Pepper/Al's mix container experiment(with pics)

joshnoJuly 10, 2011

I wanted to do a semi-scientific organic vs chemical in containers test. So I got 6 bell peppers, and made up 3 in Al's 5-1-1 mix with some hydrated lime, and the other 3 in roughly:

75% home made compost, it was largely out of grass clippings.

10% perlite

10% vermiculite

5% worm castings

The left ones are the compost mixture.

As you can see, the peppers in the organic mixture look healthier in every way. Planting method was the same, by knocking off 80% of the retail potting mix.

The watering schedule is similar, about every 1-3 days.

I water the compost peppers a bit less often since they don't dry out quite as quickly, though the difference isn't as much as I expected.

I feed the 5-1-1 peppers around every 3 days with foliage pro at 1/2tsp. per gallon.

I've not fed the compost peppers nearly as often, maybe every 1-2 weeks with fish emulsion. And once with a compost tea/fish emulsion/thrive mixture.

So what might be the problem with the "chemical" peppers? As you can see the 5-1-1 peppers are lighter. I'd tend to think it's not a nitrogen deficiency, but possibly something tying it up.

The leaves are also cupped up, I've read in some places that that could mean too much water?

I did put in some hydrated lime in the 5-1-1 mix. I'd surmise 1/2 a cup for those 3 10" containers. Maybe too much?

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Your bark in the 5-1-1's looks like fairly big chunks, not sifted down to 1/4 inch particle max, I'm no expert but that affects aeration and nutrient uptake in a major way

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 5:05PM
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What confuses me is why your peppers didn't grow that big in both mixes?

I must say I too would be grateful they are at at leasst growing. But somewhere along the line you went wrong. My peppers are big and green along with some I am already eating. They are all in the 5.1.1 mix fed regularly.

I'll bet if you regularly fed yours in a 5.1.1 mix made exactly as directed, they would of topped the ones in your compost mix one along with lush green leaves and more fruit. Thanks for sharing and happy growing.


    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 5:30PM
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redshirtcat(6a MO StL)

I agree, the bark in those mixes looks too large. It doesn't look like "pine fines" so much as it does "pine mulch nuggest." They also are not composted at all. It looks like very fresh bark.

Also: hydrated lime was not the correct substance to add to the mix. You wanted dolomitic lime. Hydrated lime is a) dangerous to use and has the potential to burn the plants and b) has the chemical formula Ca(OH)2. Dolomitic lime is CaMg(CO3)2. The dolomitic lime has calcium and magnesium and at the rate of 1 tbsp per gallon will properly adjust the pH of the 5-1-1.

Your plants are almost certainly lacking magnesium even if they aren't showing symptoms yet.

They also look to be deficient in Nitrogen which is either a result of the too porous mixture or underfertilizing. Did you include any controlled release fertilizer in the pots? The nitrogen deficiency could also be the result of using new bark as opposed to "pine fines" which in addition to being smaller are also partially composted. The breakdown of your pine mulch will steal nitrogen from the plant. You need to up the N they are getting.

Here are some photographs of what the 5-1-1 should look like (or closer to it anyway - even mine is a little large) along with some shots I took for you today of my peppers. All of my peppers are in 5-1-1 made according to Al's directions. I include Osmocote Plus in each pot and I fertilizer with 1/4tsp of Foliage Pro per gallon of pH-adjusted water. I'm in 6a so it's not like I'm in California or anything my weather conditions should be similar to yours.

5-1-1 from my container. Note there are some chunks of peat that still need to be broken up in there and some of my bark is still a little large.

Peppers I picked yesterday from plants in the 5-1-1:

Some of my plants in a shadier than ideal location. They are a big leggy as a result:

Sublimes on one of the above plants:

This is what your foliage should look like - yours is too yellow and your plants need more nitrogen

Sweet orange bells:

A shot of the 5-1-1 in my red delicious pot:

Cajun belle's in the 5-1-1:

The rest of these are from plants in sunnier locations. Mohawk patio bells in 5-1-1

'Big Daddy' in the 5-1-1

More 'Big Daddy'

A nearly ripe 'Big Bertha' in the 5-1-1

Jalapenos with corking in the 5-1-1. These could have been picked awhile back but I hear they are better red and corked:

Another 'Big Bertha' - this plant has about 5 ripening peppers and more green ones developing:

Some of the green ones:

'Red Knight' peppers in the 5-1-1

'Sublime' in the 5-1-1 (this one is in a sunny spot)

Poblanos in 5-1-1:

Another shot of 5-1-1 in use in the peppers. The larger bark is a top dressing I put there for aesthetic reasons. Much of it has floated off as I water. It's the stuff you see underneath that yours should look like.

This is what you should have used for the lime also known as 'dolomitic lime':

This is in all my pots:

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 6:32PM
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Absolutely BEAUTIFUL Redshirtcat! Now that is more like it.

That is what I am talking about. Oh if I could walk right now and go outside and take pics of mine:-(

Looking great and delicious. Thank you


    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 7:52PM
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Your probably right that the particle size is too large. However it's not quite as large as it appears in the pictures. The larger particles seem to have floated to the top. Here's a picture of what I'm using:

The average size is certainly larger than that in redshirtcat's excellent photos(thanks for posting). Your peppers do look quite nice.

I sifted the bark using an 1/8" screen from a "soil amendment" that was largely extremely small particles. When viewed up close, the bark does look partially composted to me. I did add some osmocote to the mix.

I have read Al saying that particle size is important. However, I've also read him saying that more drainage/aeration is better than less. So I'm somewhat confused on the importance of smaller particles.

I noticed that I had the wrong kind of lime after I made the mix up. I would imagine that is a good part of the issue.

Those pictures were taken 10 days ago. The peppers are looking a bit better now. They're not nearly as yellow.

How long should it take for the mix to dry out, say, an inch down in hot weather? It would take mine a good 2-3 days, which would seem a bit long to me.

I'll fertilize them a bit more regularly and see if I can pull them out and get some peppers of of them. How often do you fertilize?

I may try the experiment again next year with a more appropriate mix...if I can find the ingredients.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 7:56PM
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redshirtcat(6a MO StL)

Well I can't speak for Al but I can tell you my thoughts.

In the 5-1-1 if you use large bark the only way the water can move around is through the peat which is a mere 14% of the soil. When you have smaller particles sizes the bark starts behaving more like the peat - it will hold more water (more surface area) and it should allow for even water movement through the pot. You don't want super fine dust particles like you would get in a regular "soil" but you don't want larger nuggets like you would put in the gritty mix either. The gritty mix will have better drainage but it also has water-retaining ingredients (turface, axis) which comprise 33% of the soil. Axis in particular will hold something like 200% of its weight in water so even though the mix will drain really well it will still hold a good deal of water (and air as most of the water is in the pores of the Axis).

Something else looks wrong to me about that bark. It doesn't look like the right color to me. Mine is closer to deep brown almost black (especially when wet). And are there rocks in there? I don't know, something looks off about it. Are you sure that "soil amendment" was just pine bark? It even looks coated with something... hmm

I fertilize daily (fertigate). I use a Gilmour hose-end sprayer and apply 1/4tsp per gallon of Foliage Pro + the vinegar it takes to get the final water to around a pH of 5.5-6.0 (about a tsp per gallon). Al has suggested to me a few times that it might not be necessary to so closely monitor my pH but I do it anyway.

We've been having sunny and extremely hot days here in the last week or so (90-95 highs with heat indexes in the 100s). The top inch of soil dries out... I don't know in maybe 2 hours? It doesn't take long at all. All of my peppers are in undersized pots - I believe they are 6 quarts? I can check if you'd like - but small is the point. Even in that wide angle shot with the ceramic pots at the top you can see I have 3 plants in each of those. They get dry very quickly. I water at least once a day in this weather and the poblano will wilt if I don't water it twice a day.

But I don't water based on the top 1" of soil. 2-3 sunny days should be far too long for this mix to stay wet in the top 1" - no idea what's going on there. I assume you got the proportions correct and that they aren't in full shade so I suspect something is wrong with your bark - maybe they added a polymer or something to make it a better amendment?

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 8:43PM
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Nice thread and great pictures.

I have a similar experiment going and have seen similar results. The peppers were put in a gritty type mix 1:1 turface:bark. They have done terribly and I've basically given up on them.

The mix was just too loose. I believe the root hairs didn't have enough fine material to attach to for wicking up water and fertilizer.

Switched now to a more 5:1:1 mix.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 8:53PM
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Yes, there were a few rocks in the product. It is mostly bark, with a bit of sapwood. That dust looking stuff is just left over from after I sifted it. It does look almost black when it's wet, but it turns lighter when dry, as you can see in the first pics.

It does seem strange that it doesn't dry out faster. It doesn't dry much faster than the compost mix. It's possible I added a bit too much peat.

They get about 5-6 hours of sun.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 9:14PM
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penfold2(4b, MN)

Your bark may not be ideally sized, but I don't think it's responsible for poor plant growth. I've used similarly sized bark with good results. My guess would be the hydrated lime. Hydrated lime is completely soluble in water and will increase pH drastically, as opposed to dolomitic lime which dissolves slowly. Two teaspoons of hydrated lime dissolved in one gallon of water will make a saturated limewater solution with a pH over 12. Being as hydrated lime is completely soluble, it is probably gone now after several waterings, so that may be why your plants are beginning to improve.

As for the soil staying wet, have you checked to see how well the pots drain? My 5-1-1 mixes always seem to clog the insect screen I use over the drainage holes. I have to poke a finger or stick in the drainage holes of newly potted plants several times before the pots drain properly. This could also be a reason for poor plant growth.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 10:13PM
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Another word about drainage, if I fill the top inch or so of the container with water in the compost mix, it takes probably 10 seconds to drain down completely.

In the "5-1-1" mix, it is not possible to pool water in the top part of the container, it drains just as fast as I pour it. (well, at least when using a watering can.)

    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 10:33PM
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I have to agree that the bark in the pictures does not look right. First thing I notice is that there is literally NO fines in it. The mix depends on using pine bark fines, not just pine bark. I'm not going to defend any mix, because this is my first year using the 5-1-1, and although it is working good for me, it hasn't been without hard work and some complaints. I have had some watering issues with the hydrophobic pine bark. I can say though, that my pine bark is fines, and I CAN pour water in the pot, and it sits there for a bit. But, I can agree that the water seems to flow right through, and leave dry sections in the center of the pot. It takes a bit of screwing around, but all in all, the mix works. I won't be using it for veggies anymore, because next year I'll be firing up a regular veggie garden.

So, final word from me: Due to what looks to be the wrong pine bark, and the wrong lime being used, this experiment is scrapped, and shouldn't be associated with the 5-1-1 mix.


    Bookmark   July 10, 2011 at 10:57PM
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redshirtcat(6a MO StL)

If the mix won't hold water on the surface for even a second then I would suggest it's too coarse. Mine will hold it for a second or 2 and then drain rapidly. But if it's too coarse I'm not sure how it could also stay wet in the top inch for days at a time... doesn't make sense to me.

It's too dark now but ill take some pics tomorrow of my peppers and the tomato that I have in the gritty mix. They are doing fine but they need to be watered twice daily. The plants in the gritty mix are slightly less vigorous but still quite healthy as you will see. I think they need to be watered more often than I am or be in larger pots. Six quarts for a tomato in gritty mix is just too small. But it certainly works...

If you really want to compare or try the 5-1-1 I think you should seek out real pine fines and then compare. I think you will be pleased.

I don't have any hydrophobicity issues with mine. It really is easy and effective for me. Maybe I will make a video next week of the process...

    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 12:01AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Well, these guys have pretty much nailed every possible variable...
but I couldn't resist sharing a few pics of my peppers in the 5-1-1.
My mix is uncomposted fir bark, perlite, turface, and a small amount of potting soil.
I added Dolomitic Lime and a touch of Osmocote. I fertilize once a week with Foliage Pro.

And here's a bonus pic of a Black Pearl pepper growing in the Gritty Mix.


    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 12:01PM
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Josh, your mix looks great. I think my hydrophobic 5-1-1 mix is because my mix has TOO much bigger particles among the smaller fines. Like I said, my mix is working great, but requires some work to water correctly. I think next time, I will sift out the more coarse particles with some hardware cloth or something. Funny thing is, as I water more & more, the coarser stuff floats atop the containers, and I remove it, then add smaller stuff. My watering is getting better as I do that.


    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 5:17PM
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redshirtcat(6a MO StL)

As promised here are some videos. I didn't make a batch of 5-1-1 but I will do that next week when I have actual pine fines. The first link is just showing you what my "pine fines" look like.

The second link is a video of some of my peppers in the gritty mix (and a tomato in the gritty) and then some 5-1-1 peppers and some earthbox/earthtainer stuff.

The third link is a video of some of my other plants in containers - most of which are in either the 5-1-1 or the gritty mix: citrus, more peppers, more tropicals... etc

Pine fines:

Gritty Mix peppers/tomatoes:

Some other stuff in the gritty and 5-1-1 mixes:

Here are some photographs if you don't want to bother with the videos:

Most of the peppers and the tomato are all in these 5Q pots... very small:

    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 6:22PM
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Thanks redshirtcat for your pic's and videos, and everyone for the suggestions. I'll seek out better sized pine bark fines, and the right lime, and try again. This gardening is a constantly learning experience.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2011 at 11:40PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Great videos, man. Nice tour of the garden.


    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 1:26AM
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redshirtcat(6a MO StL)

Heh, no problem. Sorry, I haven't made many videos so I do all sorts of stupid things with the camera... owell. You got the point.

Thanks Josh - I always like your photos and videos.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2011 at 4:13AM
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