, Muskogee, OK


May 22, 2013

Book tells science behind organic gardening

On the day Jeff Lowenfels and I spoke about his two books, the weather service had predicted 4 inches of snow and a 24-degree night. That day was May 17, and his home town is Anchorage, Alaska, USDA zone 5.

Lowenfels is a practicing natural resources (oil and gas, environmental law) lawyer who has developed a career explaining soil science to judges and juries. Lowenfels worked to develop Alaska’s natural gas, as president and CEO of Yukon Pacific Corp., which sought to build a gas pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez (

Because of his professional and personal interest in plants and soil science, Lowenfels has dug deep into his topic during a 30-year stint as a garden columnist and gardener. His respect for plants and no-till, organic, chemical-free gardening has only increased over the years.

“I used to say the last frost is over when the birch tree leaves reach the size of a squirrel’s ear, and today those leaves are still closed because we are getting our latest freeze and snow on record,” Lowenfels said. “Plants know things that we have not given them credit for knowing. And more, new, science is being discovered every week.”

His 2010 book, “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” taught gardeners the importance of understanding how soil and plants work together to provide plants the nutrition they need.

“How plants feed themselves is basic information for all gardeners,” Lowenfels said. “It is a book about the science behind organic gardening and how plants attract to themselves the 17-nutrients they need.”

The new publication, “Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition” focuses on the cellular biology and chemistry of plant life.

“Just read it” is Lowenfels advice in the Introduction to “Teaming with Nutrients,” and I second that.

Any gardener who has thought about how plants actually eat the food we presume we are providing, will want to make time to read and think about “Teaming with Nutrients.”

Not to ruin the ending for you, but here’s a spoiler alert: We don’t provide their food. Just as they have done for millions of years, plants can and do feed themselves. However, we gardeners can interfere with their ability to feed themselves by causing problems for them. Understanding their complexities is like gaining a deeper understanding of the people we want to know — we can give them more of what they need and avoid the practices that can do them harm.

Topics include: Plant cell parts, the basic chemistry involved in plant nutrients, the botany of nutrient-usage by plant tissues/organs, the 17 essential elements (macronutrients and micronutrients), how water moves through the soil and into the plant stems and leaves, nutrient movement within plants, how to apply the science you just learned to your gardening practices, and, recommended fertilizer recipes.

As a non-science major, I found the book challenging to read. As a gardener who is fascinated by the wonder of plants, I found the challenge worth my effort. If you, like me, are not a scientist and are not up-to-date on the latest cellular biology discoveries, you will thank Lowenfels many times for the useful five-page Glossary in the back.

Your awe of plants and the lives they lead will increase if you “just read it” and you’ll never garden the same old way again.

Both books are available from Timber Press (, local book stores, and online retailers. Prices vary from $25 list to $12 discounted.

You can read Lowenfels’ garden columns online at the Anchorage Daily News The word snow appears in many of his column titles.

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