don’t do this, we starve because soil becomes dirt.

    1. Yes, mycorrhizal fungi can transport nutrients from one place to the other. Yes, they can make insoluble nutrients available. But what if the nutrients are just not there? Or they are not in the right balance? What if nutrients are not there in the area or region? Fungi will not transport them from one place to the other. You can’t transport what you do not have.

      What compost tea you need to spray to grow alfalfa on peat moss soil? Should it be more fungi or bacteria dominated? What

      Ingham says: “all agricultural soils have the needed nutrients in them to grow plants”
      Majda (and many others) say:” all agricultural soils have the needed nutrients in them to grow plants, but not all agricultural soils have the needed nutrients to grow nutritious food”. You can have perfectly healthy looking plant that still does not provide enough nutrition to support good health of animals and humans. Just go to a normal supermarket, you will find plenty of this type of food. We have aboundance of evidence that you can grow plants for food, yet they do not contain enough nutrition to support healthy population.

      Your point about Gabe Brow is valid. He could buy his food in supermarket, though I find it unlikely. He’s a farmer and a rancher and that’s what farmers and ranchers do…

      I don’t think that Brow’s practice before he switched to cover crops were good for his soil or nutrient density. It looks as he was only using urea. Hardly a “balanced” fertilization program.

      Why you think remineralizing the soil is not a sustainable technique? Why there should be a problem with transportation? Are you preparing for Mad Max? ;-) In that case would suggest you to horde some phosphate. The best place to hide it is your soil.

      If you get your soil to the proper balance, then you can keep your soil minerals in balance by mixing different rock dusts, limestone, gypsum. You might have a problem with borax (a boron source) and phosphorus. You would have to recycle bones, manure, humanure…

      1. But what if the nutrients are just not there? Or they are not in the right balance?

        Not where? We have no idea how far mycorrhizal fungi networks extend. Right balance? Plants will determine what they need not us according to Albrecht.

        Just go to a normal supermarket, you will find plenty of this type of food.

        Absolutely. It comes from large-scale, corporate agriculture whose focus is bottom line not holistic soil improvement.

        He’s a farmer and a rancher and that’s what farmers and ranchers do…

        Not in North America except in very rare exceptions. Large commercial farmers don’t grow food; they grow commodities and you can’t eat commodities until they’ve been processed into crap. These “farms” are not labour intensive so time is money. Buying supermarket crap is bottom-line cheaper for this “farmer” than growing his own. CSA type farmers grow food. They may be able to eat what they produce. Odds are that if they do, you won’t see the crap food marker – obesity unless there’s refined sugar, ie, sugar beet sugar in their diet.

        Why you think remineralizing the soil is not a sustainable technique?

        In the US gas went from $1.90/gallon in 2005 to over $4.00/gallon in 2008 before collapsing to $1.60. Since then it has gone back up. There is a price of fuel for every product that moves by fuel at which it is not profitable to move that product. If gas reaches a more or less constant level of $x/gallon, product y, say strawberries from Chile in Toronto in January, will have a price at which the consumer refuses to buy. At that same level of $x/gallon, the consumer will be affected every time he starts his car and he will be cutting back on luxuries and strawberries may go from his shopping cart even before the producer increases prices since producers try to delay passing increases onto consumers for as long as they can. How much oil do we have? Quite a bit although, increasingly, most of what is untapped is more expensive that what we are tapping. It’ll go a long way. Or will it. As Chinese and Indian GDP grows, there will a large corresponding increase in energy consumption. The US has 809 motor vehicles/1000 people while China has 101 motor vehicles/1000 people. From 2009-2014, the World Bank shows US per capita consumption of gasoline of 1106 kg vs China’s 55 kg. As Chinese and Indian per capita consumption climbs so will price, slowly at first but with increasing speed unless demand slows. That’s not a Mad Max scenario. That’s a business-as-usual scenario and it’s not sustainable.

        1. What if nutrients are not in the soil or they are there only in “homeopathic” quantities?

          You completely misunderstood William A. Albrecht’s teaching if you think that the right biology can overcome poor mineral balance in the soil. A quote from Wikipedia:
          “He had been investigating cattle nutrition, having observed that certain pastures seemed conducive to good health, and at some point he came to the conclusion that the ideal balance of cations in the soil was “H, 10%; Ca, 60 to 75%; Mg, 10 to 20%; K, 2 to 5%; Na, 0.5 to 5.0%; and other cations, 5%”.[4]
          He was all about using minerals in the right balance. His research have shown, that you can grow plants and even have big yields, that are nonetheless not a nutrient dens food and they are low in protein, as the are grown on soils that are not rich in minerals.

          He has written a bit about micro elements (that were known at his time to be essential/beneficial to plants and/or humans).

          You are mixing 2 topics – need for adding minerals to the soil (or the theory that soil biology is a substitute for fertile soil) with peak oil… I will say, that in case that the price of oil will go up, the ships that are transporting will be running on coal. Anyway.. If your soil is selenium deficient, you only need about 5-10 grams of sodium selenite per hectare. Could ship that by sailing boat and it would still be profitable. Or you could 1 kg of that substance (cost would be around 50-80$) and have Se fertilizer for 1 ha of land for about 50-100 years? Enough time for next generation to sort something out. In the meantime they will have properly working endocrinology system, so it will make their cognitive capacity a bit better.

          If the oil shortage will be prolonged, new infrastructure will be created and developed (trains). You don’t need much oil to run it. I think you need more trains in USA, Europe is pretty good with that, Asia is improving as well.

          You don’t need to support corporate agriculture to use minerals in your soil. That’s a false dichotomy. This year I will be growing high quality vegetables and fruit on 1/2 acre. Plenty of my customers are small scale gardeners.

          “CSA type farmers grow food. They may be able to eat what they produce. Odds are that if they do, you won’t see the crap food marker – obesity unless there’s refined sugar, ie, sugar beet sugar in their diet. ”

          I’ve seen few soil analysis from organic CSA in the USA. Some did produce really bad quality food, although they had high organic matter level and good biological activity. When minerals are added to that type of soil, the effects are remarkable. I personally have grown greens that were so nutrient dense, that they were inedible to snails and slugs (but very tasty for me).

          P.S. Recently a large Oil field was discovered in UK, it could contain up to 15 billion barrels of extractable oil. Every little helps.

          1. What if nutrients are not in the soil or they are there only in “homeopathic” quantities?

            What if mycorrhizal fungi networks are capable of spanning continents and translocating minerals to where they are needed? We know very little about these networks but there is early evidence to suggest 1000 of acres can be connected. The ability to trace networks to determine size seems to be a limiting factor at this point.

            You completely misunderstood William A. Albrecht’s teaching if you think that the right biology can overcome poor mineral balance in the soil.

            My reference to Albrecht was meant to say that Albrecht was presumptuous to know what is ideal soil chemistry for plants. Plants “know”; we don’t.

            You are mixing 2 topics – need for adding minerals to the soil (or the theory that soil biology is a substitute for fertile soil) with peak oil

            You asked me why I think remineralizing the soil is not a sustainable technique? My apologies for providing too much detail. Suffice it to say that any process or product that involves a non-renewable resource is not sustainable. Extraction and transportation of the minerals required for remineralization currently involve a non-renewable resource. Therefore, remineralization is not sustainable unless the resource is close to you and easily obtainable.

            Soil biology is not a substitute for fertile soil; soil biology is part of the process that creates fertile soil.

            1. “What if mycorrhizal fungi networks are capable of spanning continents and translocating minerals to where they are needed? We know very little about these networks but there is early evidence to suggest 1000 of acres can be connected. The ability to trace networks to determine size seems to be a limiting factor at this point.”

              In Poland we say “if a grandma had a mustache, she would be a grandpa”. This process is not happening. We have indirect, historical data about it. For example when first European colonist came to America, they have almost starved (if not for Native Americans help). It was because the soil in eastern part of USA are general poor in nutrients, so they land could not support a lot of game. There just wasn’t enough calcium, phosphorus and other nutrients to support a lot of animal life.

              The land was forested very nicely, I bet the fungi had very good conditions for growth. Still it didn’t prevent soils in that area to be rather poor in nutrients.

              “My reference to Albrecht was meant to say that Albrecht was presumptuous to know what is ideal soil chemistry for plants. Plants “know”; we don’t.”

              We do know what plants need. But, and that was Albrecht’s main message, it’s not enough to just grow plants. It’s OK to do that if you are growing cotton, or softwood for paper. But if you are growing plants for animals and humans, we DO KNOW WHAT’S NEEDED. Albrecht know that, as he did experiments on animals, he grown plants with different ratios of base cations in the soil, and different ratios of micro nutrients and he determined what mineral balance in the soil created the healthiest and the happiest animals. Our knowledge is most likely not complete yet, though we know a lot. We KNOW that animals and humans need more elements that are essential for plants. Plant’s most likely can get away without sodium, selenium, iodine – they can complete a life cycle without them. Animals and humans cannot.

              We KNOW what are minimum requirements for certain minerals for animal and human health. Most soils do not have enough minerals to grow good quality food for humans and animals. That’s why I am amending my soil with required minerals.

              1. There isn’t much point in continuing this discussion although I am curious about the qualifications that you have that would lead you to reject the widespread nature of mycorrhizal fungi networks.

                1. I am not denying ” widespread nature of mycorrhizal fungi networks”, you made that up. I just noticed that there is NO EVIDENCE, that mycorrhizal fungi can supply significant amount of nutrients that are required for optimal animal and human health in case the soil is deficient in thous nutrients. You CLAIM that they can move thous nutrients from one part of the continent to the other.

                  I understand you want to finish the discussion as you have nothing except some vague studies that shows that if nutrients are placed in one part of the forest, they can be moved to the other part. But then the nutrients are in ready available form and… They ARE there. You can’t move something that you do not have from one place to the other.

  17. Reading all the comments I got to the conclusion, that any time when you send some products of a piece of land away it can not be sustainable in a long turn… :) So we are lost in the world where food is transported from places where grown / breeded to places where consumed and where humans excretes are finally flushed down to the oceans – it is not possible to close the nutrients cycle… :) So we have to mine minerals deposited in ancient oceans and bring them back to life cycle, only hoping that present oceans will become source of minerals for future inhabitants of Earth – or I miss something…? :)

    1. Cześć Tomasz :)

      It is possible to close the nutrient cycle, but… I personally wouldn’t put biosolids (stuff you get from water treatment plant) on crops I will be eating and selling to my customers, as it’s also mixed with quite a lot of contaminants: cadmium, lead, mercury (just to mentions elements). I guess when SHTF people will be using cars more efficiently and buying/using less widgets so they will be polluting environment with heavy metals to a lesser extend.

  18. First of all, I greatly appreciate all of the above comments and the information and thoughts they provide. Secondly, I want to make clear that in no way am I accusing Dr. Ingham of being either incorrect or misleading. I am personally fascinated by her work and would like to know more. In the same vein, no one is accusing Dave Jacke or Toby Hemenway of being misleading because they included information about dynamic accumulators in their books. We’re all human, and sometimes we miss the mark.

    The point I would make is this: why is basic permaculture-related information about soils in dispute at all? More importantly, why do we, as permaculture practitioners, need to resort to the comments section of a permaculture website to try to decipher the truth about this and other important permaculture-related subjects?

    What I would like to see is a single point source for basic permaculture information through which both commonly used and newly emerging permaculture concepts and practices are evaluated based on evidence, and where recommendations for permaculture best practices are made. The above article about dynamic accumulators is a perfect example of the kind of work that needs to be done.

    Might a permaculture best practices committee be established? Might such a committee be coordinated through the Permaculture Research Institute? I’m not sure what the best approach might be.

    What I do know is that there’s a tremendous need for easily understandable and accessible, evidence-based permaculture information, and that this need is not being met. As permaculture designers, we shouldn’t have to rely on comment sections and internet forums to obtain the up-to-date and reliable information we need to engage in our work.

    1. Good comment again, Tom!

      I think that he best form (or at least necessary partial instrument) for this would be a kind of peer-reviewed permaculture journal, so that people could submit their “papers” about different methods and techniques. Of course it doesn’t all need to be so formal, there could e.g. be a collection links on a website for youtube videos about well documented experiments etc. But I still think that the best would be to a have a agricultural science standards filling journal, with at least some of editorial people with science background.

      If permaculture want’s to get into mainstream we need to be rigorous about what works and what doesn’t work. But I believe that it is not going to be easy separating woo woo from permaculture completely, since many people in pc are holding hard to notions such as that gmos are always “mechanistic-reductionstic” and there for heretic and evil. (No-one puts it to these words, but it certainly seems that mechanistic and reductionistic the code words for herecy, and when something is heretic it doesn’t need objective analysis. ) Note that I am NOT defending large-scale pestice and energy heavy monoculture farming, I am just pointing out that a lot of people in alternative movements, such as pc or transition movement seem not to be willing to examine the pros and cons of such things as nuclear power or recombinant dna technology in a truly honest manner.

    2. Hi Tom,
      And thanks everyone for putting the views forward. We are more than happy to assist in anyway we can and in the future a structured committee could be achievable, with only a recommendation from the PRI as to a best practice.

      Regards – Web Team

    3. Brilliant. Perhaps a wiki might be the way to go. PRI are more than happy to assist in anyway [they] can so perhaps they might we willing to provide and support a wiki.

      Here are some quick, preliminary thoughts on what it might look like and how it might work.

      Access would be controlled by PRI in order to greatly reduce if not outright prevent vandalism. The identity of Wiki editors/organizers and/or contributors would be verified by PRI but, after verification, research submission and critiquing could be done by anyone in the entire permaculture community. A less open approach would be to have submissions go to a committee for review before publication. I would argue against that. We have an incredible depth of first hand knowledge and expertise that is way beyond that of any committee. For example, Geoff is probably the most experienced designer and implementer in permaculture today but I suspect that he doesn’t have the cold weather permaculture knowledge set that Rob Avis does. Geoff knows a ton about food forests but Stefan Sobwokiak has put new spin on food forests. I’m not dumping on Geoff here but permaculture knowledge and expertise is now farther greater than that of the most knowledgeable and experience single practitioner.

      Having it under the auspices of PRI would make it very available to permies because of PRI’s high profile.

      Despite making the wiki open, there would still need to be a disciplined, structured approach. Content guidelines would need to be discussed but I don’t think that it should be a rehash of the writings of Mollison, Jacke, etc. Nor should it be cut-and-paste how-to’s. We’re looking, it seems to me, to document examples of what permaculture authors have written about or about specific techniques that satisfy permaculture tenets. Here’s the kind of thing that I’m thinking of – http://sustainablesmallholding.org/potato-blight-compost-tea/. There is a structure to what Deano has written: problem, proposed solution, action, results, further action, conclusion.

      I think that submissions should follow an agreed upon structure in order to avoid chaos. Perhaps they would to go to a review committee first to insure that the material was presented in the appropriate structure. There would be no content review by that committee since that would be done by the permaculture wiki community at large. If we are looking to move more and more into the mainstream, then perhaps we should use mainstream approaches where they are appropriate to our goals. Research papers follow a certain format: abstract, introduction, methods including literature search, analysis, results. That’s essentially what Deano has done. It makes his presentation clear and provides a very clear foundation to build upon.

      Tom, thanks very much for the inspiration. And thanks also to PRI for sensing an opportunity and volunteering to assist.

      1. Hi DeepGreenGreenie,

        Sounds like a plan, the one issue that I will raise before others do, is the aspect of impartiality. The PRI acknowledges the work that is done by many others and, as of right now, we could only go so far as to recommend based on data available.

        We have very healthy perspectives on this thread and it is these discussions that move the research forward. Wiki is a great tool and potentially could be the end place for this information. If we are taking about researchers and committee, Skype, emails and forums, as well as requests from the PRI to leaders in the field, this can be arranged, but what I was also thinking is the WPN. If you are truly talking about representing the largest sample size a call for volunteers to participate could come from there, via the newsreel updates.

        Regards – Web Team

        1. WT,

          Before I comment and likely confuse these baby steps, could you expand on impartiality?

          When I was suggesting a wiki, I was thinking of a tool that would reach as far as possible without barriers and with minimal PRI maintenance/organizational/cost overhead. I wasn’t thinking of researchers and committee, Skype, emails and forums, as well as requests from the PRI to leaders in the field as the primary effort or focus. These tools might or might come into use as the need arises. It seems to me that keeping the process as clean and simple as possible increases the chance of success.

          Putting out a call for volunteers to participate could come from [the WPN], via the newsreel updates is a an excellent way to kickstart this. It also taps into people who have on the ground information from their projects that could be shared. Some probably have blogs with posts that could be wiki entries, perhaps even without any editing.

          The initial request should probably be for those with experience in managing wiki’s or perhaps forum management or website design or active blogging. A wiki such as this is similar to a Permaculture Reseach Wiki in that there is a central theme. There is ongoing evolving reorganization until a form emerges.

          DG

          1. Hi DeepGreenGreenie,

            Impartiality, there are a lot of groups and individuals in the Permaculture Community, doing great work, to say that they need to be verified by us or that we keep the keys to stop people adding to the content/ vandalism, does not sit well with us and will not sit well with those other organisations/ people. It does go against “critiquing could be done by anyone in the entire permaculture community“. Verification can come from the WPN, their own websites and reputations. But who will determine the level of qualification for someone to edit the page, I think this is a great idea, and these types of details would need to be worked.

            Regards – Web Team

            1. WT,

              Glad I asked about impartiality. There’s no reason why access can’t be completely open. Problems can be dealt with if and when they arise.

              But who will determine the level of qualification for someone to edit the page

              Hopefully, not just those who have taken a PDC. That will close the door to lots of talented people with useful information and run the risk that the Permaculture Research Wiki is self-pollinating rather than cross-pollinating. Outbreeding is usually much preferable to inbreeding.

              If the wiki is to be open, then it’s going to have to be open completely. If we use the dynamic accumulator example, the first entry would have probably included how someone was using the Kourik information. As more information emerged, that would have been reflected in the entry. At some point the entry would have reflected James Duke’s info and Kourik’s info, if still there, would have carried a footnote. The quality of the information will be a direct function of the number of people investing their efforts in the wiki.

              DG

  19. For the subtropics, there are a number of studies showing the benefits of tithonia diversifolia in African agricultural systems. Tithonia has many uses as a windbreak hedge, pollinator, biomass and for beauty. It can grow in a variety of soils and is drought tolerant. We’ve seen up to seven different types of pollinator on a single tithonia flower simultaneously, in Florida. It flowers most of the year. Tithonia, in live soils particularly, appears to be an efficient accumulator of multiple nutrients but especially phosphorous. We use the stalks as temporary trellises and in hugulkulture beds. It is very easy to propagate but also easy to control. It can be chopped and dropped and thus its height controlled (it gets quite tall – 20 feet or more in a single season). When I was in Cuba, it was growing all over the place including in ditches lining highways but appeared to be favored for hedges around farms.

  20. EXCELLENT thread and discussions here! I would love to work on and submit research through an open forum. One issue I see, is money being a limiting factor into who can conduct research. It would be fantastic if funding through grants could be established for those who have experience and knowledge but may lack the financial means. Does anyone have information about funding for research of this type? I had initially planned on grad school for study into permaculture related topics but decided against it after paying $35K for my B.S…

  21. It’s great to read a cool evaluation of the evidence on dynamic accumulators. I’d like to see more of this kind of critical assessment of the science behind permaculture. It’s very helpful to those of us who are interested in this way of gardening and growing things, but want to be informed by research as we do it. Thanks!

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