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Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

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Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  dizzygardener on 5/24/2011, 12:19 pm

I know most of you have seen the many topics by folks who have struggling SFGs. Most of you know that more often than not it is a nutrient deficiency. Why is this? The method seems simple enough. 1/3 peat, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 compost. The problem often rests with the compost mix.

So, in an effort to provide the SFG family with a one-stop resource for how to put together as perfect a Mel’s Mix as possible, I offer you this thread. However, before we get into the meat of this discussion I want to talk to you a bit about the All New Square Foot Gardening book (ANSFG).

Do you own a copy of the book? Have you read it at least once? If not, let me encourage you to do so. The only way you can learn everything you need to know about this method is for you to read the book. Surely, this forum is full of lots of helpful hints (some SFG related and some definitely not), but it can’t hold a candle to the real thing. If you are starting out, you need to know just how to do SFG the right way before you start experimenting. Reading the book is the best way to learn how to do SFG the right way.

What I am about to say is based on the ANSFG book. I am heavily relying on Chapter 5 of the book. It is entitled “Mel’s Mix, Essential for Square Foot Gardening Success.” A sub-title puts an even finer point on it, “Don’t Skimp On This.”

This is going to be a long read. I apologize in advance, but there is a lot to cover here. For those of you with short attention spans let me offer you the condensed version:

• Peat moss in compressed bales will fluff to twice its volume. Bear this in mind when you are doing your calculations. Pre-moisten your peat before you mix it into your MM.
• Use coarse grade vermiculite. If you can’t find it ask your local garden supply if they can order it in for you. Medium will work in a pinch, but not as well as the coarse.
• If you don’t have your own source of compost you MUST use a blend of at least 5 kinds of purchased composts that is kinds NOT just manufacturers or brands. READ THE LABELS ON YOUR COMPOST BAGS. I cannot stress this enough. You want your bags of compost to be as pure as possible. Some good ones are cow, horse, and chicken manures; mushroom compost and worm castings. Make sure that the bags are NOT 50%+ peat or mulch. Especially in the case of peat, adding all that filler will throw off your Mel's Mix.

1. Peat Moss

This is probably the easiest part of the system. You can buy it in compressed bales or in bags. The compressed 3 cu.ft. bales are often times the most cost effective. The key here is to remember to fluff your peat moss before you add it to your mix. The compressed bales will double in size when fluffed. That’s 3 cu.ft. to 6 cu.ft. and so on. The other thing to remember about the peat is to moisten it before you add it to the mix. Peat moss can almost repel water when it is dry. If you pre-moisten it, you stand a better chance of getting it well integrated into your mix. Note: Warm water is best for this part of the process.

When Peat Moss causes problems in an SFG it is because there is too much of it. When there is too much peat your SFG will become water-logged, and you can get a crust on the top of your mix. If you have too much peat you are also going to have too little compost, and that nutrient deficiency will cause your SFG to struggle.

Make sure you only use 1/3 peat moss. Some of the commercially available “composts” also contain up to 50% peat. If you are going to use these, adjust your mix accordingly (more on that later).

2. Vermiculite

This part of the mix is really pretty simple. You need 1/3 coarse-grade vermiculite. The most difficulty you’ll face with this part is tracking it down. We have a vermiculite database that can help you with that. Check your local nurseries, garden centers, and hydroponics shops. If they don’t have it in stock they can often times order it in for you.

What if you can’t find coarse vermiculite? Keep trying! Medium will work in a pinch, but it won’t work as well as the coarse stuff. Mel designed his system to use the coarse grade, so do your best to find it.

3. Compost

The best thing you can do is to use your own home grown blended compost. That is the only way you can be sure of what is in it, and be fairly confident that it will contain the nutrients your SFG needs to thrive. There are links at the end of this post that can help you get your own compost pile started.

If you have to buy your compost you must make sure that you get AT LEAST 5 kinds of compost. The word “kinds” is pivotal here. Some folks will say that all you need is 5 sources or brands, but you are rolling the dice if you put your blend together this way. Chances are, you will have a nutrient deficiency if your Mel’s mix is made up of three 3 brands of cow manure plus some mushroom compost and a bag of generic compost blend. Diversity of compost kinds = diversity of nutrient sources.

If you don’t believe me read what Mel said under the subtitle “An Afterthought,” "I want to make doubly sure you got the message of this chapter, so I'd like to summarize the critical facts about compost. You need blended compost made from at least five different ingredients. " "… if you can find at least five of these individual composted materials you can mix them together to make a well-rounded blended compost ingredient for your Mel's Mix." " And if you did your job and got a blended compost made from at least five major ingredients, you will be blessed with the most wonderful garden you could ever imagine." (106)
Also take a look at the first picture on page 91. Here Mel has pulled together that he considers a good Mel’s mix. Note that each bag is different with different ingredients and different manufacturers. This is just one of many possibilities, but use it as a guide as you try to come up with your own Mel’s Mix.

YOU MUST READ THE LABELS! I cannot stress this enough. It is not enough to just pick up the first 5 bags you see and sling them into your cart! You are looking for the purest forms of compost you can find. If the ingredient list states that the bag contains 50%+ peat, mulch, or some other filler then DO NOT BUY IT.

If you are in a pinch and can only find bags of compost with high percentages of fillers you should adjust your 1/3 peat accordingly, and you should screen out any big wood chunks.

It is so critical to have at least 5 different kinds of compost because SFG is intensive gardening, which requires greater concentration of plants nutritional supplies. In row gardening, a plant has lots of space to send out roots to suck up marginal amounts of nutrition. We can't afford to have marginal nutritional content in a SFG. Using 5 kinds of compost ensures that you have abundant and diverse nutrients for your plants. Mel offers an excellent explanation on page 97. We encourage you to read it for yourself.

Here is a list of kinds of compost that will do well in your SFG:

• Cow Manures: This will probably be the easiest to find. Your big box stores usually carry it. Common brands are Black Kow and Moo-Nure. You can also collect manure from a local cattle ranch, but you must be sure to properly age/compost it or it will burn your plants. Most folks report great success with composted cow manure in the SFG.

• Chicken Manures: This one is also pretty easy to find because it is also available in the big box stores. A common brand is Black Hen. When using this manure you must make sure it is fully composted. Chicken manure is very rich in nitrogen (a good thing) but it is also very quick to burn plants if it is not fully composted (too much of a good thing…). Most folks report good results with composted Chicken manure in the SFG.

• Mushroom compost: This is a sort of catch-all term. Mushroom compost is not a bag of composted mushrooms. Instead, it is the composted growing medium used in mushroom cultivation. They only use the stuff once. Mushroom compost can be great stuff, but be sure to read the labels. Some of it is high on filler and low on nutrients.

• Worm castings: This is my favorite compost. I personally recommend that if you can find it you put it in your SFG. Worm castings are incredible high in nutrients and among some of the most consistent of composts in terms of quality. However, worm casting are expensive. A good way to stretch your buck is to use worm castings to make a tea that you then use to water your garden, before adding the used worm castings to your SFG. NOTE: If you use worm tea that does not count as one of your 5 composts. More on worm tea here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0QDpRvey-I .You can create your own worm castings. Here is one way to do it http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t1603-worm-tube-for-the-sfg?highlight=worm+tube . You’ll find more links below.

• Horse manure: See cow manure above. Another great addition to your SFG!

• Lobster compost: Lots of folks love this one, but it may be difficult to find unless you are on a coast. It is high in nutrients and a great addition to the SFG.

• Shrimp compost: See Lobster compost above.

• Forestry composts: This is another catch-all category. You can buy bags of it at some stores. The best forestry composts include forest floor compost. Be sure all ingredients are composted to the consistency of rich black dirt. Any leaves, needles or twigs need to be sifted out.

• Specialty animal manures: This category includes manures such as, bat, duck, goat, rabbit, sheep, bird, etc. These are fantastic manures. If you can find them use them. Like cow manure, most of them need to be well composted before you can use them in the garden. Rabbit compost is especially good and does not need to be composted or aged before you use it in your garden. Bat guano is incredible rich in nutrients, but it must be very VERY well composted or it will burn you plants. There is even something called Zoo-Doo that you can get from some local zoos. Just be sure that the manure used is from herbivores ONLY.

• Food waste composts: Depending on where you are, your local waste management center may offer compost for use in the garden. This stuff is usually pretty inexpensive compared to the bags. Some of it is better than others though. You should ask what the mix is before you buy it. You should also ask them about their process and ask if the compost is “finished” before you buy it. My local compost is excellent. It is actually a blend of more than 5 sources, so it is good enough for me to use as my only compost source (it’s pretty much as good as anything I could make at home). I do still add some worm castings to my beds.

• Yard waste composts: See Food Waste above. Note: This one cannot be used as your sole source. Also note: Yard waste composts would also include your leaf litter from autumn. Yours OR your neighbor's...they'll love you for taking away their leaf rubbish voluntarily. But, don't just rake it up and toss it in; mulch it with your lawn mower. Rake it into a pile and lift the front wheels of the mower off the ground, push into the pile, and set the wheels down onto the pile slowly. Do this over and over and you will pulverize those leaves into a tiny pile. Add THAT to your compost...it will decompose much faster.

As a general note, be careful with purchasing bags of manure. Manure done right should have no odor. If you purchase chicken manure (for example) as compost, it should have no smell and adding it to the rest of the blend should be fine.

Here are some compost blends that are good for SFG:

• "Garden Manure": a mix of at least cow and hen manure, and possibly more

• "Organic Compost": shrimp and seaweed blended compost.

• "Penobscot Blend": salmon, mussels, and blueberries (with peat moss so adjust accordingly).

• "Quoddy Blend": crab, lobster, and aspen bark.

• "Chickity-Doo-Doo": granular chicken manure

• "Whitney Farms Planting Compost": aged and composted softwood bark and forest products, manure, dried poultry waste, feather meal. It should look like black dirt with no recognizable pieces of wood.

Where do I buy compost?

I’d start by making some phone calls to places like a feed and seed store, a farm and tractor store, local nurseries, Wal-mart, Home Dept and Lowe’s, grocery stores, or Aquaponics/hydroponics stores. Ask them what types of composts and manures they have available. Remember you are looking for 5 kinds of compost not just 5 sources.

Also call you local waste management office and ask if they have compost available to the public. Call around to local horse and cattle farms. Ask them if they offer composted manure.

Look on Craig’s List for folks offering composts and manures. Make sure to ask them what is IN it and how they compost it. Go and check it out in person. If it has a harsh odor or looks like anything but the consistency of rich fine dirt leave it there.

Links and Further reading:

Buying Compost: The Good news and the Bad http://www.intervale.org/compost/art/BuyingCompost.htm
This is a reprint of an article in Organic Gardening Magazine. The magazine commissioned a test of 30 bagged composts and reported the sad results.

Wood’s End Report: Analysis of Commercial Bag Compost Products http://www.woodsend.org/pdf-files/survey.pdf
This is the report that goes along with the Organic Gardening Magazine exposé on bagged compost.

Cornell University: A Guide to the Nutrient Value of Organic Materials
http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/factsheets/ecogardening/guidenutval.html
This is a great web page. If gives you an idea of what nutrient levels to expect from certain composts and manures.

Rodale News: How to Buy Compost
http://www.rodale.com/buying-compost
Good summary article on things to look for when buying compost

List of links related to making your own compost
http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t6751-links-to-composting-info

Washington State University: Composting Livestock Manure
http://gardening.wsu.edu/stewardship/compost/manure/manure0.htm

Josh’s Worm Tube link

http://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t1603-worm-tube-for-the-sfg?highlight=worm+tubehttp://squarefoot.creatingforum.com/t1603-worm-tube-for-the-sfg?highlight=worm+tube

GardenGirlTV Simple compost bin

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oUejMTI34Uhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oUejMTI34U

GardenGirlTV Worm Compost Bin

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjjuYNilM60&feature=relmfuhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjjuYNilM60&feature=relmfu

Pallet Compost Bin

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYUAXfVQFfMhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYUAXfVQFfM

OR

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Phj9LmqnwDY&feature=relatedhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Phj9LmqnwDY&feature=related

Raising Chickens on Deep Litter Bedding system, just add to your pile when you clean it out.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nH7U4BbJzUs&feature=relatedhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nH7U4BbJzUs&feature=related

Worm Tea

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0QDpRvey-Ihttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0QDpRvey-I

Make your own tumbler

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a08WS-wDivIhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a08WS-wDivI

Book recommendations:

Campbell, Stu. Let it Rot!: The Gardener’s Guide to Composting (Third Edition). 3rd ed. Storey Publishing, LLC, 1998.

Gershuny, Grace, and Deborah L. Martin. The Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener. Revised. Rodale Books, 1992.
McGrath, Mike. Mike McGrath’s Book of Compost. Sterling, 2006.

Noyes, Nick. Easy Composters You Can Build. Storey Publishing, LLC, 1995.

Pleasant, Barbara, and Deborah L. Martin. The Complete Compost Gardening Guide: Banner batches, grow heaps, comforter compost, and other amazing techniques for saving time and money, and ... most flavorful, nutritious vegetables ever. Storey Publishing, LLC, 2008.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  chexmix on 5/24/2011, 1:30 pm

Wonderful post. THANKS

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Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  sherryeo on 5/24/2011, 10:26 pm

Wow!!! Great information that I will be sure to review before I add more sfg boxes for the fall! I read every word and will take time to check the links, too. Thanks dizzygardener, for such a detailed, informative post on what has to be the most important component of sfgs. I would say that this post is most definitely sticky-worthy, especially since so many of us have trouble with getting the Mel's Mix right!

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  Unmutual on 5/25/2011, 2:13 am

Great information, and definitely good for newbies and experienced growers alike(I especially like the further reading links). One thing I was totally proud of over the weekend when working on another SFG bed was the discovery of a method of fluffing peat moss: I have this wood-framed garden sieve like thing(I made it to wash off veggies, but it looks more like a square sieve). I put this sieve on top of a clean garbage can I have just for MM and started grabbing clumps of peat moss and grating it over the plastic-coated hardware cloth. It worked rather well, and an awful lot better than breaking it up between your fingers. I wouldn't suggest doing that with uncoated hardware cloth though.

Sorry if this is misplaced, but it seemed like a good place to mention it.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  Velvet Elvis on 6/13/2011, 4:57 pm

Couple of comments.. I don't recall the book instructing to moisten the peat before mixing, but simply spraying it all down lightly to cut down on the dust.

Most of my compost bags comprised of manure did not specify what type of animal it came from. I checked 5 different locations. Very frustrating.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  Furbalsmom on 6/13/2011, 6:46 pm

Velvet Elvis,

The book does mention spraying the peat moss lightly to help with dust while mixing. In fact Mel says don't get anything too wet before you have it in your box because that makes it heavier to lift and move.

Some of us have found that if the peat moss is moistened (not soaked) it helps it mix better with the vermiculite and compost, and the completed Mel's Mix will absorb water more easily.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  martha on 6/13/2011, 6:58 pm



Really good post.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  Velvet Elvis on 6/13/2011, 10:56 pm

I was referring to the book's suggestion to spray it with water to cut down on the dust (which Furbal also referenced), and was thrown a little by Dizzy's suggestion to pre-moisten it. Accidental nitpicking on my part I'm afraid - pre-moistening sounded much wetter than spraying to cut the dust (also I had my fussy 2 month old on my lap, so thorough reading and posting accordingly was tenuous at best... Very Happy) all good!

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  martha on 6/13/2011, 10:59 pm

Hey, I don't think you are nitpicking! I am impressed with the questions you ask and observations you have made on this and other posts! Your question on this post shows that you read, absorbed and retained a lot of info from the book, so you go!

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re mels mix how strong is your backbone

Post  1orangething on 6/14/2011, 6:37 am

Thank you for taking the time to post such useful info. I got some great ideas about composting.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  staf74 on 6/23/2011, 11:44 pm

That's a simply astounding post Dizzie !!!!

NO SKIMPING on the compost.....ya HEAR ??

There have been a few posters who are honest in their feelings that Mel's Mix has let them down. On occasion, we have looked at pics of tired weak plants and been able to visually see a weak looking MM, especially one that has lots of wood chips / pine bark etc floating on the top. This is a dead giveaway that one of those sources was loaded with a cheap filler.

Sometimes all it takes is a quick phone call to the number listed on the bag, even if it says manure, right there in the garden aisle. Don't rely on Mr. Helpful but sadly clueless at local Big Box store to know the ingredients of a product from an outside manufacturer.

Dizzy, you have nailed it....

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  AprilakaCCIL on 7/3/2011, 10:25 am

I'm kinda tired b/c i worked last night so forgive my question, but here goes.

What is consider to be a cheap filler? I see it mentioned up above, but maybe I just don't really understand.

I'll be mixing my stuff this upcoming week for my SFG, and if there's something such as the cheap filler that's going to cause me grief...
I'd like to know what that is so I don't use it by chance.

Thank You flower

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  Furbalsmom on 7/3/2011, 4:34 pm

April,

What I consider a cheap filler is anything that is not really compost. Check the list of ingredients on each bag.
That could include peat moss, sand, topsoil, sawdust and wood chips. (I am sure there are other things the manufacturers can add that do not improve the nutrition of the product)

Another thing to look for is items that are not fully composted. Anything that is still recognizeable is not fully composted. Things like pieces of straw, wood chips and tiny branches of evergreen have been found in some of my bags of compost. Some you can sift out if you see the compost does not look like fine black dirt. Others have reported some strange stuff too, like pieces of plastic, horseshoes, nails and even animal parts.

I do not mention this to scare you, just to make you aware of what to look for.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  AprilakaCCIL on 7/4/2011, 5:33 pm

I believe I do understand what your saying now. Thank you for the further explanation. flower

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Re: How Strong Is Your Backbone

Post  floyd1440 on 7/4/2011, 7:09 pm

Excellent post!! I am new to SFG and find this info very helpful. Unfortunately I purchased the medium vermiculite instead of the course so I will exchange it before putting it in my new garden.

My question is how to improve my soil going forward as I put a mix of 2/3 top soil and 1/3 compost. Should I shovel the soil out or continue to add Mel's mix in the future.

Thanks

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  boffer on 7/4/2011, 10:51 pm

That would be great if you can exchange. Those of us who have tried both, much prefer the coarse.

Mel's Mix is actually a soil-less growing medium. When you introduce soil into the mix, you'll have to contend with the same issues that row gardeners have been dealing with since forever.

When vermiculite and peat moss aren't readily available, Mel recommends growing in straight 5 way compost.

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Boffer

Post  floyd1440 on 7/7/2011, 7:32 pm

My next question is what do with the soil I put in the garden this spring. I built the gardens 1 foot deep so what if I took 6'' out and then put in Mel's Mix. I read in his book you only need 6" so perhaps I could dig out some and top the garden off with Mel's mix.

Any thoughts?

Floyd

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  FarmerValerie on 7/9/2011, 11:55 am

That should work just fine!

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  floyd1440 on 7/11/2011, 6:26 pm

@FarmerValerie wrote:That should work just fine!


Then I will make the change this fall after finish growing this season

Thanks

Floyd

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  tegaan on 7/12/2011, 1:54 am

Can you just use worm castings instead of the 5 different composts?

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  teamhillbilly on 7/22/2011, 3:27 pm

where can one buy Mel's mix?

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  middlemamma on 7/22/2011, 4:24 pm

@tegaan wrote:Can you just use worm castings instead of the 5 different composts?

kari

To have true Mel'ls Mix worm castings would only be considered one source or type of compost, you would still need 4 others.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  middlemamma on 7/22/2011, 4:25 pm

@teamhillbilly wrote:where can one buy Mel's mix?

There are a few places nationwide that carry a ready made Mel's Mix but it's use has reported very mixed results in gardens.

The best Mel's Mix you can get is what you can make yourself. It's isn't any cheaper really to buy the pre mixed bagged variety.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  tegaan on 7/22/2011, 5:09 pm

So when you add compost back in after harvesting does it have to be a 5 mix or can it be worm castings?

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

Post  boffer on 7/22/2011, 5:30 pm

When you're on the forum homepage, run your cursor over the scallops on the left edge of your monitor. Reading items 1. and 2. should give you a better understanding of the importance of five composts in your Mels' Mix.

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Re: Mel's Mix. How strong is your backbone?

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