Soft Water Blues

comfrey flower

I live in a soggy area. Like most continental curls of geography, this section of Oregon does a great job of collecting rain clouds. The soil is rich and spongy due to years of volcanic activity. This is a boon to the farmer and the backyard gardener.

Comfrey is high in minerals soft water states lack.
Comfrey is high in minerals soft water states lack.

The water here is soft. Soap lathers up nicely. Clothes can withstand multiple washing. Pipes don’t need to be scoured to remove the mineral deposits. The calcium and magnesium deposits that plague hard water states aren’t even a side thought here.

There is one problem, we have to add calcium and magnesium to our soil. Blossom end rot is abundant in Oregon gardens. Novice gardeners are puzzled by their pale, limp garden starts. The curse of soft water rears its ugly head.

Garden shops happily sell soil amendments. Every fall, gardeners load up on mineral rich fertilizers to save the coming year’s crop from doom. Calcium is passively absorbed by plants so the amendments are added in the fall for effects in the spring. As the Shoestring Herbalist, I keep my purse strings drawn tight and look to other sources for nutrition.

I have chickens who produce two mineral rich sources for my garden, egg shells and poop. I allow deep rooted plants like dock and dandelion to pull minerals up to the surface, which I feed to my chickens. The poop is easy to spread. The egg shells are crushed and added as a top dressing to keep slugs at bay and then to break down for calcium absorption later in the season.

The chickens also serve as mineral lab testers. My girls are laying chickens. We gather their eggs daily. If the shells are hard and take many strikes against the side of the frying pan to crack, the mineral content of the soil is high. When the shells get thinner and easier to crack, I know it’s time to up the calcium/magnesium dose to their feed and to the soil.

Chickens multitask as garden tools and entertainment centers.
Chickens multitask as garden tools and entertainment centers.

I also feed my chickens oyster shells during the rainy season when calcium is particularly low in the plants they graze on. Ground oyster shells are available at every feed store as a barnyard supplement. After a garden bed harvest, I sprinkle a top dressing of oyster shell on the soil and let my chickens rake through the bed. This is my lazy way of tilling and fertilizing for next spring.

I make my own fertilizer with comfrey and horsetail. Both are painfully easy to grow and make a great compost tea. Horsetail is native to my area. Comfrey is a garden pest if it’s not controlled carefully. Both are abundant resources. Remember to protect tender plants like comfrey from the unbridled appetites of chickens. They will love it down to the ground.

Sometimes I come upon a simple cheat for my garden. Most of the time, a garden with a compost pile doesn’t need any other treatment. Occasionally, I hoard expired calcium and mineral supplements when they go on sale at the grocery store.

I grind the pills in my mortar and pestle and sprinkle the powder on my tomato and squash beds. Vitamins may lose their antioxidant abilities through time but minerals are elements. The expiration of a mineral supplement is questionable. I am not going to take expired multivitamins but my plants don’t care. They gobble it up and reward my frugality with plump, delicious tomatoes and zucchinis year after year.


*Thank you David Sierralupé for sharing your photos.

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