Other questions on growing in 5-1-1 Mix

tryingtogrowagainAugust 8, 2012

Since the previous post got long with all the pics I decided to split my questions up.

1. I have wicks for drainage and reducing/eliminating the PWT in just about every plant...some plants have more than 1 wick to a pot....Can I leave the wick in the pots without fear of some kind of fungus or mold growing? the wicks do dry out so I'm thinking leaving them hanging out of the bottom of the pots is okay.

2. I check everyday to see if any of the plants need to be watered. In some of my plants the wick is dry but I also stick a wooden chopstick/dowel inside the soil to the bottom and the dowel is cool and slightly damp. So I stick my finger in one of the other drainage holes and I feel moisture. So if the wick is dry and the 5-1-1 is still moist what does that mean? I decided not water

3. If plants are in the 5-1-1 mix and are still damp/moist-not saturated wet in 3-4 days(and the wick is dry-indicating no perched water??) does that mean the roots are not getting oxygen? I don't know why I had it in my head that my pots need to be dried out in order for oxygen to reach the roots. Some of these plants are made with 1/2 to 1 part MG potting soil and these are the ones that stay moist for longer period of time(more than 4 days). I'm wishing now I had just made it with bark and 2 parts perlite b/c I'm not sure that staying moist for that long is ideal. I think I just need a little more understanding of the properties of this mix. I've read Al's posts and all the discussion on this subject multiple times and I enjoy this but I feel like I might be beginning to obsess over something that I don't need to.

Is the following correct?

-PWT or perched water is what causes anaerobic conditions where the roots don't have oxygen...o/a ratio is low(or not ideal)

- damp but airy soil is the goal. potting soil doesn't create damp but airy...instead it creates saturated and no oxygen.

5-1-1 Mix made correctly(because of larger particles and type of particles) will create damp but airy conditions

Please help any confusion you see in what I've written! :-)



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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Plants live in relative harmony with all sorts of molds, fungi, and bacteria that thrive in soils with adequate volumes of air. The ones that create havoc most frequently are the ones usually associated with soils that retain too much water and too little air. There are several soil-related fungaluglies that fall under the heading of 'damping off diseases, that can be particularly nasty and cause lots of headaches. So, even if you do get 'something' growing on the wicks, it's extremely unlikely that it would cause any problems. I even use wicks when using the gritty mix on the shallower containers, just to ensure the roots making their way to the bottom of the container aren't growing in even a little standing water. There is no sense in tempting fate when you have the wherewithal to so easily avoid problems.

A dry wick is a fair measure of a soil's moisture content, but a skewer stuck deep in the pot is better - or a finger if you can get it down to near the pot's bottom. For smaller pots, simply hefting them is also a good way to gauge the plant's need for water. On many plants that are well-rooted, testing for moisture at the drain hole and watering when it shows dry there is a good way to judge moisture content, as well.

Your plants don't need to dry out for roots to get oxygen, but the soil has to have air-filled macro pores for roots to function normally. A heavy soil based on small particles can easily support 4"+ of perched water. That means if you water correctly, 2/3 of the soil in a 6" deep pot will be saturated after watering. This is very hard on plants. It kills the finest roots within a very short time, so the plant is required to expend energy to replace the lost roots. That's energy that might have gone into making more blooms or fruit, or simply into growth that is lost forever. Plants can never regain lost potential. Add to that the fact that root function/metabolism is also affected, and you have a double whammy.

It appears as though you correctly understand the effect of perched water on root function, so I don't see that you're confused. Maybe a little tenuous about how to apply the recently acquired knowledge, but confidence won't be long in coming, I'm sure. If you're Tyringtogrowagain, you're on the right track. ;-)


    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 4:40PM
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Thanks Al!!!! Your confidence is inspiring my confidence and lessening my 'worry'. Thanks for letting me know that what I am understanding and 'sensing' as I learn how to read my plants and apply this new knowledge to their care is going in the right direction.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2012 at 10:42PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Ah! I hadn't yet read this post when I replied to your other. Hopefully what I said will further increase your confidence. I'm not worried about you at all, because you already have the tools you need to succeed, and that's not something I had any part in. I am glad though, that you found value in my offerings, and hope you can use them to increase the enjoyment you get from the growing experience. Take care.


    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 4:11AM
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ok, I've had rest and now a couple more questions have surfaced as my brain has been revived :-)

Al, I read in one thread(don't remember where exactly) tat you sometimes make vertical slits or score the root ball of a plant that you are putting in new soil and cut an X in the bottom of the root ball. What does that do?

The majority of my plants came to me this past June b/c my mother-in-law passed away and these are plants sent by the people leaving their condolences. None of my husband's siblings care too much about plants so they left them with me to care for...I gladly took them. Back in her heyday my mother-in-law grew beautiful plants so I sort of do this in memory of her...I just never thought I'd really enjoy this as much as do...It's so relaxing, theraputic and satisfying! Anyway, when I got the fern it was root bound so I moved it to a bigger pot but the root ball mass was so tough and spongy...not a soft spongy but a hard spongy if u know what I mean. I would squeeze the root ball and it would spring back out and when I would squeeze it, it wouldn't even go in very far, only a little bit...it is very compact but I don't see a bunch of wet soil, I think it's mainly peat- I think. It's a strange sort of material....ANYWAY, I need some guidance as to how to go about getting this hard, tough mass off of the roots of this fern. I don't want to have to cut off a big plug of this mass b/c I don't want to lose the new little fronds that are FINALLY appearing but I am concerned over this one. It is growing but I don't want is to 'stall' b/c of this situation.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 5:29PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

.... you sometimes make vertical slits or score the root ball of a plant that you are putting in new soil and cut an X in the bottom of the root ball. What does that do?

If a plant has heavy root congestion, the slits sever the roots that are encircling the container, forcing root branching behind the cuts, similar to pruning branch tips.

This is a little Eugenia, commonly grown as a houseplant or a bonsai. This one is in the initial grooming stages as a candidate for a bonsai down the road.

Even though it's not horrible, I'm concerned about the root congestion because I never got around to repotting it this year, so I'm going to give it a boost. I need to consider how congested the roots WILL be 10 months from now at repot time. Instead of cutting an 'X' in the bottom of the roots, I'll either rip them off or cut them off.

Since there were no encircling roots in the remaining root mass, making the vertical slits wouldn't have much effect, so I potted up into a wider/and shallower container than it was in.

This plant will remain in the 5:1:1 soil because it's closer to what the plant was in when I acquired it a few ears ago. I'll bare root/repot next Jun, and it will go into the gritty mix.

I do a lot of display containers all through the gardens & decks

Many of the plantings have several plants in them that came in 4-6" pots. All of these plants get the bottom half of their root mass unceremoniously ripped off at planting time. I then work my fingers up into the center of the roots & spread them outward. The 'damage' to the root system actually SPEEDS establishment of the plant in the planting. I remember years ago, I would so often find bedding plants that never put out roots beyond the limits of their original root mass after an entire summer of 'growth'. Not so when you do as I described. The damaged roots literally stimulate chemical messengers that 'tell' the plant something has damaged the roots. The plant, being a reactive organism, is forced to funnel energy into growing new roots - LOTS of them, and the new roots are very efficient at absorption in the 'virgin' soil, so reestablishment happens quickly.

Roots aren't all that delicate. If you can keep them from drying out while working on them, they'll tolerate a LOT of indignity ..... but I'm getting it's more the worms that have you squirming. ;-)

The only ferns I grow are a few odd ones that are potted in outdoor containers, and they go in the compost in Oct, but I know Josh repots his ferns and will be able to offer some help. I'll go chase him down.


    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 7:47PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

You rang? ;-)

Yes, ferns tolerate a great deal of root-disturbance....as long as the Timing of the Season is right.

Out of curiosity, and to better tailor the advice, what kinds of fern are we discussing? Natives?
Fancy ferns?

I re-pot ferns all throughout the Spring. Basically, you want to catch them before they begin to
unfurl their fronds, just as you'd want to catch a maple before the buds begin to extend.


    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 8:39PM
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Hey Josh!

I think this one is a Boston Fern?? Here is the pic...

    Bookmark   August 9, 2012 at 9:35PM
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To Water or Not To Water:

Al, I still don't quite understand what to do about this scenario that I seem to keep coming across.

I have wicks in all my plants. In some plants the wick is dry but when I stick my finger in the pot it is moist in the middle of the pot. But if the wick is dry then that indicates that the bottom of the pot is MOST likely dry, I guess. Or is it more correct to say that a dry wick indicates no perched water. So if there is no perched water BUT the mix is still moist in the middle of the pot should I water the plant or not?

    Bookmark   August 12, 2012 at 7:27PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The bottom of the pot will always be the last part to dry out if your soil is the same from top to bottom. If the soil mass is still wet and the wick is dry, it just means that the soil is better at holding on to moisture better than the wick is at attracting it. The capillary attraction of the wick + gravitational flow potential of the water in the soil has to be greater than the capillary attraction of the soil proper or soil particles for water to move down the wick, and it's unlikely the sum of those 2 forces would be greater than the capillary attraction of a bark particle, for instance, so the wick will always dry before the soil is dry to the point where it becomes difficult for the plant to absorb water. That's why I mentioned, "A dry wick is a fair measure of a soil's moisture content, but a skewer stuck deep in the pot is better - or a finger if you can get it down to near the pot's bottom."

"So if there is no perched water BUT the mix is still moist in the middle of the pot should I water the plant or not?" Given the described scenario, it would be better if you didn't water, but how potentially limiting it would be if you DID water depends on the soil. If you were using the gritty mix or another very well-aerated, fast-draining soil, e.g., it very likely would not be an issue; but if you were using a very water-retentive soil, it could be a significant issue.

A good rule would be to water the plant only if you think it will be stressed by lack of water before your next opportunity to water.


    Bookmark   August 12, 2012 at 7:59PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

I think your fern will thrive in the 5-1-1. I would re-pot next Spring, right about the time
that you notice the fronds beginning to swell (or "knuckle up," as I like to say) at the crown.

I don't bare-root ferns, but I do open the bottom of the root-mass and I do sort of rake and loosen
the outside of the root-ball so that I can weave the outer roots into the new mix. Since the texture
of the old mix will be different than that of the new mix, I make sure to keep the mix watered and moist
while the fern adjusts. There shouldn't be any discernible delay in growth.


    Bookmark   August 13, 2012 at 11:32AM
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Al, thanks for explaining this and helping me understand. I shall use my best judgment re: watering.

Josh, thanks for the info on the fern. I've already cleaned off what I could of the old soil from the fern and put in back in the 5-1-1 so we'll see how it goes. You will definitely hear from me if I have any other questions...thanks for being so helpful!

    Bookmark   August 13, 2012 at 1:52PM
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