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Mel’s Mix Mix Up?

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Mel’s Mix Mix Up? Empty Mel’s Mix Mix Up?

Post  GmanInTheWild 5/4/2022, 7:35 am

Forum Post

Hey Everyone!

Need some help.  I am not new to gardening but have not had a garden for many years.  I lived in Ohio most of my life with every fertile soil and growing anything was easy.  I now live in Charleston, SC and the soil where I live is terrible and I can hardly grow grass or weeds.  Terrible place to grow anything, so I decided to garden again and try SFG and Grow Bags just to compare them.  I have 2 - 2’x4’ raised beds on legs, about 3’ above the ground and 6” deep.  The raised bed is lined with a landscaping fabric.  The Grow Bags are 3 gal, 5 gal, and 7 gal.  I have planted tomatoes, bell peppers, pole beans, bush beans, onions, egg plant, basil, carrots, cantaloupe, watermelon, potatoes, zucchini, and summer squash.  I did the standard Mel’s mix but had to use extra coarse vermiculite.  The compost is a 50/50 mix of manure and mushroom compost.

I started some plants with seeds and bought seedlings from Lowes.  When they were first planted everything grew very quickly but after 2 weeks we had a rain that lasted about 24 hours.  It was downhill from there.  The plants seemed to stop growing and began yellowing, except for the tomatoes and basil.  This was true for the raised bed and grow bags.  They looked like they were suffering from overwatering but after the rain I did not water them, waiting for them to give me signs of needing water.  Nothing happened after 2 weeks.  No growth, no wilting, huh?  I bought a moisture meter and everything was way in the wet zone after 2 weeks!  It has been 3 weeks and everything is still wet and still showing very little sign of growth except the tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, and cucumbers.  But the tomatoes and bell peppers are what I call stalky, grow straight up like a pine tree with very little bushiness that I am used to seeing.  All weird to me.  I had a small piece of ground I dug up and planted potatoes at the same time I planted  potatoes in the Grow Bags just to compare with my terrible soil.  Well, the potatoes in the grow bags are about 4” tall and the potatoes in my terrible soil are 20” bushes.  I also planted watermellow in the terrible soil beside the potatoes and they are outgrowing the Grow Bags considerably.  The potatoes were out of the same seed potato bag and the watermelons were from the same seed pack.  The terrible soil is dry on the meter every other day and the raised beds and bags are still showing wet 4” deep in the soil!  This all leads to the Mel’s mix used in the raised bed and Grow Bags.  What the heck have I done wrong?
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Post  markqz 5/4/2022, 10:46 am

Hello GmanInTheWild and welcome to the forum!

Sorry to hear that you're having so many difficulties  Sad

I was always under the impression of SC was like the promised land, and any seeds spilled from your trail mix would sprout into a mighty forest as you walked. Obviously I was misinformed.

You don't mention peat moss in your description. Your MM does include that, right?

It's usually recommended that you have at least four compost sources if you're buying it rather than making it from home items. This allows for some diversity of nutrients and microbes.

But mostly it really sounds like your grow bags are not draining properly. My SFG beds drain easily a few days after a deluge, so I'm guessing that your bags simply don't let enough water out.  It might be the pores in the bags are being plugged by the MM. Also, if your bags are "tall" (more than 6"), they would tend to accumulate water more. If it was me, I might consider taking an awl and punching some holes in the bottom of the bags, but let's see what others say.

For your raised bed, do you know how it it's constructed? If it was built water tight (I have some beds that were tarred on the inside) then it might be retaining too much water also.

I'm sure some better informed gardeners will be along shortly to give  you great advice, so stay tuned!

In the mean time, if you haven't already, consider picking up a copy of the All New Square Foot Gardening (3rd ed.).


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Post  GmanInTheWild 5/4/2022, 8:30 pm

Hey Markqz, thank you for the reply.  Here are answers to your questions…

Charleston is a great city, but the soil here is mostly sand.  The low country is primarily swamp, beach, or salt marsh.  Once you move off the coast I am sure it is better.

Yes I am using peat as outlined in the Mel’s mix recipe.  I followed everything in the book except the number of composts.

I understand your comments about the compost.  In the past I have only used manure with good results but with this type of mix I can appreciate adding others.  Suggestions for additional composts are welcome and needed.

When it was raining the water poured through the Grow Bags so I believe drainage is good.  The raised bed is constructed with cedar planks and I have drilled 1/2” holes about every 8” on the bottom and added holes in the sides.  I have watched water run straight through it also.

The only thing I can figure about the moisture is that I may have too much peat.  I broke up the peat really good with my hands and carefully measured everything so I don’t know how it could be.

Yes I have 3rd edition of the book.  I ended up buying the kindle version so I could reference it on my phone when I needed to do so.

Again, thank you for your thoughts and suggestions.  I am planning on posting a few pictures shortly.
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Post  GmanInTheWild 5/4/2022, 9:01 pm

Here is an example of what is happening.  This is my potato patch in the terrible soil.  The little plant in the middle was planted in the MM the same day as the others around it.  All my potatoes in the MM were that small size so it was not just that one plant.  I transplanted this little guy two days ago and it has grown about 2” already.  So it is something about the MM.  All the plants in the raised bed and grow bags are experiencing the same problem.
Mel’s Mix Mix Up? Img_2010
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Post  OhioGardener 5/5/2022, 8:18 am

GmanInTheWild wrote:Here is an example of what is happening.  This is my potato patch in the terrible soil.  The little plant in the middle was planted in the MM the same day as the others around it.

Mel’s Mix Mix Up? Img_2010

Does that mean that only that small portion of the bed is MM, and the rest of it is native soil?

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Post  sanderson 5/5/2022, 3:20 pm

Gman, I have no idea why the potatoes in the MM are not growing like the ones in the dirt. Please tell us more about the manure and the mushroom composts. Did the mushroom have peat moss and perlite added? Can you post a photo of just the mushroom compost? Was the manure commercially bagged or from a stable or farm or dairy? Photo?

You can try an experiment with a seedling pot of the mushroom and one of the manure. Radish seeds are used because they sprout within 3 days or so. Markqz recently posted a photo of his results.

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Post  goodtogrow 5/5/2022, 4:04 pm

I'm a newbie, but I was told not to use manure for more than about 25% max for my compost in my MM.  This is because it breaks down so quickly, apparently.  Mushroom compost is also just manure (unless there's peat moss or other things added into it), so you have 100% manure as your compost.

Also, are you 100% sure the manure and mushroom compost have absolutely no herbicide / Grazon in it?  That will seriously stunt plants or even stop them from growing.

And if you haven't used enough variety of compost sources you are likely not getting enough nutrients in your MM.  That might also mess up the water retention properties of the rest of your MM.

To me it sounds like a compost problem, which is resulting in low nutrients.  Not enough variety of compost and questionable sources.  But, I'm just a newbie, so take what I say with a grain of salt. Wink
GmanInTheWild wrote:But the tomatoes and bell peppers are what I call stalky, grow straight up like a pine tree with very little bushiness that I am used to seeing.
Sounds like low Nitrogen if you're not getting enough green leafy-ness.

An idea to test this would be to use fertilizer on a few plants, like the tomatoes, in a reasonable way over the next few weeks, just to test and see if that helps the plant.  That would suggest that they just aren't getting enough nutrients.  Use the right type of fertilizer (ie. a tomato fertilizer for the tomato plants, etc).

My second guess would be the water issue.  I live in a fairly wet climate and know how water can affect plants and it can be hard.  Their roots can suffocate and cause yellowing and stunted growth and more.  This might be due to a lack of balance in the MM when it comes to the 3 ingredients.

Did you cut any corners or make any substitutions with any components of your MM?  Where did you get your "extra coarse" vermiculite?

How exactly did you measure your cubic feet when putting together your MM?
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Post  sanderson 5/5/2022, 5:55 pm

goodtogrow wrote:I'm a newbie, but I was told not to use manure for more than about 25% max for my compost in my MM.
Correct.  But, this is a bad year for composts so if composted manure is the only compost available, then it's a choice to garden with it or not garden.  Just don't add anymore manure-based composts for a year or two.

Mushroom compost is also just manure (unless there's peat moss or other things added into it), so you have 100% manure as your compost.
Commercial mushroom compost used to be horse manure and bedding straw.  After growing a few rounds of mushrooms in it, mushroom growers sell it.  There are still lots of nutrients left for our veggies.  We don't consider it a manure-based compost.  I know, strange.

Also, are you 100% sure the manure and mushroom compost have absolutely no herbicide / Grazon in it?  That will seriously stunt plants or even stop them from growing.
That's why I recommended he try the radish test.

And if you haven't used enough variety of compost sources you are likely not getting enough nutrients in your MM.  That might also mess up the water retention properties of the rest of your MM.
 The number of varieties of compost will not affect the water retention.  For the first year, it will also not affect the nutrient level.

An idea to test this would be to use fertilizer on a few plants, like the tomatoes, in a reasonable way over the next few weeks, just to test and see if that helps the plant.
No fertilizer!!  First the compost-radish test and drainage problem solution.

My second guess would be the water issue.  I live in a fairly wet climate and know how water can affect plants and it can be hard.  Their roots can suffocate and cause yellowing and stunted growth and more.  This might be due to a lack of balance in the MM when it comes to the 3 ingredients.
 In all the years I have been on this Forum, the only drainage problems has been human error.  Setting a bed below grade, or in a low point in the yard, especially in clay areas.  The single potato plant in the hole in the ground filled with Mel's Mix may be collecting and holding water.

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Post  GmanInTheWild 5/5/2022, 9:15 pm

Wow good information from all.  I will answer a number of questions so there is no misunderstandings.

OhioGardener - I had the small potato plant in a Grow Bag with MM.  Since it wasn’t doing well I transplanted it with the others in the ground.  The potatoes in the ground were an experiment to see how things grew compared to MM.  I really thought the “terrible soil” patch would not do well but you see what happened.  The big guys are in the ground and the little guy was in MM both planted the same day.  A huge difference.

Sanderson - One thing to note, all the plants in MM are experiencing very little growth, the potato plant was the best example so you could see the significant difference.  It had been transplanted out of a MM bag.  I thought the same about the radishes.  I planted some 3 days ago in the raised bed and they have poked through the soil already.  I will update in a few days.

All - All the compost and peat was from Lowes.  The manure compost was the Black Kow listed as organic and the Mushroom compost was Black Velvet.  The Mushroom is listed as all organic.  The MM was 100% by the book and I used 5 gal buckets to measure.  For the compost I mixed it together into one batch and then filled 5 gal buckets from that.  No perlite.  So 5 gal peat, 5 gal compost, 5 gal vermiculite.  The vermiculite was what everyone in this area uses.  It is a nationally recognized producer and intended for horticulture purposes.  I feel confident about the content and the methods I used for the MM.

What I wonder about is our humidity level here.  Beginning in April it stays 80% or better all the time.  The heat is brutal and the humidity makes it worse.  Maybe the humidity doesn’t all the MM to completely dry? The first 2” out of 6” in the raised beds are dry but it gets wet below 2”.  It is no soaking wet, the moisture meter reads wet but when I dig my hand down there it seems damp or just barely moist.  Today some of the raised bed plants looked like they needed water so I took a cup out of the bucket and poured 1/4 cup at the base of each plant.  I actually saw water run out of the bottom of the box.  It sure seems like the soil is loose and there is a drainage path.  I sure am scratching my head.

I will take more pictures on Saturday.  Picking up my son from college tomorrow.  He has finished his first year at Clemson already!  Why does time go so fast for us old people?
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Post  sanderson 5/6/2022, 4:58 am

Gman,  Congratulations on your son's first year at College.

You stated, "I feel confident about the content and the methods I used for the MM."  So did I when I first started SFG in March 2013.  After 1 month, everything quit growing.  The good folks on this Forum helped me trouble shoot what I did wrong.   thinking  dangit It took over a year of adding real composts to get decent MM.  I also started composting, which took a year to get right.  I learned more from my mistakes than my successes.

One problem about taking the advice from a nursery employee is that there is a 99.99% chance they don't know anything about SFG and the reasons the ingredients are important.  If the vermiculite that everyone in the area uses was not coarse or super coarse, it was the wrong grade.  Again, I had to learn the hard way.  Embarassed

This is what I found about Black Kow mushroom compost: "This media contained wheat straw, fibrous peat, gypsum, dolomite, crushed feathers, cottonseed meal, peanut meal and more."  Since peat moss is listed in second place, the amount of peat moss in the MM needs to be adjusted downward to compensate for the addition of peat moss.  Peat moss, like wood, does not feed the plants.

Real compost needs to be 1/3 of the MM.  The BK mushroom compost is already reducing the amount of real compost in your MM.  In regards to Black Kow cow manure or composted cow manure, it is not the quality product it was even 2 years ago.  It needs to be sifted to remove the wood remains.  Wood contributes nothing to the nutrients of growing plants.  Recent reports are that if you sift through 1/4" hardware cloth, 25% will be wood fines.  I personally don't use any Black Kow products so I have to rely on recent reports/complaints. I just use cheap Gardeners chicken manure and screen the day lights out of it. Looking again at your photo of the potato in ground there is a lot of dark wood in the planting mix.  I'm guessing they are from the BK manure compost.

Regarding your radish seeds, since they germinated we know neither compost contains remains of pre-emergent  herbicide.  It will be interesting to see how they continue in the beds of MM.

It's common for the upper inch or two of MM to dry out between waterings or rain, but the lower inches remain wet/moist.  I know the book says to hand water each plant but it is soooo important to keep the whole bed watered and NOT let the MM dry out.  It is a bear to rehydrate MM in a bed if it gets dry.  Roots will spread out beyond the plants so watering the whole bed is best.  Mulch is a good way to slow surface evaporation.  Bedding straw or dry leaves are good mulches as they sit lightly on the surface and do not interfere with the nutrient availability for the plants.

Do post more photos to help with diagnoses.

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