Fertilizing for growth is common… but fertilizing vegetables for flavor? That’s a different animal, but it’s something we need to consider.
If you were to spend a year eating potatoes, corn, beans and cabbage – without much in the way of seasoning – I’ll bet you’d be longing for some good chicken curry or a plate of fettuccine Alfredo at the other end.
Heck, I want both of those right now and I had eggs, bacon and fried plantains for breakfast.
In a survival situation, we may not have the luxuries or even the common spices we desire. You may, Lord willing, be able to grow all the best survival food you need for the table – but you also might get very tired of bland food over time.
Let’s face it: some vegetables just aren’t that exciting. I’m not going to name names, but…
Fortunately, there are ways we can improve the flavor of our food without stockpiling gallon-jugs of Texas Pete and Adobo.
The key? Fertilizing for flavor!
Fertilizing Vegetables for FLAVOR? What?
Let me start by telling you a story that I’ve told before.
One year I dug a new garden bed on unused ground at my old house in Tennessee and planted a bunch of potatoes I “reclaimed” from a grocery store dumpster. I wondered how they would do in the hard, red clay, but I knew that the woods nearby and the wildflowers were always abundant, rich and green so I guessed the soil was fertile.
I was right.
When we later harvested those potatoes and prepared them in the kitchen, I was amazed. Unlike the potatoes I’d been eating all my life, these had a rich potato flavor that had to be tasted to be believed.
The mashed potatoes were heavenly.
The French fries were gourmet.
My wife’s stew was divine.
Yet remember: these were grown with boring old grocery store potatoes as the seed spuds. There was nothing special about them genetically; they had the exact same genes as the run-of-the-mill potatoes I’d been eating for years. It wasn’t like an old, half-blind farmer in the Andes had handed me an ancient heirloom variety and as I took it from his trembling hands I felt the weight of history.
No, these were just boring potatoes that had somehow turned into superb potatoes.
The key was the soil.
If there’s a proper spread of micronutrients in the ground, food just tastes better. If you are using 10-10-10 on poor soil, you may grow good-looking crops, but their flavor probably won’t match that of a neighboring gardener’s vegetables grown in mineral-rich soil.
General Principles for Fertilizing for Flavor
When I was a younger gardener I fertilized with the thought of “what will make this plant grow well?” in mind. Now I fertilize with the additional thought of “what will impart maximum nutrition to this plant?” Maximum nutrition is linked to maximum flavor – and it’s also better for your family’s health, obviously, as the nutrients you give to the plants will later be consumed by you.
Though there’s always some guesswork in the garden, I do most of my fertilizing with complex “teas” that contain a broad mix of materials in order to give my plants a high level of nutrition.
It may seem somewhat insane to the uninitiated, but here’s a recent video I did illustrating just the range of craziness that can be included in a fertilizer/compost tea:
Note that I didn’t have to buy anything to make this tea. Instead, I mixed in grass clippings, tree leaves, kitchen scraps, urine, manure and other materials.
This is a far cry from the three simple elements in 10-10-10. Beyond nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (which are abundant in urine), I’m adding grass and weeds, which contain lesser elements like manganese, calcium, zinc, iron, copper, etc. And I’m adding a lot of other bits and pieces that are sure to add even more micro and macronutrients.
As you can see in this following video, I also harvest sea water and seaweed and add that as well, which massively increases the levels of micronutrients going into my gardens:
With some plants – such as the potatoes I mentioned – I can definitely taste a difference in flavor because of micronutrient levels. With others it’s not as noticeable, though I haven’t done a serious side-by-side comparison.
Let’s take a look now at some survival crops you can “juice up” by targeting them for flavor and nutrition levels.
Potatoes are my top all-around survival crop, unless you’re in an area where they don’t grow well. Unlike many garden vegetables, they like an acid soil. Providing this acidity makes it easier for the potatoes to take up nutrition. I grew them in Florida sand with 10-10-10 as a fertilizer and found their taste inferior to those grown in the rich clay of Tennessee, where I didn’t fertilize them at all. Potatoes do not like much nitrogen and they adore phosphorus, so if you want good root development, give them something rich in “P” like bone meal, then give them homemade compost tea (light on manure/urine) for the micronutrients. Coffee grounds in the garden bed are likely to be good as well. I used to get buckets of them from an espresso joint down the road and they went into all my garden beds. Rotten pine mulch is another good way to make your potatoes happy… and happy potatoes taste better.
Sweet potatoes are undemanding, so long as you have enough warm days to grow them during; however, they’re happier with some fertilizing. Like white potatoes, they don’t do well with a lot of nitrogen. I feed mine compost tea and usually throw some compost onto the soil before planting. Mulching with a good mix of materials (such as the mulch created by tree trimming companies clearing the powerlines) also seems to improve their happiness levels, though they’ll also grow quite happily in bare soil.
The real key to growing delicious sweet potatoes is the “curing.” If you pull them right from the garden, they’re starchy and somewhat bland. Set them aside for a few weeks to rest, however, and the flavor and sweetness vastly improve.
As a bonus: sweet potato greens are an excellent cooked green. Increase the nutrition in your soil and you’re certain to improve the flavor of the greens as well.
Kale harvested fresh from the garden is vastly better in flavor than the tough stuff you’ll find in the supermarket. Regular watering and planting before the summer heat seem to impact the flavor of kale more than any specific mode of fertilization, but I feed mine with regular applications of compost tea and make sure they also get plenty of nitrogen. I once side-dressed them with chicken manure and had them burn, so be careful. The best results on growth and flavor I’ve had was when I double-dug a garden bed and stirred in compost, cottonseed meal, rock phosphate, lime, Epsom salts and a tiny touch of Borax and sea salt. Again – it’s the wide mix of nutrition you’re shooing for. I got the idea to add sea salt and Borax from the excellent book The Intelligent Gardener which really dives into the importance of micronutrients in the garden.
I give my beans lots of compost tea and I also make sure to keep them watered and pick the pods regularly before they become stringy and hard.
For dry beans, I grow beans in between other crops and water them regularly and deeply with water and compost tea.
The flavor on both is better in rich soil than it is in poor. The black-eyed peas in the image tasted better than any we bought from the store (though the labor involved makes them a dubious survival choice).
Don’t give beans too much nitrogen, though, or they won’t give you as good a harvest.
Just compost is great – and they love mulch as well.
Wondering how much beans YOUR body will need when the SHTF, then take our 4 day survival calorie calculating test here.
Squash are so much fun to grow that I always plant some every year.
I skip the summer squash types and instead grow the real survival varieties: winter squash. These are the ones that keep for long periods of time on the shelf and that’s what I want.
Of course, if you’ve been gardening for a while, you know where the very best squash like to grow: right in the compost pile!
Look what happened in my garden one year:
Though I wasn’t consciously fertilizing for flavor, the compost made these pumpkins grow and taste amazing.
All those pumpkin vines – and the pumpkins in the wheel barrow – grew out of my compost pile.
Squash love compost and they taste great when grown in an area of rich fertility and allowed to reach full maturity on the vine. Once harvested, like sweet potatoes, they need a “curing” period to reach their full flavor. This ranges from a couple of weeks to a month or so. Just let them dry out on your porch, then bring them inside and tuck them into a well-aerated area to sit and cure.
I’ve had good luck digging pits, throwing in everything from meat scraps to ashes and raw manure, then covering with soil and planting squash or melon seeds on top. You can find out more about this method and a lot of other ways to turn everything into soil in my popular (and highly entertaining) book Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting.
Forget sweet corn – grain corn is what you want for survival!
I give this crop a good write-up in Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening because it’s easy to grow, easy to harvest and easy to store. Corn also creates a lot of biomass, making it a great base for compost piles.
Corn reaches its top growth and yield potential when you give it plenty of nitrogen. Diluted urine is a remarkably good fertilizer for corn, as is the rich compost/manure tea I explain here:
Corn, like potatoes, really likes rich soil and had amazing flavor when grown in the red clay of Tennessee. To recapture that fertility requires mixing up a good range of minerals for your crop through not only giving it urine or manure, but also giving it good compost. If you can’t create enough compost for the field you’re growing, water it with that anaerobic compost tea along the base of the stalks every couple of weeks.
It will fly – I guarantee it.
Garlic is both medicine and food. It’s also been scientifically proven to increase in flavor and nutrition when provided with extra sulfur. I give them (and my other crops as well) Epsom Salts to “up” the sulfur and magnesium and increase growth.
The National Gardening Association reports:
“Chemically, Epsom salts is hydrated magnesium sulfate (about 10 percent magnesium and 13 percent sulfur). Magnesium is critical for seed germination and the production of chlorophyll, fruit, and nuts. Magnesium helps strengthen cell walls and improves plants’ uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Sulfur, a key element in plant growth, is critical to production of vitamins, amino acids (therefore protein), and enzymes. It’s also the compound that gives vegetables such as broccoli and onions their flavors. Sulfur is seldom deficient in garden soils in North America because acid rain and commonly used animal manures contain sulfur, as do chemical fertilizers such as ammonium sulfate.”
Epsom salts are quite beneficial for the flavor of garlic and onions, not to mention cole crops like cabbage, broccoli and kale. Along with compost, throw some in and see how your garlic tastes.
Bonus Plant: Strawberries
Though I think strawberries aren’t the best survival plant unless you’re in their optimal climate, they are nutritious and take up very little space.
Personally, I prefer cabbage for vitamin C and mulberries as a berry crop, but if you want something sweet in the Apocalypse – or if you’re growing with nutrition in mind, as my fellow columnist Kendra urges us in her article on the most nutritious survival foods to grow – strawberries are nice to have.
Gardening expert James Wong, author of the new book Grow for Flavor, recommends a few methods for growing sweeter strawberries, including giving them full sunshine, avoiding over-fertilization, and fertilizing with comfrey liquid (which is similar to how I make my anaerobic compost teas – just a stack of leaves in a bucket of water, left to rot, then applied to plants).
I’ve also made my own fish emulsion and strawberries seem to love its mineral rich essence, as do the neighborhood cats.
In the garden, if it’s good for you, it probably tastes good.
This goes against the “if it tastes horrible it has to be good for you” common wisdom we often hear.
A perfectly sun-ripened and well-fed tomato is delicious. Organic apples from the tree are wonderful. And I’ve already told you about how very good my potatoes tasted in Tennessee.
Do I know all the answers for what makes vegetables taste great? No. But I do know that deliberately fertilizing for flavor by increasing the micronutrients in the soil has made my produce taste better, at least in my admittedly subjective opinion – and there’s some science to back up my assertions. If you grow healthy, mineral-rich produce, you’ll be healthier as well.
Think nutrition and you’ll be on your way to better flavor. Mix up materials from year to year, compost everything, don’t forget micronutrients such as the ones found in seaweed and even diluted salt water… and you might just be able to put away the curry and the white sauce once in a while.
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