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

Sweet Peppers With Thin Walls

Q.  What is the problem when sweet bell peppers end up with thin walls and not with thick walls as shown on the seed packet and in the catalogs?
A.  You are seeing a nutrient deficiency.  What did you feed your plants?  Sometimes when people try to give their plants only organic fertilizers like compost and manure, the plants run out of food about the time they are trying to mature a crop.  This results in a single crop, instead of production continuing until late fall frosts, and often the fruit is less desirable as well.
If you will start by applying the Mittleider Pre-Plant natural mineral nutrient formula before planting – which contains calcium and other nutrients – and then after your plants are up apply Mittleider Weekly Feed formula, you will have healthy plants and beautiful, thick-walled and juicy fruit.
The formulas for both fertilizer mixes are free on the websiteat, in the Learn section, or you can buy them at in the Store section.  If shipping is a problem buy just the Micro-Nutrients and mix your own with the macro-nutrients you can buy locally.

Fertilizers qualify as organic? What about Mad Cow Disease?

Mittleider Gardens Organic? What about Mad Cow Disease!

Q. Does a Mittleider garden qualify as organic? Have any of his fertilizing formulas been approved for organic gardening use?

A. An “Organic Garden” is a difficult thing to pin down with precision, because some say nothing “Artificial” can be used, some say nothing “Synthetic” can be used, and some say no chemical pesticides nor herbicides can be used. Meanwhile, the USDA names every one of the nutrients in the Mittleider fertilizers as being acceptable for use in organic gardening. So, depending on your definition, I would say that a Mittleider garden is one of the best organic gardens I have ever seen.

I’ve never met an organic gardener who doesn’t use at least one of the three nitrogen fertilizers that are our primary source of that nutrient. I’m speaking of 21-0-0, 34-0-0, or 46-0-0. They do so both in the garden and especially in their composting, because virtually everyone agrees that composting organic materials ties-up the nitrogen, and if supplementation is not done, the plants really suffer.

And yet of all the 13 mineral nutrients that man can provide his plants, nitrogen is the one that is the most “artificial” or “synthetic”, since it is the result of a several-step scientific process.

Most of the other 12 nutrients we use are ground-up rocks! However some organic “purists” will refuse to use them as “bad”, and instead use blood and bone meal, or hoof and horn meal, etc., which it is now being reported could be infected with the worst disease known to man – the incurable Mad Cow Disease.

We are very happy with the results we get by using natural mineral nutrients, and by using clean, healthy plant residues wherever and whenever we can do so.

What fertilizer formula do I use? Every book is different.

As Dr. Mittleider’s experience and knowledge grew the formulas changed. The latest formulas are on the internet site and in The Mittleider Gardening Course, so use those. However, rather than searching all over for materials, you can get the micro-nutrients pre-mixed from us here, if you choose, and then mix them with something like 16-16-16 plus Epsom Salt (I give you the amounts and instructions with the Micro’s) for a close second choice.