Need more water retention in 5:1:1 mix

pondluvrApril 13, 2012

I am a newbie and started using Al's 5:1:1 a few years ago. For me, I seem to have to water way too frequently with this mix. To complicate matters, if I fertilize with a weak solution of Foliage Pro at each watering, which is sometimes several times a week, that is a LOT of work filling and hauling a watering can around because most of my gardening is done in many, many containers.

Question 1: How can I ammend the 5:1:1 to get better water retention? I've found that adding more peat only makes it harder to get wet in the case it dries out.

Question 2: Is there an easier way to apply Foliage Pro than using a watering can? I tried using a hose end sprayer, but the settings must not be quite right because I burned through way more than I should have... and it's expensive. Plus with the 5:1:1 draining so freely, a lot of my $$ is going out the bottom of the pots and onto the ground.

FYI....A lot of my containers are hosta. With those, I eventually might transfer them over to the gritty mix (but this will be costly as I have LOTS of them in containers, some very large, and the Turface is pricey. The other containers are annuals.

Sorry if these are no brainer questions, but your input will be appreciated.


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I think you could add more peat to the mix to increase soil retention, but I could be wrong. I would go back and read through Al's posts on water movement and soil, or hopefully he or Josh will see your post and provide some ideas.

Last year I started out feeding Foliage Pro at a 1/4 tsp per gallon ratio at each feeding which got to be too much work. Josh recommended feeding just once a week. So I gradually, over a few weeks switched to "Friday feeding" as Josh calls it. Much less work.

good luck


    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 10:36AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Hey, Jon! ;-)

Yep, "Fertilizer Friday," which it happens to be again!
I'll be mixing up some Foliage Pro for my citrus later today....

Sandy, how large are your containers? Any chance you could post a pic
of how your mix turned out?


    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 10:58AM
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Josh and Jon,

The containers range in size greatly. Some are only about a gallon, and others are several gallons. I can't really show you the mix, because I mix it fresh each year for the annuals, which I don't have yet this year. The hosta are still potted up and I don't change that out each year.

My experience with peat has been that it actually makes it really hard to get the soil wet again if it accidentally dries out completely. It's almost like the more peat there is, it repels the water unless you can actually submerge the pot, which I can't. With this mix, I do have that problem a lot, because it just does not seem to hold the moisture well at all and it dries out completely. Everything I used was in the correct size range. I'm afraid if I add even more peat, I will have more of that problem. I wonder if I could eliminate the peat altogether, as well as the perlite, and use some combination of the pine bark fines and Turface. Not really the 511 mix, but not exactly the gritty mix either. Problem is that Al obviously put a lot of thought and work into creating these mixes, and if you go messing around with them, then it's not the same. And I am no expert by any means. I've read and reread the water movement posts, and much of it is way above my understanding.


    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 11:38AM
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I find the 5-1-1 does pretty well with moisture retention if the particle size is right. Could it be that the bark pieces are larger than ideal? That would certainly lead to excessive drainage, IMO. Instead of adding additional peat, maybe you could add some Turface in small amounts. I tried a 5-1-1-1 last year (PBF-peat-perlite-Turface) and was happy with the results. Yes, Turface is relatively expensive, but used in small amounts, it might be something to consider.

I can see how the Foliage Pro irrigation routine would be a lot of work, especially if you have a lot of containers. Have you tried CRFs (controlled release fertilizer) such as Osmocote or Dynamite? These are incorporated into the soil mix and release over time - 3-6 months in most cases. BTW, I've tested several of the hose end sprayers and found that the Ortho products are not calibrated correctly - at least the two I tried. They were dispensing twice the indicated amount. That's a pretty big deal IMO. I pointed this out to their customer service reps and they contended I was doing something wrong. Funny, the Gilmour products dispensed just fine.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 12:02PM
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all my containers are self watering but i was thinking what if you added vermiculite as a part. so your mix would be 5-1-1-1. just a thought.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 12:24PM
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DaMonkey007(10b - Miami)

I think that this is a classic example of "What's best for the plant vs. What's best for the grower". This is in no way meant to be harsh, btw.

There are all kinds of things that you can do to get a little more water retention in your mix: Adjust the particle size and/or composition, use mulch, shade your pots, etc...

HOWEVER, you can't get around the fact that the 5-1-1 is a free draining mix, no matter how you amend it....unless of course, you amend it to a point where it ceases to be a 5-1-1, but then, what's the point?!? You may as well just go buy a bag of Miracle Gro, water once a week and hope for the best. The 5-1-1 will require frequent watering, period. You said that you water a few times a week...that's great! It's not going to get much better than that....take it from me...I have to water some of my plants every day! And BTW, the need for frequent watering is a GOOD thing....for your plants anyways...LOL!

What I'm getting at is, if you are not prepared to provide the water and fertilization that the 5-1-1 requires, you may have to rethink your choice of medium. Unfortunate but true.

Now, if that's not what you want to do, I would also suggest adjusting the particle size of your mix. NOT through the addition of more and more peat though. I suggest that you screen and sort ALL of your resources to find a formula that works for you, then stick to it. I've said it before numerous times: The compostion of your resources will vary incredibly from bag to bag. If you just throw things together willy-nilly, you will never get a grasp on what it is that you are actually looking for, or what actually works best for you - in your environment.

If you want more detail on what I mean by "carefully screening and sorting", read over my original post on this thread. If you're looking for more moisture retention, adjust the percentages of finer particles up, and conversely, the larger particles down.


Here is a link that might be useful: Fancy 5-1-1

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 1:37PM
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The link does not work. I get an error message.

Thanks, everybody, for your suggestions. I get what everybody is saying. Maybe the 511 will not be for me. I have over 50 or 60 containers. Watering even 2x a week is tiring and does not fit into my life right now, not to mention if I have to do all the watering with a watering can because of the fertilizer issue. I will have to find another medium that works for the plants AND my needs.

Strangely, I have used the Miracle-Gro potting soil and it worked fine, at least for the annuals. It was just a lot of expense and I thought I could make something cheaper that would work even better. Did not try that with the hosta though.

I had considered going with the gritty mix for my hosta, but once I figured the cost, I would never be able to justify that. With over 30 large pots of just hosta, I would need a truckload of the Turface. I am getting quotes of $25 a bag! Yikes!

It would be wonderful if I could just forget the containers, but my yard has lots of mature maples, and the roots take over everything, quickly choking it out. And the moles and voles are never ending, even though I have become an expert trapper. These are the reasons I have so many container plantings. Sigh. Back to the drawing board for me.

Happy gardening,


    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 2:10PM
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Sandy, if you do go to a soil based mix, I would recommend wicking. Taking Al's advice, I have done that for some of my plants that I didn't re-pot into 5-1-1, and I have noticed much better drainage since adding the wicks.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 4:07PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

I grew all my vegetables and annuals in 5-1-1 last summer and was very pleased with it. For the veggies (mostly tomatoes, peppers and cucurbits) I modified the mix because I use smart pots which also require a little more frequent watering than plastic pots. I replaced the perlite with Turface and used a six-month Osmocote CRF product that has a ratio close to 3-1-2 with all minors. Even during a heat wave at the height of summer, I was able to go two or three days between waterings and about two weeks between fertilizing with Foliage pro at full strength. You could probably use less FP with hostas and such.

I would encourage you to look for a better source of Turface. I buy 50 pound bags, which hold 1.4 cubic feet, for about $10. That compares favorably to the coarse perlite, which costs $24 for four cubic feet in my area. Napa floor dry is less expensive and also works well.

Although I did use the full measure of peat in my mix, I never experienced the usual problems I had with peat based mixes. Even with dry medium, I could push my hand into the mix. I'm wondering if maybe your pine bark fines were not partially composted. The ones I used included a lot of small particles which also helps with water retention.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 12:19PM
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Try pumice instead of perlite. It's commonly sold as Dry Stall, for horse stalls.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 10:00PM
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You mention a lot of maple trees, which means you probably have access to a lot of leaf mulch.

I've been experimenting the last 2 years making container mixes (and fertilizer) from just yard material, nothing bought, except the container. It has worked great for pepper and basil. This will be my 3rd year doing it.

If you really want to save money just go collect a bunch of maple leaf mulch and pack it into a container with some wood ashes and whatever nitrogen fertilizer you want.

Here is a link that might be useful: All natural, zero cost mix & fertilizer

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 12:57AM
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In response to DaMonkey "what's best for the plant, not the grower" idea, I have learned that it is NOT best for all plants to require watering more than once a day. There is a level of moisture/nutrient retention that will give you optimal growth of the plant. If the mix dries out faster than that, you won't get better growth even if you water 3X a day. The gas exchange turnover is less beneficial than greater absorption of water/nutrients.

To the OP, I've had a similar problem but with the gritty mix drying out far too fast for some of the plants I was trying to grow in my climate (roses, citrus, mandevilla). For these plants in MY climate, moisture retention is an advantage, not a disadvantage. I have a rose in a pot of "retentive" bagged potting mix with 30 big gorgeous blooms on it right now, while a more vigorous rose (when I bought it) in gritty mix is growing poorly and has only produced 3 or 4 blooms, when during spring flush it should be more than 30 (and was more than 30 when it came in its growers pot!). Don't hesitate to use a "retentive" mix if that's what your plants, climate, and watering habits would do best with.

You might also consider setting up a drip irrigation system. I have one set up just for the pots on my relatively small deck, and I so love not having to water manually. There is good info on on designing a system. Actually, I set mine up so I could go on vacation in hot July or August without my plants all dying (and no one, no matter how good a friend, wants to come water all those plants every day, let alone twice a day!). But I was surprised to get home from vacation and see my drip-irrigated plants doing better than when I watered them manually. I'm using RainDrip components, but my impression is that they are all pretty standard (1/2" mainline, 1/4" tubing, plugs, various style emitters, etc).

I have not tried any of the fertilizer dispensers to add to the automated system. However, there are growers on gardenweb that have set up auto-fertilizer-dispenser with their drip systems, so you might want to search for info if you'd rather go that route. I plan to try Osmocote Plus (24-8-16 with complete nutrients) in conjunction with my drip system this summer, rather than manual fertigation, which is work I'd rather not do. My main problem so far is that I can't find Osmocote Plus in stores (just the regular NPK-only Osmocote).

    Bookmark   April 24, 2012 at 2:10PM
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In my experience, I've found that using a coconut chip mulch on top at 1/2"-1" can help a lot with moisture retention without having to add to the water holding capacity of the actual mix. It also helps to keep the top of high peat mixes from becoming like a rock when the rest of the mix is still really moist.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2012 at 5:13PM
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