Restoring Your Soil: Advice by an Old School Soil to Health Expert

Story at-a-glance -

  • While no tilling methods of agriculture are gaining popularity and producing good results, there are many circumstances where deep tilling in combination with adding essential compost and microbiology is needed to detoxify contamination of poor soils
  • If you grow your own food, learn to read your weeds. Weeds are nature’s way of breaking open hardened soil and adding specific nutrients. Each weed is therefore a sign of a particular soil issue that needs to be amended for optimal plant growth.
  • Humic acid plays a key role in the proliferation of beneficial microbes in soil and can be used both in soil restoration and in agriculture to increase plant production and nutrition. There are sources of “living” humate and carbon that are highly recommended because they contain many microorganisms and a wide range of minerals

By Dr. Mercola

If you're at all passionate about health, it's likely you will eventually reach the conclusion that you need to grow your own food. Hendrikus Schraven, founder of Hendrikus Organics, is a magnificent resource in this regard.

Hendrikus has an innovative approach to environmental landscape design, including a focus on edible landscaping, and he's an expert at restoring contaminated soils, which so many of us have. The key to this approach, of course, is to improve the quality of the microbiome in the soil.

Early Lessons in Chemical Farming

Born right after the end of World War II on a farm in Holland, about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the German border, he learned to farm the organic way right from the start.

"In those days, farming was done with horse and plow ... You smelled your soil to figure out what it needed. It's a technique I still teach people today. Smelling the soil is actually [picking up on] the activity of the biology. That is what creates the smells ...

We, of course, knew that the healthier the soil was, the healthier the [end] product ... That was just called farming."

Then a kind of chemical revolution in farming took place, and the Schraven family started using chemical fertilizers like everyone else, having fallen for the promise of being able to grow more food for less money and time.

"Of course, they didn't tell you how dangerous it was to the body. We started applying [fertilizer] with our bare hands. Everybody did. You spread it out of buckets over the fields. After doing that for a few days, your fingernails were bleeding.

I finally said to my dad, 'Growing food shouldn't hurt. There's something really wrong here.'

He said, 'Yeah. We are [also] needing more of this stuff. The first two times it was fine, but now we need a little bit more to get the same results. The soil doesn't smell as good as it used to. OK, let's go back to the old ways.'"

Today we call the old way of farming "organic farming." But truly, this is how it was done for ages before chemicals became the norm of farming. There's nothing really "new" about it, historically speaking.

Not All Organics Are Equal

After being part of the rock 'n' roll business for a number of years as a youth, Hendrikus moved to the United States and started his own landscape construction company in Seattle. Unable to locate organic fertilizers and soil amendments, he ended up developing his own organic versions from scratch.

"I started going to feed stores to see what they had available. I found alfalfas, I looked at what chicken food, rabbit food, horse and cattle food was made of and I made a combination of that ...

And started using, on a small scale, my own organic fertilizers in my company and turning other people on to it."

Because the majority of soil is not made from fertilizer, Hendrikus also sought out the available materials for biomass.

"The fertilizer we have is pretty dynamic, but (for biomass) what we were doing is I was going to farmers. I would get well-decomposed material from them. I would then mix that into my soils. That's really a little bit before the composting (era).

When we started looking for the particulars on biomass, on what we could use and how to use it, my old knowledge from growing up on a farm came very handy.

Because the danger is when you're using, say, cow manure, and it's not aerated, you are going to get anaerobic conditions, which could then be detrimental to what you're doing ... People said, 'How do you know?'

I said, 'It's very simple. The farmers always threw all their cow and horse manure and everything else in the springtime on the fields. It would stink to high heaven. Within the day, two days, the stench was gone.

What do you think that means, when the stench is gone? It has gone from anaerobic to aerobic. This is the time you can actually plow it into your fields and mix it into your soils, because this change has happened in the biology.'"

What About Wood Chips?

I'm fond of using wood chips to promote soil regeneration, but Hendrikus advises caution. The common recommendation to place 6 to 8 inches of wood chips beneath trees and shrubs may not always be advisable.

"When was the last time you walked into nature and saw a tree dumping 6 to 8 inches of wood chips underneath itself?" Hendrikus asks. The source of the wood chips also matters. If the trees that were pruned and chipped were diseased, the wood chips may spread that disease to your trees or plants.

"You have to be extremely careful when you're just starting to use woodchips," Hendrikus says.

"Also, there's an enormous amount of nitrogen withdrawal for the decomposition of those chips. If you don't balance that out, you all of a sudden have yellow anemic plant material. You have to be careful with that."

Soil quality is another factor. "If you have a clay soil and you start mixing woodchips, it gets in that clay and gets wet, and if you don't know what time of the year to work this [mix] and you compact it, those woodchips will turn into alcohol.

They will go anaerobic because they have no oxygen. You're actually making it worse. You're thinking you're doing good but you're actually doing the opposite."

Tilling Still Plays a Part in the Big Picture

Most people who are in the business of regenerating soil will rely on no-till techniques. According to Hendrikus, tilling does have its place, though. When rescuing devastated, "raped" soils, he often uses heavy equipment to till the area. The specifics thereafter, however, vary depending on the state of the soil.

A general review of the process he uses when the soil is heavily abused starts with tilling up the area, making sure not to compact the soil by driving over it again.

Then compost that is fully matured, 100 percent decomposed, is added, followed by specially produced above-ground living humates, soil biology and a suitable food source for the microbes, air, compost tea and worms (about 1 to 3 pounds of worms per quarter-acre). Worms provide valuable vermicompost, one of nature's best fertilizers.

"I grow food, I repair farmland, I do erosion control, I do landscape. Because for me, everything is interconnected. There's no such thing as disconnectedness," Hendrikus says. "I can produce a soil that is extremely balanced, where you're growing your vegetables and you get the highest nutritional value possible brought up from that soil into that vegetable. But that's not where it stops.

The erosion control work that I do is the same [because] whatever filters through that soil ends up into our waterways, and whatever ends up into our waterways ends up into our marine life and our bellies somewhere along the line. So for me, it's an entire cycle."

What I've done in our company is encompass the overall; I apply different methods that all come to the same [result]. I look at the situation. I use my intuition to tell me what do I need to do here. But I have a large kitchen, so to speak, with lots of goodies to draw from.

Heavy Contamination Cleaning

Using his strategies — which include a mix of old school farmer's knowledge, experience and intuition — even heavily polluted areas, such as areas in Hawaii where sugar cane and pineapple plantations using large doses of herbicides and pesticides had destroyed and severely polluted the soil, have been able to be cleaned up to a significant degree within a matter of about six months. Here, the primary remediation was mycorrhizal fungi, plus the addition of microbially rich organic matter.

"We do till it in. We need a food source [in the soil], and Hawaii is [an area] where you can't leave everything just on top. It'd just dry out. The microbes will go dormant and nothing will happen unless you irrigate. In a lot of cases, you can't afford to do that.

You have to get it back into the ground. I look at that situation in that point in time. A little damage in playing [tilling] with the soil is better than a lot of damage by not doing it. I don't go for any one method per se. I go for a combination of many, and what I feel intuitively works."

Upping the Ante on Organic Foods

Truly organic food is not just about the absence of chemicals. While that's certainly important from a health standpoint, you can have organic food that is neither tasty nor exceedingly nutritious, for the fact that it's been grown in denatured soils.

It's important to realize that the nutrition really comes from the soil, with healthy soil creating more nutrient-dense produce. So even though the organic market is steadily growing, not all organic farmers are using methods that will regenerate and optimize soil health.

"The way to change the paradigm is by requesting the farmers grow higher nutritional food," Hendrikus says. "You go to the market and you say to one of the stands, 'Hey, can I have a little slice of that?' You taste it and you go, 'Nah, sorry. That isn't doing it.' You move on to the next stand, and you immediately set into motion that everybody has to up the ante," Hendrikus says.

"You're not going to get it via politics. You're not going to get it via the government ... You're going to get it by the demand of the people to the people that are growing it. They are going to turn that around ... If you say, 'If it's GMO I'm not buying it,' automatically it shuts GMOs down. You don't have to fight them [by protesting] in the streets."

In order for that strategy to work, however, people need to be aware that there are differences between genetically engineered (GE) foods, chemically farmed foods and organic. Many are still unaware of these differences and therefore cannot vote with their pocketbook, which is a most powerful strategy.

"I've traveled all over the world. Malnutrition will create this dead stare in the eyes. I'm starting to see that more and more even in the United States of America. When you have a whole population that's just watching TV and is just in this kind of haze, the wake-up moment is difficult.

Like you said, how do you wake them up? But what I have seen — and we've been doing this a very long time — in the last 40-somewhat years, [organic awareness] has really increased. I'm pleasantly surprised."

Learn to Read Weeds

If you grow your own food, one of the first things you might want to do is to learn to read your weeds. "Weeds are the healers," Hendrikus says. Weeds are what nature uses to break open hardened soil and add calcium, boron, nitrogen and other nutrients. Each weed is a sign of a particular soil issue. Once you address that, the weeds will be history.

"What people can do is: No. 1, get some books. Google it. See what weeds are prevalent in the areas that you want to grow food in. Then you come to understand what your soil is short of," Hendrikus says.

Convert to Edible Landscaping

Most American homes have lawns; a most unnatural feature if there ever was one. You really won't find grass lawns anywhere in the wild. I've converted my quarter acre of ornamental to mostly edible landscaping. I only have about 10 percent lawn left. Hendrikus agrees that lawns are a useless landscaping feature, and recommends putting in edible landscaping, or a vegetable garden.

Alternatively, if you don't want a large vegetable garden, convert part of your area into a wildflower garden. This will encourage the survival of bees, and attract bees and other insects to pollinate whatever fruits and vegetables you (or your neighbors) do have.

"Most of the clients I do work for, they're creating vegetable gardens, whether we're landscaping or not. More and more people are getting into that. All of a sudden, the family gets back together. They're outside, reconnecting with nature. That's a good therapy, by the way.

Then, from the seed to where you actually eat it, I don't know of any child that isn't excited by this. I've given lots of talks at schools. I work with children creating vegetable gardens and things like that, and they're all excited ... This is what should be done more in our schools."

Besides getting fresh air and negative ions from the earth, interacting with the soil will also expose you to the beneficial microbes within it, which can help improve your own microbiome. This is perhaps even truer for children, who play in the dirt and have a tendency to get dirt in their mouths.

The Importance of Humates

Humic acid (humate) promotes the proliferation of beneficial microorganisms in the soil and helps sequester carbon in the soil. Humate is extracted from nature's process of creating coal, from fully decomposed humus through the leonardite stage of coal. Most of the commercially-available humate is mined underground from leonardite, just before it turns into coal.

Unfortunately, humate from underground can have a lot of heavy metals in it, so Hendrikus recommends using a living humate from a surface mine. It contains lignans, folic acid, high-quality carbon, natural beneficial microbes and more than 78 trace minerals. Hendrikus' company sells it in both liquid and granular form, and adds it into virtually all soil regeneration jobs. The resulting plant material and the water savings are phenomenal.

"I met up with this farmer in Berkley, California, named Al. He had 158 acres of fruit orchard. He had some problems. I looked at his compost pile. I looked at some of the methods they're using. I said, 'No, you're not doing it right. But I'm going to give you something.' I gave him two bags — one of my food source and one of what we call HuMagic, which is a humate.

Because he had sick peach trees, I said, 'Put it on these 20 (he had 40) and not these. You'll be calling me back in four to six weeks.' He called back saying 'Oh, my god.' He sent pictures. The difference was astonishing. He's now doing his entire orchard. Last year we had a lot of drought in California. He ended up buying another 100 acres, [because he learned these principles].

When everybody was suffering from the drought, he was doing fine. His fruit had more than enough moisture. His peaches were to die for. He needed a bowl to eat the peach, because the juice. Once you have [humate] in your soil ... you are the king of your soil."

Never Forget Crop Rotation

Another word to the wise: never grow just one thing. Even if all you have is a vegetable garden, draw out a plan and make sure to rotate your crops. If you have potatoes in one area this year, plant something else there next year. After rotating crops for three years, your potatoes can be grown in their original spot again.

The reason for this is because different vegetables extract different minerals out of the soil, and you don't want to deplete your soil of any given mineral or the plant simply won't grow well. In addition to that, you'll want to make sure you replenish the soil each year using organic matter from your garden. Turn it into compost and layer it on top of your soil. Biochar is another phenomenal addition to improve soil quality.

More Information

For a visual tour of what actually happens in healthy soil, see this video, produced by a Japanese company that used a microscope to capture live footage of soil microbes at work. For more information about Hendrikus' soil restoration work,  the soil to health connection, the soil microbiome, urban and rural farming and more, please visit If you have specific questions, you can also find an email contact form on his site.