Creating the 18″-wide Level, Ridged Raised Soil-Bed

A new Mittleider gardener expressed the following – “Here’s what I learned after putting in my 1st Mittleider row.

“Start leveling from the center of each row and then work to each end.
I think this would have saved some time because my rows dip down in
the center.”

I’d like to pass along the experience of building and planting many thousands of soil-beds and Grow-Boxes, for this fine person and all other readers.

Here are the steps I recommend you follow to build and level your soil-beds:

1) Start with a very straight 8 to 10′-long 2″ X 2″ board (2 X 4’s will also work, but they’re very heavy for the ladies to use).  Paint or stain it, to minimize warping.

2) Attach a string level to the center of the board with plenty of good glue.

3) After determining what direction you want to place your beds, with the high end nearest the watering source, and the beds as level as possible (do NOT worry about the location of the sun or the shape of your yard, but DO consider SHADE and avoid it!), measure and stake your beds, and tie nylon strings tight – 6″ above the surface – along both sides.

4) dig or till the entire length of the beds 18″-wide to a depth of AT LEAST 8″.  DO NOT apply any Pre-Plant or Weekly Feed to the soil-bed until AFTER it has been leveled, or most of your fertilizers will end up in only half of the bed.

5) Dig or till the aisle space SHALLOWLY – just a couple of inches deep.

6) Pull 2″ of soil from the center of the aisle to the string, the entire length and on both sides of the bed.

7) Smooth and level the top of the soil-bed while breaking up any clods, and make the soil-bed the same width,immediately under the strings, all along its length.

8) Starting at the high end, check the level of the entire length of your bed BEFORE beginning to move dirt.

9) Supposing you had measurements at the end of your 10′-long level showing a difference of 2″, 1″, and 3″, it would indicate the high end of the bed is 6″ higher than the low end of the 30′-long soil-bed.

10) With a shovel, throw dirt from the top half of the soil-bed onto the bottom half, with more dirt coming from the first 10′ and going to the last 10′.

11) Your goal is to lower the high end of the bed by 3″ and raise the low end 3″ while keeping the bed flat and even throughout its length.  This takes some practice, but it becomes easier after doing a few, and the beds are EASIER to do the second time, after they’ve once been leveled!

12) Only AFTER leveling the bed as described above do you apply and till or dig in the Weekly Feed ( 16 ounces for 30′, or 1/2 ounce per running foot) and Pre-Plant mixes (32 ounces for 30′, or 1 ounce per running foot).

13) After the fertilizers have been applied and mixed with the soil, re-check your level, smooth the top of the soil-bed, making the width equal throughout the entire length, and then begin making the ridges.

14) Pull 2 to 3″ of soil from the center of the bed to create a 4″-high ridge on both sides and ends of the bed with the top immediately under the strings.

15) When the ridges are complete drag a rake down the center of the bed to smooth and level the planting area.  This should be about 12″-wide, and about 1″ higher than the aisles.  DO NOT make your beds with the planting area more than 2″ higher than the aisles!  This will lead to watering problems, and your beds will dry out too quickly.

16) Re-check the level of your bed throughout its length, and move dirt to assure that it is level.  You should have no more than 1″ of fall in a 30′-long soil-bed

Sandy Soil – Maintaining Ridges

Q.  Sandy soil is difficult to keep ridged.  The ridges melt away in heavy rains that we have here.  What can I do to improve the soil, so it will hold up, and how can I build the ridges strong enough that they hold up?

A.  Gardening in sandy soil has its challenges, but they are not difficult to solve.  For very sandy soil I recommend you find clean organic material, such as grass clippings or leaves – mulch the leaves as fine as possible with a chipper/shredder or mulching mower – and then till them into your soil-beds.  In the fall you should be able to find an abundance of leaves.  Just don’t use walnut leaves, as the sap is very hard on some of your vegetables, especially tomatoes.  This will improve your soil tilth, and over time it will help the deterioration of the ridge sides. 

Also on sandy soil – to reduce the tendency for the sides to give way, I make the ridges a bit higher than normal – perhaps 5 to 6” – by pulling more soil from the planting area.  This usually leaves the planting area only a little bit higher than the aisles.  Then I will do one of two things.  As I make the beds, the final step is to hit the inside base of the ridges for the entire length a couple of times with the rake.  This firms and settles the soil in the ridges, making them just a bit lower, wider, and less likely to fall back onto the newly sprouting seedlings.  For the most sandy soil I will go down the sides of the beds and press the ridges down with both hands cupped, to help them retain their shape. 

Jim Kennard

How Do I Best Prepare a New Garden Plot To Eliminate Weeds

Q. “If one were to begin anew – from a previously untilled field covered in an assortment of vegatation: Grasses, broadleaf weads, etc; What is the best course of attack? Kill everything that grown with a short-term herbicide like round-up, then till and proceed from there;

A.  THE HERBICIDES WILL ONLY KILL LIVING TISSUE THEY REACH SYSTEMICALLY WHEN APPLIED TO LIVING LEAVES.  THIS CAN LEAVE MUCH OF THE ROOT SYSTEMS VIABLE.  NEARBY PLANTS CAN ALSO BE DAMAGED OR KILLED.  APPLICATIONS OF 2-4-D TO WEED CEREAL CROPS HAVE TRAVELED A MILE OR MORE ON THE WIND AND KILLED OTHER VALUABLE CROPS, SUCH AS TOMATOES.

Q.  “Should I till the entire plot and fight the good fight with the runner type vegatations like knot grass?

A.  IF YOU HAVE AN INFESTATION OF PERENNIAL WEEDS, YOU SHOULD REMOVE THEM, INCLUDING ROOTS, RHYZOMES, AND RUNNERS.  FAILURE TO DO SO WILL DOOM YOU TO MANY YEARS OF FIGHTING THEM.

Q.  “Should I use some other method, perhaps cover the plot with black plastic and smother/cook the vegatation and then till? 

A.  BLACK PLASTIC WILL WASTE A GROWING SEASON WHILE IT DOES ITS WORK, AND WILL NOT KILL ROOT SYSTEMS THAT GROW MORE THAN A FEW INCHES BELOW THE SURFACE.  AND TILLING WILL BRING A FRESH BATCH OF WEED SEEDS TO THE SURFACE TO GERMINATE AND MAKE YOUR LIFE MIZERABLE.

Q.  What if I concentrate on the growbeds and leave the pathways covered in grass and mow them so they do not provide weed seeds?”

A.  LEAVING WEEDS OF ANY KIND IN THE AISLES PROVIDES “BUG HOTELS”, SO THE BUGS (AND DISEASES) CAN ATTACK YOUR PLANTS EASILY.  ALSO, THE WEEDS WILL GROW INTO YOUR BEDS, AND YOU WILL BE OVERRUN WITH WEEDS IN THE ENTIRE GARDEN.

THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR PROPER PREPARATION OF A GARDEN, AND ELIMINATING ALL WEEDS IS A MAJOR INGREDIENT OF THAT TASK.  WE RECOMMEND YOU START WITH A MUCH SMALLER GARDEN THAN YOU PLANNED ON; PREPARE THAT SMALLER SPACE RIGHT AND COMPLETELY, AND YOU WILL GROW MORE IN THE SMALLER SPACE THAN YOU WOULD HAVE DONE IN THE LARGER SPACE YOU ORIGINALLY PLANNED.  THEN, NEXT YEAR, IF YOU STILL WANT MORE VEGETABLES THAN YOU HAD LAST YEAR, PROPERLY PREPARE ANOTHER SECTION OF YOUR GARDEN PLOT BY ONCE AGAIN ELIMINATING ALL WEEDS, INCLUDING THEIR ROOT SYSTEMS.

Using Soil – or using a Soil-less Medium – What’s Best?

Q.  From some things I’ve read it sounds as if you advocate using a soil-less growing medium, like in hydroponics.  Is that correct?  And if so why?
 
A.  If a person chooses to grow in containers – which we like to do in certain situations, such as where people have no soil, or very little space, or if their soil is toxic or so rocky that it can’t be worked – then we recommend a mix of clean materials such as sawdust, peatmoss, perlite, and sand. 
 
This eliminates problems so often caused by weed seeds, pests, and diseases that are many times found in natural soils.  Nutrition is provided by the two natural mineral nutrient mixes included in all the books and on the website.
 
In the large majority of situations, however, we suggest people grow in their existing soil.  We do not recommend soil amendments as an essential, or even important part of the gardening process, simply because most people cause more problems than they solve in adding “compost”, etc. to the soil.  The problems come from improper and/or incomplete composting of the materials, resulting in the same problems that exist in the soil itself, i.e. weeds, pests, and diseases being introduced into the garden.
 
If plant residues are composted properly, the core temperature of the material will be sustained at 140 degrees fahrenheit virtually full-time for about 3 weeks.  This kills all weed seeds, soil pests and pathogens, and the compost is safe and healthy for gardens.  For an example of this being done, read The ZooDoo Man article in this section of the website, which describes my 2-year experience making and selling “the world’s best compost” at Utah’s Hogle Zoo.
 
The nutrition we give the plants is the same, whether in the soil or in containers.  For this reason the Mittleider Method is sometimes called “the poor man’s hydroponic method”.  We feed the same because we have found that most soil is deficient in some or all of the 13 elements plants need from the soil, and for the family gardener it is much more efficient and cost effective to provide proper nutrition than to expend the time and money for soil tests, and then have to find, buy, and mix whatever elements are recommended. 
 
Doing this has never caused excess fertilizer problems for the soil or the plants, and our gardens have been found to be clean, healthy, and free of any toxicity wherever we have been.

To Add or Not to Add – Compost

Q.  I’ve been told to add lots of compost to my soil in the fall.  Is this important – or even a good idea?

A.  My raised beds, which we like to call Grow-Beds, or Soil-Beds, do not have any added compost.  We teach and demonstrate that you can have a great garden in any soil with no soil amendments, and it’s been proven in gardens all over the world.

HOWEVER, If you have materials that are clean and free of weeds, bugs, and diseases, it is a good idea to incorporate organic materials into your soil.  And before winter is the ideal time to do it, so they will have time to decompose thoroughly before you plant.  BUT NEVER PUT MATERIALS – COMPOSTED OR OTHERWISE – INTO YOUR GARDEN UNLESS THEY FIT THIS CRITERIA.  DOING SO WILL CAUSE YOU MANY MORE PROBLEMS THAN THE BENEFIT YOU WILL RECEIVE FROM IMPROVED SOIL TILTH AND MAYBE A LITTLE ADDED NUTRITION.

IF YOU ARE USING CONTAINERS, WHICH WE LIKE TO CALL GROW-BOXES DO NOT USE COMPOST OR SOIL AT ALL!!  Our experience has not been good with having people use their existing soil, especially mixed with compost, for filling their Grow-Boxes.  Aside from the problems of the soil itself, such as too much clay, etc., etc., often there are seeds, diseases and/or pests in the soil which are introduced into the mix.

In addition, compost is often an additional problem – with seeds, pests, and diseases from that source – since most people don’t know how or don’t take the trouble to compost with sufficient heat to kill those things.

It’s for these reasons that we always strongly encourage people to obtain clean, fresh materials such as sawdust, peatmoss, etc. and sand for their container gardens.

Pine Needles in the Garden

Q.  What do pine needles do?  We have many pine trees and an over abundance of pine needles.  They make nice coverings for the ground and keep in moisture (In Alabama that is important.), but do they make chemical changes in the soil?

A.  Pine needles are good for your garden!  They are best if you can chop them up finely – with a hammer mill, or perhaps several times through a chipper shredder.  And if you are thinking of growing your own seedlings, or would like to build and grow in Grow-Boxes, pine needles make a good substitute for sawdust, peatmoss, perlite, etc.

Jacob Mittleider has used them many, many times – always with good success.  He has even grown seedlings in STRAIGHT PINE NEEDLES, just to prove his point that they are not harmful.

 

 

Fall or Spring or Both – or Neither?

Q.  When should I prepare the soil in my garden?  What about tilling in the Fall versus the Spring?  And I’ve even heard you shouldn’t till at all because it makes the soil too fine and hurts the beneficial soil organisms.  Also, should I  “let the soil rest” before planting?  I’ve heard this is something I should do. 
 
A.  You may hear that the soil should be tilled in the fall, and then you can plant in the spring without tilling.  Also, some people will insist that a tiller is “bad for the soil structure” because it breaks up the soil particles too finely, and that you should only use a shovel, or plow, etc.  And some folks are avid “no-till” gardeners, believing you shouldn’t disturb the soil at all, with it’s layer of sod and beneficial soil organisms, but rather, just poke a hole for your new seed or seedling, and let it compete with the existing situation for survival.
 
Please consider the counsel of Dr. Mittleider as follows:
 
We have never been able to discover any harm to the soil from the action of a roto-tiller.  On the contrary, our experience has been that the better job that is done in breaking up the large soil particles into small ones, the better the soil is for new seeds and seedlings.
 
Tilling in the fall – either with a roto-tiller, shovel, tractor, or whatever means you have at your disposal – puts clean, healthy plant materials back into the ground where they can compost naturally through the winter.  That includes any weeds that have managed to survive your vigorous weeding efforts, thus preventing them from wintering over.  There are other benefits as well, including having the freeze-thaw cycles break up the clods and improve the soil tilth.
 
Failing to till again in the spring gives the weed seeds that are always in the ground, just waiting for favorable conditions to sprout, a substantial advantage over the vegetable seeds you are just planting.  The same holds true for preparing your beds and then waiting several days before planting.  Always prepare your soil beds immediately before planting, so that your vegetables have an even start with the weed seeds.
 
No-till farming has proven to be beneficial in certain situations, such as places where erosion can remove the topsoil.  And it works well in the grain fields of places like Montana (where the best wheat I’ve ever used is grown by Wheat Montana Farms using this method).  However we do not recommend it for your backyard garden, for several reasons – and since erosion is seldom a problem in that setting hopefully it won’t tempt you too much.