Organically fertilizing a 5-1-1 mix (lengthy with pics)

ka0ttic(CFL 9b)November 4, 2013

Firstly, I'd like to thank everyone on this forum. I've been lurking for a bit and reading a lot of Al's threads and related spin-offs. I've learned a great deal in a short amount of time.

I just made my first 5-1-1 mix and I know from reading aforementioned threads that it's difficult to organically fertilize containers as effectively as with synthetic fertilizers.

My 5-1-1

As I'm growing vegetables (mostly tomatoes/peppers) almost exclusively, I'm trying to keep it as organic as possible. I'm aware of the fact that ions are ions and at the end of the day the plant doesn't care but I'm going to give it a try anyways. Has anyone been successful using a 5-1-1 mix without synthetic ferts?

I know that organic fertilizer has to decompose and be consumed by microbes before it's available to the plant. Obviously, it's not instant and more of a time-released kind of deal. Yes microbe populations fluctuate and therefore all of the nutrients are not necessarily available when the plant needs them but can it work with say using multiple avenues like azomite and/or granular organic fertilizer and frequent (and more diluted) applications of 5-1-1 fish emulsion? Not necessarily the optimum ratio but I can't think of an organic source that is.

I haven't quite figured out exactly how I'm going to go about it but I've started with adding granular azomite. The size looks good (drainage/aeration-wise). Without any real scientific reason for the amount and completely guessing I used a 1/4 part (making a ration of 5-1-1-.25). What the hell, it looked good in comparison to the small test batch I made. The package says 0-0-0-0.2; Soluble Potash 0.2%, Calcium 1.8%, Chlorine 0.1%, Sodium 0.1%. The actual analysis.


I have an organic granular fertilizer, Espoma Garden-tone (3-4-4), that I bought a while back. I'm not sure whether to incorporate this or not. I thought I remembered reading that it could burn the roots? It says it has among other things, "pasteurized poultry manure." If so, maybe use it more as a top-dressing in a band around the plant?

Total N 3% (0.2 ammoniacal, 0.6 soluble, 2.2 insoluble)
Phosphate 4%
Potash 4%
Ca 5%
Mg 1% (0.7 soluble)
S 2%

Also contains "Bio-Tone", "895 Colony Forming Units (CFU's) per gram" of 7 different kinds of "microbes" I suppose.


Thoughts on using this product in a 5-1-1 mix anyone?

Then there's always the trusty 5-1-1 fish emulsion. I'll probably apply this pretty diluted at every watering. These plants will be outside so they'll be getting some rain water too.

Sorry for the lengthy thread. Part of this is asking questions and part of it is documenting what I've done/am doing. I'm hoping to hear of others attempt on this subject. I'm not really anti-synthetic fertilizers but since I'm growing edibles I guess I like the peace of mind and am willing to give it a try. Whatever transpires discussion-wise, I'll post updates on how it's working out. Thank you for any advice.

This post was edited by ka0ttic on Mon, Nov 4, 13 at 19:58

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Oxboy555(Las Vegas)

Well, I think the road you're on is going to be a challenging one, but if you can figure out a working formula and schedule, you'll be heralded as a container pioneer (or is that bioneer?).

I don't think the problem will be tracking down all the nutrients, but getting enough of them into the plants at the right times and at the right ratios. You could mix up a solution of FE and seaweed extract and that would likely give all the majors and micros, but I just don't think it would be enough. Rain and the quick-draining nature of 5-1-1 only work against you too. Maybe working in some cottonseed or alfalfa meal from time to time, but the release rate would be pretty unpredictable. I just don't know how you'd get enough nitrogen in your plants.

On the other hand, I don't think experimenting would kill the plants. Set up some guinea pig pots and give it a go. I bet you'll learn a lot.

Not at all sure about including the azomite. I think Al advised against that in some other thread.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2013 at 8:08PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

I am also learning a lot in this container forum. And I thank everybody for their generosity teaching newbies to container gardening like me. The next season I am going to do some container panting., mostly hot peppers. Maybe a couple of determinate or dwarf tomatoes too.

I am not an organics purist when it comes to fertilizers,. So I should be fine using synthetic fertz.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2013 at 11:27PM
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ka0ttic(CFL 9b)

The granulated fert does have alfalfa meal in it but of course with everything else there's no telling how long it would take for the N to become available. My biggest question about using the granular is the best way to incorporate it; whether as a top dressing or mixing it into the 5-1-1 from the start. Could mixing it in burn the roots? From looking at it, the biggest chunks seem to be the pasteurized chicken manure (I'm assuming dried uncomposted chicken manure?) Most everything else seems to be pretty fine particles which I would hope break down relatively quick.

It definitely will be a challenge but hopefully I can figure out something that will work. I'm not necessarily looking for max yield and 8ft high tomato plants but a decent yield and max nutrition. The latter is one of the reasons I'd like to include the Azomite. I'd be interested to know which thread that was in and/or why including it would hurt. If that stuff was crushed (closer to a flour consistency) maybe the nutrients would be available a lot sooner?

I'll be doing some short-term tests with some things over the next couple months. Hopefully I can at least get a general idea of what might work by late Feb when I'll be potting all the tomatoes/peppers I am growing from seed. At the moment I have 10 different varieties I plan on growing from seed (4 toms, 5 peppers, and a tomatillo) and I plan on growing at the very least 2 of each (20 containers). I'd like to do more if I have enough containers and enough of the base 5-1-1 mix to do it. If my math is correct, I will only have 45 gal worth of base mix leftover after the 20 containers are filled (if I was to fill them to the top). The more of each type I can do, the more variations I can try...

I don't think the problem will be tracking down all the nutrients, but getting enough of them into the plants at the right times and at the right ratios

I think you hit the nail on the head. That is definitely the key to this puzzle... I wish I had a bit more of the science part of it down. You're right though. It'll definitely be a learning experience however I do it.

    Bookmark   November 4, 2013 at 11:31PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Use larger containers so that the moisture level and temperature don't fluctuate too wildly. This will help maintain sufficient populations of microbes to break those nutrients down into useable forms.


    Bookmark   November 5, 2013 at 1:22AM
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Oxboy555(Las Vegas)

The gist was that azomite is a long-term amendment not meant for short term container gardening. Do a search of the word 'azomite' and you may find the threads.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2013 at 2:52AM
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ka0ttic(CFL 9b)

Thanks for the responses guys. Oxboy, I did find a thread on azomite in containers. I guess we'll see what happens.

Josh, I was planning on using 15gal containers for the tomatoes and 5gal containers for the peppers. Hope the latter will be large enough.

What about using compost? I know mixing it in would impede aeration/drainage but what about using it as a top dressing?

Oxboy, you brought up seaweed extract earlier. One of the things on my todo list has been making my own fish/seaweed emulsion. I live on the coast and have access to both fresh. I often come home from fishing with a boatload of mullet (saltwater bait fish) that I netted for bait that more often than not sits in the freezer til I throw it out. Maybe that's something I'll work on before spring.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2013 at 9:31AM
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I've been doing organic containers for years with good results.
Been too busy to update a blog but you could check out:

Using some liquid organic fertilizer (in addition to digging in solid organic fertilizer) will help greatly.
Then when your plants start to look yellowish, just add more of the liquid.
This way you don't need to figure it all out mathematically in advance which probably isn't possible with organics anyhow. You just use visual feedback to determine when to pour in some more.

I basically take 1/2 compost 1/2 leaves every year and just fertilize with urine. Does great for one season plantings.
Then add 50% leaves for the next season.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   November 5, 2013 at 4:14PM
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shazaam(NC 7B)

I'm glad emgardener chimed in, because I've found his past comments and blog posts to be quite inspiring. I've been experimenting a bit with organic fertilizers in containers, and I definitely think it can be done. Josh's recommendation to use larger containers is a good starting point (at least 10 gallons, preferably 15-20 in my experience), because, as he pointed out, stable temperatures (neither too hot nor too cold) plus a steady supply of moisture are crucial to the health of the microorganisms that drive an organic system. Additionally, I'd suggest that you consider using fabric pots -- compared to plastic, they provide superior gas exchange, minimize heat retention, and, especially when in direct contact with soil, the fabric helps to wick excess moisture out of the potting media, all of which are good for plant roots and for the microorganisms that will feed them. The only downside is that you might have to water a bit more frequently, especially in the heat of summer.

For fertilization, I've used primarily alfalfa meal (it has an NPK ratio that's in the 3-1-2 range), hydrolyzed fish, and kelp. I generally aim for fertilizers that are relatively easy to break down, and I'm not too keen on things like azomite for the reasons that oxboy mentioned (in fact, I'm rather suspicious of the value of azomite in general). I also incorporate some homemade leaf-based compost (mostly made form oak leaves, vegetable scraps, and fresh comfrey leaves) and garden soil in some of my mixes, but I try to keep them under 30% or so of the total volume (something like 20% compost and 10% soil). If I were growing in plastic pots, I'd reduce that to 15% compost (with 15% perlite and 70% bark) and leave out the garden soil due to concerns about excess moisture retention. In fabric pots, though, it seems to work just fine. I've also begun make my mixes and incorporate dry fertilizers in advance (4-6 weeks). My thinking is that this gives microorganisms a chance to start working on the fertilizers so that, by the time that I plant, there's plant usable nutrition already present in the media.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2013 at 10:28AM
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ka0ttic(CFL 9b)

Thanks shazaam. I'll look into fabric pots. I don't know what those run cost-wise. I was planning on using cheap plastic nursery pots just because of the numbers I'll have (>20). Another factor with the fabric pots would be my zone (9b) and how hot it gets in the summers here. If they're reasonably priced I'll keep that in mind.

I've also begun make my mixes and incorporate dry fertilizers in advance (4-6 weeks). My thinking is that this gives microorganisms a chance to start working on the fertilizers so that, by the time that I plant, there's plant usable nutrition already present in the media.

I think I will definitely mix in the granular ahead of time. Probably about the same time I start the seeds indoors.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2013 at 10:56AM
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shazaam(NC 7B)

Smart Pots are very nice but a little pricey. By comparison, Root Pouches are very affordable, especially when you buy a 10-pack. I bought some of the grey ones last fall, and I'm very happy with them so far.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2013 at 12:31PM
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I grew tomatoes in containers this past summer and used Dr. Earth Tomato, Vegetable & Herb Fertilizer and they did amazing.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2013 at 8:56PM
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Some of the responses that said they were using organic fertilizers didn't mention if they were using them with plants in potting soil, there own concoction, or Gritty/5-1-1? I believe that makes a big difference and should be considered. All my house plants are in Gritty and I use Foliage Pro, my outside pots I'm all for experimenting. Outside I plant in plastic, terra cotta, plastic felt on walls, and grow bags. I vary my mix according to what I'm planting and in what kind of container, so outside plants are in something between a Gritty and a 5-1-1. I use FP but also top dress all my veggies at the start of summer with an EB Stone organic and I've been very happy with the results. I try a little organic this and that all the time, but I still use a weak solution of FP on those plants.

I say experiment!

    Bookmark   November 7, 2013 at 12:33PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

I am a newbie to container gardening. Actually, I will start doing it next season. I will use some kind of 5. 1. 1. Mix. But then I realize that you have to water them almost everyday. So how do you manage fertilizing them? I can use synthesized water soluble at one 4th to one 5th strength. But how about granular synthesized ferts? Can you mix that into the potting mix or top dress ?

    Bookmark   November 8, 2013 at 8:21PM
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ka0ttic(CFL 9b)

seysonn, in Al's post with the 5-1-1 recipe, he mixes in lime and CRF (controlled release fertilizer) so I would say yes you can mix in the granular.

There's a couple different variables that would determine how often you have to water, from container size to what else you mix in with the 5-1-1.

    Bookmark   November 8, 2013 at 8:31PM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

Thank you kaOticc

That helps . Mixing in some granulars in the beginning can maintain some minimum level. About watering, It can depend a lot of temperature and other growing conditions: like pot size, pot material (plastic, clay, fabric) amount of direct sun, winds ..etc. My growing conditions can be best describes as: COOL WEATHER, not a whole lot of direct sun. So watering should not be a major problem here, if I can figure out the fertilizing.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2013 at 7:39AM
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shazaam(NC 7B)

You might know some of this already, seysonn, but the super simple approach to fertilizing would be to premix up to 1 tbsp of controlled release fertilizer (Dynamite All Purpose Select, for example) per gallon of potting mix and then to apply a soluble fertilizer (Dyna-Gro Foliage Pro, for exampe) at every watering. In general, aim to provide the soluble fertilizer at label rate weekly (so if the recommended rate is 1 tsp per gallon you'd simply divide that by the number of waterings per week). The CRF provides a steady source of nutrients throughout the growing season (which is especially valuable in prolonged wet weather when you don't need to water), and the soluble fertilizer gives you some control over growth rates. If you want to slow down vegetative growth, for example, you can reduce or withhold the soluble fertilizer (or you can alter the NPK ratio with a supplementary product like Pro-TeKt, which can accomplish the same thing).

This post was edited by shazaam on Sat, Nov 9, 13 at 10:50

    Bookmark   November 9, 2013 at 10:23AM
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seysonn(8a WA/HZ 1)

Thanks Shazaam
So if I water about once every 2 or 3 days then I should use 1/3 rec. strength. Sounds good to me. Even with my in bed plants I almost do the same. I find it better than full strength feeding.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2013 at 8:13PM
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This mix drains way too fast for organics. Mix in 1 part of earworms castings to help slow it down, and top dress it with another layer, about an inch thick. Mulch over the top of that with alfalfa hay.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 9:07AM
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