pHof Al's 5 :1:1 mix

Mike LarkinMay 19, 2009

WHat is the pH of the mix?

Also adding lime will change the pH, although you do not add too much. How much does it change the pH. I would like to grow conifers and would like a acidic soil mix.

I would may use the gritty mix so please also include the pH of that mix.

Lots of good information - thanks


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The pH of the growing media is irrelevant unless it can change the pH of the water in the media.

Peat and pine bark both can, but stuff like perlite, turface and granite generally don't. Turface for certain can't as it's chemically inert...I am less certain with perlite and granite to change pH over time.

Anyway, any mix with pine bark will be around 5-5.5ish.

Your water supply may play a major role in the pH of your container mix. Let me tell you a story... ;)

I love blueberries. I had this nice patch of them in my native ground (ph 6.8). I replaced the native soil with 10% native soil/90 peat moss. I added sulfur each year to try to counter the surrounding soil raising the pH.

This year I sampled the soil (3 years since last sampling) and found the peat had a pH of 7.0. That's higher than the native soil's pH!!!!


Because my tap water has a pH of 7.5 and is strongly alkaline. It countered the acidity of the peat and the annual sulfur applications. It raised the pH above the normal pH of the rest of my yard.

The moral is if you are concerned about pH, don't worry about the media, worry about the pH of the irrigation/fertigation water.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2009 at 8:41PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The pH of both bark and peat varies, so the soil pH will as well. Unlimed, the 5:1:1 mix should be something around or a little south of 5.0. The gritty mix should be just a little under 6.0.

How much lime you add decides how much the pH is affected. If you want an acidic soil, don't add lime to the 5:1:1 mix, use gypsum instead. Then, you'll need to include Epsom salts in your fertilizer program because you'll be lacking sufficient Mg - even if you are using FP.

You can also use an acid forming fertilizer like MG 30-10-10, along with a K supplement like ProTeKt 0-0-3, or use the 30-10-10 and include a tbsp of potash per gallon of soil when you make it.

BTW - I grow dozens & dozens of pines, junipers, yews, false cypress, firs, hemlock, much more as bonsai material, and don't do anything special - just use the gritty mix, gypsum, Epsom salts & FP 9-3-6.

Red Wings lead 2-1 at the end of the second. Gotta go! Go Wings!


    Bookmark   May 19, 2009 at 9:30PM
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Wow justaguy2,

That is something!! The Ph of my water here is that of 7.8 to 8.5. Can you believe this? All this time I am wondering what the heck I am doing to my soil when we have a dry spell and I water my acid loving plants with the hose for days..Maybe that is why after a drought summer and hose watering my azeleas and rhododendrons, they have so few buds and look like junk.
Maybe that is why when my container citrus and gardenias that get faucet watered, start to yellow, then when I use rain water, they look so much better and green up after a while..HUM......

Looks like I will have to get more "vinegar" if I have to rely on the hose this year.
Is there something else one can use to put in the water to offset such a high amount of Ph? Something you can add on a regular basis without bringing the Ph to low in the soil?
Thanks for the experience and info! :-)

    Bookmark   May 19, 2009 at 9:48PM
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Is there something else one can use to put in the water to offset such a high amount of Ph?

The pH of the physical media is irrelevant unless it can affect the pH of the water. It's the water that determines what nutrients in what ratio dissolve and become plant available.

The pH of the water matters, but if alkalinity is high it will alter the pH of the media over time. It's common to think that anything above 7.0=alkaline and thus assume alkalinity is high, but this is not the case. pH and alkalinity are completely different animals. Alkaline water is above 7.0pH, but this says nothing about the alkalinity of the water. Confused? LOL

Water pH could be 9.0 and if alkalinity (carbonates/bi-carbonates dissolved in the water) is low this would have next to no affect on the growing media.

Alkalinity is simply a measurement of the acid neutralizing effect. The higher the alkalinity of the water (not the pH), the more the acids (such as in peat and pine bark) are neutralized and pH goes up.

Those with low alkalinity water need read no further, you are just fine.

Those with high alkalinity water can simply add an ounce or two of ordinary vinegar to each gallon of water. This will remove the alkalinity. What it actually does is introduce an acid (5% acetic acid) to the high alkalinity water and exhaust's it's ability to neutralize acids.

At this point it can't have any real affect on media pH any longer as the vinegar stole it's oomph.

Mike, any acid could be used, and commercial growers don't use vinegar, but sulfuric acid. It's much stronger. I dunno if you have ever played with sulfuric acid or not, but it's the kind of thing that if you splash some on your skin your skin disappears. Spill it in the bed of your truck and you need a new paint job.

For us home growers, ordinary vinegar is the right solution to the alkalinity problem (for those it affects).

    Bookmark   May 19, 2009 at 10:12PM
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Hi meyermike,
Vinegar pH adjusted water will creep back up if left standing too long. This means when mix fertilizer go ahead & use it; but if have left overs don't count on the pH being what it was.
The vinegar maintains CO2/carbonates soluble, but as CO2/carbonates lose their bond the pH rises. That is one reason to robustly mix the vinegar into the water, so when 1st start to check the adjusted pH don't get a transient reading.
Sulphuric (battery) acid at 33% H2SO4 will hold pH stable longer, but dilute it before start to use at least 1:10 (even 1:20 if want smaller steps of decreases in pH).

    Bookmark   May 19, 2009 at 11:08PM
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rj_hythloday(8A VA)

This is very good info. My question about premixing the water/vinegar was answered. Does it matter the type of vinegar? I'd assume fermented apple cider vinegar would be good for the plants, is plain white vinegar just as good for this purpose?

    Bookmark   May 20, 2009 at 8:22AM
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The type won't matter, it's all acetic acid at around 5%. It's the acid that does the trick.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2009 at 12:15PM
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rj_hythloday(8A VA)

I suppose in a SWC the vinegar could just go in the reservoir as long as it doesn't sit too long. I'm very happy w/ the SFG I have now, but am really looking forward to starting some berries in SWC when finances allow. I want to get started since I won't have berries for a year or two after starting.

    Bookmark   May 21, 2009 at 7:57AM
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An old Tapla post had a reference to a baseline/range "Alkalinity: 0 to 100 mg per liter CaCO3"

My local water report doesn't list "Alkalinity". However, it does show:
"Total Hardness (as CaCO3) 127.12 mg/L"

The same I assume? My tap water reads 7.4+'ish pH with aquarium tests. You think 1 TBSP / gallon for the 5:1:1 gritty mix (90% of my containers are citrus or stone fruit, the rest are Japanese maples, lilacs, roses, and jasmine)?

Or do you think more?

I did sample the media recently just to see where it was at. The first container I put together 3yrs ago (less than ideally) included a lot of compost, sand and bark mixed with container soil -- it's pH is at 5.2 at about 12" down. The rest of my (non-gritty mix) containers are in standard potting soil and are between a 6.75 and 7.25 range.

On a side note, shouldn't drinking a big tall glass of my "hard CaCo3 water" help with heartburn? You know, like a mild liquid version of Tums? ;-)


    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 2:37AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I'll let JaG answer since you asked him, but I wanted to say that you might add the vinegar & then test your water for pH. If it's between 5.5-6.0, you're in great shape. BTW - a pH of 7.4 is actually fairly low for municipal water.


    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 9:06AM
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My local water report doesn't list "Alkalinity". However, it does show:
"Total Hardness (as CaCO3) 127.12 mg/L"

The same I assume?

You would have to ask someone better at chemistry for a precise answer, but for all practical purposes 'sort of'. Alkalinity will likely be something less than total hardness. For example my own tap water is:

Hardness mg/L 360
Alkalinity as CaCO3 mg/L 300
pH 7.5

Anyway, I don't know how to compute the exact amount of vinegar to have the effect you want. I have some litmus strips that measure pH from 3.5 to 6.5 and I just added vinegar to the water in small increments until the pH was in the 5ish range. Then I tried to remember the amount for future uses. When I water I typically measure as follows:

1. Take 5 gallon bucket.
2. Place exactly one 'glug' of vinegar in bucket
3. Add tap water
4. Use


I believe I use something less than 1 ounce per gallon, but I am not precise, all I really care about is that my tap water isn't continually pushing pH upwards of 7.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 9:58AM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)


Now you got me thinking about my tap water so I emailed water plant to find out. Still waiting... I recall a product by Espoma called Soil Acidifier. Would that work? I sit on top of limestone bedrock so I suppose tap water would be naturally high. I use Dynamite 18-6-8. I probably need more potassium though.

Sulfur (S) .........................................................................................................................................................30%
18% ................................................................................................................................................Free Sulfur
12%.......................................................................................................................................Combined Sulfur
Derived from: Elemental Sulfur and Gypsum

    Bookmark   May 29, 2009 at 1:48PM
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The sulfur will be converted to sulfuric acid (by bacteria) which will lower pH, but I really don't know how effective it would be in a container. I have no idea how long it would take for the sulfur to react in the potting mix, it typically takes weeks-months in the earth assuming proper temps/moisture/bacterial presence. The vinegar in water is pretty much instant.

I really have no idea how long it would take for the sulfur to react in the potting mix, it typically takes weeks-months in the earth. The vinegar in water is pretty much instant.

Commercial growers in need of acidification tend to use sulfuric acid in their irrigation lines, but vinegar is much safer/easier to use for at home purposes.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2009 at 2:56PM
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lou_midlothian_tx(z8 DFW, Tx)


Thanks. I do still need sulfur though. Dynamite 18-6-8 doesn't have sulfur so what would you recommend? Epsom salt? It also provide extra Potassium but not sure if I need magnesium since Dynamite has 1.2% of Mg. I don't know the level of CaCO3 though. I got an email back from water plant and said that the pH is 7.8-8.0 but adjusted to near neutral when released to distribution system. They said they would send water tech guy to my house and do a quick test if I wanted. I'll give vinegar a try. Thanks.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2009 at 4:58PM
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Justaguy- This thread got me to finally check the PH of my water, (this thread and the fact that my tomato plants could stand to be more lush and healthy looking I think without sacrificing fruit quantity.)

My water supply has a PH of 8.0-8.1, alkalinity (measured as CaCO3)of 50-75ppm, and hardness of 30-40ppm.

I'm using Al's 5:1:1 mix, to which I added pelletized dolomitic lime at the rate of one cup for every two cubic feet of pine bark. I'm also using Foliage Pro 9-3-6 with Protekt 0-0-3. From reading above, I'm thinking I should be adding vinegar to the water I use on my tomatoes, or am I missing something?

    Bookmark   May 29, 2009 at 8:41PM
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Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate so it will provide sulfur, but it won't provide potassium.

As is it's a pretty N heavy fert.

As for the sulfur, you might ask the water people how they are lowering the pH of the water. Might be with sulfur. You could also add elemental sulfur to the mix for the S if you desired Al is better versed than I in the chemistry of it all so I am hesitant to make specific recommendations in this case that might steer you wrong.

My own solution, not wishing to fret about this nutrient or that, is to simply use Foliage Pro 9-3-6 which has all plant nutrients and expertly formulated. I combine it with ProTekt 0-0-3 to boost the K for many veggies. This eliminates the need for a zillion different products or my wondering if the slower release granular stuff is releasing at an appropriate rate for the soluble stuff I am also using.

Anyway, if it's free, take them up on their offer to do a water test and ask for a print out. It's good info to have. Lots of folks have their ground soil tested to get an idea of what does/doesn't need to be done to grow plants well in it, but most don't get a water test and then proceed to use the water for all irrigation needs. The water supply can be one's best friend or an enemy. Since they have pH adjusted the water to neutral I don't think you need to worry about the vinegar. Vinegar is primarily used to remove the buffering capacity/alkalinity (not the same thing as pH) so the water can't raise pH in the soil. I would bet they have already accomplished that.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2009 at 8:54PM
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Looks like above is in answer to "lou"....could you comment on my situation/question above which somehow got in before you answered "lou"? Thanks.

    Bookmark   May 29, 2009 at 9:29PM
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Long time reader, first time poster. I am using Al's 5:1:1 for an array of tropical plants. I recently tested the pH in all of them and it was uniformly around 7.5. I was surprised given the make up the mix ( bark and peat being acidic) however, the tap water has a pH around 7.5 as well. From what I have gathered above, adding vinegar to the water should have an impact, but I'm worried I'm not grasping the nuances of alkilinity. Am I making this too complicated? DO I need to test for alkilinity additionally or should I just use vinegar and call it a day?

    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 9:18PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

If you keep track of how much vinegar it takes to neutralize the alkalinity of your irrigation water and bring the pH down to 6.0, you can add that much vinegar each time you water.

From another of my posts:

"When we measure pH, we are measuring the concentration of hydrogen (H+) ions in the irrigation water or soil (nutrient) solution. As a guideline, water for irrigation purposes is usually best if its pH lies between 5.0 - 7.0. The measure of alkalinity gives us the water's ability to neutralize acidity. The level of bicarbonates, carbonates, and hydroxides in water determine its alkalinity. The desirable alkalinity range for irrigation water is 0 to 100 ppm carbonates, with 30 - 60 ppm optimum for most plants.

Whenever you test the water you'll be using for irrigation, you should always include the measure of both pH and alkalinity. A pH test on its own, does not give any indication of alkalinity. Water with high levels of bicarbonates or carbonates (high alkalinity) always has a pH value >7, but water with a high pH doesn't necessarily have high alkalinity. This is a very important concept because high alkalinity exerts more significant effect on plant nutrition and the fertility of growing media than pH.

High pH irrigation water generally causes no problems as long as the alkalinity is low. Since high pH water with low alkalinity has little ability to neutralize acidity, it's effect on media pH will be minimal. Cause for more concern are situations where you must utilize water having both high pH and high alkalinity for irrigation, which will cause the pH of the growing medium to increase substantially as media ages. If your water analysis is known to be alkaline, you may need to significantly reduce the addition of compounds containing Ca or Mg because of the dilute solution of limestone in the water. The smaller the container - the more serious the issue because small volumes of soil offer less buffering to pH change. In high alkaline situations, you can often expect/experience Ca and Mg deficiencies along with micronutrient deficiencies (both real and antagonistic).

Acid forming fertilizer will not actually lower media pH as long as there is limestone in the soil - unless the soil is acidic already, but vinegar (and other acid) applications will help to neutralize alkalinity in the irrigation water, which will be helpful."


    Bookmark   April 28, 2010 at 11:29PM
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Thanks so much for getting back to me, Al. Looks like I need to figure out the alkalinity of my water so I know exactly what I'm dealing with. I'm a huge fan of both mixes, THEY FLAT-OUT WORK!

I have another question I'm addressing at the begonia forum as well, but thought I'd see if you had any thoughts. I recently repotted a young but very healthy Rex Begonia hybrid ( Gypsy Maiden) out of its seddling mix from the grower and into the 5:1:1. I washed off nearly all of the original mix since it was so different. It is now wilting badly, and i think I think I may have traumatized it. It hasn't been long, about 24 hrs.... Any thoughts, remedies? Much appreciated as always!


    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 9:40AM
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Hope this encourages you Brandon,

I transplanted the same plant, the Rex Begonia into the same mix, and mine too wilted for days. I would say at least 3 weeks! It didn't grow a new leaf after the wilting stopped for at least 2 months! You should see that plant taking off now!!! It is exploding in new growth..:-)


    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 2:26PM
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If you add lime to the mix as many recommend, isn't this just the opposite of adding vinegar to the water. Lime brings PH up, vinegar brings PH down.

So there would be no reason to both lime the soil and add vinegar to the water???????

I understand the alkalinty issue now, but never really understood how you would make a good determination on whether to lime and/or add vinegar. Any insights?????

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 3:36PM
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Very encouraging. Everything else I have switched - about 15 different species- has thrived immediately, my two zebra plants have never looked better, and they are supposed to get more difficult as they age! So, I'm calling it a victory either way. With the Rex, I've got the humidity and watering under control so in theory it should be fine even if i lose some leaves. I'm guessing, and would be curious to hear other's experiences, that certain more sensitive or finely rooted plants can have a rough time changing to a totally different media. Then again I'm a newbie.... Do users of either of Al'S mixes recommend washing roots totally clean of any of the former media?? Seems like if you don't get rid of almost all of it you are asking for drainage inconsistencies.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 4:22PM
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My Rex kept dropping it's leaves while a little numb would grow one leaf at a time..Now, it is well on it's way to maturity:-)

Almost totally...I shake off what I can, then rinse the rest off as best as I can..

Boy, do ALL my plants love this mix!


    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 5:08PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Shade - try to keep your begonia out of the sun and wind, and keep it warm. If it gets cold at night, bring it in.

Em - the starting pH of a bark/peat potting soil is usually below 5.0, so dolomite is added, which usually brings pH up to around 6.0+. Most soluble fertilizers like MG, Peters, Schultz ..... lack both Ca and Mg, and the dolomite is usually the preferred source.

I usually bare root everything I grow in the gritty mix. It's not nearly as important if you're using the 5:1:1 mix, but I do tease most of the old soil out of the root mass of the more herbaceous (unwoody) plants I put in it.


    Bookmark   April 29, 2010 at 9:00PM
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I have a many questions being a first year "gardener", well attempting to be at least, but I'll try to narrow them down to the most important. First, here is my situation: I am growing a couple tomatoes, tomatillos, and several pepper varieties in containers. I am using GreenAll soil booster (50-60%) and perlite as a growing medium. I put Osmocote 4 mo. release in the soil as well. I have some New Mexico "Big Jim" varieties I am growing from seeds which are developing their 3rd set of true leaves yet are behind the other plants which I bought from a nursery. Anyway the peppers and tomatillos all look great, except for one serrano, which I found aphids on. However the tomatoes look stressed. I am struggling to figure out a watering schedule. However after reading your post on soils and water movement, I think I have a better understanding of how to proceed from this point on as far as watering. The tomato plants are a little over 12" tall, and have a few flowers blooming on them. I have a small portable greenhouse which I keep the plants in at night, and sometimes during the day. Usually I move them out of the greenhouse during they day so they can get a few more hours of sunlight. When I do, the tomatoes tend to wilt, or droop during the day. However the next morning they seem to have perked back up. I think a big part of my problem is simply not understanding how to water, (I am working on it). When I was getting started the guy at the Green Thumb nursery asked how I wanted to feed them. I told him organically. I didn't know any better. So, here's what I have been doing, I have been using E.B. Stone organic fertilzer spread on the top of the soil, then kind of mix it in a little, and on tomato and tomatillo plants I then cover with a thin layer of earthworm castings. I have had the plants since April. 9th, and have now fertilized twice this way. Also, on Monday, 5-9, I sprayed the foliage with Neptunes fish and seaweed concentrate according to manufacturers recommendation. The peppers and tomatoes look good generally, the leaves on some are not as dark green as others but the leaves look flat, and I think they are all healthy. The tomatoes concerned me, so I bought a cheap pH tester and it reads between 7.5-8. Well, I wasn't sure about the meter, so I bought a chemical testing kit, and tested one of the tomato plant soils. Oh yeah, the soil in all the containers was pretty much the same. according the chemical testing kit. the pH is right around 7, however the Nitrogen, and Phosphorus are all very low. It also tested for pot ash which was very low as well, but I don't know that that is and haven't heard it mentioned in any of the threads. So, having said all that, and sorry for so much information. What are your thoughts on moving forward? I feel like I am kind of committed to the E.B Stone organic Tomato & Vegetable food, and Neptunes. Is it too late to switch to the Foliage Pro 9-3-6? Will I be ok, with what I am doing? should I be worried about the Nitrogen, and Phosphorus, and Pot Ash levels which were quite low? Is all this related to the fact that I don't know how the hell to water my plants? I read about wicking the pot. What do you recommend for using as a wick to lower the perched water table? I know one of the tomato plant pots doesn't drain as well I I would like. I drilled some additional holes, but I think using a wick would help.

I addressed my question to Al, but I welcome anyones input as well,



    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 7:46PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Jon - The wilting during the day & the regaining of turgidity at night is strongly suggestive of root function being impaired, probably by excess water retention, and a quick review of the ingredients list of the soil conditioner you're using as the basis for the soil doesn't do anything to lay that suspicion to rest. Being committed to that particular soil, I think I would partially bury the container so there was a good connection between the soil below the container and the soil IN the container. This effectively turns the planting into a small raised bed, from a hydrological perspective, and will significantly increase drainage as you employ the earth as a wick. Just don't do this in heavy clay. If you later find that you're having difficulty keeping up with watering needs, simply lift the pot from the ground & return it to being a conventional container planting.

If you can't take advantage of that methodology, wicking would also be a good solution. I would insert the wick through a bottom hole near the container's side; then after watering, tilt the container steeply, making sure the wick is at the lowest point of the container and dangling below the container. Not only does this make the wick more effective, but tilting the container changes the physical shape of the soil volume occupied, reducing the volume of soil occupied by perched water and thereby reducing the total volume of perched water the medium is capable of holding.

Some of the nutritional issues could be a function of poor root function/metabolism, too, but I'll answer the 'potash question' first. 'Potash' is sort of misleading because it can be any one of a large number of chemical compounds that contain K. In fertilizers, we're generally talking about muriate of potash (potassium chloride) or sulfate of potash (potassium sulfate). Both are salts that make up part of the waters of the oceans and inland seas as well as inland saline deposits. Muriate of potash is 50 to 60% potash and sulphate is what you get when potassium chloride is treated with magnesium sulfate. Both are readily available to plants because they are highly soluble in water.

For the pH issue, I wouldn't trust an inexpensive probe pH tester to even be close to actual pH, but you can buy inexpensive test kit that will test as low as 4.5. Start with a given volume of freshly drawn water and see how much vinegar or citric acid it takes to lower the pH of that water to 5.0 - 5.5. Then, add that much vinegar to your water every time you irrigate/fertigate.

It's not too late to start using FP 9-3-6 if you wish; or you could use MG 24-8-16 or the 12-4-8 liquid. Fertilize at half the recommended rate at weekly intervals, or 1/4 the recommended rate each time you water, making sure to flush the soil when you do water. If you can't flush the soil w/o worrying about root function/rot, disregard what I just said.

Learn to test the soil for moisture with a wooden skewer. I sometimes allow a planting to actually show early signs of wilt occasionally - just to get a handle on the proper watering intervals for THAT planting. I'd rather risk the planting getting a little too dry occasionally, than risk the consequences of it always being too wet.

Good luck.


    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 1:04PM
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Al, Thanks for the reply and information. I did buy a chemical kit to test the pH of the soil, and it indicated that my soil was neutral. The NPK, were all low, so, I took your advice and fed them with MG-24-8-16. I also re-potted the tomato plants into #15 nursery containers, which should help with the water movement. I did that on Sunday, and the tomatoes already look much better, and are staying turgid during the day. I looked up our local water quality report, which states that our water is between 7.9-8.0pH with an alkalinity ranging from 94-110 ppm. As I said, all my pepper, and tomatillo plants seem to be doing well. Tomatillos have several fruit growing, and Jalepeno and Sante Fe Grande each have 1-2 peppers beginning to develop, and the leaves appear healthy. I have already notices the leaves appearing a little greener since feeding on Sunday. Thanks for your help! I can't find the FP 9-3-6 around here, would you recommend one of the MG's over the other? Do I need to worry about the alkalinity of my water supply? I read that as long as it was under 120ppm, not to worry about it.

Again, thanks for sharing your knowlege,


    Bookmark   May 17, 2011 at 5:08PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

120 ppm alkalinity is within favorable guidelines, but you could still benefit somewhat from neutralizing alkalinity & lowering pH to 5.0-6.0 if you wish.

24-8-16 and 12-4-8 are probably the same product, but the 12-4-8 is 24-8-16 diluted 50% with water. In the long run, the 24-8-16 will be much less expensive - though the o/a expense is so small that the convenience of a liquid may be worth the couple of extra $s to you.


    Bookmark   May 17, 2011 at 10:00PM
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