Large-scale growing of container basil: potting soil vs 5-1-1 mix

dab07June 29, 2014

In another post I'd asked for advice on potting mixtures for basil, which I use in large quantities for pesto. I'm growing it in containers because the downy mildew disease that has recently begun to afflict basil has hit my garden. Maybe this can help others now that basil is becoming difficult to grow in garden beds.

I read that basil doesn't like a lot of fertility and does like good drainage. I planted most of the seedlings in a high quality potting soil (McEnroe Organic), which contains compost, sand and other ingredients. I planted others in a variation of the 5-1-1 mix I learned about on this forum. I couldn't find pine bark fines, so I substituted Repti Bark, which has a bigger chunk size, up to 3/8" - 1/2". I've been watering when the soil 1" from the top feels dry, using a weak solution of Foliage Pro.

It seems basil doesn't need extreme drainage, because the plants in the 5-1-1 mix aren't growing nearly as robustly as those in the potting soil.

The season is still young, so I'll see what happens in the long run. So far the potting mix plants are thriving, and bushing out from the tip pruning. I'm going to cut back on the Foliage Pro to see how well the potting mix alone supports them. The 5-1-1 mix plants aren't really growing at all, and the leaf color is starting to pale.

I'm not suggesting in any way that the 5-1-1 mix isn't good. It's possible that the Repti Bark's size threw off the mechanics of the mixture, Or it could be that it simply doesn't hold enough moisture for basil.

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In my experience, only the smaller bags of ReptiBark contain a decent size of bark piece to work with... the larger bags seem to contain larger pieces, I would think for larger reptiles... because you'd buy more bedding for bigger reptiles... and the smaller bags would be enough for little reptiles. You get the gist.

For large batches, I'd seek out something else if I could... either a bagged fir bark mulch in a usable size, or perhaps an orchid grower or other commercial greenhouse can hook you up with bulk fir bark in a more usable size... there are many different outlets you could check into depending on what's accessible.

I use the small bags of ReptiBark because I only need a small quantity of fir bark, and I find it works good for my application... I don't need a large bag or amount, and I really don't have the space to store a lot of excess. I mix a rendition of the Gritty Mix for my bulbs and other indoor plants.

For large containers growing outdoor, i would go with the 511, and find a better, more usable fir bark in bulk.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 1:52PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

I don't really like using Reptibark of any size for 5-1-1, although I have had success using it for gritty mix. It is a bit hydrophobic and takes a long time to start breaking down, which is a plus for perennials, but not so much for annuals.

My basil thrives in 5-1-1 made with partially composted pine bark fines that range from dust size to about dime size. But, if your store bought mix is working well and you can't find the right PBF for 5-1-1, I'd stick with it for a fast growing plant like basil. In short, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Each summer, I grow at least two and often three different batches of basil in 5-1-1, starting some every six weeks and harvesting each when it's about two months old. I find the younger basil is sweeter and tastes better in pesto than older plants. I harvest when the stems start to get hard. For me, 5-1-1 and gritty mix work better than most store bought mixes over the long haul -- say 4-12 months for 5-1-1 and much longer for gritty mix. Store bought mixes tend to break down under the demands of outdoor summer growing in my climate, so I don't use them for anything any more.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 2:19PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

I'd say you're under-fertilizing your Basil in the 5-1-1.

I'm not sure why you'd further reduce the nutrient levels of an already paling plant....unless the phrasing was simply strange and you mean that you're cutting back the Foliage Pro to the plants in the "potting mix."

The 5-1-1 has very little nutritional value and must be fertilized. Increase the dosage or the frequency of doses.


    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 2:27PM
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This is why the ReptiBark is such a good bet for my application... because it breaks down less quickly, I can go 2 or 3 years without having to re-pot... or with adding a top-dressing only. I don't have to worry that the ReptiBark will decompose right away.

I find that if I soak the ReptiBark overnight before using any in a mix, it's much less likely to become hydrophobic. Plus, my pots aren't drying out that quickly... they're indoor, out of direct sun and any wind, as opposed to outdoor containers and the conditions there.

Honestly, I haven't had any issues with the small bags, as used for my own applications. When I know a pot will spend time outdoors, I use a different bark in a medium closer to the 511.

I found a few bags of some pine mulch at Lowe's or somewhere like that... no idea on brand names or anything... but it appeared a little darker in color, smaller in size, and perfect for using in a 511 type mix.

This past spring, we actually added a bunch of composted wood chip mulch to our raised beds and even turned a bunch into the garden for aeration and whatnot... so far, so good! The basic concept is working well for us!

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 7:05PM
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Greenman, I meant cutting down on fertilizer in the pots with potting soil.

Water flows right through the Repti-Bark mixture (I won't call it 5-1-1 because it doesn't have the PBFs called for.) It's always dry, as if the poor plant can't get any moisture at all. I looked around a lot for PBFs and couldn't find anything fine enough. It sure is hard to find.

Good idea about planting it in batches, Ohiofem. Do you use the same pots or put new plants in new pots?

At the end of the season, what do you do with the potting soil or 5-1-1? Compost it? Save it? If I'm growing annual basil, do I start with new mix every year?

Thank you.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 7:50PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

can you slip a drip-tray or saucer under your basil container? Then, water very slowly, trickling the water over the entire surface. Fifteen minutes later, water again. If the mix is hydrophobic, it'll take some work to get it fully saturated. Once the mix is heavy and wet, then you can pull the drip-tray.

Increase the fertilizer dose, as well.


    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 9:22PM
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I usually dump spent container soil either right on the gardens, or I add it to the raised beds, or the compost pile.

Sometimes, if the medium doesn't look too broken down, I try to refresh it by mixing in some new ingredients... and that way, I can coax another season out of it.

If I notice pots that seem not to want to absorb water, I do what Josh suggests... water them slowly and then allow some of the water to sit in the saucer for a time, so it can wick back up into the pot from the bottom. Then, when the pot feels like it weighs heavier... as in, it feels saturated, I dump the excess water.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 10:09AM
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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

My basil loves my 5-1-1 - I'll post a pic later.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 2:08PM
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I have yet to meet a plant that doesn't like a more aerated, sharper draining medium! I use various renditions of the Gritty or 511 for everything... from cacti and orchids to bulbs and every other plant type!

If the roots are happy, the plant will be happy!

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 10:21AM
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I find it more useful to ask your garden center for Pine Bark Mulch (NOT nuggets or mini-nuggets) that can be used as a "Soil Conditioner".

I've found it in places that told me they don't carry and/or have never heard of "Pine Bark Fines". You just have to read the label, and possibly e-mail the manufacturer to find out the percentages. I found one that was made of 75% pine bark and 25% composted forest products that I used in 5-1-1, without adding peat moss. It worked well.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 2:22PM
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