Growing Strawberries in Grow-Boxes

Q.  How do strawberries do in the 18″ sawdust rows?  And how is the fertilizer regulated? 

A.  Growing strawberries in the Grow-Boxes can be very rewarding and successful.  With no weeds to compete with them, and make it difficult for you as the grower, they do very well.

As the runners leave the box and begin to root in the ground surrounding the box you need to cut them off, or they will very soon be in your aisles.

Fertilizing depends on the variety you are growing.  If you are growing a single-crop variety you will only need to fertilize 3 or 4 times the first year, and 3 times after that.

ever-bearing, or two-crop varieties will need more feeding.  Just remember that you don’t feed after the blossoms appear, unless it is a true ever-bearing crop that just “keeps on giving”, and then you stop 8 weeks before the first frost.

Undissolved Fertilizers, Placement, Frequency, Amounts, Avoiding Damage to Plants

Q.  I applied the dry fertilizer/micro nutrient mix by hand.  I did notice that there
seems to always be undissolved fertilizer, even after several waterings. This didn’t seem to bother the more mature plants, but I’m wondering if it could “burn” the younger plants, and also wondering if I should modify the fertilizer routine for the younger plants.

A.  The Weekly Feed Mix is about 45% actual mineral salts, and the other 55% of the material is NOT fertilizer, but just filler material. The only time you would not see residue is if you were to purchase the expensive totally water-soluble fertilizers that the hydroponic growers use in the greenhouse.

Therefore, what you are seeing as residue on the surface of the soil after a few days of watering is not fertilizer and will not harm your plants.

Do not modify the feeding routine for smaller plants.  Sixty years of experience and millions of lab (garden) experiments have established the importance of the fertilizer formula, the amounts, and the frequency of feeding.

What happens is that the fertilizer dissolves, then some of it quickly adheres to the soil particles and becomes “fixed” or unavailable to the plants.  This is particularly true of phosphate and potash.  Over time, those adhered particles are released and once again become available, and meanwhile the continued application of fertilizers each week feeds the plant.  When you stop applying fertilizers, there is a residual effect, and the plant continues to receive the benefit of the previous build-up for a few weeks.

Fertilizer will not burn or harm your small plants if used properly. It is supposed to be placed in the center of the bed between two rows of plants, and so will be several inches distant from plant stems.

Leaves should not come in contact with the fertilizer, because you should always be pruning any leaves that touch the ground.

Natural Fertilizers Preferred

Q.  I am curious if there are any Mittleider Method materials that have been adapted for organic vegetable production.  I have grown vegetables for many years and prefer avoiding soluble commercial fertilizers.

A.  We do not use soluble fertilizers, such as Miracle Gro, but prefer to use the simpler, more natural compounds.  All of the materials we use and recommend have been approved by the USDA for use in organic gardening.

We know exactly what we are feeding our plants, whereas organic growers often find themselves not knowing what they have, especially with the micro-nutrients.

Our experience around the world has also taught us that manure and compost often contain weed seeds and diseases, and sometimes even bugs.  We get great yields for an entire growing season while some of our organic neighbors watch their gardens stop producing in July and August.

If you are skeptical, I recommend you plant some of your garden using each  method separately, and compare the results.

Growing in Pots – How Much Fertilizer to Use

Some of you who grow in containers may want to grow in pots of different sizes, and will need to know how much Pre-Plant and Weekly Feed natural mineral nutrients to use. 
 
Starting from the basics:  Dr. Mittleider tells us to mix 1 1/2 ounce (3 tablespoons, or 9 teaspoons) of Pre-Plant into the soil of an 18″ X 18″ X 2 3/4″ square flat, and 1/2 that amount of Weekly Feed.  All of this before planting seed or seedlings.  Let’s do the math and see how much soil we have, then we can translate it into other size containers.  18 X 18 X 2.75 = 891 cubic inches.  With 1728 cubic inches in 1 cubic foot, we have .5156 cubic feet of material in an 18″ square flat.  We will round to 1/2 cubic foot.
 
Suppose you have a 6″ round pot that’s 6″ deep, and want to know how much to use.  Multiply pi X radius squared X height, or 3.14156 X 9 X 6 = 169.64.  Divide by 1728, and you have .098, or 1/10th of a cubic foot.
 
Since you will apply 9 teaspoons of Pre-Plant to 1/2 cubic foot of material, you would apply 2 scant teaspoons to the soil in your 6″ pot.  Plus, you apply 1 scant teaspoon of Weekly Feed.
 
For on-going feeding of the plants in your pot, you either water with the Constant Feed solution of 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) in 3 gallons of water, or you can sprinkle 1 scant teaspoon of WF on the surface and water it in.
 
Now suppose your pot is 6″ square, instead of round.  Multiply 6 X 6 X 6 = 216 cu in.  Divide by 1728 = .125, or 1/8th of a cubic foot.  Nine is to .5 as X (the unknown) is to .125 = 2.25.  So you apply 2 1/4 teaspoons of Pre-Plant and 1 1/8 teaspoons of Weekly Feed to a 6″ square pot of soil mix.  Did everyone follow that?  Probably not, but if you will follow those simple formulas you can know how much PP and WF fertilizers to apply to any size container you might be using.
 
Isn’t it nice to know what you’re doing, and be able to eliminate some of the unknowns in the gardening equation?  For an excellent book on growing in containers get Gardening By The Foot (NOT Square Foot Gardening) by Jacob Mittleider, available at www.growfood.com.
 

P.S. The Mittleider Gardening books and Manuals teach all you need to know about this subject, and can be purchased in the Store section, or as digital downloads. 

A digital copy costs 30-40% less, and is available instantly!  I HIGHLY recommend you look here https://https://www.howtoorganicgarden.com/products_pdfs.htm for the best gardening books available anywhere!  Get one NOW and be gardening TODAY

Do Commercial Fertilizers Harm Soil Microbes or Make Nutrients Unavailable to Plants?

Q.  It is my understanding the microbes found in organic compost materials is what packages the nutrients for the plants. Sort of like the good bacteria that your body needs to maintian the right balance in the blood stream. I also understand that synthetically produced fertilizers will kill these microbes. This is the difference between a naturally packaged fertilizer and a synthetically produced one.  How can man’s synthesis be better for the plants than the Earth’s Natural processes?  When compared on other subjects, man’s synthetics cannot always produce safe results.

A.  What you’re describing, I would suggest, includes some hyperbole being spread by organic promoters.

Reality is somewhat different.  Nature provided us with large rock deposits containing one or more of the 13 essential plant nutrients, in many places around the earth.  In the past 100 or so years man has discovered these deposits, learned how to use them properly, and how to mine them.  In the mining process other elements are removed, including heavy metals, and sometimes the essential minerals are concentrated.  It is important to understand that the concentration process applied to natural minerals from rocks does not make the material “synthetically” produced, nor does it make it unsafe or harmful to microbes, plants, or humans.
 
The above described process is what has allowed our farmers to feed 250 million of us and allow us to do other things with our time (1 feeds 100), rather than slaving on the farm as our grandfathers did, using manure (organics) as our only fertilizer source (1 fed 4 or 5). 
 
Please remember that 90-95% of our food is produced using modern equipment and these same natural mineral nutrients from commercially produced fertilizers.
 
It is important to distinguish between potential problems associated with the mis-use and/or over-application of pesticides and herbicides, and the valuable, safe, and highly productive use of natural mineral nutrients, usually referred to as commercial fertilizers.

Plants Not Growing – Being Detective to Find Out Why

Q.  I am writing in regard to some problems with the container “Grow-Box” method we are experimenting with here in southern Mexico. 

We built the box, mixed 3/4 sawdust and 1/4th sand, as well as adding the calcium and the fertilizer pre-mix before planting. 

At planting we added the first week’s fertilizer mixture and watered. 
 
We are experiencing problems with all our plants.  They just don’t look good at all.   The squash started good but then the older leaves seem to die prematurely.  
 
The female squash at flowering have the fungus that causes blossom end rot and many of the female flowers never reach the stage of opening up at all.  They start to get pale looking and shrivel up and die before they open. 
 
Our lettuce looks weak and isn’t growing well. It has good color but just seems to sit there and doesn’t grow.  We also planted green tomatoes that are not growing well.  They just seem to grow very slowly.  The Swiss chard is not growing as I had hoped it would either.
 
We have moisture and the plants have not wilted.  I don’t think there is too much water.  Other than the fungal problem on the squash we have had very little insect problem.  
 
Jim Wagoner, IMB Missionary to Oaxaca Mexico
 
A.  Let’s look at each element of the equation, to determine what is missing.

 
What are the materials being used – what kind of sawdust, and what kind of sand?  Is it new sawdust, or has it been used for something else before?  It can be new, but should not have been used for growing before.  Also, it should not be from walnut trees.
 
The program calls for mixing 2# of Pre-Plant mix PLUS 1# of Weekly Feed mix into the soil of an 18″ X30′ bed or box before planting.  Did you apply both, including Weekly Feed?  And are those the amounts you used?
 
You say you put Weekly Feed in when you planted – first of all is the Weekly Feed formula accurate?  Secondly, were you planting seed or seedlings?  When planting seed, you do not put any more fertilizer down until the plants are showing – then you feed 1# per 30′ bed.  Fertilizer applied at planting of seed, if it’s close to the sprouting seed, can kill the new seedling, or severly stunt its growth. 
 
When planting seedlings, we recommend applying 1/2# of 34-0-0 or other nitrate to a 30′-long bed immediately after transplanting, watering that in, and then starting the Weekly Feed regimen 3 days later.  Did you do that?
 
It is VERY rare to have a fungus disease in new sawdust/sand mix, unless it came with transplanted seedlings.  NEVER use seedlings grown by someone else!  If you’ve got it, you’ll have problems for sure. 
 
The problem is more likely caused by failure to be pollinated by the male flower, by stress, or lack of direct sunlight, water or nutrients.  A plant in stress will abort new fruit in order to try and stay alive.  Blossom-end rot is a classic example of stress due to uneven watering or lack of nutrients, such as calcium. 
 
If the leaves look healthy it’s very possible the squash problem is lack of pollination.  For squash plants, take a male blossom, tear off the petals, exposing the anther, and pollinate female flowers, by lightly touching the pistil.  Do this in the morning between 7:30 and 9:00, and only do it with blossoms that are wide open, as they are the only ones that are fertile.
 
How close to the plants are you applying the fertilizers?  And how are you watering?  Remember that sawdust and sand will allow the water to go almost straight down. 
 
Sometimes people apply the fertilizers 6″+ away from the stems of the plants, and the tiny roots never see any food, because it is washed down and out of the root zone, rather than flooding the root zone with nutrients, as should be done. 
 
Do you have full and direct sunshine all day long?  This is essential!  And are you really watering thoroughly?  You should see water coming out from the bottom of the box before you stop.  Remember, it’s almost impossible to water too much, but very easy to water too little.
 
Plants that are “just sitting there” and not growing vigorously are either sitting in the shade, where they don’t get direct sunlight for 8-12 hours each day as they need, or most likely they are lacking nutrients or water, or both.  Let’s get specific and see which of those three is in short supply.
 
By accurately following the illustrations and instructions in just one of Dr. Jacob Mittleider’s vegetable gardening books, such as Grow-Bed Gardening (available at www.growfood.com), you can avoid these problems and have a trouble-free and successful garden.

 

Will Sawdust & Peatmoss Decompose and Disappear?

Q. I was looking for a fertilizer substitute in my country (tropical), and I mentioned I was trying to grow in sand+sawdust mix. The person I talked to mentioned that the sawdust will decompose with time, leaving me with only sand.  I recall reading on your website that the planting mediums do not require to be replaced, but what he said made sense.  What are your experiences with this?

A. Organic materials will, indeed, decompose over time, and become less useful.  They do not disapear altogether, but you will need to supplement them occasionally.  Sawdust is slower to decompose, and thus useful for a longer time than peatmoss.  And perlite – if you can get it – lasts a very long time.  Coconut husks last well, but rice hulls decompose rather fast.

Dr. Mittleider has had the same Grow-Boxes in his backyard garden for over 25 years, and has never replaced the materials, to my knowledge. He has supplemented whenever necessary.  When we say the materials don’t need to be replaced, we mean that so long as there is no disease present, you can continue to use them – supplementing as necessary to keep the box full of soil mix.

Also, in a tropical country, organic materials will decompose faster than they do in colder climates, because not much decomposition happens when materials are frozen.

Invite Spring Early – Grow in Your Basement

Winter’s the time to get ready to grow your own seedlings!  It’s not really difficult, and can extend your growing season by many weeks.  For example, by planting brassica’s (cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower) in February in your basement under grow-lights, you can put large, sturdy transplants into your garden by the end of March or early April, and be eating them when others are just seeing them come up!  Great growing instructions can be found in the book Let’s Grow Tomatoes, a part of the Mittleider Gardening Library CD, and available at www.growfood.com.

Remember that photosynthesis, using light, heat and moisture causes plant growth.  Therefore you must follow a few key natural principles very carefully, or you will be disappointed.

First, seeds must have moisture to germinate and grow.  And the soil mix must be moist, but not soggy, or you’ll drown the new plant, since it must also have oxygen!

Second, while heat is essential, temperatures must be maintained in a narrow range for ideal germination to occur.  Most vegetable seeds germinate quickly between 75 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  After plants are up, many of them will grow in cooler temperatures, but most all will become dormant (stop growing) at temperatures below 50 degrees.

Third, light is not necessary for seed germination, but as soon as your seedlings begin to emerge from the soil, maximum light is required immediately for proper development. Therefore, to grow in your house, make sure your plants have a strong (but not hot!) light source directly on the plants, for up to 16 hours per day.  Note the pictures of two grow-light shelves.  The metal one is 6-shelf Commercial Chrome Shelving, from Sam’s Club costing only $70, and will hold 20 flats of plants.  Suspend shop lights with 2 cool and 2 warm 40-watt tubes 4 to 6″ above the plants.

The fourth principle relates to feeding.  A balanced nutrient mix of 13 minerals is essential to plants immediately after germination.  Those nutrients are mineral salts and must be very dilute in the soil moisture, otherwise osmosis will cause the salt to draw the life-giving moisture out of the plants, and they will die.  To ensure you never burn your plants, water seedlings daily using the “Constant Feed Solution” of one ounce (2 level tablespoons) of Weekly Feed dissolved in 3 gallons of water.  For the Weekly Feed formula, go to the Learn section at www.foodforeveryone.org, and look on the Fertilizer page.

Next, it is important to separate your small plants before their leaves begin to overlap with others’, or the tiny stems will become very weak and spindly as the plants all stretch – looking for more light.  By the time the plants have their first or second true leaf this step should be completed.  Failure to act for even a few hours can result in spindly, weak plants, which never recover.  Transplanting seedlings into 2″ 6-paks or pots will provide adequate space for them to grow an additional 2-3 weeks, depending on variety.  If it’s still too early to put them out into the garden by the time plant leaves are again beginning to overlap, prune the leaves, transplant again into larger pots, or separate pots, so the plant leaves always have maximum light.

Before transplanting into the garden, “harden-off” your plants outside, off the ground for 2 to3 days, to acclimate them to direct sunlight, temperature, wind, etc.  This is important so the plant doesn’t have the shock of a new environment added to the shock to its root system caused by transplanting.  If the weather turns cold at night, bring the plants back in the house.  The temperature adjustment needs to be gradual.

For many of your plants, the pruning process does double duty.  In addition to assuring maximum light, it shocks the plant mildly, causing it to pause in its growth and produce a thicker, sturdier stem. This process makes the plant much better able to endure the vicissitudes of the outside environment, such as cutworms, ants, etc. that often quickly decimate plants with weak, spindly stems.

For tall-growing plants, like tomatoes, be sure to provide small stakes tied to the plant stem, to prevent them from falling over.  And with tomatoes, begin immediately to remove all sucker stems as soon as possible, to assure a single, strong stem and maximum production from your plant.

Adding Nitrogen to Your Soil Naturally – Nodulation on Plant Roots

Q.  I’ve been told I should inoculate my bean seeds. Why should I do this, and how do I do it?  Does alfalfa need it?  Any others?

A.  Why Use Rhizobia Inoculants? Rhizobia bacteria are a group of soil based microorganisms, which establish symbiotic relationships with beans and other legume plants, such as alfalfa and clover. They then form nodules on the roots of the legumes, where they store nitrogen and provide it to the plants. In return, the plants provide carbon and energy for the Rhizobia, which the plant produces by photosynthesis.  Nitrogen is vital for plant growth.  It is abundant in the atmosphere as N2, and in soil organic matter in other forms, but because of its volatility, it is not available in the NO3 form that plants can use.

Conventional methods of providing nitrogen to plants include 1) adding nitrogen fertilizers to the soil, or 2) inoculating with the Rhizobia nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Rhizobia then take N2 atmospheric nitrogen and convert it to the NO3 inorganic form that is useable by plants. In addition, the nitrogen they store in nodules on the plant roots, if the roots are left in the ground, can reduce nitrogen fertilizer requirements for the next growing season. 

Therefore, before planting, some gardeners “inoculate” their bean seeds.  This consists of coating the seeds with a small amount of powder containing the Rhizobia bacteria, thus effectively enabling the plants to draw nitrogen from the air and deposit it in nodules on their roots. This ability to “fix” nitrogen is unique to plants in the legume family, because of the symbiotic relationship with Rhizobia bacteria. 

Inoculants only need to be used in poor soils that don’t have much soil nitrogen for plants to use. In fertile soil, the bacteria occur naturally, so inoculants are not needed. The inoculant comes in small packages, it is usually available where you buy your seeds, and it takes very little to do the job.Immediately before planting, put the bean seeds in a pan and add a little water to moisten them. Then add a small amount of inoculant, and stir the beans with a stick until they have a little powder on their seed coats.

To gain the maximum benefit from inoculating your been seeds, spade or till disease-free bean plants into the earth immediately after the last harvest. This adds organic matter to the soil and releases the nitrogen from the root nodules as well.   Always destroy all diseased plants immediately. 

Some people mistakenly believe planting beans and corn together is good, because the beans can climb the corn stalks, and the corn can get nitrogen from the beans.  This is not a good idea for several reasons.  The two plants are competing for the same water, food (13 nutrients are needed!), and light, and both will suffer for having to share.  In addition, the nitrogen in the bean root nodules is “fixed” and unavailable to the corn. It is only released to the soil after the bean plant has completed its life cycle.

Some Veggies in my Grow-Boxes look pale

Q.  Some veggies in my Grow-Boxes look pale. These were transplanted on 4/15/ and fertilized with 21-0-0 three days later. Other than that I have been doing the weekly fertilizing. Can you let me know how to help them. One of the cucumbers died already, the rest look pale and wilted.

A.  Cucumbers and other melons and squash should not be planted until the weather is warmer – after May 15, in Salt Lake City. They do not do well in early spring.  Nitrogen should be applied immediately at the time of transplanting, and three days later Weekly Feed should be applied.  21-0-0 is not nearly as good as 34-0-0, especially in cool weather, because of the composition (NH4 vs NH3). NO3 is immediately available to the plants, while NH4 must be changed to NO3 in the soil before the plant can use it.  Did you put the proper Pre-Plant fertilizers in the soil before planting?  Fertilizing should begin after the plants come through the soil, however you must be careful not to get the fertilizer on the plant stems or leaves.  Fertilizers are salts, and will burn any plant if applied directly.  Apply four inches from the stems and then water in thoroughly.