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Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

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Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 9:44 am

I have two 4' x 8', 2' deep raised beds, both setup this spring and filled with standard Mel's Mix. One is producing the best garden I've ever had -- simply amazing results with tomatoes, cucumbers, chard, potatoes, sweet potates, eggplant and bell peppers. The other bed is clearly unhappy (low germination rates, signs of nutrient deficiencies, irregular growth patterns and stunting) with corn, green onions, carrots, lettuce, beans, peas and the same species of tomatoes that are flourishing in the successful bed. (I'm getting good results in the unsuccessful bed only with a few square feet of red grano onions.)

I've mixed the approximately 128 cubic feet of planting mix about 18 cubic feet at a time. I'd start with a compressed 3 cu ft peat moss bale (which should technically expand to 6 cu ft), then add 6 cu ft of coarse vermiculite, then 6 cubic ft of mixed compost. The typical batch would include 1.5 cu ft of turkey compost, 1.5 of cheap composted bark, 1 of chicken manure compost, 1 of cow manure compost and 1 of mushroom compost. Once the beds were nearly full, I mixed about 40 lbs of worm castings into the top six inches of each bed. All products were common bagged brands from big box or farm supply stores.

I tested both beds with the local extension service and found the following:

Successful bed: (elemental unit = ppm)
pH 7.35
P 1150
K 1276
Ca 7487
Mg 1856
Na 343
S 46
Cu 4
Zn 65

Unsuccessful bed:
pH 7.20
P 510
K 661
Ca 6672
Mg 1316
Na 220
S 28
Cu 7
Zn 61

Clearly, I need to drop the pH on both beds. I'm assuming that my peat moss wasn't as compressed as I estimated and I ended up with a larger proportion of compost in my mix and not enough peat to drop the pH below 7. I'm also thinking that some of my compost included manure that was treated with lime to reduce smell, because Calcium levels are crazy high and the pH is elevated. Seems like excess calcium carbonate to me. I'm planning to add more peat moss to bring the pH down because I'm reluctant to add Sulfur with the levels already so high in both beds.

If both beds were giving me problems, I'd look no further, but the fact is that the HIGHEST pH bed is performing beautifully at 7.35 while the 7.20 bed is unhappy. Plus, 7.2 isn't THAT bad. So I'm reluctant to decide it's just a pH thing. The nutrient levels are super high in both beds but that's normal for Mel's Mix and if the problem was that the levels were TOO high, why is it that the highest levels are in the successful bed? The beds are side by side with virtually identical sun exposure. They receive the same water at the same time of day for the same length of time.

I'd appreciate some expert opinions on this. What am I missing? What do you think about the plan to add peat versus raising the Sulfur levels even higher? Anyone out there have similar problems and find a solution?

Thanks in advance for your help! Smile

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  boffer on 5/30/2013, 9:57 am

What was the extension agent's conclusion/recommendation about your test results?


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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 10:30 am

They're all about the conventional row gardening methods here (south Louisiana); no apparent awareness of intensive organic gardening methods/standards. They indicated that most elements were 'Very High' and only recommended adding large amounts of nitrogen sources. Specifically, 1.5-5.5 lbs/100ft row of Ammonium Sulfate, or .7-2.5 lb/100ft of Urea, or .9-3.5 lbs/100ft of Ammonium Nitrate; amounts depending on which plant group I was targeting.

Uh... no. If I wanted to row garden with granulated chemical fertilizers I wouldn't have spent so much money and time finessing this Mel's Mix.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  gwennifer on 5/30/2013, 11:05 am

Help me out - does your OP show the nitrogen levels in each bed? I don't see it.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  camprn on 5/30/2013, 11:20 am

MIndful, I understand your aversion to the Extension agent towing the line as it were... however this person remains an assest to you. What were the Ag Agent's recommendations for adjusting the pH?

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 12:19 pm


@gwennifer wrote:Help me out - does your OP show the nitrogen levels in each bed? I don't see it.

No it doesn't because the test results didn't include it and I found this very odd. I assume the recommendation to add nitrogen sources is related to the 'very high' levels of P and K, but I would have expected at least a total N result if not a breakout of nitrites, nitrates, etc.

@camprn wrote:MIndful, I understand your aversion to the Extension agent towing the line as it were... however this person remains an assest to you. What were the Ag Agent's recommendations for adjusting the pH?

No explicit recommendations regarding pH. They just suggested adding lots of nitrogen and sent a lot of stock row-crop growing details -- how to pre-fertilize, side-dress, etc. I have a call into the extension office for more details but based on the recommendations they did include, I'm expecting them to recommend modern chemical solutions.


-hal

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  gwennifer on 5/30/2013, 12:27 pm

@MindfulHal wrote:
@gwennifer wrote:Help me out - does your OP show the nitrogen levels in each bed? I don't see it.

No it doesn't because the test results didn't include it and I found this very odd. I assume the recommendation to add nitrogen sources is related to the 'very high' levels of P and K, but I would have expected at least a total N result if not a breakout of nitrites, nitrates, etc.
That's really annoying. I mean, all fertilizer is based on the basic npk ratio. Why would their test results give you p and k but not n? And how do they figure to recommend adding n then if they don't know the levels that it currently exists? Hopefully your phone call can get you some more information - surely the nitrogen level was tested.

BTW, I have experience with nitrogen levels being too low in my Mel's Mix for the plants to grow. There are organic methods for dealing with this. You don't have to go the synthetic granular approach.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 12:34 pm

@gwennifer wrote:
@MindfulHal wrote:
@gwennifer wrote:Help me out - does your OP show the nitrogen levels in each bed? I don't see it.

No it doesn't because the test results didn't include it and I found this very odd. I assume the recommendation to add nitrogen sources is related to the 'very high' levels of P and K, but I would have expected at least a total N result if not a breakout of nitrites, nitrates, etc.
That's really annoying. I mean, all fertilizer is based on the basic npk ratio. Why would their test results give you p and k but not n? And how do they figure to recommend adding n then if they don't know the levels that it currently exists? Hopefully your phone call can get you some more information - surely the nitrogen level was tested.

BTW, I have experience with nitrogen levels being too low in my Mel's Mix for the plants to grow. There are organic methods for dealing with this. You don't have to go the synthetic granular approach.

Thanks for the help. I've never had N deficiency problems in Mel's mix so I didn't even consider that as an option. Hard to imagine how Nitrogen could be lacking with that much compost in the mix. But yeah, the plants are a little yellowed out and stunted -- especially the N-hungry corn. I just assumed it was a nutrient lockout but I guess it could be a straight-up N shortage. I hope so -- that's easy to solve in a healthy way. I'll clarify with the extension service and post updates.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  camprn on 5/30/2013, 12:46 pm

YOur pH is high so this will affect nutrient uptake, including nitrogen. Here is an interesting read.
http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/mauisoil/c_nutrients01.aspx

If it was my garden I would need more compost with a slight sprinkling of wood ash.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  No_Such_Reality on 5/30/2013, 12:54 pm

Actually, the unsuccessful bed shows a major nutrient drop compared to the successful bed. The P-K levels are half of the successful bed. Even with those high level of P-K, the N level in both beds may be quite low.

Some organic blood meal may help as you won't increase the other P-K levels.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 1:00 pm

@camprn wrote:YOur pH is high so this will affect nutrient uptake, including nitrogen. Here is an interesting read.
had to delete the link so the forum would let me post

If it was my garden I would need more compost with a slight sprinkling of wood ash.

I agree pH is a factor but it doesn't explain why one bed is super happy with a pH of 7.35 and the other is unhappy at 7.20. That's the puzzle. Also, wood ash raises pH, so I'm not sure why that would help.

Interesting article. Maybe there's an answer around mineralization that converts the organic N into usuable nutrients for the plants. All the necessary components should be there but if I didn't get the mix moist enough it could have caused a problem. The 'happy' bed was the one I filled first and I used a lot more water while mixing because it was windy that day and I needed more peat and vermiculite dust control. The 'unhappy' bed mix used the same ingredients but I mixed it dryer because frankly it's easier as long as the dust isn't blowing around too much. If I simply started the bed too dry and then didn't water enough early on, the organic nitrogen wouldn't have mineralized fast enough to feed the plants. Maybe?

Thanks for the info!

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 1:03 pm

@No_Such_Reality wrote:Actually, the unsuccessful bed shows a major nutrient drop compared to the successful bed. The P-K levels are half of the successful bed. Even with those high level of P-K, the N level in both beds may be quite low.

Some organic blood meal may help as you won't increase the other P-K levels.

It's lower in P and K, yes, but it's still VERY high. But without a doubt the big unknown is the N level and if P and K are half strength compared to the healthy bed, then N could be much lower. If we establish that low N is the problem, blood meal is definitely one of the solutions I'll try. Thanks for the suggestion.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 6:03 pm

Thanks to everyone who's replied so far! I have an update from the extension service that seems really useful. I confirmed that they don't do Nitrogen testing in the 'basic' package I paid for. I could pay a little more and get that but the rep told me the tests were notoriously inaccurate and often unnecessary. It's clear from the plant condition that I'm dealing with an N shortage in the unhappy bed. His opinion is that since I used different batches of compost, the compost I used in the unhappy bed was too green. Since it's continuing to decompose, it's sucking up the available N and starving the plants. He also thinks the pH isn't really the problem because it's not high enough to cause this severe a problem. I'm still going to drop the pH, but the more critical need is to add Nitrogen. He suggested that the fastest solution was to 'cheat' with ammonium nitrate, etc. but agreed that blood meal or very mature compost would also do the job. Since I'm going to strip the stunted corn and tomatoes out anyway, he suggested I add some peat moss for pH, add mature compost and/or blood meal and plant peas or some other nitrogen fixing 'cover crop' that I can harvest quickly and then incorporate back into the soil before time to plant for the fall.

What do you guys think? What would you recommend?

Thanks!
hal

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  walshevak on 5/30/2013, 6:24 pm

I'm not an expert by any means, but the times I had problems with stunted, yellow growth I found that I had peat pockets in my MM. Better mixing and getting more compost to the roots solved the problem. I would hesitate to add more peat, but would encourage adding more compost. And possibly some fish emulsion which seems to be a great nutrient booster.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  camprn on 5/30/2013, 7:26 pm

It was nice that the Ag Agent could meet you somewhat in the middle. I agree with the previous post that you probably would not benefit from adding more peat. Do you have any homemade compost? Do you know anyone who raises bunnies? If you can get your hands on any shrimp based compost at the store that would be great.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  boffer on 5/30/2013, 8:01 pm

Just for comparison, here are the results of two lab tests I had done on my MM a couple years ago, and the recommendations from the testing labs; they include N results. At the time, Umass charged $10 for the test; it may be $15 now.

http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t8673-mel-s-mix-lab-analysis-results

When testing native soil, it can be an advantage to have tests done at a local regional lab as they are familiar with native soils and the methods of adjustment that have shown to be most effective ie. not just textbook advice, but feedback from the local farmers who are trying them. When we're talking about soil-less mediums, there are no advantages for the local labs. You might consider another lab test; the Umass price is cheapest I've seen, and it includes N.

Currently, I have cool crops planted in 12 established boxes, with a variety of crops in each box. They're doing great except for one, which is behaving similar to yours. It's pretty bizarre, because I've been working out of the same compost pile for over 2 years. I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do about it.

I don't have much experience with amendments, but I would be inclined to try fish emulsion which is usually around 5-1-1. Your ph is a little high for some plants, but it shouldn't be causing the problems you're seeing in all the plant varieties.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  plantoid on 5/30/2013, 8:29 pm

My guess is that the in the bad bed the composted bark is not composted enough and has robbed the nitrogen out your mix , being bark it will also like as not be also acidic . Composted bark is about as nutrient effective as plain peat unless it is really well composted by being wet and regularly turned for a year or more . Some "composted " barks / forest floor products have added nutrients natural or chemical that are good for around six weeks before they need renewing .

Can you get hold of any neat rabbit or Llama muck without beddings & incorporate some in the top of the bed as it is rich in nitrogen ?
Failing that add in to the top inch or so 30 gram ( 1 ounce ) of dried blood , fish and bone meal to bring up the nitrogen levels then water it in well ... Don't get any in the folds of the plants as it will rot them when damp

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  plantoid on 5/30/2013, 8:30 pm

Boffer, could the lousy weather be affecting your beds ?

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  boffer on 5/30/2013, 8:39 pm

@plantoid wrote:Boffer, could the lousy weather be affecting your beds ?
It's definitely affecting the warm season plants. But it's just one box of cool crops that is looking sad. The rest of the cool crop boxes are doing fine.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 9:46 pm

This is an awesome forum! Thanks to everyone for the friendly help. Any other suggestions are welcome.

I had a bad feeling about that cheap bark-based compost and I should have paid attention to it. But after paying 15 bucks per 1.5 cu ft bag of the high-end turkey compost, those 3-dollar, 2 cu ft Walmart compost bags were just too inviting. Lesson learned. I guess I'll rip out the corn -- it's going nowhere -- and start working in some higher-grade, mature compost. I just moved so I don't have my own pile ready yet, but I can probably get plenty of shrimp-based compost down here in south Louisiana and blood meal isn't hard to find. I also kinda like the idea of planting a nitrogen fixing crop just to finish out the hottest part of the summer.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  boffer on 5/30/2013, 9:55 pm

@MindfulHal wrote:This is an awesome forum! Thanks to everyone for the friendly help. Any other suggestions are welcome.

I had a bad feeling about that cheap bark-based compost and I should have paid attention to it. But after paying 15 bucks per 1.5 cu ft bag of the high-end turkey compost, those 3-dollar, 2 cu ft Walmart compost bags were just too inviting. Lesson learned. I guess I'll rip out the corn -- it's going nowhere -- and start working in some higher-grade, mature compost. I just moved so I don't have my own pile ready yet, but I can probably get plenty of shrimp-based compost down here in south Louisiana and blood meal isn't hard to find. I also kinda like the idea of planting a nitrogen fixing crop just to finish out the hottest part of the summer.

My first year I bought quality compost from my favorite independent hardware/nursery, and had great results. My second year, I ran short of compost, and instead of making the 60 mile round trip to my favorite store, I made the 8 mile trip to Wal-Mart. Big mistake, as the box that got the Wal-Mart compost was a big failure.

Cover crops are good things...for row gardens and farms! Read this thread before you make a firm decision.

http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t8236-green-manure-does-not-come-from-cows

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/30/2013, 10:10 pm

@boffer wrote:
@MindfulHal wrote:This is an awesome forum! Thanks to everyone for the friendly help. Any other suggestions are welcome.

I had a bad feeling about that cheap bark-based compost and I should have paid attention to it. But after paying 15 bucks per 1.5 cu ft bag of the high-end turkey compost, those 3-dollar, 2 cu ft Walmart compost bags were just too inviting. Lesson learned. I guess I'll rip out the corn -- it's going nowhere -- and start working in some higher-grade, mature compost. I just moved so I don't have my own pile ready yet, but I can probably get plenty of shrimp-based compost down here in south Louisiana and blood meal isn't hard to find. I also kinda like the idea of planting a nitrogen fixing crop just to finish out the hottest part of the summer.

My first year I bought quality compost from my favorite independent hardware/nursery, and had great results. My second year, I ran short of compost, and instead of making the 60 mile round trip to my favorite store, I made the 8 mile trip to Wal-Mart. Big mistake, as the box that got the Wal-Mart compost was a big failure.

Cover crops are good things...for row gardens and farms! Read this thread before you make a firm decision.

http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t8236-green-manure-does-not-come-from-cows

Cool! That comparison table pretty much says it all. Compost is easier and at least as effective. I might grow the peas anyway because I hate an idle garden and love eating fresh peas, but then I can just shred the plants into my compost pile after harvest.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  ETNRedClay on 5/30/2013, 10:19 pm

Wal-mart compost is great -- if you understand what you're getting. Check the numbers. $5 Black Kow and $7 Nutri-fiber are .5-.5-.5 and Wal-mart's $1.47 Composted Humus and Manure is .05-.05-.05. AND it has lots of sand and grit.

I buy lots of it. But what I'm doing with it is mixing it 50/50 with the red clay topsiol I have when I transplant shrubs and trees. It's GREAT for that.

For Mel's Mix... not so much. There's nothing THERE to help the plants except structure, and the V. provides that already.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  gwennifer on 5/31/2013, 12:17 am

Hey Hal? When will you need to start planting for fall? I'm just wondering if you have time to tinker and experiment before getting your bed ready for replanting. If you've got time, you could learn a lot, right? I mean, you're convinced at this point that your bed has a nitrogen shortage, but you also mentioned earlier you didn't water that bed in thoroughly like your first one. Under saturated mix would affect nitrogen release.

Then again it could just be a batch of green compost robbing the nitrogen for itself as it breaks down. Did you have a type of compost in that bed that you didn't use in your first one? I suppose it could be something else entirely!

My point is you could try a few different things with different squares and see which method gets those plants to perk up. By the time you figure it out, it may be too late for a harvest from those squares, but you'll know the right thing to do to prepare the whole bed for fall planting. Try really saturating a few squares. Try working in extra compost in some others. Try the bone, fish and feather meals (pure organic nitrogen sources) in some different ones. Just an idea if you've got the time and desire.

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Re: Looking for expert help with Mel's Mix

Post  MindfulHal on 5/31/2013, 2:11 pm

@gwennifer wrote:Hey Hal? When will you need to start planting for fall? I'm just wondering if you have time to tinker and experiment before getting your bed ready for replanting. If you've got time, you could learn a lot, right? I mean, you're convinced at this point that your bed has a nitrogen shortage, but you also mentioned earlier you didn't water that bed in thoroughly like your first one. Under saturated mix would affect nitrogen release.

Then again it could just be a batch of green compost robbing the nitrogen for itself as it breaks down. Did you have a type of compost in that bed that you didn't use in your first one? I suppose it could be something else entirely!

My point is you could try a few different things with different squares and see which method gets those plants to perk up. By the time you figure it out, it may be too late for a harvest from those squares, but you'll know the right thing to do to prepare the whole bed for fall planting. Try really saturating a few squares. Try working in extra compost in some others. Try the bone, fish and feather meals (pure organic nitrogen sources) in some different ones. Just an idea if you've got the time and desire.

Sounds like a great idea!

MindfulHal

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