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Brix Testing – The simple window into how a plant is performing

By October 5, 2017The Balance

If you’ve ever spoken to Rick or myself about soil nutrition you’ve probably heard us mention “brix.” We may have even brought out the refractometer and shown you a sample reading from our garden.

Pictured above is a brix reading on one of our rainbow carrots. We were pretty impressed with this reading, considering our garden is relatively new and it takes 3-5 years to reach the optimum soil nutrition. This carrot grew in soil that had been amended over about 2 years.

But what on earth does this reading tell us? As you can see, the reading is around a brix of 10. Compared to a supermarket carrot, you’d notice a carrot with brix 10 is sweeter. Brix readings give you a refractive index of the plant tested with sucrose as the standard.

Why does the sugar reading matter? Sugar production is the chief purpose of photosynthesis and 75% of the time, the higher brix reading will mean higher nutrient density in the plant or crop…and that other 25% where it’s not effective occurs when the plant is dehydrated (will automatically push the sugar levels up) or there’s an operator error.

Plant growth is about taking CO2 and H2O around the plant, combining it with sunlight and generating sugar in that plant…not protein, fiber or anything else, but sugar. And from that sugar the conversions happen…everything we know as crop or harvest comes from that sugar.

So what kind of brix reading are we looking for? Once we start getting readings around 12, that’s good news (though certain plants, especially fruits, can go a LOT higher). We were happy with brix 10 on that carrot because this soil has only been balanced recently, so to already be getting a 10 is very encouraging!

Some people can get an idea of the brix just by tasting a plant, but to get a definite reading, you need a refractometer. They’re not expensive, you can pick one up for about $40 and they’re pretty easy to use.

A sample of the plant leaf or fruit is taken, the sample squeezed through a garlic press or the like to extract juice, and then some of that juice is dripped onto the prism of the refractometer, the daylight plate closed over, and then you look through eyepiece to check out your reading.

What will high brix mean for a plant? Drought tolerance, frost tolerance (no matter what the tag says on the plant when you buy it, higher brix will give the plants higher tolerance to extreme weather conditions than that species is otherwise known to cope with), higher yield, better flavour, pest resistance, disease resistence, higher pollination rates.

And we saw this throughout winter. Yes, it was unusually warm, but we still copped a handful of frosts down here, and it didn’t kill anything. We had some lettuce with frost bite around the leaf tips, but nothing died as would usually happen in our area. Then we’ve had 5 months of drought, and that hasn’t killed the veg either.

Interestingly, bees like to work in flowers with a brix reading of 7 or higher. When the reading drops below that, the energy they have to expend to get the nectar is more than they will recover from the nectar…so they don’t bother.

Milk can also be tested, and cows milk should come in at around brix 15-16. Our 2 year old just broke our refractometer, but when we replace it I’m very keen to check out the brix on organic shop-bought milk.

Diabetics who would rather not test blood levels all the time apparently use refractometers to test saliva or urine sugar readings.

Where to from here? While testing the brix of a plant (or milk/saliva etc) is simple, the corrections needed for your soil/plant/body are more complicated. And I’ve seen this is the health industry. You go into a health food store and there’s shelves of different minerals, vitamins etc to ‘fix’ your health problem. But the thing is, nature holds an intricate and complex balance. You can’t just throw a single mineral (or an erroneous ratio of mixed minerals) at your body or the soil and expect everything to be fixed. For example, I’ve had 6 children and experienced anemia throughout years of close pregnancies. Iron is what they say you need, and so I’d take floradix, or spatone and try to eat more meat. But that again was an allopathic approach to the root issue. It helped some, but didn’t fix me.

What fixed me in the end, was eating my placenta after my 6th baby. Now you’re probably grossed out, and my dad even called me a cannibal! But seriously, I’d heard about placenta encapsulation and was already familiar with the encapsulating process from capping my own  herbs etc, so gave it a go. For 4 months I had a few caps a day of dehydrated placenta and I felt like superwoman! Never had I recovered after having a baby so fast. In that placenta, was a hormone balancing, correct ratio of vitamins, minerals, energy and goodness knows what else. I wasn’t using isolated supplements, but a whole ‘food.’ And it worked.

Now, I’m not advocating finding lots of placentas to fix your soil (though after my first homebirth we planted the placenta next to a citrus tree which thrived ever after!), but making the point that your soil is a complex system and it takes some effort (research, observation, experimentation) to balance and restore it. You can’t just expect a product to fix everything for you. No doubt the products help, and we use some ourselves, but they’re tools, not instant miracles.

This is where Rick’s math/science brain comes in very handy…he has a decent understanding of this realm, and is implementing these changes in the balance of our soil. I on the other hand, am starting from scratch. I’m trying to understand all this better, so I can understand our farm and our health, and pass that understanding on to others who are trying to amend their soil or health.

So there will be more to come!

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