Mittleider grow box maintenance needs to be completed once or twice a year. Grow boxes in a Mittleider garden are filled with sand and sawdust. As the gardening season progresses the sawdust will decompose. As it decomposes the growing medium in the grow box drops. The lost material will need to be replaced.
How often to add more sawdust
Here on our little homestead we will do Mittleider grow box maintenance at before each gardening season right before planting. In grow boxes where we rotate in a new crop for our fall gardens the grow box will get topped off a second time. There are a couple things to consider when deciding how often to add more sawdust.
What to consider when deciding when top off a grow box
Performing mid season Mittleider grow box maintenance on crops like kale or tomatoes would be a problem because the fruit and growing tip wouldn’t get buried with the added sawdust. To try and top off a bed with crops such as cabbage or spinach you would end up partially burying your crop.
A common side effect of adding fresh sawdust is a drop in available nitrogen. Watch for nitrogen deficiencies if topping of the grow box during the growing season. If you see symptoms of a lack of nitrogen you will need to correct for nitrogen deficiency. Urea is a common nitrogen source that is widely available.
What sawdust will work
A common question I see asked is what type of sawdust is correct to use and what size it should be. The type is easy, anything but walnut sawdust will work. Walnut contains tannin that will kill seedlings and severally stunt the growth of established plants. Avoid any sawdust that could possibly contain walnut.
The size of the sawdust is important. Anything too large, or too small, can cause serious problems in your Mittleider grow box. See my blog entry on identifying the correct sawdust size. Another acceptable source of sawdust that can be bought is from equine pellets. Equine pellets cost around $6 per 40 pound bag and will roughly triple in volume once wet,
Mittleider grow box maintenance in our potato box
In this video you will see our potato and sweet potato grow box. Because of the length of the sweet potato growing season this box is only filled once a year. It gets topped off right before we transplant the sweet potatoes.
This year instead of raising Cornish cross for meat we decided to try the Freedom Ranger meat chicks. Our first order of 25 chicks arrived yesterday from Freedom Ranger Hatchery in Pennsylvania. They all survived the journey and appear to be in good health. They’re on the back porch in our custom built brooder.
In only a few minutes after being moved into the brooder they were using the chicken nipple waterer to get their first drink. It took them about an hour before they started eating.
Why the Freedom Ranger meat chicks?
We have raised and butchered lots of the Cornish cross meat chicks over the years. They’re a great bird and grow to butcher size quickly. They don’t do much foraging and rely entirely on the chick grower we provide.
I’ve read and seen videos claiming that chicken breeds like these Freedom Rangers have a better feed conversion rate and are great foragers. When provided with fresh grass each day with the aide of a chicken tractor they should hunt for insects and browse in the grass. I’d like to see for myself how they do in a chicken tractor.
Freedom Rangers in a chicken tractor
When these Freedom Rangers are ready to be moved out of the brooder, they will go into a modified John Suscovich stress free chicken tractor. Ours is being built one foot taller than the plans indicate in the book. I’m making it a little taller to help avoid smashing my forehead.
The chicks will be moved to a fresh patch of grass in the yard at least once a day. As the get larger they will possibly be moved twice a day as they eat all the grass. It is our hope that by supplementing their diet with grass and insects that the amount of grower they consume will drop. We hope that the supplemented diet in our chicken tractor will reduce our cost.
Tracking cost of raising Freedom Ranger meat chicks
To track our total cost of the butchered chickens we are using a simple spreadsheet to keep a running tally of our costs. We do our own butchering, we will not have that added cost. The only cost I am not going to track will be electricity for the heat lamps and for the rural water. Both are relatively inexpensive when compared to feed and won’t great affect our final cost. We are more interested in the food cost for rearing these chicks. That is why we ultimately decided to not bother tracking electricity usage or total gallons of water.
Eventually we will raise another batch of Cornish cross broilers to have something to compare to these Freedom Ranger meat chicks. To be perfectly honest, I like the idea of the chickens diet being comprised of grass and insects. If they forage well there is a possibility that we stick with the Rangers. Time will tell.
I wanted to talk about raising chicks with less mess. Our Freedom Ranger chicks arrived in the mail today and went into our brooder. It was our special built brooder that gave me the idea for this topic.
Chicks are messy
As a young boy, I helped my parents to raise and butcher hundreds of meat birds over the years. When we first brought them home they were cute and easy to clean after. As they got bigger everything turned into a big mess. Those big waterers full of nasty water were my least favorite job.
A few decades later when I started raising meat birds for my family I was quickly reminded how messy those birds are when they get big. I grumbled about it and started thinking about ways to cut down on the mess and waste of food and water.
Chicken nipples to reduce wasted water
A blog on the internet about mess free waterers provided the first gem on raising chicks with less mess. Chicken nipples. They’re wonderful and you need some.Chicken nipples provide the chicks and full grown birds with a clean source of water. They cant get into the water to poop in it or spill it out into the brooder.
This Turbo Feeder from Rite Farm Products is another great way to cut down on the mess from the chicks. The design of the feeder discourages the chicks from getting into the feeder to scratch out the feed or to poop in it.
See our brooder and setup on YouTube
Watch our video on raising chicks with less mess on YouTube. You can see the brooder, turbo feeder, and our chicken nipple waterer.
The greenhouse project got started on Monday and the greenhouse heat sink is completed. Our greenhouse heat sink is comprised of 120 yards of 3 inch screened rock. It is surrounded on four sides with 4 inches of styrofoam and is covered with 2 feet of soil. There are 6 feet of foam that insulate the rock, the heat sink, and the soil over the heat sink that is inside the greenhouse.
In this picture the foam is 4 inches thick and 4 feet tall. There is 6 inches of rock in the bottom of the hole and we have begun covered the first 10 lengths of the perforated drain tile. Three feet of rock will go over the top of these lengths of drain tile.
The second set of drain tiles
In this next picture there is three and a half feet of rock inside the foam and the second and final set of drain tiles are ready to be covered with rock.
Once covered with rock we covered the rock with a 3 mil barrier fabric that will allow water to pass through but will exclude the soil. This is important to prevent the rock from being plugged with dirt and rendering the heat sink useless.
Once all the barrier fabric is in place it gets covered with 2 feet of topsoil. The soil was compacted with the track hoe and then leveled in preparation for the greenhouse assembly.
The last two feet of foam
We had a small mishap and breakdown in communication. As a result we are going to have to put in the last bit of the Styrofoam with the aid of a trencher. In a future blog entry I will cover the lessons we learned during this process and the mistakes we made. Hopefully you can learn from us and not make a similar mistake.
Watch us build the greenhouse heat sink
So far there are 5 videos in this YouTube series and I expect to have two more before we begin assembly of the greenhouse. You can watch the videos of the heat sink build on my YouTube channel. Here is the first video in the series.
We are excited to finally have our start date for the geothermal heat sink greenhouse build. The heavy equipment should arrive tomorrow and the site preparation work beginning on Saturday. Before starting the project we have some trees that need to be removed to make room for the greenhouse. They will need to be removed to prevent shading or because they are within the footprint of the desired location.
Monday we should begin work on the actual heat sink portion of this build. The hole will be dug, our 125 yards of rock will be delivered, and the process of burying two layers of drain tile will begin. Here is the site of our future geothermal heat sink greenhouse.
Preparing the greenhouse site and heat sink
To prepare the site for the greenhouse we have hired a local guy. He is going to utilize a track hoe to push over several trees and use a bulldozer to push them all into a manageable pile. The trees will season throughout the year and then be cut into firewood this fall.
Once the trees are removed the 5 1/2 foot deep hole for the heat sink will be dug with the track hoe. The topsoil will be set to one side and eventually placed back over the top of our 125 yards of rock. The clay and any excess soil will be pushed out of the way and spread out over the yard. They dropped off the bulldozer tonight and the track hoe should arrive tomorrow.
Documentation of the Geothermal heat sink greenhouse build
We will be recording the build process on a couple different cameras. One will be camera tripod and setup to record the activity around the heat sink site. I’ll lug around another camera and try and explain the steps and show what we are doing. Those videos will be posted to our YouTube page during this process. Subscribe to our channel on YouTube to get notifications of any videos.
Another terrific use for our Harvest Right machine is for freeze drying leftovers. As a family with children we generate our fair share of left overs. We try to use up leftovers but we often resorted to throwing food away before we bought our freeze dryer. Now that we have our Harvest Right machine no food gets thrown away because we are freeze drying leftovers.
A reason to buy a home freeze dryer
Recently I saw an advertisement from Harvest Right that claims the average person throws away something like 290 pounds of food annually. I decided to go looking for other sources to see for myself. This article suggests that the average family of 4 wastes around $2,275 worth of food yearly by throwing it in the trash. According to the EPA, “In the U.S., 40% of food is lost or wasted, annually costing an estimated $218 billion or 1.3% of GDP.” That is a lot of wasted food and money
If our household falls close to that national average we could arguable make our machine pay for itself in two years. If you add some loads of food from your garden it wouldn’t take long to make a home freeze dryer pay for itself.
What food could you avoid throwing away
In addition to food from your table you can freeze dry stuff like condiments, sour cream, pudding, milk, yogurt and fruit. Bananas are one of the items that many homes invariably end up throwing into the trash. Bananas freeze dry nicely and taste wonderful freeze dried. They’re also very easy to prepare for freeze drying, we no longer throw away bananas.
Seasonal meals such as Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners often result in an abundance of leftovers. Most of that leftover food will freeze dry nicely. It can even be packaged into individual and complete meals to go into your food storage pantry.
The stew you see in the picture above is going to be stored in 7 mil mylar bags with a 300 cc oxygen absorber once freeze dried. It will be added to our food storage pantry once completed.
We are excited to be starting the planning process on a geothermal heat sink greenhouse build. We will build this geothermal heat sink greenhouse to allow us to grow our own food year round. It would be wonderful to be able to grow frost intolerant crops like tomatoes during the dead of our winters. Without question, we will be able to grow hardy and moderately hardy crops all year inside this greenhouse.
More details about our green house plans
For the heat sink we will use 48 inches of rock that will be placed under 24 inches of topsoil beneath the greenhouse. We will use a 4 inch thick Styrofoam insulator 6 feet tall around the perimeter of the rock. The foam board will prevent the heat held in the rocks from being drawn out into the cooler soil outside the foot print of the greenhouse.
During the day, the warm/hot air from the peak of the greenhouse will be drawn down through duct work and a fan and be pushed out near the bottom of the heat sink. The 4 inch pipe that is used below the ground will be perforated to allow the air to escape. The air will move up through the rock to a second set of pipes, transferring the heat from the air and into my thermal mass. The air will enter the second set of perforated pipes and be pushed into the greenhouse.
During the night when the green house temperature drops below that of the thermal mass heat sink the system will work in the opposite manner. Cool air from the green house will be pushed through the rock and pick up heat. As the air returns to the greenhouse it will be warmer, keeping the greenhouse temperatures warm through the night.
The high tunnel kit we selected
For our high tunnel kit we selected a 20 x 44 foot kit from Zimmerman’s High Tunnels. They use 14 gauge steel that is 2 3/8 inches in diameter. It is a little larger diameter than most kits we found while searching for kits. Zimmerman’s is a few hours drive from our home and we will be able to pick it up to avoid freight charges.
The drainage pipe we are using
For this project we will be using 4 inch corrugated drain pipe, often referred to as drain tile. All of the pipe that will be horizontal will be perforated to allow air to escape and enter the rock. Anything installed vertically will not be perforated to ensure the air makes it to our heat sink. This is what our 4 inch corrugated and perforated pipe will look like. We will buy it in 250 foot rolls for around $98
There will be two layers of this pipe, ten each, the will run the length of the greenhouse. Both will be buried within the rock 3 feet apart. One group will be 6 inches from the bottom, the second 6 inches from the top. The top and bottom layers will not be connected.
The pipe near the bottom of the rock heat sink will be connected to the fan that draws heat from top of the greenhouse. We intend to use a 55 gallon plastic barrel as a manifold to bundle all 10 of the pipes together. With the fan mounted on top of the barrel it will be able to push air through all 10 pipes.
The ten pipes 6 inches from the top of the heat sink are also perforated and will direct the air blown in from the bottom up and back out into the greenhouse. All of the pipe laid horizontally will be perforated.
Airflow pattern through the heat sink
Air will flow down to the bottom of the 10 perforated pipes at the bottom of the heat sink. The air will be pushed through the perforations and up through the rock to the second set of horizontal perforated pipes. The air enters through the perforations and is directed back up and into the greenhouse.
Where each pipe terminates inside of the rock heat sink we will place a cap designed for the the corrugated pipe. When we connect the perforated and non-perforated pipes we will use a an external connector designed specifically for the corrugated pipe. All unions will be wrapped in a tape intended for drain tile and to be buried.
How we came to decide on our greenhouse dimensions
As with all our gardening here, we will be utilizing the Mittleider Gardening Method in our geothermal heat sink greenhouse build. There will be 4 grow boxes inside this greenhouse that are 18 inches wide and 30 feet long. We want plenty of room to move and work in our greenhouse in additional to being able to do all our seedling production in the same place.
We have settled for an overall length of 44 feet. This will allow a 5 foot walkway at both ends of the grow boxes. At the far end of the greenhouse we will do our seedling production. We intend to build a 4 foot bench along one wall for seedling stuff and storage of gardening equipment. Ultimately there will be batteries here and a charge controller for the solar panels we want to install.
For the width we are going with 20 feet. It was tempting to go wider to add a 5th grow box, but that would have increased the final cost significantly. The added cost for the greenhouse itself wouldn’t have been horrible. But the additional gravel requirements combined with the other costs for excavation and materials would have significant. And I can grow a lot of food in just 4 thirty foot beds using the Mittleider gardening method.
Considering snow load and high winds
A twenty foot wide greenhouse is pretty strong and able to stand up well to wind and the weight of our Missouri snow. We don’t get much snow here so this allows us to save a little money because we don’t need W-trusses. If we were to go wider it would be smart to spend the extra money for W-trusses with our kit. W-trusses for the kit we selected would have been another $500.
While the heat sink and geothermal combined makes sense, we haven’t yet seen it work. We don’t yet know how it will truly work during our winters. If it doesn’t work and allow us to grow year round a larger system will have been a waste of money. We will start with a smaller system and see how it performs. If it works well and inexpensive to operate a larger unit that would allow us to sell to our local community might be a good business venture.
Removing trees before building
Before we start this project there will be several trees to remove. Doing this will prevent shading on the greenhouse and the root system from taking over the ground under the greenhouse. Removing trees close to the greenhouse will prevent a tree from falling on the greenhouse and damaging it.
There are about 5 trees that I want removed from the vicinity of the build site. Two of the trees are west of the site and will cast shadow on the greenhouse if left in place. One tree is massive, an old black locust, that could potentially drop limbs on our greenhouse. The roots from this tree could also end up under the greenhouse. We prefer to avoid the possibility of any of those problems and will remove the potential entirely.
There are a few additional trees that are to the north of this geothermal heat sink greenhouse site that I want removed. They don’t pose any immediate threat to the greenhouse, but I’d like to remove them now and ensure no trees will ever fall on the completed greenhouse and damage it. We will remove them now to avoid the possibility of tree fall damage entirely.
Goal to have the greenhouse off grid
After the greenhouse is completed and in operation we would like to start getting the greenhouse “off gird”. We will monitor the energy usage and design a solar system that will meet our needs. On the end of the greenhouse under the seedling tables we will build an enclosure for the charge controller and batteries.
Through rain collection off our nearby home into a cistern we will be able to water our greenhouse. We have enough annual rainfall that we can easily collect enough water for our needs. Ultimately we want to use an automated sprinkler system for a lawn to water the 4 grow boxes inside our greenhouse.
Goals for monitoring the geothermal heat sink greenhouse build
A secondary goal for this geothermal heat sink greenhouse, is the ability to wirelessly monitor the temperatures of the greenhouse,. Additionally, outside the greenhouse and the ground temperatures of the heat sink. Ultimately allowing others to view current temps and historical data would be nice.
I’ve not yet researched the options of products that will allow this. We do plan on placing a piece of PVC during the build that would allow a temperature probe to be dropped into the heat sink material. The PVC will be relatively inexpensive, we may add two to allow temperatures to me monitored at the top and bottom of the heat sink rock.
Almost ready to start excavation
We have all the materials except the styrofoam for the heat sink on hand. As soon as we can schedule the delivery of the 125 yards of rock we can start the dirt work, weather permitting. Our goal is to have the heat sink portion completed by the end of February. The greenhouse portion we hope to have completed and ready for seedlings mid March.
We will be documenting this project with photos and video, be sure to check back for updates of our progress.
Frequently I see folks in the Mittleider Facebook group discussing their wet weekly feed and them asking for ideas on keeping weekly feed dry. Once you add the Epsom salt to your weekly feed mix it becomes hygroscopic and will absorb moisture from the air. If you’re in a dry climate adding a half pound of Perlite to your weekly feed mix will help. For the gardener in a high humidity climate the Perlite will not be enough.
Another option to keeping weekly feed dry is to mix the fertilizer and micro nutrients but not add the Epsom salt until you need weekly feed. The fertilizer and micro nutrients are not hygroscopic. It isn’t until the magnesium sulfate is added that it begins to absorb moisture.
Add Epsom salt to smaller batches
Currently we have seedlings growing under grow lights. They are fed daily with a mixture called constant feed. Constant feed consists of 1 ounce of weekly feed in 3 gallons of water. We were out of weekly feed and I needed to mix up a batch of weekly feed. We won’t be putting seedlings in the ground for another 6-8 weeks, or weekly feed in our high humidity would have been very wet by the time we needed to use it in the garden.
Instead of dealing with wet weekly feed, we decided to mix up smaller batches. We mixed up 25 pounds of triple 13 fertilizer with the 10 ounces of micro nutrients and stored that mixture in a 5 gallon bucket with a Gamma lid. Don’t add your Epsom salt yet!
Typically you would add 4 pounds of Epsom salt to 25 pounds of fertilizer and the 10 ounce packet of micros. But we want to mix the weekly feed in smaller batches. We decided to figure for one pound of the epsom salt, so we divided the combined weight of fertilizer and micros, 25.625, by 4 which gives us 6.4 pounds.
So mixing 6.4 pound of the fertilizer and micro nutrients mix with 1 pound of Epsom salt will give us 7.4 pounds of weekly feed. You can mix more, or less, as you require. because we only need an ounce of weekly feed every time we mix constant feed I elected to mix up 3.2 pounds of weekly feed with a half pound of Epsom salt.
Watch the video
You can watch this video where I describe steps for keeping weekly feed dry. This is one of many videos on YouTube discussing Mittleider gardening. Please consider watching some of our other videos and subscribing to out channel.
A great way of ensuring success in growing seedlings is through the use of seedling heat mats. This is particularly true when starting hardy crops indoors before the average last frost of the year. Seedling heat mats will maintain a constant temperature of the growing medium. This will help get and keep your growing medium at a constant optimum temperature for germination.
To work with a pair of the Mittleider seedling flats, we went with a seedling heat mat that was 20 inches wide and 48 inches long. Two seedling flats fit on this mat with room on each end. We use that space later once we bump plants up to individual containers. Ours is like the one pictured below and includes a thermostat. It has a digital readout and maintains the temperature you set. You can see the seedling heat mat we use here.
The thermostat includes a probe that is placed in the soil. The current temperature of the growing medium will be indicated on the digital readout. The operator can adjust the desired temperature as needed. Our units are both set at 80 degrees for germination.
Combine heat mats with grow lights
When starting seedlings indoors it may be necessary to combine a seedling heat mat with grow lights. Currently our seedlings are germinated in the basement where there is no natural light. We start all our seedlings under grow lights and on the heat mats. Light and temperature are the first two of the six laws of plant growth and are necessary to grow healthy seedlings.
The grow lights heat the growing medium and helps cut down on the frequency for which the heat mats need to kick on to regulate temperatures.
It is February, which means it is time to be starting spring crops. We start all our seedlings under grow lights and on seedling heat mats. Everything is in our basement currently, but in the future we will be moving seedling production to the greenhouse.
Our seedling flats were moved to the basement today and have begun to come up to germination temperature. Once the growing medium reaches the correct temperature we will add seeds.
Start with hardy and moderately hardy varieties
Everything we are starting now are varieties that are hardy and moderately hardy. They will go into the garden well before our average last day of frost and will be protected with mini hoop houses. Some of this will hopefully be going into a greenhouse we will build soon.
Our seedling choices for spring
We have amended our list of crops for this year. Those we will be planting first are broccoli, cauliflower, onions, kale, spinach, red and white beets, and cabbage.
Determining when to start seedlings
While planning or starting spring crops we take advantage of the garden planning detail sheet in spreadsheet form. We enter or ADLF and the spreadsheet will calculate when we need to start and transplant the different seedlings. You can get the XLS file from the Mittleider Gardening group on Facebook. It is in the files section there in the group.
Every couple weeks we will be starting more seedlings.
Changes we are making to our garden plan
We are dropping a few plant varieties that we really don’t eat and have added a few. Radishes, eggplant, bush beans and Brussels sprouts have been removed from our garden plan for this year. The bush beans were difficult to get everything picked without having some sort of trellis to hold up the plants. We are instead going a pole bean. The others we found we just don’t eat much. That space they used to occupy will be better used for the things we do eat.
Our quest to be self reliant and grow a healthy garden