medium not draining well

Brainerd, MN

I'm afraid I've either over-watered my tomatoes or the medium I'm using (Miracle Grow Plus) is holding way too much moisture as the posts are staying quite moist/wet. I'm thinking of uprooting the plants and adding sand and then, of course, repotting them. I think I've heard tomatoes hold up pretty well from potting up, etc., but I am looking for an opinion from someone with more experience. Also, the sand I got is called "Paving Sand" (apparently used under sidewalks) as opposed to "Washed Play Sand" which looked like its grains were too small for containers.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

The sand would be a significant mistake because it would further rob aeration from the soil. Water retention and aeration are directly related to particle size. The reason MG soils are so overly water-retentive is because the particles that make up the soil are too small. I've been studying soils and helping people understand how they work for more than 20 years. If you have the ambition, I'm sure you'll benefit significantly from the information I'll link you to. I've had hundreds of container growers tell me the understanding of the concept I explain was pivotal for them as container gardeners. I hope you find it helpful:

The most recent repost has more information than the one at Dave's, which I'll probably repost again soon due to its length. If you'd rather read that version, you'll find it here - it has more than 2,500 posts to it, which I take as testimony to its perceived value.

Best luck!


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Brainerd, MN

Al Thanks for your comments and links. I am familiar with a bit of what you posted at Dave's from reading some of it a few of years back. The problem then, as is now - pine bark FINES are impossible to find in this area. I know your material is loaded with good information and research but last time I looked it was so loaded as to be overwhelming. Is it at all possible to create a very short information piece that skips over all the whys (believe me, I take your word on this stuff) but rather addresses alternative ingredients (availability or price considerations). I have found a much finer texture mulch in cyprus and cedar; the smallest pine bark is mini nuggets, which are not anywhere close to "mini" in my opinion.

I'm afraid I've already added the sand, although it us the large particle (builder's) sand. WIll adding more perlite help at this point?

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

This is where the 'whys and wherefores' are so important. If you have a pail of pudding, how much perlite would you need to add to get it to drain well? A LOT - right? The same holds true for the mix you have. You can't START with an extremely large fraction of small particles and amend it so it drains well. Plus, drainage isn't technically the issue, aeration is. You need air in the root zone for normal root function & metabolism, and it takes more than 80% perlite to get pudding (or your soil) to show ANY kind of improvement in aeration, which illustrates WHY you need to start with a large fraction of particles larger than about 1/10" if you want to build aeration/drainage into your soils and reduce the volume and height of the perched water table.

Perhaps you could use wicks to help drain the excess water, or partially bury your containers (as long as it's not in clay) to take advantage of the wicking action of the earth? Do you have any Fafard dealers there who would be willing to order one of their heavy mixes? Their 3M mix, 51L mix, or Nursery mix, are all pretty good right from the bag/bale.

Here is a link to a thread that discusses dealing with water-retentive soils. I hope you find it helpful:


Brainerd, MN

Al, Thanks for this additional information and suggestion. After checking the Fafard website it looks like the nearest dealer is quite a drive from me. I wonder if you are familiar with any other brands that I might try to find in this area. With so few options where I am (almost everyone is using Shultz's or MG potting soil.... are these folks adding something like peat - I assume lots of people are getting by using MG??? Very confusing.

Grosse Pointe Shores, MI(Zone 6a)

MA, have you considered uncomposted pine bark mulch? I would think that in Minnesota, you'd be swimming in the stuff!

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

I really can't imagine that a suitable pine bark product is entirely unavailable in MN; more likely, you just haven't found it yet. I get people lamenting all the time that it's unavailable in MI. If they're from downstate, I can usually tell them where to go within a few miles of home. I have at least 3 reliable sources, and stumble upon it here & there in my travels, often at big box stores, but usually they're unreliable. It's packaged under a wide variety of names - pine bark mulch, premium landscape mulch, clay soil breaker, soil conditioner, etc. It's not important what's ON the bag; it's what's IN the bag that counts. You want pine bark with almost all the particles in the dust to 3/8 or even 1/2" size range.

Most of the people using heavier soils are simply accepting the limitations inherent in those soils and living with them. In many cases, they are not knowledgeable enough to be able to recognize or realize the limitations, so go about their business as though things couldn't be better. You'd be amazed at the number of people who never give a thought to the importance of ample volumes of air in the root zone. When I lecture to various groups/clubs/organizations, I continually get to see 'the light go on' in people's eyes when they suddenly become aware of what their limitation has been through all those years spent trying to grow plants in containers like they see in pictures. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Now it all makes perfect sense". You can probably tell I REALLY enjoy sharing what i know, and that 'Eureka' moment has always been my favorite and my 'reward'.

I'll start a thread at another forum site and ask if anyone has located PBFs near Brainerd. If I hear anything, I'll be sure to let you know.

Take Care.


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Brainerd, MN

Al, thanks much and indeed please do let me know if you discover it available anywhere nearby. I agree you would think Minnesota would be loaded with all forms of the stuff but interestingly almost every bag of mulch I see comes form a processor out of state. I have tried Menard's, Lowe's, Home Depot and Walmart. (Keep in mind these big box outlets don;t always carry the same products from region to region - usually based on their distribution centers.) I have been to every nursery in Brainerd and several of the larger ones (in previous years) in the Minneapolis/St. Paul, some 120 miles away. I was able to get it at a small nursery in the Cities several years ago and then they claimed they could no longer get it.

May we approach this a bit differently: Can you speculate on how well cypress, cedar, or even coco hulls might work (as I have found them). Is there a nutrient advantage to pine bark that would be missing from the others and if so couldn't that me made up with an amendment?

Gardening should be fun -- if all the expense and work I've put into getting these plants this far is all for naught because I can't amend the existing medium then I may as well throw out the dozen varieties of tomato plants I started from seed and say the heck with it as it sounds like they are all doomed anyway. And that's not fun.

BUda, TX(Zone 8b)


As Al has stated, if you can't find it, you may have to make it yourself. I had a real problem finding acceptable material myself, and I got the better material by mistake. The option that I looked at very seriously was grinding my own fines. Make a screening table with 1/2" hardware cloth and what doesn't fall through, grind the nuggets and re-sift. I am going to go that route just to make the pine bark mulch go farther in getting the amount of fines that I need.

Harbor Freight has a grinder for $149, not sure how small a grind it's going to make but that is the about the cheapest thing that I can suggest. I could rent a chipper from HD, $60 for 4 hours and $85 for the day. You should be able to get the bark mulch from Wal-Mart or a local nursery in your area. I know your frustration all too well, as I was in same place a few weeks ago. Couldn't find the large bag perlite, but finally did. Had lots of questions, almost identical to yours, and they were answered. Timing was a problem for me because we were so warm early and we had a rainy winter & spring, and things were happening too quickly for my wallet to catch up. Maybe cut back on some of your aspirations for this year, like I did, but with your new knowledge, have a lot better plan and source pipeline set up for next year. You may have to buy a bag from different places and types of material to find one you can use, that's just going to be part of the process.

I'm on disability and have a limited income so I have to prioritize what I need to purchase for the moment, and not just go and get what I want that looks cool. I do whatever I can labor wise to make this garden grow. I could have purchased the hardware cloth but I had the deep fry basket that I could use. I hand-sifted 5 bags of pine mulch to get the fines that I needed for the container mix material.

I don't want to tell you what to do, but I'm just trying to help and let you know what I had to do to get my mix put together. It's gonna be hit & miss, and you'll have to adjust the formulas to what ingredients you have available to you. Today I finally picked up the last missing component to the mix, so now I have everything, and in quantities to make another batch or two.

Brainerd, MN

thanks kevcarr for the advice and information. I admire your ambition. I have respiratory issues so I don't see myself doing much activity where I'd be raising a lot of dust, although I am curious about what you use or do to GRIND the nuggets. I know a lot of people are fascinated with this topic but I'm flat out not interested in the science behind it. (In the same way I don't need to know how my computer works in order to benefit from it.) Additionally frustrating is the lack of information from others on how they have adapted improving getting more air to a plants root when they do were unable to find pine bark fines, which you have done and that's much appreciated

BUda, TX(Zone 8b)

I just started considering container gardening in the last couple months and this is still a learning curve for me. I am now finding out that the 5-1-1 formula is correct and what should be used as the basis of your mix. I was very skeptical of this mix when I first looked at it and didn't give it much of a chance. Now that I've worked with it a bit, I'm finding out my misconceptions were unfounded. My problems were I was over-watering and added too much fertilizer, so I've stopped both and adjusted watering accordingly.

As for the grinding, I haven't done any of that yet. I looked around and most chipper/shredders cost around $500 or more. Harbor Freight has an electric one, I think it's on sale now, for $149. Depending on how money hits, I may be able to pick it up next week. Finding 3 different types of pine mulch let's me decide how I will use the material. All the pine material is the "Hapi-Gro" brand that is out of Hope, Arkansas and was purchased at Lowe's. "Pine Nuggets" were huge chunks, 1 1/2" to 3" pieces that would have to be ground even for any use around the garden. It would probably take 5 years to decompose enough to be of any benefit in the garden. "Pine Bark Mulch" bags were marked " 1" or less", and they lied. Most of it was around 1 1/2" and it had a lot of wood fibers in it. With a 2 cf big bag, I barely screened a 5 gallon bucket of the fines material I needed, and had about 1/2 of a 25 gallon pot full of chunks. The last material marked "Pine Mulch" was the best find for the container mix. It took longer to screen because it was a lot finer grind of material. The same 2 cf bag yielded almost 1.5 5 gallon buckets of fines and a 1/4 25 gallon bucket chunks, but those were just about 1", so it was great to use for mulch base where the containers sit on the concrete patio. All these materials are ground at the paper mill and there is going to be variations from each supplier and even from bag to bag. Actually the last bag of the pine mulch I used had some bigger chunks in it, but it was still better material.

Just verifying the HF site, the chipper is on sale for $149, and reading the manual it looks like it should work for what I plan to do with it. The reviews are mixed but I find a lot of product reviews are inconsistent with the price of product and expectation of the customer. People were upset with this because it didn't work with leaves, but it's designed to chip branches not shred leaves, with are too thin to be ground up efficiently.

I'm going to go down a path that's been visited before, but it must be said. I had a lot of the same questions about substitutions of ingredients. After Al's explanation, and reading the original Container Soil Sticky's, I understood the concepts Al has promoted. It took about an hour, but it was well worth the time and has given me a great understanding of what we're trying to do with our gardens. If we just throw some "dirt" in a pot and try to get beautiful tomatoes out of it, it's not going to happen, but if we buy the right ingredients, and make a concerted effort we can have tomatoes that we're proud of.

I have heart problems and I just got involved with a pacemaker study, that's what's gonna pay for the chipper. This is the first time I've gone to the hospital and I GET PAID for it...LOL... The company is evaluating new software and changing some parameters, so this will be a year-long study, and I get paid for each visit. On top of that in November I had both knees replaced, so I have some stiffness or can't really get "down in the dirt", so to speak. I've dealt with health issues since June '05. I have to have something to keep me going and use my time, because if I didn't, I'd go crazy.

Brainerd, MN

well good luck with your chipper... maybe you can make it pay for itself by grinding pine bark fines for others in your area. I've switched to Pro-Mix as I'm out of patience with locating PBFs (again) this year. Sooner or later someone will post about alternative material. I am surprised that all the big box stores (including walmart) seem to have CYPRESS fines, and can't help but wonder why that is - what folks use them for.

Brooklyn, NY(Zone 7b)

alot of container overwatering is directly related to the drainage holes.. how big they are.. and if they actually do drain.. which has to do with the holes being elevated off the surface of what the containers are sitting on..
if the holes in the container are in the botton.. and they are sitting down on the ground.. it will drain as well as the soil/material it's sitting on.. I'm a proponant of holes in the side of the container..
also... MG has a new organic soil... it drains well.. and things in it dry out quite rapidly... bark is listed as the first ingredient..peat and then chicken litter
could you post a picture of your containers and how they are sitting.. perhaps the holes you have.. they are getting the 6-8 hours of sun a day right... necessary for tomatoes..

This message was edited May 8, 2012 8:05 AM

BUda, TX(Zone 8b)

My buckets have about 8 3/4"-7/8" holes in the bottom and one in the center almost 1". Unfilled buckets will also have holes around the side of the bottom rim. They are sitting along the edge of the patio on a bed of bark chunks from making the container mix. The big reason for over-watering was skepticism about the mix holding water, almost 95 degree temps, and not checking deeper into the bucket to see how moist it was. That said, adjustments were made and it looks like I was able to save one of the questionable Beefsteaks.

Now to add to the mix, yesterday high temp was around 96, today hi was 71, and we've had rain most of the day. The rest of the week looks like it's gonna be the same.

Brainerd, MN

Drainage holes are not a problem for all but two of my twelve plants as the 3 gal containers have 4 or 5 very large (3/4 inches) holes on the SIDE (they are "professional nursery containers). The two possible drainage problem plants are in heavy white plastic bags which have a lot of dime-sized holes but not entirely at the bottom, so those may be interesting to watch. I dealt with the saturation problem by buying two bales of Pro-Mix and repotting everything using half the old sludgy medium and half Pro-mix. So far, they look pretty good. I think I need a hydrometer - might be helpful.

BUda, TX(Zone 8b)

Bought a Ferry-Morse Moisture Meter over the weekend. I'm not thrilled about it is the only thing it has about moisture for the veggies is the "Wilt Point" of them and it's a pretty short list. Okra wasn't even on the list.

I've got several of the nursery pots, and also have a 25 gallon pot, just need something to put in it. Just pulled 2 Mr. Stripey's out of raised bed and placed into newly mixed 5 gallon buckets. They had to be moved because the Whoppers completely dwarfed them, and they would be dead in a few more weeks anyway. I didn't realize how much they grew until got them to the new pots, since they were with the other plants, and now they're on the patio with the rest of the tomatoes. The Whoppers & the Big Beef's are almost 5' tall, with a bunch of maters on them.

Gordon, if you go to the STICKY #3, in this forum, you can see some of the pictures I have of the buckets, they're about 2/3 of the way down the posts. The only thing that would help the buckets drain faster would be to use a wicking set-up, but I've just stopped water as often as I was, and check with the meter before I do. Since the weekend we've already had almost 2" of rain, and by Saturday morning we may get another 4.5 - 5.0 inches of rain. Nice having the plants in containers and can put them in the workshop during this storm.

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