Sustainable Gardening Basics – Soil-Bed and Container Sizes

In getting started with your sustainable garden it’s important you choose the right sizes for the beds or boxes in which you’ll grow your plants.   Spacing your plants within your beds is just as important, and we’ll discuss that another time.  For today I’ll explain why you will want to plant in soil-beds or containers of 18″ wide, or  4′ wide.

There are important production and efficiency-related reasons for these sizes.  Do not make the mistake of thinking any size is just fine, or you will discover that you are not getting the yields you expected.  Remember, the “poor man’s hydroponic system” Mittleider Method is a recipe!

Widths narrower than 18″ put most plant rows too close together when planting two rows.  They also crowd the roots in some larger crop varieties.  There’s less available water, which can lead to water stress, and the soil mix in the boxes can dry out faster in hot weather, making it even worse.

Widths wider than 18″ make watering and feeding more difficult and less efficient.  For example, placing fertilizers down the center of a box or bed that’s 22″ wide will leave young plants hungry, because their roots haven’t spread far enough to find the food.  Applying two bands of fertilizer doubles the work and may still not solve the problem, depending on how well the watering system dissolves and distributes the fertilizers.  Also, the water will not reach young plants’ roots as well, and they will suffer from lack of moisture.

Even the size for the 4′-wide beds or boxes has been worked out for maximum yield and efficiency.  This size allows for planting 4 rows of most plants, and two rows of vertically-grown varieties.  Some folks mistakenly think they can get by with a 3′-wide box, and they pay heavily in lost yield, unless they’re planting carrots or onions.  The reason is that most crop varieties need the 2 feet of space between the inside rows for light and air.   Always plan for the space your plants will need when they’re mature!

The 5′-wide boxes demonstrated in Jacob’s first book, Grow-Box Gardens, are no longer recommended for several reasons.  First, it’s difficult to reach into the center of the box. Second, efficiency requires planting across – rather than lengthwise in the bed – and then watering becomes a problem.  Watering must be done by hand, since the automated watering system doesn’t work well for planting across the width of the bed.

Remember also that aisle widths are important!  We recommend 3 1/2′ widths – especially for soil-beds.  You can do alright with 3′-wide aisles if you prune properly and continuously.  Aisles less than 3′ usually do not provide sufficient light and air for large crop varieties, and thus reduce yields.  It’s also difficult to get equipment down narrower aisles.

The container depth of 8″ works very well – especially if plants can send their roots down into the native soil.  For a patio planter with a bottom – or if planting on cement, etc. a deeper box can be good, to give more room for root growth and to avoid overheating in warm weather.  Remember, however, that a deeper box takes more material to fill, which adds to your expense.  It also requires more water, and keeping the soil mixture moist is critical to your success.  And finally, the fertilizers are distributed throughout a greater volume of soil-mix, so young roots have to search for them.

Benefits to having a deeper box include aesthetics, if you’re using your Grow-Boxes in a landscaping scheme.  It also makes it easier for folks who have difficulty bending over to work near the ground.  Some people have successfully used Grow-Boxes as deep as 2 to 3 feet.

Once again, remember that the 8″ depth is least costly to build and fill, and is most efficient for watering and feeding, and then govern yourselves accordingly.  For more details, illustrations, and lots of pictures, check out the Mittleider gardening books at www.foodforeveryone.org

Growing and Maintaining a Sustainable Garden

Having a sustainable garden means very different things to different people. Some folks are led to believe that a sustainable garden must use only organic materials, because someday the commercially-available mineral nutrients may not be available. To me this sounds somewhat like the suggestion that we should all ride bicycles because someday gasoline may not be available.

I suggest that a sustainable garden means one that can be used productively over an extended period of time, and would necessarily involve several elements, including the following:

  1. Growing food you want to eat, so you are motivated to continue growing,
  2. Growing economically, so that it is worthwhile doing, and
  3. Taking care of environmental issues, so that the ground will continue to support growing healthy crops.

You can grow a sustainable garden using organic gardening, container gardening, hydroponic gardening, or soil-bed gardening.  The Mittleider method encompasses them all. 

Growing Food You Want to Eat  The plants to be grown should be chosen primarily on what your family wants to eat, and what will grow in your locale.  The Garden master CD, available at www.growfood.com in the Store section, has an excellent vegetable database, which will give you all you need to know about which vegi’s you should plant, as well as when and where to plant them, and how much you can expect to harvest.  I could take this whole article to rave about the GM CD, but you can look that up in the Software category.

After that, consideration might be given to using heirloom seed rather than hybrid, if you are very concerned about losing the ability to replace seed each year from commercial sources. Growing for seed is easy if you’re growing heirloom corn or tomatoes, but very difficult and time-consuming if you’re wanting non-fruiting vegetables like onions, carrots, lettuce, etc.

An easy and inexpensive alternative to trying to harvest your own seeds is to buy the Garden-In-A-Can.  This is a #10 can full of 15 varieties of triple-sealed heirloom seed, available at www.growfood.com.  Storing it in a cool dry place will maintain a high germination percentage for up to ten years, and makes me grin (because I don’t have to do it) every time I think of the folks trying to grow for seed in their own backyard.

Growing Productively and Economically

Using the best-known growing practices will assure you the greatest yield of healthy vegetables from the smallest space, and with the least amount of labor and financial inputs per unit of production. By doing this a family can be self sufficient in their food requirements from proper gardening of a small fraction of an acre. I promise those we teach that they will have twice the yield on only 25% of the space they’ve used traditionally.

This is the greatest evidence of success in achieving a sustainable garden. Good examples of excellent, high-yield gardening methods that have been proven effective worldwide are found in the gardening books and CD’s at www.foodforeveryone.org. And many pictures of successful gardens using these methods can be seen at the free gardening group MittleiderMethodGardening@yahoogroups.com.

Caring for the environment

Gardening should always be done without injuring the land, but rather should improve the land, so that it will continue to support healthy plants indefinitely. Therefore, pesticides and herbicides should be used very judiciously, and only in extreme need.

Wherever possible these issues should be handled by cultural practices, such as those taught by Dr. Jacob R. Mittleider in the Mittleider Gardening Course and other books, CD’s and software at www.growfood.com as follows:

  1. Eliminate all weeds from the garden area before planting and during the growing season. If not weeds will steal most of the water and nutrients from your crops.
  2. Prepare the growing area to be ideal for plant growth, but inhospitable to bugs and diseases.
  3. Water only the plants’ root zone.  This saves over 1/2 the water usually used.
  4. Begin plants in a protected environment for a fast, healthy and strong start.
  5. Feed plants balanced natural mineral nutrients to assure fast and healthy growth.
  6. Harvest all plants at maturity to avoid allowing pests and diseases to multiply.
  7. Discard any bug or disease infested plant parts away from the garden, and incorporate healthy plant parts into the soil to improve soil structure.

Following these sustainable gardening procedures will assure your family a great yield of healthy vegetables, give tremendous satisfaction, and even give you pleasure for many years to come.

Sustainable Gardening – With Fertilizers?

Q. The Mittleider Gardening Method seems to be based on the availability of modern day fertilizers. Understanding that current day fertilizers may not be available in the future, how viable is this system for ongoing sustainability?
 
A.  First off, the Mittleider Method is NOT dependent on commercial fertilizers for viability – see the third paragraph.  The reality for over 40 years, however, is that everywhere we have been – including several countries in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, and 25 others – fertilizers have always been available.
 
Using modern day fertilizers judiciously increases a family’s gardening yield many times – sometimes as much as 10 times what they were growing without them.  This is what has allowed America to change from 1 person feeding 4 or 5 to 1 person feeding 100.  So why would we NOT use them??  And why would we not want to teach people in the developing countries to use them – unless perhaps we WANT them to stay in the 19th century?
 
We strongly recommend people obtain enough fertilizers and seed (a #10 can of 15 varieties of heirloom seeds are available at www.growfood.com) for at least one extra year’s garden.  Fertilizer stores almost indefinitely without losing its value, and costs very little, compared to the yield it produces.  Small storable packages of micro-nutrients are also available at www.growfood.com.
 
If fertilizers were ever to become unavailable it would be because the market system had collapsed, and everything would indeed be fouled up.  In that event, using the methods we teach and using manure, compost, or even human waste, if that was all that was available – as “Manure Tea” as described in several places – the Mittleider gardener will still grow 2-4 times as much as his neighbor.
 
Gas may also become unavailable.  Perhaps some folks would advocate selling your car and walking right now, because automobile travel really isn’t sustainable in the long run.  And gas is much more difficult and costly to store than fertilizer.  Is that analogy too strong?  Sorry if I offend anyone, but let’s all use wisely the best that we have available, and prepare calmly for the future. “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.”