Dr. Jacob Mittleider’s books on container gardening are among the very best you will find anywhere. This is because Jacob learned his gardening lessons for 20 years as a highly successful nursery grower of bedding plants in Southern California, and then he applied and adapted that knowledge to humanitarian projects in gardening situations and conditions for another 35 years all over the world.
Mittleider books devoted to illustrating and teaching container gardening include such classics as Grow-Box Gardening, Gardening by the Foot, Let’s Grow Tomatoes, and The Mittleider Gardening Course. They are available at the Food For Everyone Foundation website at www.foodforeveryone.org, and as digital downloads on this website and www.howtoorganicgarden.com.
Why do people want or need to grow in containers anyway?! Isn’t growing in the dirt natural, and the way nature intended it be done? Or is something actually lacking in the soil today?
It’s true that the natural soil will give you a great garden. Even the worst soils – if you follow the Mittleider Method carefully – will produce bountiful, healthy crops, even without ANY soil ammendments.
However, There are still many reasons some of you may choose to grow in containers, or Grow-Boxes, as we call them. Lte me enumerate – first with the basic problems with soil that make a soil-less medium so attractive in the first place:
I. Soils everywhere are indeed lacking – in decomposed organic material, or humus. They crack as they dry, and they become very hard and difficult to work with. These hard clay soils are especially difficult places for plant roots to grow, and often result in poor crops.
Most soils that are available for family gardener’s use today are also lacking or deficient in the essential water-soluble minerals required for healthy plant growth. Thousands of years of weather-caused leaching and erosion, as well as natural and man-caused crop removal, have depleted most soils of their water-soluble minerals, and therefore vegetable garden crops are hungry almost everywhere today.
Furthermore, these soils often do not even do a good job of providing the five basic functions required of soil for healthy plant growth. These functions include:
1. Afford anchorage for plant roots.
2. Retain water and oxygen for plant use.
3. Store minerals for plants to use for food.
4. Act as a temperature regulator, especially in hot weather.
5. Afford good drainage around plant roots.
Grow-Boxes, and the custom-made soil mixes used in them are specifically designed to solve the above problems of native soil.
Using a combination of clean, slow-decomposing organic materials and sand, Grow-Box soil mixes absorb water well, they never crack or become hard, and they remain light and easy to work with. Meanwhile, your plant roots grow easily and fast through the light-weight, porous material.
These custom soil mixes absorb large amounts of water quickly, while still maintaining high levels of soil air. That soil air makes Grow-Box materials excellent temperature regulators, almost like a swamp cooler.
The organic materials also provide excellent drainage, especially because the box is sitting on top of the natural soil. A real drainage problem is almost unheard of when using containers. And while perhaps not being as strong per square inch for purposes of anchorage as natural soil, the plant roots grow so much more readily and become so much bigger and stronger, the anchorage is taken care of very well also.
II. The uncertainties of plant nutrition are taken care of by the scientific application of small amounts of scientifically balanced natural mineral nutrients. And the Grow-Box soils are excellent storage shelves for these nutrients, so they are readily available to the plants’ roots.
III. Instead of requiring a tiller, or heavy digging with a shovel, preparing the soil for planting in a Grow-Box is a joy, and can be accomplished with a light-weight hoe, or even a rake.
IV. There are no weeds, bugs, or diseases to contend with in Grow-Boxes! Starting with clean materials is essential, and ever afterward, with proper care, you will enjoy working with much less need to fight these enemies of a successful garden.
V. Because your Grow-Boxes are 8” off the ground, you don’t have to get down on your knees to work with your plants, as you do in natural soil.
VI. Watering is a breeze, especially if you build and use the simple automated watering system illustrated and described in chapter 16 of the Mittleider Gardening Course and chapter 19 of Gardening by the Foot. These are available in paper-back at www.foodforeveryone.org, and by digital download on this website and at www.howtoorganicgarden.com.
VII. Meanwhile there is virtually no waste of precious water! This method uses less than ½ the water of traditional methods. In addition, since you never apply water in the aisles – where the dirt is – there is almost no mud to contend with, so you and your plants remain much cleaner when working in a Grow-Box garden.
VIII. Root crops are a real pleasure to harvest! You can pull them easily by hand, and anything growing in or on the ground is clean and bug-free.
IX. One of the best advantages of growing in a Grow-Box garden is the fact that you can grow so much more in the same space than you can in the dirt.
1. Planting close together in the narrow boxes, and leaving clean 3’-wide aisles provides ample light for your low-growing plants with no more effort than occasional pruning of old leaves from off the soil surface.
2. Growing many plants vertically is the other way in which you maximize your yield in a small space. Again, Grow-Boxes are the most efficient way to do this, as every bit of growing space is contained and used to advantage. Using stakes or T-frames, and pruning to maximize light to your plants, will give you rewards in bigger harvests than you probably have ever seen.