Newbie attempt at following tapla's advice

Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

Having previously killed off any plant or seed I tried to grow, I finally found this place and spent quite a bit of time here, learning, before I spent a bunch of money and time to try again.

It wasn’t long before I found tapla’s container mix recipe. I went shopping today and tried to find the ingredients, and had some success and some substitutions. I would like to offer a description of what I found, to see how far off base I am and whether my poor plants will thrive or keel over from mis-management (again).

Cedar bark “fines/mediums” (I tried to throw out the large-size offenders). I knew pine or fir was preferred, but when I couldn’t find them, I googled and found out that cedar is also a softwood.
Sphagnum peat moss
Garden lime,
and – because I found this early on when I was empty-handed and desperate, Miracle-gro potting mix (not soil) with plant food and water retention crystals already in it.

I also found and bought 2 bags of ReptiBark, but saved them for next time.

So I mixed: 3 parts cedar bark, 1 part peat moss, a handful of lime, ˝ part perlite, and 2 parts potting mix into several containers. (oooh my back!)

I know I didn’t do it perfectly, but I hope I managed well enough that my coleus, lettuce, and spinach will grow decently.

Comments? Criticisms? Advice for next time?

P.S. we do have a John Deere Landscaping store here, but they are not only closed on Sundays, they’re closed on Saturdays. I was sorely disappointed.

(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

Welcome to Dave's Garden and a world of helpful people, gilraen. I'm sure Al will be along to help you regarding your purchases and advise you further. He's a gem.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Ooohh, Gilrean (cool name!) - It looks like you're trying to come close to the 5:1:1 mix? I soo wish you would have asked your question before you made your soil. I can say that I haven't actually used cedar bark/mulch to grow in, so I can't comment on the practice directly or from actual experience, but I can say that because the tannins, as well as terpenoid and phenolic compounds cedar is rich in are known to be allelopathic (inhibit growth) to many other plants, I have discounted the likelihood that it would be a suitable choice for me. :-(

I would keep my eyes peeled for a pine or fir bark product in suitable size (hemlock is ok, but it's unlikely you'd find it). I'm really sorry. If you stick with it, let us know how it terns out. Since the way you made the soil has the bark as a smaller fraction than it would be if it was mixed @ 5:1:1, maybe you'll be ok.

Wishing you good luck.

Thanks for the kind words, Pirl. ;o)


(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

Quite welcome, Al. Didn't you once mention using a chipper to reduce pine chips to (almost) fines?

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Yes - a lawn mower can be used, too. See the several posts of Jan 17 on this thread: for pictures of how the mower works - a chipper would be similar.


(Arlene) Southold, NY(Zone 7a)

It's always soothing to know the old memory can retrieve what's needed at the right time.

Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

Ok Thanks for letting me know, tapla. Since Ive done all the mixing and planting already, I'm going to go with it. But, since I have a few seedlings still to plant and more that I want, I'll start over with the reptibark and see if that makes a difference. If there's really a difference, I'll see it in the growth (or non-growth) of the two sets.

I may get my son to go to John Deere Landscaping during working hours, since they're supposed to have pine bark fines.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

I'm thinking you might be confusing the ingredients of the two mixes. The 5:1:1 mix looks like what you see in the middle & has pine bark fines, perlite, and peat in it

Thumbnail by tapla
Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

..... while the gritty mix, as seen below, has equal parts of uncomposted pine or fir bark, screened Turface, and crushed granite or cherrystone.

Just wanted to be sure we were on the same page, as you wouldn't normally use Reptibark in the 5:1:1 mix.

Thumbnail by tapla
Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

Yes, the 5-1-1 is most like what I'm using.

So when do I use the 5:1:1 mix and when do I use the gritty mix? This is getting more and more complicated all the time. I already dumped the cedar mix from my lettuce and spinach, and used the reptibark (while you were replying, evidently) because I don't want my food to be inhibited in its growth.

So... what/which should I use for my next containers?

This message was edited Feb 28, 2010 4:35 PM

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

It's not too complicated, but rather than going through everything again, I'm going to direct you to this thread that should answer your questions about the different mixes:

I generally use the 5:1:1 mix for things I'm going to have in the container for 1-2 growth cycles. This is usually the garden display containers and veggies. For all my long term plantings (2 or more growth cycles) - houseplants (including cacti and succulents) and all the woody material I'm growing on for bonsai, I use the gritty mix.


Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

Tapla, if you would come back for a moment, what do you think about cypress fines as a replacement for pine? I know it wouldn't be your first choice, but does it also make problems for the plants as cedar does?

I haven't opened the bag, so I'm prepared to take it back if I have to....

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

I feel really bad for you, Gilraen. Chipped cypress is mildly allelopathic (inhibits plant growth) when used as a mulch, so the affect would be much more potent if it was used as the primary fraction of your media.

If you can't find pine bark in a suitable size for the 5:1:1 mix, or either pine or fir bark in appropriate size for the gritty mix, you're probably just as well off to forgo trying all the substitutes and just sticking with a bagged soil amended with some extra perlite until you're able to locate the bark. I soo wish I could help you find what you need. :-(


Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

Ok. Thank you, Al.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

I feel like I should explain something, and please take my tone as the same one I would use talking to a good friend.I always feel bad when some one can't find one of the ingredients for one of the mixes I use. I feel especially bad in this case because you're getting frustrated and have put a lot of effort into bringing home things that aren't going to work well.

I share the things I've learned, both through studying, and plenty of practical experience to try to help, but if you notice, I never promote what a lot of people refer to as "Al's Soils". I just lay out the science behind why they will work for you and let you decide. Virtually all of the persuasion comes from two sources - other growers reporting their positive results, and from your own desire to want to improve the effort:satisfaction quotient associated with your container gardening adventures. I applaud you for that - I admire enthusiasm and the will to learn/do better.

When someone asks for help, I'm always very willing to help, but unfortunately it doesn't always work out. Some people try very hard to find the best ingredients (like you) but can't, and others just give up when they can't find it with little effort. I would encourage you to keep in mind the principles you learned in the sticky at the top of the forum because if you understand them, you can save yourself a lot of grief and effort. and to keep your eyes peeled for a source of bark in an appropriate size. It's a good idea to try to find more than one source, because things change when your supplier stops carrying it or they start buying a different product from another supplier in its stead.

Because you've put so much effort into trying to find the ingredients, I ESPECIALLY hope you do find them eventually and that everything gets easier and more foolproof for you. Let me know if you have questions or need more info.

Take care.


Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

Thank you, Al. That's very kind. I believe I understand the basics.... key words being "I believe." :-) At this point, I think I'm going to buy 5 or 6 pine bark mulch bags from John Deere Landscaping, and rent a chipper. I think I've got my son to help me, so we can learn together. I'll store it all in a plastic bin in the garage, and mix it in with the others in the 5-1-1 when I need it.

You've been very helpful, even if the answers were negative. And so far I haven't killed anything. That's progress, for me!

Houston, TX(Zone 9a)


Rather than start another thread ("Oh, no, please!!!") I thought I'd use this one to give a quick update.

I have 3 different mixes in use right now, showing the learning curve I've taken.

Attempts at the 5-1-1, with the "1-1" being what Tapla recommended (plus a bit of potting mix), and "5" being either:

cedar bark mulch
sifted pine bark mulch

The only thing (that I remember) putting in the cedar bark is a couple of ornamental kale plants, and they seem to be doing fairly well. If I have others in the cedar, I don't remember. Maybe an herb or two.

Note to self: Write it down!!!

I didn't use the cypress bark. It's still in a bag in the garage.

I had lettuce and spinach in 2 containers, one with ReptiBark and one with sifted pine bark. The Reptibark plants did NOT grow well. They hardly grew at all in the 3 weeks I had them there. And after finally noticing that the water runoff under the ReptiBark container was reddish, I cut off the leaves, washed them and ate them, and dumped all the mix in a bag for the garbage.

The lettuce and spinach in the sifted pine bark are doing swimmingly. I can hardly find room to water them or pluck just the outer leaves. They are beautiful.

So the first quarter score is:

pine bark: 1
cedar bark: 0
reptibark: -1

Since it's already on the way, I will give the coco coir a try. It is supposed to be ground to the about the same size as the pine bark fines. But bought some pH testers over the weekend, and see what the readings are in that mix, and the ones already there.

Almost everything else I have (more herbs, blueberry bush, blackberry bush and soon potatoes and squash) is or will be in the pine bark. I am hoping everything else does as well as the lettuce. I will be a happy camper (um... gardener) if it does!

And a big Thank You to tapla.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

The real gritty mix and the real 5:1:1 mix will work (almost) equally well (the gritty mix gets the nod) on almost any plant you're likely to want to grow in a container, except that the gritty mix is considerably better for cacti and succulents, though it is more expensive and time consuming to make - but it lasts much longer, too. The 5:1:1 mix starts out with far greater aeration and remains serviceable (retains its aeration) for 4-5 times longer than peat/coir-based soils on average. The gritty mix will retain its structure far longer than you can leave a plant in a container, because it would become badly root bound before the bark fraction breaks down to the point where the soil holds too much water (I've never actually seen that happen in a properly made gritty mix).

Both soils work extremely well if you fertilize almost all plantings frequently at low doses with any soluble 3:1:2 ratio fertilizer, like 24-8-16, 12-4-8, 9-3-6, so it's kind of a 'package deal'. ;o)

I'm really glad you found a mix that you can work with, Gilraen. Once you're familiar with how it works, and how different ingredients work in combination with each other, you'll be able to fine tune it to fit your needs to a 'T'. Good goin'!


Houston, TX(Zone 9a)

I do have a liquid 3:1:2 ratio fertilizer, and I am using it once a week. The guys at the big box stores probably thought I was a bit -- um -- mental, or at least a snob, because my litany was: Nope, Nope, No, Not that one either, Nope. lol.

Thanks for the tip on succulents. I want those, next. Saw some beauties at Lowes this weekend. They have several "designed" planters, with different types in them. I think they're made to be left in there, not repotted. Would anyone happen to know?

Sheesh. And I thought I was going to take it slow! At least I haven't put in a square foot lot, yet. That should be next year. :-)

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