Can a Mittleider Garden Be Organic?

Q.  Can a Mittleider Garden Be Organic?

A.  In response to a woman who is growing a 1-acre organic garden in California, I wrote the following.  I’ve enumerated a few of the principles and procedures which make the Mittleider Method unique – and better than most others.

Many have referred to the  Mittleider Method as “better than organic” because most of our gardens can qualify as organic (once in a while growers in hot countries have to use pesticides or lose their whole crop).

The reasons they may be better than organic include, but are not limited to:

1) because we leave nothing to chance, but apply small amounts of natural mineral nutrients to assure fast, healthy growth.  This also helps our plants ward off pests and diseases that will often take less healthy plants.

2) We encourage growing healthy seedlings in a clean, warm environment, which gives the plants a major head-start and avoids much of the problems encountered upon germination and emergence – with cold soil, hungry bugs, damping-off, etc.

3) We water only the root zones, thus not encouraging pest and disease proliferation caused by sprinkling or flooding.

4) We prune any leaves touching the cround to minimize disease and pest infestations from that common source.

5) We allow no weeds – nor encourage putting mulch, etc. on the bround – since both of these harbor pests and diseases.

6) Since our plants grow very fast and reach maturity quicker than typical gardens, the diseases and pests have less chance to take over. 

7) Then we harvest and remove a crop immediately at maturity, to avoid the buildup of pests and diseases that occur when people leave their crop too long in the garden (all too common in homegardens).

With these preventative cultural practices, plus fast healthy griowth, Mittleider Method gardens have much less need to use pesticides or herbicides anyway.

Which material is best for building Grow-Boxes? And what about gravel in the aisles?

Q. I was telling my husband I needed 8″ Redwood or Cedar for the grow boxes and he asked if it wouldn’t be better to use “Trex” as that doesn’t seem to ever wear out.  Is there a reason to NOT use Trex?  (web site about Trex https://www.trex.com/)  Is there an advantage with Redwood/Cedar that is not there with Trex?

Also, we are getting dirt to put under the boxes and level the area.  They tell me it would be much less expensive to get crusher tailings (rather than topsoil).  Would this be just as fine since I’m putting grow boxes on top or should I get top soil since the roots may go down into the dirt?

A.  Redwood and cedar are good for Grow-Boxes because they last a long time, and do not deteriorate like pine.  However, they are expensive, and it costs much less to use pine and paint it, or even to use treated lumber.  Trex looks great, and will last indefinitely, but I suspect it is very expensive.  We encourage people to do things without incurring any more expense than necessary, so I probably wouldn’t recommend Trex for that reason.

 
Anything you put down on your soil will be there a LONG TIME.  Unless you want to deal with crusher tailings forever, I wouldn’t put them there.  Paying for topsoil isn’t necessary, however.  I would get any clean fill-dirt that’s available.  On the same subject, sometimes folks want to put gravel or wood chips in the aisles.  Unless you get a lot of rain and your aisles would be muddy most of the time, I recommend you leave them alone.  Just do the nominal amount of weeding it requires to keep them clean, and with no watering, they remain dry, clean, and pleasant.  Gravel, wood chips, etc., can be a real pain to push tillers, wheelbarrows, etc. through, and even walking isn’t as nice as on clean, hard, dry dirt.

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.

Why don’t my plants grow well??

Q.  It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of soil, soil amendments, or fertilizer I add to my grow boxes, my produce is consistently miniscule and non-productive.  When I dig up the soil, the boxes are full of tiny fibrous roots.  There are several very large trees next door-20-30 feet away from my garden area.  Could it be that these roots are from the trees and are sapping all the nutrients from my garden?  What can I do?
 
A.  There may be several reasons, either individually or acting in concert, that are causing your crop failures.  Let’s investigate each potential problem.

 

1)  Trees nearby may indicate too much shade.  Are your plants getting at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day?  If not, you will not get much produce. 8-10 hours is better – especially for plants which produce flowers and fruit. 

 

2)  What is the soil composition, and what are you feeding your plants?  We recommend sawdust, peatmoss, perlite, and sand – in any combination you like, but with the sand being 25%-35% by volume.  That has no nutrition, so you need to feed your plants regularly.  One application of calcium as lime in a Pre-Plant Mix and regular small applications of a complete, balanced natural mineral nutrient mix we call Weekly Feed, will assure healthy, robust plants.

 

3)  How often do you water?  a raised bed or container will drain faster than ground-level soil, especially if you have lightweight organic materials as a major component.  Daily watering, until water seeps out the sides at the bottom is important to assure adequate moisture to the plants.

 

4)  If all the other elements are properly taken care of, it would take an awful lot of tree roots to keep your plants from growing, but it is possible.  Dig a shovel-width trench the length of your containers, between them and the trees, at least one foot deep.  This should cut most of the tree roots that have ventured that far.

 

5)  Are the trees walnuts?  Walnut trees have a reputation for producing a substance which is toxic to some vegetable plants.  Tomatoes do not do well at all near walnut trees.  If they are walnuts, you may well have that problem.

Organic Fertilizing and Nitrogen Deficiency

Organic Fertilizing & Nitrogen Deficiency

Q. Sometimes I have seen gardens with compost and manure as the fertilizer of choice become very yellow. What causes this, and how do I avoid that happening to my garden?

A. What you have seen is “Induced Nitrogen Deficiency.” Soil amendments, including straw, tree bark, shavings or sawdust, peat moss, and manure (almost always containing a large percentage of bedding straw or sawdust) can induce a nitrogen deficiency on plants. The reason is that these materials are very high in carbon content, and therefore adding them into the soil raises the carbon to nitrogen ratio.

The carbon to nitrogen ratio is the amount of carbon in relation to the amount of nitrogen in the soil. This ratio should be 10:1 or lower. When the soil has ten parts of carbon, it should have at least one part of nitrogen or the plants will not be able to obtain the nitrogen they need. When carbonatious soil amendments are added, the amount of carbon is raised in relation to nitrogen. Micro-organisms in the soil attempt to break down the carbonatious material and in this process they use some of the nitrogen from the soil, making the ratio even worse. The micro-organisms have the ability to take the nitrogen before the plant can, so oftentimes adding soil amendments induces a nitrogen deficiency for the plant population. Therefore, whenever soil amendments are used, it is important to add some nitrogen, to bring the carbon to nitrogen ratio back to a ten to one, so that both the plant and the micro-organisms requirements are satisfied.

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.

How to Grow the Healthiest Vegetables

Q.  I want to grow the healthiest vegetables possible. Isn’t organic gardening healthier than the Mittleider Method – tell me the truth!

A.  This is a very good question and it deserves a straight answer. I will therefore tell you some very important things about plant nutrition. First of all, plants receive nutrition only as water- soluble mineral compounds, through their roots. When we put compost or manure, etc. into the soil, the organic material must first decompose, and the nutrient compounds must revert to water-soluble minerals before the next generation of plants can use them. This takes time, and sometimes as much as half of the nutrients are lost in the process.

Secondly, there is no difference between organic, mineral, and chemical nutrients.  Everything in this world is a chemical!!  To the chemist everything in the soil is called chemicals, to a geologist they are called minerals, and to an organic enthusiast they are called organics, but they are the same substances.  To quote J. I. Rodale, “we organic gardeners have let our enthusiasm run away with us. We have said that the nitrogen which is in organic matter is different (and thus somehow better) from nitrogen in a commercial fertilizer. But this is not so.” And “actually there is no difference between the nitrogen in a chemical fertilizer and the nitrogen in a leaf.” (Organic Gardening)

Thirdly, there is no difference between soil and rocks except for the size of the particles, and 12 of the 13 mineral nutrients plants require are essentially ground-up rocks! There is really nothing “synthetic” about them.  So, you see there is no difference between “organic nitrogen”, mineral nitrogen and chemical nitrogen – except the nitrogen that is part of an organic substance must decompose and revert to the water-soluble mineral state before being available to plants.

This being the case, what should we do to assure we have the best garden and the healthiest plants possible? Give the plants the best combination of nutrition we possibly can.  Remember that 99% of us depend on 1% to feed us, and the big growers feed their crops! The big fertilizer companies use formulas similar to Dr. Mittleider’s and call them “The preferred horticultural mix.” Just check out Scott’s Peter’s Professional Pete Lite as an example.

Now, this is not to say that organic materials don’t have a place in the garden. You can improve soil texture and tilth by adding materials that have desirable characteristics.  However, improving the soil in that way is not necessary to having a good garden, and people often introduce weeds, rodents, bugs, and diseases into their gardens, or provide a haven for them with their organic mulching practices. It is for this reason that we do not emphasize and encourage composting and manure. 

Mittleider gardens qualify as “organic” because we don’t use pesticides or herbicides.  However, I suggest they are even “better than organic”, because the plants receive just what they need, they grow fast, and we almost never have insect or disease problems because they aren’t in the ground long enough for the pests to get established.

Growing Commercially – Mittleider VS Hydroponics

Q.  We want to go into gardening commercially, and hydroponic greenhouse growing has been recommended.  How is your Method similar or better for us than going hydroponic?

A.  Before you spend any money on Hydroponic buildings and equipment you need to learn about the Mittleider Method, for sure! Building a Mittleider-style greenhouse will save you many thousands of dollars in the building of it and many thousands more in operating costs.  The Mittleider Method is sometimes referred to as modified hydroponics, because we feed the plants the 13 necessary nutrients, in a scientifically balanced ratio.  However, rather than putting expensive instantly water-soluble formulas in the water supply, we use Natural Mineral Nutrients that are easily and inexpensively obtained and apply the nutrients right on the soil – then water them in.  Also, as alluded to in the previous paragraph, unlike hydroponics, we grow plants right in the ground, or if we’re in Greenhouses we use raised Grow-Boxes with open bottoms, so the plants still have access to the natural soil – to obtain other nutrients they may want or need.  Mittleider gardens are well known for producing tremendous yields, even approaching those of hydroponics, while our crops like tomatoes are better tasting and cost a small fraction of those grown by hydroponic methods.