5-1-1 and water conservation

perelaj(5b)August 8, 2012

This is my first year using the 5-1-1 mix in my vegetable containers, and I've had great results. Everything grows more happily, and I'm getting a larger yield from the tomatoes and squash and beans. I also like the way I can flush the mix with a heavy watering. Sometimes I catch a whiff of a swampy, septic smell coming from the water exiting the container. It's good to know that I'm cleansing the mix.

The trade-off, of course, is a mix that doesn't hold water the way a peat-based mix does. I'm fine with that, but I'm a little concerned about wasting water. I find that, in this hot summer weather, I need to flood my containers with water twice a day to keep the plants happy. I need to keep watering, even as water is draining out of the bottom of the container, in order for the plant roots to get their full daily drink. (No, I don't believe that my mix is too coarse. If anything, I think it's a bit finer than true 5-1-1.) So, I'm wondering if there is a way to irrigate my plants and also not waste quite so much water in the process. I like to flush my containers once or twice a week, not once or twice a day. Also, I get my water from a well, and wells have been known to go dry in summer.

So I was thinking about a container with drainage holes that can be opened and closed. I was thinking that, when it's time to water, I could close the drainage holes, water the plants until the mix is soaked, let them sit in the saturated, non-draining mix for...I don't know...ten minutes? Fifteen minutes? And then open the drainage holes and allow the water to drain and the mix to flush. A ten-minute intense drink. In this way, the plants would make more efficient use of a smaller amount of water, and I'd save my well from going dry. I use Rubbermaid 18 gallon totes for my vegetable containers. I don't really know how I would make drainage holes that can open and close. But let's say that I figure something out. Do you think I would be damaging the roots of my plants, if I let them sit for ten or fifteen minutes in highly saturated 5-1-1 mix, and then pull the plug and let the water drain away?

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You would be defeating the purpose of a well draining mix by preventing water from escaping creating perched water and yes, damaging your roots.

Your concerns about water usage are valid. I have a well too, and have to be very careful about water usage. A few things you can do:

Use larger container and a slightly higher proportion of peat in 5-1-1. That will reduce your watering frequency, but will require more water at a watering time.

Save exiting water and use it on your gardens. Will reduce need for water and fertilizer there.

Capture rain from your roof in barrels or a cistern. Plants love it.

Some people use grey water. I use that in ground, but not in containers, but I think it could be used.

Use a drip system. It's more efficient then hand watering.

Use self-watering containers (earthtainers). The whole concept of earthtainer is to conserve water.

Mulch your plants. It reduces evaporation. Use plastic or hydroton or white rocks to reduce evaporation a lot. Be careful though as reducing evaporation can increase root temperatures. Use white containers.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 4:33PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

I like to pre-water my containers lightly, and then come back through for a main watering.
I find that watering in stages has really increased the saturation without causing incredible

I don't think it would damage the roots if they sat for 10 - 15 minutes in saturated mix.

There shouldn't be a swampy, septic smell coming from the effluent, however, so you might
want to re-evaluate your mix for next season.


    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 4:39PM
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Perelaj, I've had the opposite experience. I find that I water my 5:1:1 containers *less* than peat-based containers. I have 3 containers with commercial potting soil (given to me by others) that dry out in the 100* heat, in that cracked, warped way that peat tends to dry out.

On the other hand, my 5:1:1 containers rarely need any supplemental watering.

I did use 1 part leaf mold (so it was more like 5:1:1:1) for the moisture-loving plants, and the regular recipe in the other containers.

I'm wondering if your bark got really dry and became hydrophobic? Would soaking them in a bucket of water for a few minutes help? I'm hoping one of the soil experts can chime in here about how wise this would be.

    Bookmark   August 10, 2012 at 7:41PM
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