How to rescue wet compacted veggie containers

paul_30068(7)July 26, 2012

I built several 3' high garden racks this year with a pair of 3' x 2' x 8.5" deep plastic cement mixing tubs per rack. I am watering with rain water (unless my four 55 gallon drums run empty) and growing vegetables like cucumber, lettuce, and tomatoes, herbs like basil, and some fruit like canteloupe and watermelon.

It's great fun but the soil is just not right and I am wondering what the best actions are to rescue my fruit and vegetables and make the best of things.

I started with pea gravel in the bottom of each container and Miracle Grow soil. I have witnessed that this soil compacts quickly and stays wet (perched soil) and that the pea gravel is just wasting space. Several popular posts here warn about this and, well, I guess I just had to figure it out for myself. As it comes time to reclaim a container I can use Tapla's soil recipe, but what about for my watermelon that is suffering, or my eggplant, e.g.? Do I try to replant them and start with a fresh mix of Tapla's soil recipe?

Also, what would be a good thing to use as an absorbent wick to hang out of the bottom of each container?

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dickiefickle(5B Dousman,Wi.)

Do you have drainage holes in the containers ?
Just use any old rag for a wick,or a hunk like rope.or a like a string from a cloth like mop head.
Also is you can raise one end of the container up ,so its on an angle willlike help too

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 12:29AM
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Yes, there are 10 drain holes per tub evenly spaced. The shape of each tub is very conducive to good drainage. The wetness is more due to the layer of pea gravel and the now heavily compacted Miracle Marketing soil that I used.

For a wick I would like something that is both attractive and functional. This garden area is in my front yard and I am already in conflict with the HOA... even more so since I got voted on to the board and hardly ever agree with the incumbents. So cutting lengths of rope sounds good. Thanks.

The bigger question that I have from this post is what do I do about my wet compacted soil problem with the tubs that have established plants in them now? The plants are not as healthy as they could be as-is but I am afraid of making things worse by digging them up. They are not going to produce like they should without a change, though.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 7:46AM
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Let the soil get dry before watering. Let the soil get so dry that plants wilt from being underwatered. Then water. Make sure you follow that the whole way. Growibng in potting mix is easy and effective with the right watering.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 10:55AM
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Work a lot of perlite into the soil mix. This will help a LOT.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 12:13PM
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Thanks all for the replies. So I get that I should prepare a better soil for my containers next time. My concern is what to do about existing plantings. I'm thinking now that I must go ahead and selectively risk damaging some plants and repot them into proper soil mixtures so that the survivors can grow properly rather than let them continue to suffer.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 3:50PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Nifty set-up!

Place the wick all the way to one end. After watering, tip the tubs steeply toward the wick and rest the bottom of the tub on the top rail of your framework until the soil stops draining. Water seeks a level - if the soil supports 3" of perched water, a level container maximizes water retention. If you tip the container, you essentially change the shape of the soil capable of holding perched water and reduce it's volume significantly.

To illustrate, think of a side view of a square 12x12 with a line 3" above the bottom to represent the top of the PWT. Now turn that square 45* so it's standing on a corner. If you draw a horizontal line 3" above the point, you can see the significant reduction in the volume of perched water the soil is capable of holding. ALL the rest of the excess water will drain. After it stops draining, put the tub back in its intended position and go look for ingredients for a better soil. By the time you get back, the water that was in the reduced-in-size PWT will have dispersed evenly back into the soil and you'll be able to enjoy the fruits of an improved state of affairs. Use a couple of wicks if you wish.

Tilting ANY container after a thorough watering changes the shape of the soil mass occupied by perched water and reduces the volume of excess water a soil is capable of holding. I often tip my bonsai that are sensitive to soggy conditions during periods of prolonged rain.

Another example of working smarter instead of harder, brought to you by your friendly neighborhood GWers. ;-)


    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 4:07PM
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Very nice, Al! I get it. OK, now I know what to do with all of the scrap 2x2s that I hoarded from the construction phase. I can put those under one side temporarily and let physics work for me.

I think some of my plantings simply must be repotted as the soil is SO compacted... and frankly I should have thinned some of the plantings anyway. This will give me the chance to get rid of the over-done pea gravel, install the wicks in one side, and put in a proper soil mix.

Al, I've read a bunch of your posts here in GW and they are all awesome contributions! Thanks!

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 4:23PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The compliment is nice, and I'm grateful for your kindness; what really pleases me most though, is just knowing that something I offered might have made a difference in what you get from the growing experience .... in a good way, of course. I hope I never tire of the satisfaction I get from that. Something else I enjoy here and in life in general, is rubbing elbows with a crowd that's enthused. Enthusiasm puts a smile on faces and just brightens everyone's day!


    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 4:43PM
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dancinglemons(7B VA)


I do not have any better advice on the wet compacted soil except to say I totally agree with Al. (been there, done that with other containers and it worked)

Thank you for posting your cement tub planter set up. I have several of those cement tubs and using your design they will now look much better in my garden. THANKS!!


    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 3:37AM
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I am not understanding whats going on?

Are you getting a lot of rain? You need to let plant wilt from being underwatered then water.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 12:53PM
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Rofl @ Miracle Marketing. And hurrah to you for taking action with your HOA! I wish Texas would pass a xeriscaping law like Florida has.. it seems last years drought has taught people nothing.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 5:08PM
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And just to add, growing canteloupes and watermelon in containers can be quite difficult, so don't get discouraged if you don't get a great yield. It's most successful in very large containers and with dwarf fruit types. Tomatoes and eggplants also usually need a container deeper than what you have to really produce well. But every season is a learning experience.

    Bookmark   July 29, 2012 at 5:13PM
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I've had very good luck in the past moving plants from peat based soil to bark based soil. Remove as much of the peat soil as you can, then replant. They'll sulk for a day or two, but then will respond to their new environment very robustly. You'll be better off in the long run.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 3:50PM
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Thanks everyone for the posts. Yes, we've had a lot of rain in the Atlanta/Marietta Georgia area lately. So between overcrowding, putting too much (and now I know any) pea gravel in each container, and having soil that has become quite compacted some tubs more than others were always wet.

I went ahead and busted up the worst performing container -- the one with 14 eggplants (way overcrowded) -- and I am giving the bark based soil a try. In some cases I went with Al's mixture 100% and in others I tried a mix of home made compost and bark. I now have 13 eggplants (one was too small to let live) to experiment with across one 3' x 2' by 8.5" deep tub and 5 flowerpots of varying sizes. I have a feeling that I will be translanting the eggplant from the flower pots again after they adapt to the new soil and start to show signs of being able to get pregnant.

Next season not only will I used a better soil mix but I will also build some additional garden tables to hold larger containers. If you look closely at the picture of the first table that I built the design is not complex. What's key is measuring and building to suit your container or containers so that tubs can be dropped in and replaced if they ever crack. For example, I have my eye on a 37 gallon tote from Rubbermaid that is supposed to be crack resistant down to zero degrees Fahrenheit. It measures 18.6" x 32.4" with a depth of 20.4". I would like to think that I could grow most any vegetable in here as well as some fruits like canteloupe. I'm getting some canteloupe now but only 3 or 4 flowers turn into fruit at a time and often the fruit separates from the vine earlier than I had hoped. The fruit tastes OK but the fruit size is small.

Here is a link that might be useful: Rubbermaid 37 gal. Roughneck High Top Tote

    Bookmark   July 30, 2012 at 4:32PM
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