Issues with Al's 5-1-1 mix

corkboardJune 29, 2013

Hi folks,

I've made an attempt at Al's 5-1-1 mix for outdoor containers for my vegetables.

The issue I have is that it seems to hold A LOT of water. The pots have holes drilled every inch and a half or so

I had issues sourcing pine bark fines, so I used shredded pine mulch from Arnt's Garden Supply and sifted by hand as best as I could

After raining every other day, the pot pooled with water

After 4 days of sunshine, the top of the mix was dry, but the bottom of the mix was still soggy

Is it possible to save? I'm close to switching over to Pro-Mix HP + 25% Perlite; need to save my tomatoes!

By volume:
5 parts shredded pine mulch
1 part sphagnum peat (Premiere Horticulture)
1 part perlite
bit of dolomitic lime

The attached picture is of the mix from the bottom of my container after 3 days of no rain - still incredibly soggy

Also - how much lime should be added to the mix? What's a good rule of thumb? I have a cheapy Wal-mart aquarium pH kit (using a liquid tester + test tube) at my disposal

I really want to avoid spending a lot more money on this project, and I really want to believe that I can achieve the success that others have had.


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Another image

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 5:02PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

I'm sorry you're having such trouble with your mix. The pine bark fines are the hardest part to find. You described what you bought as shredded pine mulch. Was it labeled pine bark mulch? Or was "bark" left out of the description? It doesn't look like it contains much bark. I see twigs and lighter colored splinters that are sapwood. I don't like the shredded stuff because of all that stuff. You may need to give your plants more fertilizer to make up for the nitrogen sapwood robs from the mix.

But, given all those problems, it still looks to me as if your current mix would have more bulky pieces, and therefore air space, than Promix and perlite would have. What's in the photo is very wet but it's not soggy or compacted. Is it possible that your containers are causing some of the problem? What are they made of? You said you drilled holes in them. What size was the drill bit? Are there holes in the bottom? If they are only in the sides, how high up are they? I use a couple half whiskey barrels for some of my plants. I drilled 8 1/2 inch holes in the bottoms and 8 more around the sides about two inches above the base. When we get a lot of rain, the wood swells and the barrels take longer to drain than any of my other containers.

Where are you and how long have your tomatoes been in the pots? If it's been more than a couple weeks, I think you might set them back more by uprooting them than by keeping them in that mix. What problems are they showing?

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 6:15PM
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fireduck(10a) experience with the 5-1-1 is about the same as yours. My blueberries seem to be doing OK...I think they love moist. My feeling is the peat is the real sponge. I would be inclined to lower the ratio of the peat next time. I wonder if a 3-1-1 might be good??? My weather is mild 75-80F most summer days. I suppose in hot interiors...the 5-1-1 might be a go.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 6:23PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

The rule of thumb is to use one tablespoon of dolomitic lime for each gallon of finished mix. That's about one cup per cubic foot.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 6:30PM
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you say you have a problem, how are the plants doing ?

we have had 1 foot of rain here in 14 days i haven't seen the sun or any blue sky and i swear i am going &&**(^ kill myself before the plants die in 5.1.1 mix , they haven't been fed other than crf once the sun comes out they might go into some sort of shock they say it will break today God i hope so for my sake not the plants :)

i have never grown in pots because i never seen anything grow well in pots till i seen the bark idea and it all made sense to me, granted it may be more work but hey why not if the results are there :) most of the work i think for me was finding best materials and i don't have it perfect but did the best i could weeks of looking and finally am pretty happy with what i found.

oh ^%$# i think i see some sun going out to have look :)

here is a cabbage about 6 weeks old cauli next to it in bark mix and i am in middle of winter and 2 weeks without sun, don't give up on it you are on the right track :))


This post was edited by bitzppa on Sat, Jun 29, 13 at 19:44

    Bookmark   June 29, 2013 at 7:38PM
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the theory of a well-drained container is sound. Sometimes we need to tweak our mixes a bit for our weather, species grown, etc.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2013 at 11:13AM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

Here are some of the three dozen or so plants I have growing in 5-1-1 right now. Photos were all taken this morning after an inch of rain last night.

Here's a close up of bush beans I planted about two weeks ago.

Two-month-old tomatoes in smart pots in the background and one-month-old peppers in the foreground:

Watermelons in 5-1-1 in a half whiskey barrel:

Roses to the left and right with petunias in the hanging basket and broccoli in the distance:

    Bookmark   June 30, 2013 at 11:36AM
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hey thanks for the pics Ohio, looking goood and for helping me get through the winter bit to the fun times ahead :)

plants look great :)


    Bookmark   June 30, 2013 at 2:17PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Hello! Great advice given already.

Indeed, that bark is not something that I would use in its present state. Was it screened to 1/2 inch? A LOT of that looks larger than 1/2 inch.


    Bookmark   June 30, 2013 at 8:58PM
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Hi folks,

Here's a follow up, and some more images

As a note, I also believe that I need to work on this mix a little more, to get it tuned correctly

1. Drainage is also what I think is the major issue - perhaps my simply increasing the drainage, it will solve the super soggy pooling

2. My lemon grass seems to be ok with the mix, but not my tomatoes, mint, or thyme

Here are two seedlings that have been using the mix for about 4-6 weeks, and they have not changed size since potting them:

I also believe that my thyme and mint has also stopped growing and getting bigger. My chocolate mint has started to turn purple, despite fertilizing once every 2 weeks

3. I have been fertilizing with Miracle Gro water soluble fertilizer following the outdoor plant portion: 1 TBSP to 1 Gallon of water

4. My other tomatoes planted in Miracle Gro Potting Soil are doing fine. I moved the tomato sitting in the super soggy mix to miracle gro and it feels like it recovered a bit

I do really want to get this mix to work, for all the work, time and money I've put into it.

I like that it doesn't compact like the Miracle Gro - just need to understand why it doesn't SEEM to drain as well (going to fix this with larger and more drainage holes), and why it seems to have stunted the growth of some of my plants (no clue why this is happening)

    Bookmark   July 1, 2013 at 5:31PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Did you screen the bark to 1/2 inch?

More drainage holes won't necessarily improve the drainage of the mix. A single hole at the lowest point in the container ought to suffice.

It could be that the sapwood portion of your bark is decomposing and the Nitrogen being immobilized, which Ohio mentioned before. Fertilizing to compensate for the bound up Nitrogen.

Also, the texture of shredded bark holds moisture differently than coarse bark pieces.

But, I must say, your Perlite is excellent!


    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 1:51AM
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Hi Josh,

I hand screened, so there are definitely a few large chunks, probably more than there should be. Will strain and try some beans or something, just to see if they'll survive

Combining the feedback you and Ohiofem gave me (and answering a few other questions I have not answered yet)

1. Arnt's topsoil tells me it's "specially ground pine bark". Except the product name says it's shredded

Shredded Pine Mulch: Freshly ground pine bark with a uniform texture, pine aroma and reddish brown in colour. It has an acidic pH level which helps condition soil. Use this mulch to help conserve soil moisture and to prevent weed growth.

2. I have been adding some Miracle Gro fertilizer mixed at outdoor strength - 1 tbsp to 1 gallon of water. Perhaps I need to fertilize more often then, especially for any plants that have turned purple

3. "More drainage holes won't necessarily improve the drainage of the mix. A single hole at the lowest point in the container ought to suffice" - I do still have a drainage issue. I would say this is either because

a. I haven't strained out the shredded stuff that's holding more water than intended

b. I really do need to have a much larger drainage hole. The mix seems to be holding a LOT of water!

4. Josh, I have so much perlite I'm not sure what to do with it all!

I've got a large amount of the ingredients to keep trying, so I'll refine the mix, try planting some beans or other late season veggies, and update everyone on the progress. Really want to get this to work, but must not spend more money on it if possible!

    Bookmark   July 2, 2013 at 3:09PM
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naturemitch(3/4 WI)

Hi Corkboard-

I have officially given up on the 5-1-1. Pine bark is nearly impossible to get here, I drive an hour away to get some that really doesn't work for me. It is quite ironic that I live in Northern WI, where we are in the middle of woods, water, and did I say woods? :).....but no pine bark fines. The mix worked awful for me last year, and thought it was because of me not putting in the lime.

So last fall I mixed up some batches with lime, cut out the peat (because the mix was just holding too much water), and thought now I got it! Sadly, I do not have it. Thankfully I just did a few pots with the 5-1-1. I used Fafards 52 mix (which I consistently have used for my tomato containers for years) for most of the 94 pepper pots. The 52 mix works like a charm on the peppers and I find no need to dink around with the 5-1-1 mix any longer.

My peppers are thriving (at least those in the 52 mix), I am enjoying working on them, and life is good. Yes, I spent a lot of money on the 52 mix, but I am able to enjoy my hobby of growing peppers. That is priceless. Bye-bye 5-1-1.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 1:48AM
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for me its all about fun and whatever is working I say and brings enjoyment so I don't think anyone is going to judge you here for having fun :) well I aren't anyway :)


    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 1:58AM
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chilliwin(EU DK 7)

"Leaching of phosphate from pine-bark media
poses several problems. Optimum growth is hindered;
fertilizer costs increase; and phosphorus runs off into
surface waters, posing a threat to the environment."

Source is in the link

Here is a link that might be useful: Pine Bark

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 8:13AM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

The problem with that article from 1995 is that the alternative it offers to pine bark fines is clay. There are many more problems with clay in a container than leaching phosphate. That's probably why you won't find a quality nursery or garden center that grows container plants in clay.

I have been fortunate to live in Ohio where Ohio Mulch sells the perfect PBF product (Golden Trophy #312). But when they are closed in the winter and I need potting mix, I have found Metromix 510 which is about 45% bark fines. Last time I bought it, it cost $29 for 2.8 cubic feet, almost four times the cost of 5-1-1. You can get Metromix and Fafard products from BFG Supply, which is in Wisconsin.

This post was edited by Ohiofem on Fri, Jul 5, 13 at 11:19

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 10:08AM
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shazaam(NC 7B)

If you want to improve the phosphorus holding capacity of a bark-based potting mix without incorporating fine clay, then calcined clay (Turface) would be a good choice. According to Clemson's extension website, an 8:1 pine bark to calcined clay ratio provides the following benefits:

  • Reduction of irrigation by 200,000 ga/acre in a season

  • Increased available water for plants by 4%

  • Plants with calcined clay remained turgid 48 hours longer than plants without calcined clay

  • Container substrates contained 100% more phosphorus

  • Reduced phosphorous leaching by 60%

  • Some clay lots serve as fertilizers themselves by providing calcium and/or phosphorous

  • Containers are 20% lighter

Note: If you'd like to read the original NCSU study from which Clemson distilled the benefits listed above (Finding the Balance: Calcined Clay Rate Effects in Pine Bark Substrates), a quick Google research will turn up a link to the pdf.

Here is a link that might be useful: Calcined Clay Benefits

This post was edited by shazaam on Fri, Jul 5, 13 at 10:52

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 10:29AM
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chilliwin(EU DK 7)

Very good link, thanks. "Calcined clays (like those used in cat litter) retain nutrients, encourage drainage, and enhance airspace while stabilizing pH. " I use cat litter for mulch many months and found the roots have grown to the mulch many times. So I started to use it for my 3:2:1 soil recipe I got a very good result.


    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 10:53AM
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shazaam(NC 7B)

It's worth noting that the calcined clay percentage proved to be rather important -- the researchers found that bark:clay ratios greater than 8:1 resulted in reduced photosynthesis and overall growth. It's possible, of course, that results will vary depending on the plant species (the study focused exclusively on cotoneaster), but that would be a good starting point for experimentation.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 11:10AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Then there's my case...where I've never even seen an actual Pine bark fine, and the
5-1-1 is the "work-horse" in my garden. Out here we have Fir bark.

The 5-1-1 is not for everyone - it costs less than bagged mix, yet it takes time and energy to assemble. It also requires more attention to fertilizing, which is where most folks lose growth potential in their plants. I've certainly underfed my plants, and had to settle for smaller plants on occasion.


    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 12:43PM
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shazaam(NC 7B)

It also requires more attention to fertilizing, which is where most folks lose growth potential in their plants. I've certainly underfed my plants, and had to settle for smaller plants on occasion.

That's been my experience, as well. In previous years, I relied almost exclusively on a water soluble fertilizer, was timid about watering at more than 1/4 strength, and my plants languished a bit. They didn't suffer, but neither did they prosper. This year, I incorporated Osmocote Plus at a modest rate (just under a tbsp per gallon of mix), and I've noticed a significant difference.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 12:56PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

It has taken me a long time to figure out the fertilizing thing. There is so much bad information out there about what NPK ratio to use, when to use it and how often to use it, that I think many people give up on trying to figure it out. Even if you choose to turn to the most widely used choice -- Miracle Grow -- there are more than a dozen choices, from bloom boosters to rose, citrus, and tomato food, that you can spend a fortune and still not get it right.

I like the ideas that you should not count on a container mix to feed your plants, and that all plants need basically the same ratio along with trace elements. And since I started feeding my potted plants full strength year around with Osmocote plus and a 3-1-2 soluble fertilizer, letting their watering needs determine how often they get fed, all of them are doing much better than they did when everything got different formulas. I especially see the difference with my vegetables in 5-1-1.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 3:36PM
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chilliwin(EU DK 7)

5:1:1 would be like a good computer motherboard, a skillful person can unlock the potential of a good motherboard. When I started learning assembled computer and overclocking I destroyed a lot of motherboards, I was not able to use the full potential of the motherboard because I was an inexperienced beginner. I spent a lot of time and money and finally somewhat I am able to do what I'd like to do with my machine, that's I enjoy now :-). So if you have skill may be you can unlock the potential of your plants, it is up to your skill of container gardening.

Overclocked CPU are void warrantee we know that but to use the full potential of the machine we use a lot of difference means and methods. Just like adding lime, slow release fertilizer ....whatever you called to 5:1:1. The time changed the means and methods of overclocking as well as 5:1:1 won't remain just like the time it has been created, I think. It should be changed according to the climatic condition and the growing environment and the type of plants we grow.

To unlock the potential of container plants, 5:1:1 has been created and then started to tweak it to make it works it is natural for those people who loves it, just like overclocking.

One of our forum members TheMasterGardener gave his opinion last year about 5:1:1 I consider he is right.

I know very well how many of our active forum members support this 5:1:1. As a hobby container gardener I have been trying to get some useful information from the different opinions to grow my plants better :-). too bad very selfish :-).

I do not know how bad are those potting soil available in the markets over there but the potting soil we have here is very much acceptable. Before I am here I used it without much problems. The problems we have here is mainly cold climate and sunshine.

I have been in so many different forums only here 5:1:1 is keep doing discussion so there must be a good reason, I think.

The issues with Al's 5-1-1 mix should be solved by your skillful application of the advice you got here.

Please do not be serious, just I share my opinion. I encourage whoever likes to try new things. Good luck


    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 3:55PM
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I almost killed myself trying to find bark fines here. In the end I used hemlock mulch, which I think was too shredded but mixed it with Pro-Mix BX, perlite, lime and CRF. I have been fertilizing regularly alternating with granular and liquid fertilizers. I also added additional micronutrients. So far so good. I think the lesson learned is that you have to work with what you can find and adapt to your environment and conditions. But I am very pleased so far.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2013 at 8:35PM
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all great posts and thanks for sharing your experiences with us all.
I am going to give this stuff a try see how it goes. and add PK 13-14 when needed.

tried MG don't like it , no foliage pro here, and am seeing that I am lacking some PK in my pots.

all part of the fun I guess :)


Here is a link that might be useful: Fert

    Bookmark   July 6, 2013 at 12:16PM
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hairmetal4ever(Z7 MD)

Ohiofem - did you say yiou use FULL STRENGTH Osmocote plus AND a soluble feed?

I'd worry about burning them. Good to know you can pull it off.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2014 at 12:36PM
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Ohiofem(6a Ohio)

My reference to FULL STRENGTH Osmocote was not precise. I follow the advice from Al's Container Soils post to add 1 tablespoon of CRF per gallon of potting mix when making either 5-1-1 or gritty mix. I was calling that full strength when I used Osmocote Plus 15-9-12 at that rate. But, as you probably saw in the old Osmocote Plus Dose for Container thread, that is really more of a starter charge. Al wrote:

Usually, when I was discussing CRFs it was in conjunction with using other soluble fertilizers as the primary source of nutrients. The CRF was just a starter charge or something to fall back on when/if you forgot to fertilize. When thinking about CRFs, it should be apparent that because they are designed to last so long, you would need considerably more CRF by weight when you apply it than you would slow release fertilizers, and MUCH more than if you were using readily soluble fertilizers.

I do use a soluble fertilizer at full strength. For example, with Foliage Pro 9-3-6, the label suggests using 1 teaspoon per gallon of water once a week. Ideally, if I am watering twice a week, I would use 1/2 teaspoon per gallon each time. Or if watering 4 times a week, I would use 1/4 teaspoon per gallon.

I did occasionally have problems with fertilizer burn in the past, before I discovered the wealth of knowledge on GardenWeb. I was using fertilizers with the nitrogen supplied primarily by urea on container plants. My understanding now is that roots can't use urea-based nitrogen until it is broken down by soil microorganisms. Soilless potting mixes in containers don't contain the enzymes needed to convert urea into something the plant can use. Unused urea turns to salt and can harm the plant's root system. I think the margin for error may be much wider for fertilizers that draw their N from nitrates.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2014 at 1:12PM
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drew51 SE MI Z5b/6a

"My understanding now is that roots can't use urea-based nitrogen until it is broken down by soil microorganisms"

First I don't use urea either, well my dog often applies it!
I add organisms in my containers myself, so it wouldn't be a problem.

"I think the margin for error may be much wider for fertilizers that draw their N from nitrates. "

I grow blueberries and nitrates harm them.
You really need to know the plant group to help you succeed.

I use organics such as plant-tone, or cottonseed for nitrogen for blueberries. Also Ammonium Sulfate which also keeps the PH low.

I add microorganisms with a number of products any Espoma fertilizer contains microorganisms. Biota Max is awesome for adding bacteria and fungi! Of course you need mycorrhizae in there too! MycoGrow is really excellent.

I like to use TomatoesAlive for tomatoes and peppers as it has the extra calcium and magnesium they really need.
Also Calcium Nitrate works really well as a fertilizer for these plants too!
My yields are unbelievable using these products, so I'm sold.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2014 at 4:49AM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

OP's problem (as he has mentioned) is :

"The issue I have is that it seems to hold A LOT of water. "

Then he shows a pictur of what he is using and describing it as :

" .. shredded pine mulch .."

As I look at the picture, I can see a lot of sap wood and very little quality bark nuggets. My understanding of 511 is that it should have good amount of nuggets/chunks ranging in size from 1/4" up to 1/2"(plus fines). It is this portion of the 511 that facilitates drainage. Otherwise it wouldn't be much different from the peat moss based podding mix.

Here is what I got (unscreened). Plus I have some crushed pine bark fines to go with it. My concern right now is that a genuine 511 might not actually hold enough moisture, rather than too much.


    Bookmark   February 10, 2014 at 10:02PM
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