Becky...I replaced about 1/3 of last years soil with equal parts of mushroom compost or Black Kow and Soil Conditioner (narturescapes) found at the Big Box stores. You can use mini pine bark nuggets if you can't get the soil conditioner. Mix it in with the old soil...add a little bone meal and your good to go! I don't think in today's economy that we can afford to replace all the soil in our pots. At least I can with over 20 containers.
From one of my replies to the same question. It is a cut/paste job, so keep that in mind if you decide to read it:
In my estimation, the only case to be made for reusing container soils is one of economics, and you'll never find me argue against making that decision. If you can't afford, you can't afford it. That said and setting economics aside, you might decide to reuse soil for reasons other than economical. Perhaps the effort involved with acquiring (or making your own) soil is something you might not wish to go through or be bothered with.
In any case, it would be difficult to show that soils in a more advanced state of structural collapse can somehow be preferred to a soil that can be counted on to maintain its structure for the entire growth cycle. So, if the economic aspect is set aside, at some point you must decide that "my used soil is good enough" and that you're willing to accept whatever the results of that decision are.
All soils are not created equal. The soils I grow in are usually pine bark based & collapse structurally at a much slower rate that peat based soils, yet I usually choose to turn them into the garden or give them over to a compost pile where they serve a better purpose than as a container soil after a year of service. Some plantings (like woody materials and some perennials) do pretty well the second year in the same bark-based soil, and with careful watering, I'm usually able to get them through a third year w/o root issues.
Watering habits are an extremely important part of container gardening. Well structured soils that drain well are much more forgiving and certainly favor success on the part of the more inexperienced gardeners. As soils age, water retention increases and growing becomes increasingly difficult. If your (anyone's) excellence in watering skills allows you to grow in an aging medium, or if your decision that "good enough" is good enough for you, then it's (your decision) is good enough for me, too.
The phrases "it works for me" or "I've done it this way for years w/o problems" is often offered up as good reason to continue the status quo, but there's not much substance there.
I'm being called away now, but I'll leave with something I offered in reply on a recent thread:
"... First, plants really aren't particular about what soil is made of. As long as you're willing to stand over your plant & water every 10 minutes, you can grow most plants perfectly well in a bucket of marbles. Mix a little of the proper fertilizers in the water & you're good to go. The plant has all it needs - water, nutrients, air in the root zone, and something to hold it in place. So, if we can grow in marbles, how can a soil fail?
Our growing skills fail us more often than our soils fail. We often lack the experience or knowledge to recognize the shortcomings of our soils and to adjust for them. The lower our experience/knowledge levels are, the more nearly perfect should be the soils we grow in, but this is a catch 22 situation because hidden in the inexperience is the inability to even recognize differences between good and bad soil(s).
Container soils fail when their structure fails. When we select soils with components that break down quickly or that are so small they find their way into and clog macro-pores, we begin our growing attempts under a handicap. I see anecdotes about reusing soils, even recommendations to do it all over these forums. I don't argue with the practice, but I (very) rarely do it, even when growing flowery annuals, meant only for a single season.
Soils don't break down at an even rate. If you assign a soil a life of two years and imagine that the soil goes from perfect to unusable in that time, it's likely it would be fine for the first year, lose about 25% of its suitability in the first half of the second year, and lose the other 75% in the last half of the second year. This is an approximation & is only meant to illustrate the exponential rate at which soils collapse. Soils that are suitable for only a growing season show a similar rate of decline, but at an accelerated rate. When a used soil is mixed with fresh soil after a growing season, the old soil particles are in or about to begin a period of accelerated decay. I choose to turn them into the garden or they find their way to a compost pile.
Unless the reasons are economical, I find it difficult to imagine why anyone would add garden soils to container soils. It destroys aeration and usually causes soils to retain too much water for too long. Sand (unless approaching the size of BB's), has the same effect. I don't use compost in soils because of the negative effect on aeration/drainage. The small amount of micro-nutrients provided by compost can be more efficiently added, organically or inorganically, via other vehicles.
To boil this all down, a container soil fails when the inverse relationship between aeration/drainage goes awry. When aeration is reduced, soggy soil is the result, and trouble is in the making."
Wow! Some great input by everyone! It is an economical thing for me to try to reuse some of my potting mix the following season, but I am also known to dump the mix into my garden beds after a season if the potting mix looks pretty leached. Which often it does.
Al - I can honestly say that I agree with you about what compost does to garden soils. That is something I have noticed over the few short years that I have been gardening. When I add compost too thickly to the top of my garden bed soil, it compacts and makes the soil horrible. I read somewhere that to use compost in a garden bed, you have to dig a deep trench and then add compost. Then cover back up with the original soil. The soil has to be fluffed up to make it usable again. Apparently the roots get the nutrients from the buried compost? What are other ways that you would use compost instead for improving garden soil? Compost tea? My roses love compost. They are in pots, not the ground. I add it to the top of the potting soil. I am going to have to figure out what to do with roses in the pots. Do I change out the top 1/3 of the soil to keep the roses happy? I am like many ... I can't afford to replace all that soil.
I also need a good compost tea recipe. Does anyone have a good one to share?
It seems to be a constant battle to keep the garden soil as well as the potting mix/soil healthy to grow my plants healthy. It's very frustrating!
I don't use compost in container soils because its small particle size guarantees too much water retention to suit me. Finished compost is very fine, and if the compost is in larger pieces it's not finished, in which case N immobilization becomes a problem.
You really can't amend compost or used potting soil with perlite and make it drain well. Adding perlite to compost doesn't change the drainage characteristics of that blend any more than adding perlite to pudding does. If you add perlite to compost, the height of the perched water table (PWT) remains the same, until you have considerably more perlite than compost, only then would you see the height of the PWT reduced. The value of mixing perlite into fine media components doesn't technically come from improved drainage, it comes from the fact that perlite doesn't hold water internally, so there is less media in any given volume that holds water. IOW, it doesn't make soils drain better unless it represents the primary fraction of the medium, it simply reduces the amount of water any given volume of medium will hold.
It makes good sense, if you wish to reuse container media, that you mix it sparingly with a component or components with larger particle size, which is why I prefer pine bark as the primary fraction of some of the soils I use. If you mixed your used soil with 5 parts of inexpensive pine bark fines and 1 part of perlite, to 1 part of your used soil, you'll end up with a durable soil that will remain well-aerated far longer than a peat based soil. On a size for size basis, pine park breaks down at about 1/4 the rate of peat, so when you consider the much larger particle size, you should expect a bark-based soil to retain its structure more than 5 times as long as a peat-based soil, all other cultural conditions being equal.
I enjoy reading your soil posts, Al. I learn from you every time. I will apply your very practical container knowledge to my whole gardening knowledge. I plan to rework most of my potted plants this year, and I still have a big supply of pro mix. I am planning on using some for veggies, as they go in the ground and the peat gets mixed into an ocean of clayey dirt. The rest, I don't know yet. Maybe we can use it for striking cuttings of raspberries or blackberries and getting more planted around here. I love to go berry picking with the kids. And the jelly is pretty good, too :).
How expensive? I was using the 8 quart bags way too often, so I found a 4 cubic foot bag online. It was reasonable and I can use all I want... There is a local place that sells the 4 cubic at a good price but they won't stock any until spring and I needed it in the fall.
Becky - some people try to draw some kind of differentiation between potting soil and potting mix by saying that potting soil contains some form of mineral (garden soil/topsoil) and should be avoided, but I've never seen that to hold true, so I use the terms interchangeably, and even add media/medium in as other synonyms. I agree, and think the majority generally agree that mineral soils are undesirable in container soils because of the negative affect they have on aeration.
I know several people that use Fafard's fine pine bark as the primary fraction of a 5:1:1 mix of pine bark, peat, and perlite with very good results. If you use a bark product that is more coarse than the Fafard's, you'll need to add an extra measure of peat to increase the soils ability to wick. FWIW, making your own bark-based soil will leave you with a soil that costs less than half of what a commercially packaged soil costs and one that will retain its structure far longer.
I think that if you look in the right place, you'll find perlite is quite inexpensive. I buy 4 cu ft bags here for around $15. Look to good size nurseries or greenhouse operations that do their own rearage, which means they are likely to be making their own soils. Most, if they don't have it on hand, need only to add it to their next order from their wholesaler and will likely be glad to do so.
Thank you for the very kind words, Dawn. They are appreciated. Whenever I write something, it's with the hope that those reading it will find a way to use the information to help them increase the amount of satisfaction they get from their growing efforts.
I just noticed that my reply post never got posted here. Grrrr ... I've been having problems with my internet service lately. So here goes a second try ...
Al - Thank you for posting to this thread! I value your information and insight. I am a bit frustrated with my local nurseries. Apparently they are out to make a nice profit off anything they sell. Perlite here goes for about $6-8 per 8 oz. bag. I am going to use self-watering containers. I do have Spaghnum Peat Moss (from Canada), I will buy more Perlite, and will see if anyone carries Fafard's fine pine bark locally.
I do have a question though ... I am still hung up on compost for the micro-bacteria. I have heard of potting soil recipes using compost (high-quality), sphagnum peat moss, vermiculite (hard to find cheap here) and/or perlite, and limestone. I know many people that garden for veggies uses that mix with excellent results. They also use fish emulsion as the main fertilizer. That mix I've been told keeps the plants very healthy and hydrated. And I was told they reuse the soil by mixing in more compost and rotating the crops. So after the initial costs to create this potting soil, they just mix in compost (and perhaps some lime) with additional plantings. That sounds very economical to me. Does Canadian Spaghnum Peat Moss breakdown slowly? I know perlite doesn't break down. I've been told that this soil mix works very well in self-watering containers and cuts down on the amount of time you have to spend watering the plants. I live in Florida and the heat dries the soil very quickly unless the pots are self-watering.
Why would compost "not" be a good thing to use if it is used in moderation with a well aeriated soil mix?
I've been doing more reading (with my head once again swimming with questions (sigh))...
Fafard's Organics Potting Mix keeps coming up in threads. Is this stuff as good as trying to make a good organic potting mix yourself? I am trying to figure out the most affordable, yet still great potting soil mix to grow plants (mainly veggies and fruit) in self-watering containers.
Have you used or heard about this product, Al?
I found a nursery about 6 miles from me that sells Fafard soil. If it's any good, then I may have a source to just buy my potting mix. My biggest problem with making my own is finding the ingredients at an inexpensive price. I have to keep my costs down to make it even worthwhile to growing my own veggies. Otherwise, it's cheaper to just buy them. Ordering ingredients online is available, but the shipping is very expensive!
Becky - I'll try to follow right through your posts with my offerings.
The price problem with the perlite is the size of the bag you presently have access to. As the volume of the bag goes up, the price will fall dramatically (on a per volume basis).
In my considered opinion, compost is ok if used in container media in moderation. I would limit the total peat and compost fraction combined to under 15% of the mix in favor of pine bark as the primary fraction in my soils for garden display and veggie plantings. In the gritty soil I use, I don't ever use peat or compost.
The most important aspect of container soils is the soils structure and its ability to maintain that structure for as long as the planting will remain in that soil. On a scale of 1-10, if growing in the garden is a '1' and hydroponics is a '1o', conventional container culture is about a 7 or 8. This means that growing in the garden and growing in containers are distinctly different cultures, and what works in the garden often works poorly in containers. Those rich, black humusy soils we covet in the garden are water-retentive and poorly aerated in containers. The soil biota you covet from compost comes at a price. First though, consider that soil organism populations are boom/bust in containers, so you cannot rely on their numbers. While they do help to break media components down into usable nutrients, you should know that the media actually supplies such a small part of the planting's nutritional needs, that you would be much better served to proceed as though it provides no nutrition than to count on it as of any significance as a nutrition source. In short you're left with very fine particulates in the hope they promote soil biota that is unimportant to your plant's vitality. Compost doesn't provide any significant nutrition to containerized plants.
While I adhere tightly to the concept of 'feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants' in the gardens and beds, I take a completely different approach to container gardening. That isn't to say I don't make allowances for those bound to a particular ideology (all organic methods), but if you're results oriented, then a well-aerated medium and soluble fertilizers will be far more forgiving and much easier to grow in than compost and fish emulsion.
How fast peat breaks down is relative, but pine bark breaks down at about 1/4 -1/5 the rate of peat, so it lasts 4-5 times as long if the particle sizes are the same. Since the particle size is almost always larger, it lasts even longer than mentioned.
Fish emulsion is not soluble to a significant degree, so it requires the same biotic activity of soil organisms to make it available. Since those populations are erratic in containers, so is availability and delivery of the nutrients locked in the hydrocarbon chains.
I didn't suggest Fafard's Potting Mix, I referred to their fine pine bark as a good source of bark for SWCs. They have several potting mixes, but the one with the highest pine bark content is best. It will be much more expensive though, than making your own. If you do decide to use their mix, mixing it 50/50 with pine bark and a small fraction of perlite + a little garden lime will give you a good mix.
After you have the bark, perlite, and peat, you should be able to make 3 cu ft (about 25 gallons) of potting soil for about $9.
Al - You have the patience and calm of a saint! Thanks for trying to help me!
$9 for 25 gallons of potting soil sounds like a dream!
Perlite - I will try to get a local nursery to order it for me. The biggest bags I've seen have been 4 quarts for average of $7. There is an online source that sells it reasonable, but the shpg is outrageous!
Pine Bark Fines - I don't even know where to look for this. All the Pine mulches sold here are larger chunks and pieces of pine. I will check into Fafards. Do you have any company names that sell this other than Fafard's?
Peat - Would Canadian Spaghnum Peat work? That I can find in large bags. :-)
Would Osmocote CRF work? That is readily available here.
I'm not sure where the rest of my message went, the forum spirits must have eaten it.
I have confidence you'll be able to get the perlite at reasonable prices. The larger the volume in a single bag, the less expensive it is on a per volume basis.
Canadian sphagnum peat is fine, as would be any type of sphagnum peat. Just be sure to avoid bagged reed/sedge (aka Michigan) peat.
I don't know what to tell you about the bark fines. What it's sold as varies widely. I've purchased it packaged as pine bark fines, soil conditioner, clay soil conditioner, composted pine bark, ground pine bark, premium pine bark landscape mulch ... The Fafard's pine bark product is great for SWCs, but a little on the fine side for conventional containers; still, it's much better than peat as the primary fraction of soils for conventional containers.
Osmocote is as good as the next CRF brand, if you're sold on their use. If you're sure you'll be diligent about fertilizing when needed (about every 2 weeks) you can do better with a product like Foliage-Pro 9-3-6, which has all the essential nutrients in favorable ratios. A close second to the FP would be any of the other soluble fertilizers (MG, Peters, Schultz) in a 3:1:2 ratio (24-8-16 and 12-4-8 are other examples of 3:1:2 ratios). If you're going to use a CRF, please try to get something that is as close to a 3:1:2 ratio as possible and that includes all the minors. I know that Dynamite has a formula that would work very well. I won't bother to, but it's easy to make the case that 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers are a much better choice than 1:1:1 ratios like 14-14-14 or 20-20-20.
Al - I got really lucky today! Made a bunch of phone calls to all the area nurseries to try to find Pine Bark Fines and a large bag of Perlite! Well, guess what? I found a small nursery that carries both as well as all kinds of other garden soil stuff! I bought 3 large bags of the PBF for $10 and the large bag of Perlite for $12. Whoo hoo! Most of the 15 nurseries I called didn't carry large bags of either. And we all know the big box stores don't either. So boy oh boy was I lucky! Now I have a source.
I did go to one of the big box stores for other stuff and bought Osmocote. I picked up and put it down and then picked it up again. (sigh) When I read Controled release fertilizer, I was thinking that meant time-released which is why I bought the Osmocote. I did see the Dynamite there and almost bought it instead. I will take the Osmocote back and exchange it for the Dynamite.
I do have some of the Foliage-Pro 9-3-6 in liquid form. I purchased it online awhile back after reading one of your older posts about it. I've used it, but didn't see too much of a difference in my plants. Maybe I was expecting some impressive growth or something. LOL!
So it looks like I have just about everything to create your potting mix except one item...
1/2 cup micronutrient powder (or other)
What is that? Like Mushroom compost or something. Or are you talking about dry Mycorrhizae powder or something? I was confused on what exactly I am looking for.
Woo hoo for getting the ingredients so reasonable and have a place to go back to for more :). Al told me that if you use the foliage pro, it has all the micro nutrients in it, so you could skip the powder if you can use FP 936 ... That and gypsum are on my list of things to get when I can find/have money at the same time :).
What is gypsum used for? I didn't get any of that!!! Please tell me that I am NOT still missing one of the magic ingredients!!! =8^O
I did also return the Osmocote and got Dynamite instead for Flowers and Vegetables! It also has micro-nutrients in it. It is pellet form. Is that what is needed? Pellet form and not liquid form?
See! What seems perfectly clear to most gardeners is confusing to a klutz like me! (sigh)
I also had my dh drill the holes and cut the PVC piles to make the 5 gallon bucket self-watering containers. We ruined a couple of the buckets by miscalculating the hole sizes, but finally got it just perfect. I gotta tell ya ... it's gonna make SWEET self-watering 5 gallon containers! My pole bean plant is all ready to be transplanted into one of them. Tomorrow is the day to try it out. So ...
Al - which fertilizer do I use? Liquid Pro-foliage or Dynamite slow-release pellets when I mix the potting mix ingredients and fill the pots?
Hi, Becky. I think it's great that you scored all the ingredients to make what I'm sure is a soil you'll be very happy with. You called it my soil, but really, it's going to be YOUR soil. I think the most valuable thing I can share isn't a recipe; rather, it's the information that allows you to determine WHY particular ingredients, when combined, are apt to make a soil that will suit your individual needs, and then how to combine those ingredients to achieve a desired result. My primary focus is always to give YOU the control and flexibility, and not tie you to a recipe. At the same time, I realize you have to start somewhere, so I provide a good place to start - a recipe. ;o)
I want to mention something about why you might not have noticed a significant difference when you switched to the FP 9-3-6. There are 6 factors that affect plant growth and yield; they are: air, water, light, temperature, soil, and nutrients. In container culture, it is the STRUCTURE of the soil, rather than what the soil is made of, that is most important. Liebig's Law of Limiting Factors states the most deficient factor limits plant growth, and increasing the supply of non-limiting factors will not increase plant growth. Only by increasing the most deficient factor will the plant growth increase. There is also an optimum combination of the factors and increasing them beyond optimum, individually or in various combinations, can lead to issues as problematic as deficiencies (or even cause [antagonistic] deficiencies). In short, what I'm saying that if there are other limiting cultural factors, you may not be able to detect an improvement in vitality or growth, even if the nutritional program was perfect. I think that with an improved soil, you may eliminate some limiting factors, and that should allow the plant to grow at much closer to its genetic potential so it is actually possible to realize a noticeable benefit from the FP. Since you have it, and I (and many others I've helped) know it to work very well in combination with the soil you'll be using, I would encourage you to give it another try in the new soil. ;o)
I use two chemical micro-nutrient supplement preparations. One is soluble (STEM), the other is insoluble (Micromax). I use them as insurance, but many growers don't use them. The FP has all the essential nutrients, and the only ones lacking in other commonly found soluble fertilizers (like MG, Peters, Schultz ...) that are likely to be deficient in a bark-based soil are Ca and Mg, which you'll be supplying with the lime. You can also use the Earth Juice micro-nutrient preparation, 'Microblast' if you would like ... but it looks like, at this point, you have everything.
How large/small are the bark pieces/particles?
I have several fish emulsions on hand, but I just don't use them on my container plantings any longer. I like the total control that soluble fertilizers give me - knowing exactly what nutrients I'm applying, in what dosages/%s, and in what ratio to each other, as well as I like the fact that I can depend on the fact that whatever I apply is in elemental/ionic form and immediately available for uptake.
I looked at the receipt again and the perlite was actually about $13. Still a very reasonable price for 4 cu ft.
I will be making up a couple of the self-watering containers and adding in some of my veggie plants tomorrow. Here is a photo of the constructed buckets. Looks like it is going to work rather nicely. Fingers crossed!!! I decided to use PVC. Right on the PVC it said "Drinking Water", so I am being optimistic and hoping that they no longer put toxins in the PVC. The PVC manufacturer has a website: www.charlottepipe.com . It appears to be produced in Florida. I will be checking their website to learn more about the safety of their PVC products.
My house has PVC. In another thread there is talk about the use of PVC. Supposedly, after 1977, PVC was changed and is supposed to be much safer. I guess they no longer use any toxic PVC. That's what I would think anyway...
Hi, Becky. Can we back up for a second? There was so much activity on the thread that I momentarily lost track of the fact that you were making SWCs. I don't use them, but generally it's suggested that you use a granular fertilizer (looks like what you might use on a lawn or spread on a garden) in a fertilizer 'strip' on top of the soil. I do know that many growers forgo the granular fertilizer in favor of a soluble fertilizer (not fish emulsion) in the reservoir. I don't SEE any problem using a CRF OR the soluble fertilizer, but I'll check with a friend who is well-versed in SWCs and what does/doesn't work well. If you do use the CRF, incorporate it, don't broadcast it on top of the soil. Nutrient release is tied directly to temperature and exposing the prills to direct sun isn't generally considered desirable.
By the size of the bark, I think you're going to need some additional peat, so try 5:2:1, bark:peat:perlite to start. Don't forget to add a level tsp of dolomitic (garden) lime per gallon of soil, or 1/2 level cup per cu ft.
I do have the Dynamite slow-release fertilizer as well as the liquid Foliage-Pro. According to their website, the Dynamite supposedly has a coating that doesn't allow it to break down like Osmocote does in the heat. Supposed to last up to 9 months. (Or so they say.) Far better than the Osmocote. Dynamite also has micronutrients in it unlike Osmocote. I am thinking that might be the best thing to add to this potting mix, instead of the FP liquid. Or maybe I should use both?
I'll add in the extra peat. Looking at it ... I, too, thought it might need more because the Pine Fines are not composing yet in the bags. Maybe they were recently chopped up and bagged and have not had time to decompose yet. I have the dolomitic lime which I will also add in.
Do you add the Dolomitic lime for all plants, not just veggies? I may try your potting mix with my Brugs. They grow best in large pots, not the ground here. Too hot for 4+ months out of the year for them. Most of my pots will be self-watering pots. Please do ask your friend about the fertilizer for such. I really appreciate it!
The lime performs 2 valuable functions. It raises the media pH to a level favored by a wider variety of plants; and once the reactive phase is complete, there is a residual fraction of Ca and Mg available for plant uptake. If you're familiar enough with both the needs of your plants and are able to provide both Ca and Mg via other means, you can certainly resolve pH issues and provide for Ca and Mg via other sources, but that's kind of like making your own ketchup every time you need it as a condiment. It's a lot easier to use a product that already has all the ingredients AND tastes good, than it is to complicate things by trying to make your own from multiple ingredients.
I add dolomitic lime to all soils that have a low pre-lime pH. For other soils, like the gritty mix, I use a combination of gypsum and Epsom salts as the sources or Ca and Mg because neither appreciable change media or soil solution pH. That it doesn't raise pH levels is desirable in soils with a starting pH of around 5.8 or higher, which is the approximate starting pH of the gritty mix.
I sent an email to my buddy Dave, and asked him to look in and check on your fertilizer program. Hopefully, he's still a member, or he'll write me and I can copy/paste. I trust that his input will be very reliable.
Thanks, Al. I hope your friend does send you a reply soon. :-)
When you talk about "other soils, like the gritty mix" are you talking about the mix I am going to make or some other mix that you make?
I have been reading a book by Edward Smith called "Incredible Vegetables from Self-watering Containers. His secret soil mix is:
1 20-quart bag of mature, high quality compost
1 20 quart bag of homemade or ready-made planting mixture (sphaghnum peat, perlite, and limestone)
And then he adds to this mix to ensure that any deficient nutrients in the compost are included in the potting mix:
1/3 cup blood meal
1/3 cup colloidal phosphate
1/3 cup greensand
1 tablespoon of azomite
(The above 4 items I know nothing about.)
He mixes it all together and then uses it for the SW containers. He then supplements with liquid Fish/Seaweed Emulsion every other week after the first six weeks. I know you don't use compost and it is hard to say what nutrients are in any given compost, especially commercial compost.
But this gardener and writer claims he gets great results from this.
Seems when I get one answer, it just leads to 10 more ...
The gritty mix is a soil I make that has a 2/3 inorganic component and 1/3 uncomposted bark. I use it on long term plantings, like bonsai, the woody plants I grow on for bonsai, houseplants (including succulents and cacti). I'll leave a picture.
From all appearances, he is limiting himself by adhering to an organic approach. That is fine, as long as we realize that we are eliminating a huge portion of methodology that is capable of producing plants with better yields and better vitality with less effort and a wider margin for error.
To answer your question about what kind of nutrition you can expect from finished compost - compost provides almost nothing in the way of nutrients. It's value comes in what it adds to the moisture retention, tilth, and mineralization of mineral soils.
I'm not saying this from a defensive posture, rather, from a purely observational perspective: It's easy to claim you have a secret soil and to say that you get spectacular results from it. I could do that and get away with it much more easily than Mr. Smith could because I can point to the testimony of hundreds (if not thousands) of growers who are using it, but I don't. I can though, take you to an open forum setting and post your comments about the soil recipe you just mentioned, and soon, a large number of growers that USED to grow in similar soils but have sinced moved on, would join the conversation with their thoughts.
Thanks, Al, once again for clarifying all the confusing information out there on how to grow container plants. I am still going to try yours. I was just wondering if the compost added any nutrients to the potting mix, not trying to contradict your potting mix.
I think that I am going to go ahead and pot up a couple veggie plants today using your potting mix and my handmade SW pots. I also am going to add the dolomite into the top 3-4" of the soil and make a ring in the potting mix around outer edge of the pot and add some regular dry veggie fertilizer similiar to what they do in the earthboxes. And then add a heavy duty piece of trash bag to the top to kind of seal it all in. Then I'll just cut an x for the PVC pipe for watering purposes and however many x's I need to add plants to the pot. And then see what happens.
This year is mostly going to be experimental. I'm keeping notes. If I have great success then I will know that I've hit on something that works. If it is a complete bust and the plants do not thrive, then I will know to change my approach and try something a little different.
I hope that you hear from your friend who does SW containers. If so, please post here for me (and others) as to what he suggests or does. I greatly appreciate ALL your help. You are a wonderful "teacher" and I know that you have helped hundreds or even thousands of people with your insight into how plants grow and thrive. :-) Thank you so very much!!!
;o) I didn't take it as though you were contradicting anything, Becky. I hoped to off as not being defensive.
Incorporate the lime entirely for best results (all through the soil).
Hopefully Dave will show up. I've seen him post here, but not for a while. He's very active on a competing site with a container gardening forum, which is how I got to know him.
You're very welcome for the help. I try to help almost anyone I think I might be able to, but as you probably realize, some people are able to make us WANT to help them. Through the years, I've thought about that a lot, and I've concluded that it's not any one thing that makes me feel that way. It's more like a combination of things, but I do know that attitude plays a major part in the amount of satisfaction that I get from the interaction and from helping where I can. I guess I'm taking a circuitous route to wind up saying that I like your attitude, and that you seem like a perfectly nice person just adds to the fun.
I think I already wished you a HAPPY NEW YEAR! If I didn't, I do; but it's probably getting closer to the point where CHEERS! would be more appropriate. ;o)
Al asked me to reply as I do a lot of veggie growing in SWCs and have experimented with various fertilizing options.
The way I currently handle fertilization is with a water soluble liquid. I use Foliage Pro 9-3-6 almost exclusively these days. I mix the FP with water in a bucket at around 25% strength. Then I fill the reservoir with it. That's it. Every time water is added so is the dilute fertilizer. For most plants this seems to work well throughout the season, but for some really large, heavy feeders such as pumpkin vines you might wish to increase the amount of FP around midpoint in the season depending on how the leaves look.
The above method is the most practical for me to get the result I want and maintain the control over nutrients that I want, but some folks won't find it practical if they just want to fill the SWC directly with the hose or if they use automated irrigation to keep the reservoirs filled.
If you will be using a granular or controlled release fert incorporated into the mix I can't really advise you on a brand other than choose one that includes the minor nutrients if at all possible. There was a time I could recommend the Espoma line, but they have reformulated it and reports I hear are that it no longer performs as well in SWC as it used to. The biggest drawback I found to mixing the fertilizer into the media is that it's effectiveness seems to wane before the plant's season is over. With quick maturing plants it's not an issue, but for plants that will spend a few months in the container it's quite common to recognize nutrient deficiencies after the mid point of the season. What many do at this point is start using a water soluble fertilizer either top watered in or in the reservoir. I simply got to the point where I questioned why I was using anything other than the Foliage Pro since I always ended up using it or similar (water soluble) at some point in the season.
I would also stick with a 3:1:2 or even 1:1:1 ratio fertilizer. One potential drawback of SWC is build up of salts in the mix over time as water typically isn't flushed through the soil. By sticking with a nutrient ratio close to what plants actually this risk can be minimized.
Hope this is of some help and let me know if you have any questions.
Dave - Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. I am growing veggies in SWC and was wondering if the Foliage Pro would have the right nutrients in it for edible plants such as tomatoes, watermelon, carrots, etc. It doesn't say anything on the container about using it for veggies and fruit.
Let me clarify ... you are saying I should use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon of water with every watering? I wonder if I could get away with fertilizing with 2 tsp. per gallon every 2 to 4 weeks as suggested on the bottle instead of more often. I was planning on using the hose to fill the holding tank in the SWC, but could hand-water every other week with this stronger fertilizer mix. I, too, was wondering about the salt build-up.
Yes, the Foliage Pro works very well for edibles. The name is confusing because the implication is that it's ideal for foliage plants (which it is). It will likely surprise you, but there isn't a plant on earth that I know of that won't grow well with a 3:1:2 ratio fertilizer. It's actually the closest ratio to the nutrients *virtually all* plants use of any of the common ratios on the market. It's true that some plants would do a tad better with a little more potassium such as would be offered in a 3:1:3 ratio fertilizer. These aren't easy to find which is why a 1:1:1 ratio fertilizer is also a good choice even though it has a lot more phosphorous than any plant on the planet will ever use.
Yes, you could use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon with every watering and then observe the plants. Progressive leaf yellowing starting with the oldest leaves and working toward the newer leaves would be a tell that the amount is too low and needs to be increased.
You certainly could use a higher strength dilution and fertilize less often. This would represent a trade off between what is best for the plant and what is most convenient for you though. I am not saying this is wrong, we all make compromises myself included. It think it's helpful to understand the compromise though so we can decide if it is one we want to make. If we use a full strength dose once every two weeks what happens is that initially the plants have more nutrients than they need. A few days later they have the right amount and a few days later they have less than they need and then a few days later we fertilize again. It's a feast/famine cycle. To be clear, in practice this usually works well enough. It's not "wrong" to do. When we fertilize dilutely with every watering what we are attempting to do is provide our plants with the ideal amount of nutrients 24x7x365. It ties water delivery to nutrient delivery. When plants are growing rapidly they need a lot of water and a lot of nutrients. When plants are growing slowly they need less of both water and nutrients. If our water always has a dilute amount of nutrients in it then the faster the plant uses water, the more nutrients it gets.
There are many ways to get our plants the nutrients they need and I don't think any of them are 'wrong'. Ultimately once we understand what nutrients plants really use (as opposed to what the fertilizer industry leads us to believe) and we understand how some nutrient programs lead to feast/famine cycles while others come closer to matching the nutrient supply to plant needs it becomes easy to see that while no method is 'wrong', some methods are closer to ideally meeting plant needs than others.
After that it's a personal grower choice as to how close to optimal we are willing to get. Often optimal is more work than 'good enough' ;)
In the middle would be 1/2 strength every week. Just understand that the plant would prefer to have an adequate amount of nutrients at all times and then adopt a program that comes as close to what the plants prefer that you also are OK with.
Salt build up, while possible in SWC, has not been a problem I have observed when using fertilizers in ratios close to what the plants actually use, such as 3:1:2 ratios. There isn't much in the way of unneeded salts that end up sitting around accumulating. Even so, it's very easy to ensure the salts never build up to damaging levels by periodically top watering the SWC and letting water flow out the overflow hole. This flushes the salts into the reservoir and then allows that water to drain away.
Thank you for the extensive explanation. That is exactly what I needed to know. I appreciate you explaining it in full so that I fully understand what plants need to grow and thrive. I was wondering if top watering ocassionally might help flush salt. Thanks for also clarifying that! So much useful information in your post! Thank you for posting and going into detail about these issue with fertilizer and watering of SWC plants.
Between your information and Al's awesome explanation about potting medium, I'm feeling very optimistic about my first experience growing veggies, using self-watering containers, and using Foliage Pro again for possibly good results.
I am familiar with light needs and am learning about prefered temps for the various veggies and fruit.
The only thing that I am not sure about is starting seeds. I would love to hear if you and/or Al start your plants from seeds. If so, what potting mix and containers do you use? Do you fertilize them from the start? How do you transplant them into the SWCs? I am starting all of mine from seeds. I've got them starting in styrofoam cups using MiracleGro Moisture Control potting mix, but am not sure if that is the best way to start veggies and fruit seeds? Any links or advice would be the topper on this discussion. From start to finish, how to grow veggies and fruit in SWCs. :-)
I genuinely appreciate the time you've taken to write such wonderful advice for me (and others) on this thread! Thank you, thank you!
May you both be blessed with much success in 2010! ~Becky~
Becky, if it's an annual or a fast maturing perennial, There is about a 90% probability I start it from seed. I get a kick out of knowing that much of what grows in my yard was 'brought into life' by me.
There are a zillion ways to start seeds and they all work fine until after germination takes place. To get to the germination stage nothing really matters beyond moisture and appropriate temperature (there are seeds with special requirements, but this doesn't apply to veggies). To see just how true this last statement is, take some seed, wrap them in a moist coffee filter or paper towel and stuff them in a ziplock bag and leave them somewhere at normal room temp or better. Watch as those seeds germinate, often much faster than what the seed packet would indicate they will.
Once the plant emerges from the seed, then things start to matter. For robust root development there needs to be good aeration. Plants have all the nutrients they need from germination to formation of the first true leaf/leaves. After this they need to find nutrients in their environment. I typically provide a very dilute dose of fertilizer after the seed leaves have formed. While the plant may not need it, I want to be sure that as soon as they do need it, they have it.
I will tell you what I use, but it's not the be all, end all. It's just what I do. I don't use peat based mixes for seed starting even though they can work OK. I find that peat, at least for me, tends to grow green algae on it's surface and this makes a hard layer that water has a difficult time penetrating. If it forms before germination it can make it difficult for the plant to push through it. I also don't use vermiculite as I find it retains way too much water and leads, at least for me, to underdeveloped roots/plants.
What I use is a combo of partially composted pine bark and turface mvp. This mix can be a tad too water retentive (particularly with partially composted bark), at least in the early stages, so some might prefer the bark plus perlite instead (perlite holds less water than Turface). Screening the materials to remove anything falling through ordinary window screening can also help to bring water retention/aeration to more favorable levels for rapid establishment.
Something to keep in mind about starting from seed is that most of us will use very shallow containers. If you are understanding the perched water table then you likely understand that a PWT is less of a problem in deep containers than it is in shallow containers. Since seed starting containers are almost always a few inches tall or less, the presence of a PWT can have a significantly adverse affect on the growth rate of seedlings. Using more coarse materials that won't support a PWT is the way to go. Unfortunately pretty much every commercial seed starting mix uses very finely ground ingredients. The idea is max water retention so seeds don't dry out while trying to germinate. This works fine, but limits the growth rate once the seed germinates and needs to develop roots as 100% of these mixes force the seedling to try to develop roots in standing water just under the surface of the fine particled mix.
For seeds that are very fine where we fear they may fall through the more coarse media, a small pocket of finer material can be used for germination and then the plant grows roots into the better draining media. The finer material can also be used to lightly cover the seeds to make them less prone to drying out. I have not found it necessary to do any of this, even for dust like seeds, but it can offer peace of mind.
Oh, I guess I didn't answer one of your questions. I use commercial seed flats/trays for seed starting. You don't have to, I just find them convenient as I start hundreds (thousands?) of plants each year and buying that many cups (or trying to save that many) isn't practical for me. I also bottom water everything so there is no real risk of washing a tiny seed too deep into the media.
Many ways to start from seed though, all the above is simply 'what I do'. It's much more important to understand the concepts than it is to precisely copy any particular 'way'.
I do understand what you are saying about the PWT which is why I also thought starting seeds in taller cups might be better. Gives the roots a little more room to extend down. I just dig deeper holes to transplant them in once they get the first couple sets of true leaves. So far, I've had some success with the cups. But wasn't sure about the Miracle-Gro Moisture Control mix. I know they also add time-released fertitlizer in it. Which may or may not be good for the seedlings?
What is the potting mix recipe for coarse media? Could you or Al please post it or give me a link?
I am ignorant as to what turface mvp is. Does it go by another name? I've never seen anything sold here under that name or description.
Turface MVP is a calcined clay product. It is very stable structurally (won't collapse over time) and holds an impressive amount of water while also promoting aeration. It's quite similar to Perlite except that perlite lacks the internal porosity Turface has so it can't hold as much water. You can see if Turface MVP is available near you by looking here. http://www.profileproducts.com/corporate/wheretobuy/
If you have a NAPA auto store nearby they sell a different, but comparable product called Floor Dry. Either works fine.
Now, keep in mind you don't need this for seed starting, it's simply what I use because I always have lots of it on hand.
I think you would do well with 3 parts fine pine bark and 1 part perlite. The ratio need not be exact.
It is much more important to control the size of the ingredients ensure reasonable water retention without a PWT than it is to fuss over specific ingredients or exact ratios.
To answer your specific questions, I don't soak transplants before transplanting. I just transplant them and water them in. It's a bit of a myth that soaking plants helps them. It helps to prevent roots from drying out, but soaking plants in water actually causes them to dry out with roots submerged in water. Plants don't 'drink' nor do they consume 'solid' water. They are most efficient at taking up water in vapor form-one molecule at a time. Soaking roots simply leads to roots sitting in a low oxygen media where the finest roots start to suffer and die within hours and water uptake is, at best, inefficient.
Lastly, the nutrients added to commercial mixes like Miracle Grow are usually fine for seed starting, but completely inadequate for long term growth. It's just NPK only (usually) controlled release fertilizer such as Osmocote and similar. The amount added won't be enough to last as long as the label says. I don't use commercial mixes any longer, but when I did I preferred mixes without the fertilizer added because it was always an unknown quantity/quality. I would recommend pretending it isn't even there in terms of your nutrient program for your plants.
Dave - Thanks for that locator. I do have a John Deere Landscape business near me that is on the list of dealers. I also have a Napa store not too far away as well.
When I mentioned soaking the plants, I meant planting them in the container and then soaking them to settle the potting mix around them in their cozy place. Should I use fertilizer (Foliage Pro) enhanced water when I do that? If so, should I diluted it and by how much?
I apologize for asking so many dumb questions, but everything that I thought I knew about gardening has been proved wrong here and by the looks of it ... in my own garden. So now I am trying to unlearn and re-learn gardening basics again. All these big name manufacturers who sell us fertilizers, potting soil/mix, soil amendments, etc. have been leading us down the wrong path. I can't help but wonder if they do so on purpose. I suppose if we all made our own potting mix cheaper and better, that would certainly put a damper on their sales. Maybe they will take note and change the products that they sell. I know most folks don't mind paying a little more for a good product as long as the price isn't outrageous. And it is a hassle to make your own potting mix, but for me ... the better mix (recipe) and cheaper price to do many more pots for a fraction of what I'd normally spend has me convinced this is the way to go. The final approval for me will come when I see how the plants do using this "new" way: self-watering containers, soil-less mix, and a good fertilizer.
Everything that you and Al have said sure makes lots of sense. And to see your gardens, containers, and plants as well as hear the stories from others gives me confidence that I am on the right track here ... finally! Whew! About time! :-)
Watering in plants when put into new media is a very good idea. It helps to collapse the mix in a good way. I would recommend using fertilized water for this since I recommend tying water/nutrient delivery together. Think of this first watering as simply helping the plants settle in and get a little nutrition in their new home. In general I would recommend a 25% dilution since this is what I attempt to use with every watering by default. This amount will not adversely impact the growth of new roots by being excessive nor will it be so little as to do no good. It's *safe* in other words.
Quoting:All these big name manufacturers who sell us fertilizers, potting soil/mix, soil amendments, etc. have been leading us down the wrong path. I can't help but wonder if they do so on purpose.
Welcome to the vast plant wing conspiracy ;) A lot of the time they aren't leading us down the wrong path on purpose, but because they don't know what else to do. As fond as I am of the expert formulation behind Dyna Gro's Foliage Pro, they also sell and market useless fertilizer products such as their way too phosphorous containing bloom formula. I have asked their CEO why they make such a product since there is roughly zero science underlying such a formula and the answer he gave boiled down to 'marketing'. In other words there are certain things consumers have been conditioned to look for and they reject things that deviate from the norm even though the deviation may be much better for the intended purpose. It would cost millions, if not billions, to educate consumers on sound plant nutrition. This is too expensive for any fertilizer maker to do so instead they offer high phosphorous fertilizers because it's what consumers think they need for lots of flowers.
Similarly there isn't much market for large particled, gritty mixes outside bonsai enthusiasts. When people think of seed starting they want fine particled, "fluffy" stuff not realizing this stuff collapses and compacts within seconds of meeting water. It's what the market expects. Unfortunately the market knows what it wants, but largely has no idea what it actually needs in this case.
As you 'go against the grain' and find out first hand the science and the results you will become another voice in the wilderness who refuses the commercial offerings and insists upon more suitable products. In an ideal world our number would eventually grow to the point where the suppliers of gardening stuff would be catering to what "we" knew we needed instead of what they think "we" want.
You know ... I saw the high phosphorous containing bloom formula by Dyna-Gro and wondered what that was all about! Thanks for cluing me in as to why they sell such a product! Crazy, isn't it?!!! Seems like a vicious cycle. Let's hope gardeners get off the hamster wheel and become educated on growing plants the right way instead of what they think is the correct way.
One thing though that IS bugging me. Gardeners and farmers have been growing plants and crops for years using compost, top soil, etc. in both their gardens and containers. Isn't that learned from Mother Nature. Or is that human interpretation of the composition of fertile soil? That's the issue I keep getting hung up on. What is in the soil on the forest floors? Is it more like Al's mix? Or is that another story? That's the problem with un-learning, you continue to question what you thought was tried and true and successful ...
Quoting:One thing though that IS bugging me. Gardeners and farmers have been growing plants and crops for years using compost, top soil, etc. in both their gardens and containers. Isn't that learned from Mother Nature. Or is that human interpretation of the composition of fertile soil? That's the issue I keep getting hung up on. What is in the soil on the forest floors? Is it more like Al's mix? Or is that another story? That's the problem with un-learning, you continue to question what you thought was tried and true and successful ...
Our ancestors (even those we remember) probably did use 'dirt' and compost in containers. That's where the completely mistaken notion of "you can't expect a container grown plant to do as well as a ground grown plant' comes from ;) A lot of 'old timers' say this and they mean it. They never have grown a plant in a container as well as what they could grow in the back yard soil.
They did the best they could using the materials they could get and utilizing the knowledge they had. Barely more than 100 years ago our fellow humans didn't even realize plants had nutritional requirements! To be fair there were some who were making discoveries before that, but as a species we didn't really begin to understand plant nutrition until fairly recently. It was the early 1900's before the first fertilizer product was made.
Today we are fortunate to have access to more than dirt and compost for our containers. Pretty much nobody who grows plants for a living uses either dirt or compost these days despite the fact both are free and both were used in the past. The reason is that they simply don't work well in the artificial environment of a container, primarily due to the limits they place upon drainage/aeration.
There is an author, Ed Smith, who wrote a book called 'The Vegetable Gardener's Bible' and for in ground growing focusing on natural/organic methods I think the world of it. I would recommend it to new gardeners. He became a successful gardening personality largely because of this book.
Then he went on to write the simply awful 'Incredible Vegetables from Self Watering Containers'. It's awful because he made a very simple and easy to make mistake. He took his vast in ground growing knowledge and assumed he could directly transfer it to container growing. The 'mix' he recommends is virtually guaranteed to become a soggy mess in SWC within a single season. I regularly try to steer people away from this book because it will rarely, if ever, lead to good results.
It's not that it's "wrong" to use dirt and compost in containers, it's that today it's very easy to do far better than what previous generations could. To stick with their methods is foolish even though I do think it important to respect those who have come and gone before us. Respecting them though doesn't mean never progressing beyond what they were able to accomplish with what they had available to them. After all, if they could be alive today, they would probably do at least a few things differently than they did 'back in the day'. Who knows, maybe one day before they die I will be able to persuade my most elderly relatives to try out this new fangled thing called computers and the internet ;)
The earth works differently than containers do therefore different methods are required to get the best results. For a simple, at home experiment take a drinking straw and dip it into a glass of water. Remove the straw from the water and notice how no water stays in the straw. Now repeat this, but this time place your finger over the top opening of the straw. Notice how the water all stays in the straw. What this illustrates is how water and air move together. If water is moving, air is moving.
In the earth water can move virtually forever and therefore so can air. In a container water stops moving as soon as it hits the solid sides/bottom of the pot and so does air. In the earth natural movement of water will see air getting introduced into all but the most brick like clay soils. In a container far lighter soils will have air movement almost stop a few minutes after they are watered.
At this point our plants are living on borrowed time. The roots are exuding CO2 and other gasses which build to toxic levels displacing the oxygen in the soil. The solution is a coarse mix with lots of oxygen holding capacity and a mix that can tolerate frequent flushings with fresh water to force out the 'stale' accumulating gasses and pull in fresh air. In the earth this is a process which takes care of itself in all but the poorest of soils, but in containers we have to attend to this responsibility due to limited volume, often gas impermeable sides and bottom, and the fact water (and thus air) can't move forever within those confines. It's like the difference between how fish in a lake are taken care of by natural processes, but the same fish in an aquarium quickly die without pumps for aeration and frequent water changes to dilute the pollutants. In earth growing is the lake/ocean, container growing is the aquarium. To keep things alive and thriving in an artificial, closed environment requires different materials and processes than it does to have them thrive in their native/natural habitat.
Dave - I appreciate the explanation you just gave. Again, it makes perfect sense. Thank you!
I dmailed Al about in-ground garden soil and amending. I did do the usual top soil and compost in my 6" raised garden beds a couple of years ago and I am now dealing with a very hard, dry garden soil. Many of my beautiful plants have perished. The intense heat and sun here in Florida cooks the ground and makes it hard like a brick that crumbles in chunks when pressure is applied to it. Plant roots can't move or breathe in such "soil". (If that's what you want to call it!) So I've become very frustrated. Which is why I am now leaning towards SWCs which I guess I will just line up inside those garden beds. Won't look pretty, but at least I will have some plants growing in those areas once again.
Funny that you mentioned Ed Smith. I currently have both books that I am reading borrowed from the library. You must've read my mind! LOL! I am really getting a lot of info from the 'The Vegetable Gardener's Bible'. But again, I am confused about the soil composition needed for successful in-ground gardening. I have other issues in my garden as well as hard soil. I have a sloping backyard where the majority of my garden beds are located at the bottom of the slope. When my yard gets too much rain, water bogs or sits there. I had a beautiful garden there for a few short years and now even the weeds won't hardly grow there. I desperately want to change that area to once again be fertile soil that plants will do well in. So that is what I am trying to learn about now, too. I am hoping Al, maybe you, and others here will clue me in as to what I am doing wrong. (I know this question is in the wrong forum.)
I wonder what the amending depth is for garden soil? I probably used all the wrong ingredients when creating the growing medium for those garden beds and now it has come back to haunt me. :-/ Frustrating to say the very least. "Expensive and a lot of work" is the description of what I put into a now dead garden area. It's enough to discourage a person to garden at all.
Quoting:I have a sloping backyard where the majority of my garden beds are located at the bottom of the slope. When my yard gets too much rain, water bogs or sits there. I had a beautiful garden there for a few short years and now even the weeds won't hardly grow there. I desperately want to change that area to once again be fertile soil that plants will do well in.
You can't change the soil under these conditions. That's just the unfortunate reality. On a slope improved soil runs off. At the bottom of a slope where water pools up the soil is rapidly leached of all that is good about it.
Your best bet in such a case is to make raised beds resistant to run off. That means frame them in with materials that will see water rush around them rather than through/over them. Then fill those beds with quality growing soil and plant away.
On the slope, terrace it so your raised beds are level, otherwise what you fill them with will spill over the low end. At the bottom of the slope make drainage ditches for excess water to run off to even lower ground (if available). It is simply impossible to improve soil on a slope without terracing or in a low lying area without a means of quickly diverting excess water.
Well, I did put in raised beds at the bottom of the slope of my yard that are leveled at 6" in height, but the incline on the yard is a real challenge. I have a large Oak Tree and some Cassia Bushes in the middle of all that. Both trees/bushes I love and won't remove. I need the shade from them as well. But have considered that option for future projects. I just don't know if I'll ever get it all done to make the yard usable as a garden again. I also have garden beds higher up along the sides of my yard. One side of the fence garden (east side) is doing okay, but the west side is not. Plants are all dying a slow death there. It's the soil. It's not breathable soil. The hard ground compresses and causes the plants to die a slow death by killing off the roots. I also believe I have nematodes in the soil which suck the life out of the poor plants. It's a nightmare. I guess I need to hit the lotto and rebuild the entire backyard.
Thanks for confirming that terraced, raised beds are the most logical solution. I had already come to that conclusion about a year ago, but with this recession, that's not likely to happen anytime soon. I do need to come up with a better soil mix for my in-ground garden beds. The heat here in Florida takes it's toll on even the best soil. Shade is probably the best answer, but then I couldn't grow the sun-loving plants I want to have in my garden beds. What a dilemma, huh?
I know a lot of folks think Florida is paradise. But the sun and heat isn't kind to our gardens. I guess I need to go native plants for the best results. ;-)
Just catching up here. You guys have covered lots of ground. ;o)
About your yard - is there a way you can encourage water to keep on moving once it hits the bottom of the slope, or are you at the lowest point of the grade? If you can employ a ditch/trench/french drain to keep the water moving downhill, you might be able to turn all that extra water into a visitor, rather than a resident.
Al - The water only sits in that area when we get an over-abundance of rain. The rest of the time the soil in those beds is dry and hard. We have lots of sand in Florida, but it compacts and gets very hard and clumpy. The deeper you dig the more hard compressed sand and something that I think looks like a little bit of clay, too. And the low areas in my backyard do drain down behind the fence to an even lower area in the vacant lot behind my yard. But an abundance of rain makes it sometimes flood a little into the low areas of my yard which means little water standing, but mostly squishy ground. I will admit that the 6" raised beds aren't as squishy because they are higher. But the soil is very compact in those beds and I don't know what I need to do to aerate them more? I had been using cypress mulch, but am finding out that stuff is awful. It does not break down very easily and seems to make the hard soil even worse. It all binds together to make it almost impossible from roots to expand and breathe in. You won't find any earth worms in any of those garden beds. No worm could break through the top 6-8" of soil. I do laugh though ... we have moles underground and I can see their trails around my backyard. They seem to be an asset to my yard because they break up the compressed soil and make it fluffier. I don't know what they eat? Grub worms? If so, I probably have lots of them in my yard! Ugh.
Would adding something like Pine Fines along with peat help renew my soil so that it allows more air and water in? When I water, I can dig down 2-4" and no water has been absorbed. It's almost like the soil has some kind of waterproof coating in the top layers of the soil. Even rain water doesn't always filter down. Usually just puddles and runs off somewhere. A lot of hard compressed sand. Using compost seems to make it even more hard and compact once the compost breaks down and dries out. I need something to fluff up the soil more. I also noticed that when I do amend the soil with compost and water really good, the weight of the water and compost seem to become very heavy. I need something to keep it from compressing so heavy and tight.
I'm open to any and all suggestions on how to amend the soil in my garden beds. Is there something I can do once and the garden will thrive and take care of itself? Or do I need to amend my garden soil every year? Some areas of my yard are thriving, while most of it is not. Any place I have shrubs and trees, that area seems to host plants much better. Possibly because of the shade?
Hmmmm - I mentioned in my dmail that you're probably dealing with severe compaction in the native soil, due to the occasional flooding. I don't think that adding any amount of organic matter is going to help that issue much, unless/until you can ensure that the water has someplace to drain to. You need to keep it flowing out of the immediate area so the soil doesn't become anaerobic - THEN, additional organic matter will help - but the soil HAS to be able to breathe so the organisms taking advantage of the soil food web can 'fluff up' your soil
It also sounds like the soil in your beds is getting very hydrophobic (water repellent), and that can be from a combination of high levels of organic matter and low levels of soil biota. The low levels of soil biota are likely from the flooding and compaction.
You also have me wondering about soluble salt accumulations. If you're watering very frequently, and not getting much in the way of penetration, you'll need regular rainfall to flush soluble salts from the soil. Are your dry spells protracted? Do you know if your tapwater is excessively alkaline?
Al - The soil is very alkaline here. And I water the yard with well water, not city water. We are on septic and well here. So I am sure that the well water is high in iron and other minerals that may not be good for the garden. I don't run the water to my yard hose through the water softener, so no salts from that. But I don't know how much salt might be in the actual ground water coming from my well. I do have other areas in my yard that I water also and they are doing okay. I know my plants love the acid in the rain water. :-)
The raised beds in the low area don't usually flood, but can get a little squishy. Those beds are higher and don't actually flood, just the areas around them. The water drains down behind my fence into the vacant lot behind me that is even lower. But if there is too much rain, it does back up into my lower yard and keeps the ground very saturated for several days until it dries out. And then in summer my entire yard seems to get fried. Under the shade trees is the only cooler spots in my yard. It gets scorching hot and just fries the plants and soil. Cooks everything like an oven. Which is another reason I thought self-watering containers might be a good idea to keep some things green in my yard. :-)
We have very long, hot summers here. From about May until November. Cooler weather is short-lived. Very humid here, too. Even without rainfall. Probably from the ocean. I am about 10-15 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. So we get the river and ocean breezes, even being so far inland. Hence all the sand in the soil.
I don't know what more to tell you that might help give you clue as to what I might possibly try to improve my garden soil. If I could get more plants to grow here, then I'd have more shade in those garden beds and less drying of the soil. It would all work well together - plants, microbes, and soil.
Thanks for trying to help me. You are up in MI and probably have soil that is completely different that what I am dealing with. Your yard looks beautiful, so I know you have some really healthy soil for all your plants and grass to grow in. It's harsh here in FL because of the heat and climate.
If you're primarily concerned about the beds at the bottom/back of your yard, and it appears that all the organic matter in the soil has disappeared over time (Can you guess at what fractions of what parts you used when you made the soil - how much topsoil and what % of organic ingredients and what they were) I would thoroughly incorporate about 10-15% compost or reed/sedge peat into the soil. If, when the soil is naturally moist from rain and if you still have an apparent fraction of organic matter in the soil, you can dig a shovelful of soil and find no earthworms or other fauna in it, either the ebb and flow flooding or something seriously wrong, chemically, is causing the soil problems. It could be a combination of both.
If nothing I've said, or nothing JaG or others has said or will say offers you a solution you have enough faith to act on, the logical step is soil testing. Perhaps you could even contact your co-operative extension service and get someone to volunteer to come out and take a good look at the big picture. It may or may not be something that, once having seen the entire set of circumstances I or someone else could say, "Ohh, now I get it - this is what you need to do ...", but that's pretty difficult from a distance. I really do feel your pain/frustration.
When I created those raised beds, I used 30-40% compost and the rest top soil. That was about 4 years ago. (I think.) I did amend the bed the following year, but just added compost and mixed it in the 3rd year as well. Last year, I was busy taking care of my dying mother, so nothing got done. Maybe the soil just needs to have some organic ingredients added to it.
I am interested to know if pine fines could be added to garden soil? Would that help keep the ground from compacting so quickly? I know that cypress mulch did NOTHING to help the soil in those raised beds! Horrible stuff. I could also buy some good quality compost like Black Kow (much more expensive than the big box store brand) and see if that doesn't improve the soil. Working the ground is going to be the hard part. It's solid and heavy. I need to be a big lumberjack of a man instead a short and squat little woman! LOL! If I had the money, I'd hire someone to do it for me. But alas ... no lotto winner here. :-)
Cypress mulch is mildly allelopathic, and the effects are magnified somewhat when the mulch is incorporated because of the accelerated rate of breakdown. Sometimes, when you buy "compost" in a bag, you get a lot of things that aren't ideal for the soil. The same is true about topsoil. There is little (no?) regulation re. what can be put in bags and labeled as either topsoil or compost. There could be an issue involving what was in those bags - a soil test might ferret that out.
You CAN incorporate pine bark into the soil if you wish, and it WILL help to create channels in the soil for air and water, but it's greatest contribution will be as a result of what it offers as it slowly breaks down. You WILL experience some N immobilization if you do, but it won't be as bad as most other forms of organic matter (other than finished compost) because it breaks down so slowly. I'll try to remember to leave a picture of the soil in my raised beds before I leave. It's made of pine bark, sphagnum peat, Turface, and sand. It's a wonderfully rich soil with great tilth (you can actually SEE that when you look at the picture.
Remember, whatever you do, you need to look FIRST to correcting whatever is keeping microorganism populations subdued. They are your gardening partners, and if they are not capable of flourishing, no amount of organic matter will be of significant help.
In contrast top what you'll see, I have 2 - 4x8 beds that I originally filled with bagged topsoil and other things like bagged manure and compost - more than 15 years ago. The beds have never even compared to the others with the soil I described above, even though I amend then regularly with organic matter and mulch them with pine bark. I can't honestly make the connection to the original ingredients though, because the beds are near some black walnut trees and I fear their allelopathic effects may well be coming into play, but it is a possibility.
Back to the pine fines: If you do use them, you'll simply need to watch closely for signs of N deficiency. If you recognize that occurring, be at the ready with a high-N nutrient source to compensate. I found that after the first year, additional N applications were unnecessary.
Al - That's really some fine looking soil there! That's what I want in my garden beds. I wonder if I amend those beds with pine fines, peat, and turface and along with all the sand I have in my beds currently, if that would help. Maybe I could even let it sit one year to allow the pine to decompose to make the beds useable in 2011? Of course, the weeds would probably take it over.
What would be a good cover crop? Something I could grow in the beds to add the higher N? I would be willing to do that to increase the soil health for one year. Heck! The beds looked horrible this past year ... what's another year if I could get them in a good state to use a year from now?! LOL!
Sorry this topic completely left the container topic, but this a thread I started to ask for help in my garden whether it be containers and/or garden beds. I hope everyone reading doesn't mind us getting away just a bit from container gardening...
I think you should have the soil in your beds tested - to see if there is something so radically wrong that to try to amend it would be throwing good money after bad. I also think you should try to enlist the aide of someone qualified to advise you after taking in the big picture. There may be some key piece of imformation that you don't recognize as important, and someone experienced THERE can take one look and pin down a major issue. While I have little doubt I could pin down the problems if I was standing next to you helping you decide how to spend the time, effort, and bucks it will take to correct the issue, I'd feel horrible if I directed you to do something that was of no value ... and I can't really tell from MI. It doesn't sound like the normal advice to simply "add more organic matter" is the whole issue.
It sounds like your soil is dead, and you need to be able to ascertain why. I think I asked the question on the forum or in one of my Dmails - "if you dig up a shovel of soil when it is naturally moist (not saturated) from rain and look closely at it, do you find worms and other forms of soil life in the top few inches, or is it pretty much devoid of that life?
You might want to try a small raised bed with the bark/Turface/sand/reed-sedge peat, like the soil I made, and see if it's going to work in your area (moisture retention adequate?) before you go much further. I'm pretty sure you CAN make that soil work, but if you can't keep the soil alive, it's going to end up being pretty much like an ebb/flow hydroponics system requiring irrigation daily or more often and very frequent fertilizing, which is a program you probably would like to avoid if possible.
Al - You are probably right. I need an expert to come take a look. Not sure who to ask locally. Any ideas?
That long bed area only gets saturated during the rare abundant rainfalls we have here. Most of the time the area is dry as a bone. I do have Plumeria and a single rose bush growing in parts of those beds. Also a Popcorn Cassia bush/small tree. As well as a small Swamp Dogwood tree. I also have the wild daylilies (Ditch lilies) growing there, but because the soil is so dry, many of these plants aren't thriving like they should be. But they are still alive after several years and putting on a small amount of new growth when Spring arrives. Ironically, the one plant that grew in abundance there this past year was Lion's Tail. Tall plants. But the blooms never got as huge as I believe they are supposed to. But I had tons of those plants all along that fence bed.
Call your local cooperative extension service and ask them for help or advice. See if they can suggest someone who can help you. If they send a Master Gardener, you might get a good one and you might not. Usually, the county agent is reliable and will be a helpful resource, even if he only directs you to another source.
You ARE sure that the source of your (soil) problem isn't a simple lack of moisture during dry spells?
Well, probably that's part of the problem. The soil is so hard and dry that water usually just pools on top. I have a hard time deep soaking it. The water just sits there on top of the ground. That's why I keep asking about amending it. If the ground has water absorbent ingredients added, wouldn't that make it more porous and more likely to soak in water for the plant's roots? I suspect the plants still alive there have deeper roots and getting enough water to survive. Just my novice idea on my garden bed soil issues.
It's kind of a circuitous topic. You have to water (slowly at first, to break the soils hydrophobic tendencies ... and deep) to keep the soil biota alive so they can help keep the soil open so that when you water it reaches the soil biota to keep them alive so ...
Periods of saturated soil can kill a considerable fraction of soil life. If drought conditions follow, that too, can kill a considerable fraction of soil life. Recovery from only one adverse condition might be expected to be slow, but recovery from two adverse cultural situations back to back might create an exponentially slow recovery or make recovery impossible as long as the cycle continues or until the actual conditions responsible for the problems in the first place are corrected.
You can take a 'wait and see' approach after incorporating some organic matter if you provide remedial options for N immobilization if it presents itself as an issue, making sure you're providing adequate moisture, or you can look to outside help (or other ideas from the forum) in the hope you can nail down the actual problem(s).