Simply put, the Mittleider System is the result of ‘Nearly six decades… of almost constant study, research, and field application on food production problems in many parts of the world’ by Jacob Mittleider, which produced ‘a synthesis of the best features of several major methods of gardening’ (quoting Mittleider Soil Bed Gardening).
In practical terms, it is a regenerative system for running a vegetable garden with little soil, no requirement for land, and high yields. ‘Regenerative’ in this case is an approach to agriculture emphasising the use of natural, non-synthetic products and processes in order to increase bio-diversity and keep topsoil healthy. Essentially it’s good for your garden, and good for other things which are good for your garden.
From a prepper’s point of view, it takes the hassle and guesswork out of running a smallholding or mini-homestead while still providing high yields and a variety of crops (free food, surely no prepper could turn that down?!).
The Six Laws of Plant Growth
The Mittleider system is a very structures, scientific approach to gardening, and follows the ‘six laws of plant growth’. These are six immutable, non-negotiable factors which will affect plant growth, worth keeping in mind as you setup your garden:
- Light All plants need light. It is vital for (almost) all life, and should be provided in abundance as much as possible. Try to plant things out of shade, even that of other plants.
- Temperature Plants need certain ranges of temperature for certain functions and periods of their lives. These will different between plants, even between different plants of the same species, but a good general guide is soil at 70 – 85 F for seed germination, soil and air at 65 – 85 F for early growth, and 60 – 90 F for adult plants to grow in. During extreme heat some shade for plants (especially at the hottest part of the day) might be a good idea, and the reverse is true (cold frames, greenhouses etc. are useful at very cold times of the year.
- Air All plants need air, and take in a lot of it through their roots. Proper root drainage will make your plants able to ‘breathe’ better, so take good care of your soil mixes.
- Water All plants need water. During dry times you may need to actively water your plants, and good root drainage is always important. In hot weather water content will help keep a plant cool, but you should be wary of watering plants in direct sunlight, as refraction through water droplets sitting on the surface can burn them (dso water early in the morning or late at night).
- Nutrition Plants require the right kind of nutrition and environment, and absorb most of their nutrition through their roots. Or this reason the soil mix needs to be just right.
- Competition There are lots of things which don’t your plants to grow! Weeds (pretty much all plants you don’t want to grow can be counted as weeds) are always a problem. Start weeding as possible and keep it up often. Insects will eat your plants leaves. Well-kept Mittleider gardens often look incredibly neat and tidy, because gardeners take scrupulous care of their layouts: keep soil bed areas clean and free of clutter where insects might easily breed, remove old leaves and those which touch the ground as they can easily be bridge for crawling insects. Make sure to keep up good barriers (fences, walls, etc.) around your garden to keep out larger animals like foxes and badgers.
The most obvious reason is higher yields of vegetables. The Mittleider system should produce more food per square foot than traditional gardening methods, so can feed the same number of people (putting in the same amount of effort) better. As a prepper you want your stockpiles to be as large as possible and be able to feed your family as well as possible in the long run too, and the mittleider system can help with that.
The Mittleider system was designed for you, not for a tractor. Many traditional ideas of home agriculture are just scaled-down versions of commercial systems, which is actually counter-productive. The Mittleider system is specifically designed for small gardeners to produce food.
The existence of the ‘system’ at all is also useful. Especially for inexperienced growers, the idea of planting a vegetable garden capable of usefully feeding a family can be very daunting, and the conflicting information and advice overwhelming.
The system provides solid guidelines and processes (sometimes perhaps even too solid, down to the size of your soil beds) so is easier to understand. This also means if a grower wishes to modify the system as they gain experience, they can easily see how changes should be made and what other things might need tweaking to allow this. For the same reason, errors can be isolated and corrected more quickly, so you are unlikely ever to lose much food through bad judgement.
How to Implement the Mittleider System
Decide whether to use grow boxes or soil beds
The system and all of its associated literature assumes that you will be growing your vegetables in either ‘grow boxes’ or ‘soil beds’, both of which have specific definitions within the Mittleider
Within the Mittleider system, grow boxes are small boxes filled with a custom soil made of a mixture of sawdust, sand (or other similar materials) with fertilizer.
Soil beds are 18” wide strips of standard soil (as long as possible, dictated by the size of the land) for growing vegetables. Mittleidier soil beds are 18” wide, with a ridge on either side 6” high from ground level, and a trough/aisle down the middle 4” deep from the top of the ridges (leaving 2” of spare topsoil underneath). The wide aisle is designed for irrigation, and to give more space to large plants which might be crowded out in conventional gardening.
|Grow Boxes||Soil Beds|
|Can be used almost anywhere, whereas soil beds require already having a large, regular area of land which can be used for growing.||Are initially cheaper.|
|Will definitely have the perfect soil to attain optimum results with the method (because you will have put it there). This includes better temperature regulation, drainage and aeration.||Require less work (as the soil will be already be at hand).|
|Growing season will be longer (because artificial soil warms up quicker in the spring).||Do not require the manufacture of a specialist soil, though this may result in comparatively worse results.|
|Take up less ground space.||Are arguably simpler for beginners.|
|Can be moved around more easily (if you move houses every few years, or if you often rearrange you garden).||Can cover more space overall because there is no space lost in structure, and less in walkways between soil beds than grow boxes (depending on the layout of your garden)|
|Reduce or remove weeds.|
Don’t forget of course that this is not an all-or-nothing decision. If you have a garden with a patio and soil space and wish to maximize your yields, you might keep some grow boxes on the patio (perhaps with more fragile plants which could be moved inside in the inter more easily if they were in boxes) and plant the rest in soil beds to play to the strengths of what you have available.
Plan your Garden
The first things to consider when planning your garden are any constraints on what you can do. The first is obviously size. Of course less can be done overall in a smaller garden if you have less space, but you can still play to its strengths to maximize yields.
For example: if you have high wall, grow climbing plants up them. In a small garden you will want to pack plants together as closely as possible too, even little things like having narrower walkways between beds/boxes can make a difference.
If you are unconstrained by the property you live in, or have huge amounts of space, here are some pointers about where is ideal location for your garden:
- South facing if possible ( to take advantage of as much sunlight as possible)
- Avoid large obstructions (such as tall trees or hedges) to the south as they will block sunlight.
- Avoid open areas with strong winds blowing (unless you can build a wind break which will not obstruct too much light).
- Have a ready supply of water.
- Avoid slopes if possible as they will more work to walk around and put limitations on irrigation and drainage plumbing.
Next, plan where your soil beds or boxes will go. There are no real rules for this, but make sure to put tall plants to the north and/or east of shorter ones so as not to obstruct their sunlight.
Now decide what to plant! This really depends on why you are gardening, so get your priorities straight first. If you want to sell your produce, consider what is most expensive in your area (these will probably unusual varieties, processed goods (like jams, marmalade and pickles) and exotic goods (which will be much more difficult to grow).
If you want to eat your produce, consider what you or your family will actually eat, and then what you can grow the most of (you want to get your money’s worth!). Only plan to plant as much as you can realistically take care of, and try to plan a good mix, because living on just potatoes for a whole year would not be fun!
Whatever you choose to plant, and however you choose to plant it, write it all down. The best way is with two pieces of paper) keep it in hard copy as well as on a computer, you might need it one day): A list of what you have planted, which varieties and how many of each, and a plan of your garden and where everything is. This will be useful later in the year when planning your growing for next year.
For example you might notice that all the plants you plated in one area had particularly high yields, so next year you put your staple crops there to maximize your overall output or use grow mobile boxes to rotate different crops through the area. The keeping of records is key in good long term gardening.
Then of course, buy your seeds!
Now you need to choose when to plant. Temperature is the second law of plant growth, and the time of year will more or less dictate the temperature. Check the dates for your local growing season, which will be between the ADLF (Average Date of Last Frost) sometime in Spring, and the ADFF (Average date of First Frost) in the Fall.
Hardier plants can be planted a few weeks before the start of the growing season, and more fragile (‘frost intolerant’) ones will need to be planted a few weeks after in begins. You may need to germinate these in cold frames or small greenhouses first.
Prepare your Garden
Begin to prepare your garden by clearing the area of anything unnecessary: small trees, scrub, rubbish etc. Clear the ground and rake it level if possible. Outline your perimeter and erect fences, walls or hedges if need be.
Remove all weeds. There are two types of weeds: perennials (which will continue to grow for many years) and annuals (which have a life cycle of one year, but will grow again next year from wild seed). Annual can be burned off, destroyed with weed-killer or dug up, but all perennials must be dug up by the roots. If you are unsure you may as well dig everything up.
If using soil beds, you should now break up the soil in your bedding area, to make shaping beds easier later. Break up the soil in the ridge areas to about 10” depth, but in the aisles you only need about 2” of depth.
Next, stake out the shape of your beds with pegs and string, then rake the soil into shape to create troughs and ridges. Make sure to keep everything as level as possible, with a spirit level and a wooden board to press the soil flat.
Apply about 1 oz/linear foot of pre-plant fertilizer to the aisles in the beds as a primer for growing, then add about ½ oz/linear foot of weekly feed mix (see below for fertilizer recipes). Then turn the soil over in these areas to mix the fertilizer well. Flatten the soil down again level. You are now ready to plant!
If using Grow Boxes, begin by building (or buying) and placing your boxes. There are lots of good plans for grow boxes online, but essentially you want a long thin box at least 8” high off the ground, and at least 18” wide. Fill the box with soil or a combination of sand, soil and sawdust, as appropriate for the area and what you want to grow.
Since the boxes are not part of ground and do not have the irrigation channels which soil beds do, they will need an irrigation system. Along the length of a piece of pipe, and about 30° off to either of this line, drill lines of very small holes (use a 1/16” drill bit). At least one hole every 4” is a good measurement. Fix this pipe along the length of the box, with the holes facing down, and then plant on each side of it, so that the plants come up ‘around’ the pipe.
Ready to plant!
Plant your Garden
The mittleider gardening literature tends to advice that plants be germinated in a greenhouse first, then transplanted as seedlings at the beginning of the growing season. Essentially, this is for the same reason you wouldn’t send a baby to college, but you would a teenager: seedlings are adolescent plants, they are bigger, healthier, stronger and more able to deal with attacks, cold shocks and disease than plants germinated outdoors.
There are three main ways to space plants within a soil bed or grow box:
- Double rows are a uniform row of seedlings or seeds down each side of the bed or box. Or in other words: a line of pairs of seeds or seedlings. Used for small plants like potatoes, radishes, corn and leaf lettuce.
- Alternating double rows are where two rows are offset against each other, so that plants have more horizontal space (across the bed) to let in light. Used for head lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower etc.
- Single row is a single row of seeds or seedlings along one side of the bed or box. Used for big plants like tomatoes and melons, or vertically grown crops like beans.
For planting, use a measuring device or a dedicated planting spacer marker to evenly space seedlings or seeds, Try to space them so as to provide plenty of light and growing room. The mittleider method relies on creating better quality (and therefore healthier, bigger) produce rather than more individual items of smaller, stunted produce, so don’t be afraid to be a bit generous.
To plant very small seeds:
- Mix one part seeds with one hundred parts filler (sand, sawdust etc.)
- Scratch a shallow ditch or furrow down the middle of the bed or box with a sharpish gardening tool (like the handle of a rake or the end of a trowel blade).
- Spread the mixture into the ditch.
- Cover with wet burlap or a similar fabric to stop the seeds being disturbed when watered.
- Water the seeds. Leave the fabric over the seeds until you see sprouts coming through the soil. Eventually remove the fabric and watch your plants grow!
To transplant seedlings:
- Remove any older leaves. A newly transplanted seedling cannot support as many leaves as it could before due to cold shock to the roots.
- Water heavily. Wet soil will help the root ball stay together when being moved.
- Put the stem of the plant between your middle fingers and use the other had to turn the pot over. The plant should fall into your hand, with the soil in roughly the shape it was inside the pot.
- Ideally you should already have a hole ready, but don’t dig them all at once. Make one hole, then take a seedling and bed it in, then make a hole for the next seedling. The holes should be just big enough to accommodate the roots well.
- Put the plant the right way up in the hole.
- Push some soil around the plant. Don’t pack it tight, just enough so that it will stay steady.
- Apply some fertilizer. Don’t start use special mixes yet, just standard nitrogen fertilizer will do. Avoid plant stems. You should use ¼ oz/foot
- Water the plants immediately. Soak the bed thoroughly to dissolve any granular fertilizers and help the roots take.
- Three days after planting, start applying weekly feed fertilizer once every week.
Maintain your Garden
Keep Everything Tidy
It should be obvious, but it is worth mentioning that your garden will be easier to manage and so more productive if you keep it tidy and neat. If you have compost bins use them! Otherwise, get rid of all your rubbish.
It is always surprising in this age of computers, how useful it can be to actually write things down. Keep records of when you plant, what you plant and where you plant, and if you have a fertilizing or watering schedule then stick to it. This approach makes it easier to change individual things and monitor the effects, which can help you truly optimize your garden in the long term.
Grow boxes can be watered easily enough through their irrigation pipes, but soil beds require careful hand watering.
Using a sprinkler hose gun will leave droplets of water on the plants which can act as magnifying glasses and burn it, and wastes a lot of water around the plants. Instead, use a ‘hose bubbler (which can be made by attaching a tin can with small holes drilled in it to the end of the hose) or a large towel (which acts as a diffuser) to the end of the hose. Wrap the towel many times around the hose end and let it flap loose beyond the hose.
Then turn the water on to full blast and water the bed from one end. The water should spread out a bit throughout the beds, and eventually you should see some standing water. At this point move on to the next bed. You should probably water most beds once a day.
Crops need nutrients, and each successive round of crops will diminish the nutrients still in the ground. If you overplant (plant crops in soil which does not have enough fertilizer/nutrients to support them) then the crops will fail.
You should apply fertilizer to seedlings three days after transplanting, and to seeds three days after you see sprouts or shoots. Use the Weekly Feed Fertilizer, and then apply once a week after that. The best way to do it is to put the mix in a jar or can, then shake it out evenly over the bed or box just before watering.
‘Ever bearing’ crops (those which can bear produce all year round) should have another spread of pre-plant mix eight weeks after being planted.
Fertilizing should continue until three weeks before the expected harvest time for most crops, and for until eight weeks before the expected killing frost.
Trees bushes and vines (for example, apple trees, grape vines, or berry bushes) are hardier than most plants, so do not need so much fertilizing. Somewhere between four and six feedings per year will suffice, larger plants needing fewer (but much larger) feedings.
If a plant looks ‘hungry’ then feed it! Hungry plants look thing, weak, droopy, off colour, and may have blooms which do not develop into fruit. Give these plants extra feed!
Harvest your Produce!
After all that hard work it is important to harvest your produce right! The Mittleider literature makes a point of highlighting how much more of most plants than people often think can be harvested and eaten. For example, many brassica plants like broccoli have edible leaves. You can pick and eat a one or two each day (across say twenty plants that it is some salad!) after the first few weeks, and then harvest the more commonly eaten part of the plant later.
When you do come to harvest the main body of the plant (wait for it to be properly ripe first), avoid harvesting in the middle of the day when the sun will be very hot and do not leave boxes of produce lying around in the heat where they may wilt (or be stolen!).
Of course, this article cannot cover every aspect of the system, or the finer points of its applications, so these are some excellent resources for further reading:
- Mittleider Grow-box Gardens (at Amazon) is the current edition of Dr Mittleider’s original book on growing food. It presents the entire system in its original format.
- The Food for Everyone Foundation (in its own words) exists for the purpose “encouraging and fostering the development, understanding, and distribution of the most efficient scientific non-polluting and ecologically sensitive food production procedures, by sponsoring and supporting the research, development, and dissemination of the best possible gardening methods and techniques, and the most effective information delivery systems and teaching methods throughout the world, with primary emphasis on the developing countries”. Quite an aim. In practice, it the main modern resource center, coordinator and promoter of the Mittlieder system, online and worldwide.
- Mittleider Soil Bed Gardening, freely available from com, is shortened version of the original book, presenting the main points. Being free, and published by the global authority on the system, this ebook comes highly recommended and will not disappoint.
- The Mittleider Gardening Forum is perhaps not the most active board, but a great resource nonetheless.
- 80 parts garden lime or gypsum*
- 4 parts epsom salt
- 1 part Borax
For most gardens, a good starting point is to make one part ¼ lb. (4 oz).
Just mix it all together and use it.
Use Garden lime if your area receives more than 20” of rain in a year, and gypsum if it receives less than that.
Weekly Feed Mix
- 50 parts all-purpose-fertilizer (anything from 13-13-13 to 17-17-17)
- 8 parts Epsom salt
- 2 parts (10 oz in one packet) Mittleider Micronutrients (can be ordered on the internet from Walmart, Amazon or Growfood).
- Perlite as appropriate (optional, to control moisture)
Again, just mix it all up and use it. This is the ‘easy mix’ version of the Mittleider weekly fertilizer, though there is more complex version, a recipe for which can be found in the further reading literature.