Which soil conditioner?

cyn_sApril 20, 2011

I have two choices of pine bark fines for making Al's Basic Soil Mix: 1) Nature's Helper Soil Conditioner which is 1/2 fines and 1/2 compost; or 2) Garden Pro Clay Breaker Soil Conditioner which contains gypsum (doesn't say how much).

Can anyone tell me which I should use, and whether I should modify the recipe in any way? THANX!

(Hope these links work!)

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Hey cyn s
I have just started my first SWC garden on my patio and am using the Garden Pro Clay Breaker Soil Conditioner as a 30% Component in my soil mix. The particle size is a bit small and there isn't much of any intact peices of pine bark. It is very much composted bark and seems to be working quite well, although I only have broccoli in it so far but I had set up a prototype container with no plants in it for about a month checking moister level in soil at all levels every few days and it seemed to be working perfect. If you like I can take a picture and post it for you of what the product looks like later when I get home.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2011 at 2:10PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Good job on the links, Cyn - now, if you can only figure out how to get the link to show us what's in the bag ....... ;-)

Particle size is probably the most important consideration in making your choice - can you give us any hints?


    Bookmark   April 21, 2011 at 4:32PM
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First, I forgot to say that the Garden Pro product is simply pine bark fines /w gypsum.

Greenthumb - so glad you know the Garden Pro and have tested it. What do you use for the other 70% of your mix? Thanx for the offer of a pic; but I actually bought one bag so I've seen how it looks.

Al - I did notice what Greenthumb said about the particles in the G. Pro product being small; but since N. Helper is 50% compost I wonder which one is actually finer altogether (and therefore not the best choice). Good point on particle size; I will get some N. Helper and do a side-by-side comparison. I was only thinking about the compost vs. gypsum.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2011 at 10:41PM
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So the mix I made consists of
30% Clay Breaker
30% Leaf Pro Compost
20% Perlite
10% Mannure
10% Peat
When mixed together well it seems to make peices that are about half dime size and stays very loose. Unsure about how it will proform through-out the season though seeing as how this is the first time I have made it as well as First time I am using SWC. It is also important to note that I am doing the SWC because they need a little higher amout of higher absorbant material to keep moist all the way to the top. Or at least that was my understanding of what I read. I came up with the mix after reading many of the threads on here and tried to get the best mix for the best price seeing as how I am setting up about 7-9 18 gallon containers.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2011 at 8:28PM
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Thanx for the info greenthumb. BTW, do you have any idea what kind of fines they are? It doesn't say on the bag, so I'm planning on calling the co. on Monday.

I took some great pics of samples of each, but don't know how to post them. Without going to a lot of trouble, can anyone tell me how to do that? Other pics I looked at on the forum included a link to Photobucket; is that what I should do?


    Bookmark   April 23, 2011 at 10:34AM
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It is a mix of Patially Composted Pine And Hardwood Bark Fines it is in really small print on the back of the bag. And yes the easiest way to post pictures is to put them on photobucket because it gives you the html code to click and copy then you just paste it into the message box when you click the preveiw message button it should show the picture if it is working properly. Then you don't have to do anything extra. It's really easy.

    Bookmark   April 23, 2011 at 6:29PM
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Thanx for the tips Greenthumb; I found the info on the bag. I haven't had time to figure out how to use Photobucket (lloonnggggg hrs. in the yard like everyone else!), but I did talk to someone at Garden Pro and wanted to post what I found out.

He said this really isn't a good product to use for potting soil: it's made for in-ground improvements. He said the fines are simply a carrier for the gypsum. He didn't think the calcium would cause a problem in my mix, but was concerned about the pH being too alkaline. I didn't understand this b/c I didn't think gypsum changed pH; and since he said the "large majority" of the fines are pine, I would think the pH would still be low. I have a soil test kit and tried doing some tests; but w/ it being totally organic matter I didn't get anything I'd consider reliable.

As for the consistency of the Garden Pro, it's definitely coarser than the Nature's Helper, and has a wide variety of sizes from very fine to 1" x 1/4" and 3/4" diameter. So its lack of uniformity is probably not a good thing.

I had to get my potting done this weekend; so I went w/ the Garden Pro. Unfortunately, I've already mixed up and used several batches, and now wonder what if any corrections I should try to make - both w/ what I've already used, and more importantly in the future. I only used 1/2 the lime for Al's recipe; not sure why except that it seemed like the right thing to do.

I guess the Nature's Helper is the preferred choice in this case; but there's still the problem of the 50% compost in it which means you can never get the right ratio of fines.

Just a note: I did do a search on the forum for "Garden Pro" and "Nature's Helper" before posting this question, but couldn't find much. I'm sorry if this is repetitive; that probably gets frustrating for those of you who have followed / participated in this forum for years.

Any suggestions / thoughts would be appreciated.

    Bookmark   April 25, 2011 at 3:06PM
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Well, I went back to Al's original post about soils and have read all of them up thru part of IV. I wanted to understand the theory and applications, as well as any refinements that might have been made to the "recipe." And I wanted to understand the purpose of each of the components.

That has been very helpful (Thanx yet again Al!), but now I'm slightly panicked. On 10/8/07 (in IV) yellowthumb wrote about a problem w/ gypsum. I don't understand any of the technicalities about EC, etc. but it sure doesn't sound good. Not knowing much about gypsum at the time I created the mix, I figured it would help keep salts from building up in the pots - probably stupid.

I've already potted all my annuals in the following:

9 gal. Garden Pro Soil Conditioner w/ Gypsum
3 gal. Fafard Organic Potting Soil (about 50% peat + aged pine products, perlite, limestone & organic fertilizer)
3 c. Plant-tone organic fertilizer
1/2 c. lime

Should I flush the bajeezus out of my pots? dose them w/ fertilizer? dose them w/ a strong solution of Epsom salts?

Also, for future mixes, my only other option is the Nature's Helper - but that's 50% compost. So that doesn't seem like a good idea either???

Any recommendations would be appreciated! Thanx to all.


    Bookmark   June 1, 2011 at 4:57PM
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I hope it's not rude or in poor taste to "force" my question up the list; but I *really* need some advice if anyone can help w/ this gypsum-in-my-mix problem.

Thanx so much.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2011 at 12:23AM
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I am new to this thread and have been reading and learning a lot for the last few days. Al, your 2 soil recipes sound scientific and logically make perfect sense that they would help with aeration and good drainage and I can't wait to mix my own. I have been trying to read as many of these threads as possible in a short time and I see how generous and more importantly patient you are with all who are interested and willing to learn your proven methods. I am trying to locate the ingredients here in NEPA and the only question that I have is the size of the pine for 5.1.1. and the gritty mix. Are they the same size or the gritty mix needs to be smaller. I know you and other generous members have answered this question in many other ways and I apologize to ask again. You have renewed my interest in plants and planting with your soils and success stories I have been reading in these threads. Your generosity in sharing your immense knowledge is unbelievable and your patience in helping others and answering questions is even more admirable. I hope I can learn more from your and the rest of the members here.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2011 at 9:02AM
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lrvjim(7 to 8)

Cyn, Do you know how much gypsum was in the soil conditioner you used as the base of your mix? If it's a tiny fraction you should be OK, if it's half and half throw it out and try again.

For future use I think the Natures Helper will be fine as a base for the 5-1-1 mix. At one time it was all ground, partially composted pine bark. I think now though it's pine bark and 'partially composted forest products'. That said I have used it with no problems.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2011 at 5:16PM
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Thank you so much for the reply, lrvjim. The rep I spoke w/ at the co. didn't know the amount of gypsum; just that it's the main point of the product. I think gypsum comes in a powdered form (???) so I doubt you can even see it in w/ the wood. My guess - and it's just a guess - is that there's probably a fair amount.

Unfortunately, I've already potted almost all my annuals in the mix I made w/ it. I can't imagine dumping them all out and starting over; so do you think there's any way to "fix" those containers?

I haven't gotten N. Helper in awhile; but the last time I did the label indicated it was 1/2 fines and 1/2 compost. If that's still the case, would I need to screen the finest part of it out? My understanding from all I've been able to read is that compost interferes w/ drainage / aeration.


    Bookmark   June 4, 2011 at 10:39PM
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lrvjim(7 to 8)

Cyn- There is always the the chance that all will be fine. Since we don't know how much gypsum was in the soil conditioner you bought I would just treat them like any other container and observe. If your going to have problems they should show up pretty soon and then you can decide on your options. Maybe then you can repost and someone more knowledgeable than me can weigh in on your problem. I don't know where Al is hiding, maybe on vacation.

Natures Helper, I use it straight out of the bag, no screening needed for the 5-1-1. This 'Dragonwing' is growing in it and has been since April 15. It has nearly tripled in size, but it is a fast grower, especially when it's hot as he** like it has been here for the last 2 weeks.

    Bookmark   June 5, 2011 at 1:32PM
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Lrvjim - beautiful plant! And what a relief to know you're using the NH! Do I understand you correctly that you use it and nothing else? Or are you just saying you don't screen it?

As for possible problems you make a good suggestion. I noticed today that the mix in a couple of my (identical) pots looked sort of weird - damp but "pulled away" from the sides of the pot. I soaked them repeatedly for about a half hour until they were draining well. I think I've now done a decent job of flushing most of the pots I used the Garden Pro mix in. May not be needed but it makes me feel better!

I also want to ask about the planter you have the begonia in: someone at a nursery convinced me to use these instead of leaving plants in the plastic pots they come in. Somewhere in all my GF reading I thought I saw where Al said something about putting plastic liners in these pots? Maybe I misunderstood, as that would seem to defeat the purpose. Is the mix you use in this type of planter any different than what you'd use in others - plasic, terra cotta, etc.?

    Bookmark   June 5, 2011 at 10:38PM
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lrvjim(7 to 8)

Cyn- I use the Natures Helper as the main component in Al's 5-1-1 mix. 1 bag Natures Helper unscreened, (I think they are 1.5 cu ft) 2.5 gallons perlite, 2.5 gallons peat, 1 cup of dolomitic limestone, and 1 cup CRF if you wish, will get you very close to where you want to be. With some bags I'm not sure the peat fraction is even needed, but I had it so I used it. Natures helper can vary somewhat from season to season, maybe even pallet to pallet.

Coco liners? I have them and I like the way they look, thats the only reason I use them, and I do not use plastic inserts. Bought the frames 1 year on closeout at Lowes, other wise I would probably be using plastic. I use the same mix for annuals, plastic pot or coco liners? makes not a whit of difference.

I hope your plants will be OK, I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2011 at 8:06AM
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lrvjim - thank you! It was such a relief to get your post - yay. I went to H Depot Tues. and got several bags of NH. Just for kicks I screened about 1/2 c. thru a colander w/ 3/32" holes. Only about 1 tablespoon went thru, so the particles are not as small as I thought.

Now thanx to your experience / recommendations I'm set! :-)

    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 5:02PM
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lrvjim(7 to 8)

Cyn- That's great! Remember, you don't have to screen the 5-1-1 unless you just want to, dust (which is pretty small) to 3/8" for the particle size.

Now, if you ever decide to whip up a batch of the famous 'gritty mix' the Natures Helper will not work for you. You'll want uncomposted bark for that adventure.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2011 at 8:06AM
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Been gone for a few days ...

You're right about the product varying: this one says "Regional Forest Product." Do you think I should treat it as pine for purposes of the lime?

And if I want a mix that's a little more water-retentive do I just use a little more peat?

Not quite ready to tackle the gritty mix yet; but thanx for the tip!

    Bookmark   June 13, 2011 at 5:37PM
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lrvjim(7 to 8)

I would. Follow that basic recipe and I think you'll be OK.

Yeah that "Regional Forest Product" label makes me pause a moment also, but I still use it. Around here (GA) that usually means bark and duff from the pulp and paper industry, which means pine trees, but no guarantees.

Yeah, a little more peat equals greater water retention.

    Bookmark   June 15, 2011 at 8:09AM
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I called the co. today to ask about the ingredients, and the best I could get is that "the majority of it is pine." Whether that means 51%, 99%, or somewhere in between they couldn't say. Nor could they tell me what the remaining ingredients are other than "organics." She asked what state I lived in, and did say "garden waste and things like that" at one point; but she mainly just kept telling me the purpose of the product.

I might try using only 3/4 the amt. of lime since it didn't sound like the balance of the ingredients are pine. I have pH paper; do you know whether there's some way to test the product in order to determine how much lime to use?

    Bookmark   June 15, 2011 at 9:16PM
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lrvjim(7 to 8)

Cyn- I still think you should follow the basic recipe and just see how it goes for you. Here is something Al wrote about media ph,

In container culture, the pH of the soil solution is much more important than the pH of the medium. What happens to container media pH is too complicated to draw generalities, but more often than not, media pH tends to rise as they age due to an accumulation of bicarbonates, but we can impact that affect by the pH of our irrigation water and by the fertilizers we use. Fertilizers deriving their N from urea and ammonium salts tend to acidify, while fertilizers deriving their N from nitrate sources tend to move the medium pH toward basic.
Dolomitic lime's solubility varies with soil/soil solution pH, temperature, moisture content, and very importantly, the size of the limestone particles. Particles that won't fit through insect screen should be considered useless as a liming agent because of their reduced surface area:bulk density makes then essentially insoluble for container culture. The lime you often buy that is in round pellets of varying size is actually prilled. A slurry of pulverized lime and a binding agent is shot from tall 'prilling' towers. It forms small spheres on the way down and hardens. This is done to make the pulverized lime easier to broadcast. When the lime gets wet, the prills quickly break down into pulverized form, so the 'prills' are much more soluble than unpulverized limestone of the same size would be.

The lime fraction of the limestone doesn't leach from the medium very quickly at all. I have (slow-growing) plants that I've kept in the same medium for 5 years or more that showed no signs of Ca deficiency with no lime applications subsequent to the original incorporation into the medium. Part of that is due to the tendency for bicarbonates to accumulate in the soil, which also supply a source of Ca. The Mg fraction of dolomite is much more soluble, up to 125x more soluble than the Ca fraction. I usually try to include a source of Mg (Epsom salts) in my fertilizer solutions for plants in the same medium for growth cycles subsequent to the first annual cycle.

It is easy to overthink this, but if you like getting 'in the weeds' so to speak, here's a link.

Here is a link that might be useful: Pour Thru Process

    Bookmark   June 16, 2011 at 8:31AM
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Wow, lrvjim - THANX! I so appreciate the time you've taken to help me out. I've been thru a lot of Al's posts but hadn't come across that info. I was already thinking that the water probably has just as much effect (or maybe more) than the potting mix. And b/c I'm a bit OC I did look at the link - but only briefly. :-) I graduated from NCSU, so it was neat to have that reference.

I'll definitely use your "recipe." Thanx again; I'm off to "mix and pot!"

    Bookmark   June 16, 2011 at 3:16PM
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