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Dan Kittredge: principles of nutrient density

by Franziska Matt & Andrew Toth

Popular among experts, yet often unclear to many practitioners, is the concept

of nutrient density. Nutrient density directly impacts the health of

both plants and humans. Whether you want your garden veggies to have

a longer shelf life, more intense flavor, or an abundance of

nutrients, increasing nutrient density is the answer.

The entire ecosystem will benefit from increased nutrient density in your farm or garden. Every farmer or gardener working with permaculture, as well as every conscious consumer should be familiar with the principles of nutrient density developed by Dan Kittredge.


The benefits of high nutrient density​

  • reduction of weeds and diseases

  • less time between harvests

  • higher yield per unit area

  • more intense flavor

  • superior shelf life

As always, it all starts with soil. Increasing the soil’s nutrient density fosters a fruitful basis for healthy plant growth yet remains an untrodden path for many farmers. This may have to do with the heavily marketed—but false in the long-term—idea that chemical treatment will lead to sustained higher yields. Dan Kittredge, founder of the NGO Bionutrient Food Associaton (BFA) explained nutrient density to us and how both farmers and consumers can profit from it.

The idea: nutrient density as an added value

Minerals, vitamins and trace elements are vital for the soil. They contribute to a nutrient-dense fruit and enhanced overall productivity. The benefit for consumers is also clear: nutrient-dense foods feature superior flavor, a longer shelf life, and they are health-promoting by supplying us with essential nutrients.

In a nutshell: the key to success for every farmer is nutrient density seen as an added value for the entire biological system.

Minerals, vitamins and trace elements are vital for the soil. They contribute to a nutrient-dense fruit and enhanced overall productivity. The benefit for consumers is also clear: nutrient-dense foods feature superior flavor, a longer shelf life, and they are health-promoting by supplying us with essential nutrients.

In a nutshell: the key to success for every farmer is nutrient density seen as an added value for the entire biological system.

Insects, weeds and diseases?

“Mind the soil and insects and diseases will protect the plants from weeds.”

Dan Kittredge

Traditionally (at least in the last 70 or so years) farmers have been encouraged to deal with symptoms rather than the root cause of a problem. This approach may mitigate a problem in the short-term but causes detrimental environmental problems in the long run.


The fact is: any individual part of a system can never be completely understood without first looking at the full picture. Combating insects, weeds and diseases is just a small part of the big picture. It’s when you look at the full picture holistically to determine what’s causing the symptom (weeds and diseases) that you will begin to notice lasting change.

Equally, any biological organism should be seen as part of an interplay informed by reciprocity. In other words: the dynamics of soil, individual plants and entire crops are dependent on certain conditions and cannot be treated in isolation from their environment. Let’s delve in a bit deeper…

Community Gardening

Like in a group of individuals, each component of a biological system has to work smoothly together with others in order to function properly as a whole.

First, what are the tasks of the soil?

  • supply of minerals

  • anion/cation balancing

  • energy flow/paramagnetism (we’ll define this in a moment)

  • habitat for bacteria and fungi


And what are the leading roles of plants?

  • protein synthesis vs. proteolysis (i.e. splitting proteins into separate amino acids)

  • supply of carbohydrates, sugar

  • pH balance

  • conductivity

Everything is energy – Yin & Yang

Briefly, we need to touch on the basics of energy with respect to plants. Energy drives the living world. It is literally underlying everything. Although plants are made up of atoms which combine to form specific elements, they need energy to be alive. It takes a plant’s energy, for example, to penetrate those vital elements surrounding the plant’s roots and make the element available to the plant.


What is energy, technically? Without getting too deep into 10th-grade science class, recall that this energy we keep talking about is a measurable substance. Ions make up this measurable substance, and an ion contains electrons and protons. Depending on whether there are more electrons or protons in the ion, we see two main types of ions: anions and cations. Anions (negatively-charged ions, meaning more electrons than protons) stimulate vegetative growth of the plant. Cations (positively-charged ions) take on a decisive role for a plant’s level of fertility.

Image by Fernando @cferdo

Yin & Yang energies are based on reciprocity. They complement each other as male and female sides and play a vital role for a plant's growth and fertility.

Andersen compared this relationship using the analogy of Yin & Yang energies:

  • Anions are Yang energies. They represent the male side of things: the plant’s vegetative growth, enhancing root development and foliation.

  • Cations are Yin energies. They represent the female side of things. Cations are the basis of fertility and they build fruits and seeds.

Orbitals & electrical charge


An ion is composed of electrons, protons and neutrons. They spin in certain directions, like elements of the soil do.

Within an ion, the electrons orbit around the protons (and neutrons, but we are ignoring those for now in the name of simplicity). These electrons reside in a definable space. Within this space, electrons exhibit a specific set of orbital motions. 104 elements of the soil spin in one direction, whereas the four elements calcium, potassium, chlorine and nitrate spin in the opposite direction.

The goal is a balance of elements for an electrical charge to happen. This balance enables chemical reactions, and chemical reactions are the origin of each biological being.

“Chemical reactions are the essential physical process by which biological compounds are built.” – Dan Kittredge

Paramagnetism (according to Phil Callahan)

Okay, now we’re going to go a bit deeper. Below the earth’s surface is an embedded magnetic field. Electrical fields run perpendicular to the magnetic field, like a grid. The earth’s spin builds the armature (in the language of electrical machines, the armature is the part of an electrical machine that includes the main current-carrying winding and in which the electromotive force is induced).


Paramagnetism is used to dismantle the magnetic field from the planetary spin. In doing so, the magnetic field can be used for the conversion to electrical flow. This energy flow runs vertically and moves up and down the plant.


The PCSM (Phil Callahan Soil Meter) is used to measure the paramagnetism of a soil. The greater the measured value, the higher the plants’ abundance of nutrients.

Worth considering: healthy soil acts like a big electromagnet, that means it is highly paramagnetic (like carbon and oxygen). Healthy plants are highly diamagnetic (meaning that most, or all, electrons are paired). The bigger the difference between the two magnetic fields, the greater the electrical flow which can take place. A strong electrical flow fosters optimal development and plant growth.

Dan’s tips at a glance

  • weeds indicate insufficiency of nutrients

    • sour grass weeds = calcium deficiency

    • broadleaf weeds = phosphorus/potassium imbalance

    • succulents = carbon deficiency

  • Balance of mineral content is vital. In particular boron, potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen should be at optimal levels because they promote a healthy interaction between essential trace elements and vitamins.

  • Develop a water management plan to make sure plants get enough, but not too much, water. This might mean using a sprinkler system or a drip irrigation system on a timer and in zones to provide the optimal water per zone.

  • Conduct real-time analysis of soil and plants.

  • Supplement nutrients and leaf fertilizer (in particular calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and selenium).

  • Apply finely ground minerals, humates, soil vaccines, seaweed, and sediments if possible (the smaller their form, the more accessible they will be for uptake).


Succulent-type weeds, like the purslane shown here, may be a sign of carbon deficiency in your soil. Before you throw your purslane into the compost, keep in mind: you can eat this “weed” in a salad or as an adder for pesto!

Worth considering: Minerals AS WELL AS an appropriate energy level are necessary for healthy growth concerning any type of species in the soil!


Another thing to think about: Lasting change needs time. Recognizable results are expected to become apparent after 3 to 5 years, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t notice a huge impact the first year you balance your soil’s nutrients, trace elements and vitamins.

>> Click here to see how soil quality can be measured in the garden or on the field. 

Access the whole workshop series on “Principles & Practices of Biological Management”:

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