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RE: A Soil Discussion (Follow-Up #4)

posted by: tapla on 11.06.2007 at 04:51 pm in House Plants Forum

Hi, Lori. There will never really be a soil that is perfect for very long. I say that because every planting is constantly in flux and the soil relationship changes as the planting matures or progresses through the growth cycle. A soil that might be perfect for a small plant in container 'A' might not suit a larger plant in the same container, or might not even suit the same plant as it gets older. Even though there is no single perfect soil, we know what an ideal soil is.

Ideal container soils will have a minimum of 60-75% total porosity. This means that when dry, in round numbers, nearly 70% of the total volume of soil is air. The term 'container capacity' is a hort term that describes the saturation level of soils after the soil is saturated and at the point where it has just stopped draining - a fully wetted soil. When soils are at container capacity, they should still have in excess of 30% air porosity. Roughly, a great soil will have about equal parts of solid particles, water, and air when the soil is fully saturated.

Now you want to know how to make such a soil - right? Well, it's not just enough to make it, we need to make it so it lasts for the life of the planting - or at least between repots. It has to retain structural integrity and guarantee it will hold healthy volumes of air for a long time - it cannot 'collapse'. This is where most bagged soils fail.

Most peat-based soils in new plantings will be about 50-60% total porosity and be around 25-30% air porosity when saturated. Both these levels are probably at or near the margins of acceptability, but they don't remain there long. The peat particles quickly break down, soil collapses, air porosity goes down while water retention goes up, the soil gets soupy.

Amend it you say - add perlite? Imagine a bowl of pudding. How much perlite do we need to add to get the pudding to drain its water? Where is the air, even if we add large volumes of perlite? Trying to amend a soil comprised of fine particulates is pretty inefficient business. Much better, is to begin with a soil that has larger particles that are durable & will retain their shape/structure for long periods.

Pine bark is one way. Fir or hemlock bark are great, too. What if we could find something better than perlite? Something that held more water, provided more porosity, and had a better CEC than perlite? Wow! What if we found a couple other ingredients we could add that would maintain porosity and would allow us to fine tune the amount of water our soils hold? Wouldn't that be the answer to your dreams? A soil that is durable, inexpensive, extremely healthy for plants, and adjustable in it's ability to hold water.

We can make that soil if you're willing to find a few ingredients. I'm going to show you what I grow almost all my plants in. I maintain around 250 plantings and I can count on one hand the number of plants I've lost in the last 5 years. The ones I did lose, I can trace to my own laziness. I either did not remove them from the soil they were purchased in before the soil collapsed, or they were in one of my less durable soils and I did not repot them in timely fashion.

It's not that I have any special growing skills, or that I have a green thumb. I just understand the importance of soil choice and how it relates to my nutrient program an general plant physiology. I water and fertilize my plants when they need it, and make sure the soil they are in is adequate. I give them enough light, and they just do all the rest. It really is that simple.

This, or some minor variation of it is what I grow 90% of all my plants in:




It consists of equal parts, by volume, of a baked clay granule called Turface, crushed granite or equal, and pine or fir bark. It's inexpensive and will retain structure far longer than any healthy interval between repots.

For those that can't get around the fact that you can grow perfectly healthy plants in a mix that's 2/3 inorganic (I actually grow many plants in just Turface or a Turface granit mix. There is nothing organic in those soils and the plants thrive), I can offer another recipe that is less durable, but still far superior to the common bagged soils:

3 gallons pine bark
1/2 gallon sphagnum peat
1/2 gallon perlite
small handful lime or gypsum
1/4 cup CRF
1 tbsp micro-nutrient powder (you may not be able to find it, so please use a fertilizer that contains the minor elements)

Questions?

Al

NOTES:

Al's gritty mix concepts
1 part bark (pine, fir, or other)
1 part coarse rock (crushed granite, marble, pea stone, or similar)
1 part highly adsorbent rock (lava rock, turface MVP)
Dolamite lime (source of ca and mg, also raises pH slightly)
CRF (to supplement the dissolved fert)
Micronutrient source (supplemental fert (al suggests STEM? I think greensand will work but might be require microbes or chelates))
clipped on: 01.16.2012 at 10:58 pm    last updated on: 01.18.2012 at 11:32 am

Fertilizer Program for Containerized Plants II

posted by: tapla on 03.11.2009 at 11:13 pm in Container Gardening Forum

This subject has been discussed frequently, but usually in piecemeal fashion on the Container Gardening forum and other forums related. Prompted originally by a question about fertilizers in another's post, I decided to collect a few thoughts & present a personal overview.

Fertilizer Program - Containerized Plants II

Let me begin with a brief and hopefully not too technical explanation of how plants absorb water from the soil and how they obtain the nutrients/solutes that are dissolved in that water. Most of us remember from our biology classes that cells have membranes that are semi-permeable. That is, they allow some things to pass through the walls, like water and select elements in ionic form dissolved in the water, while excluding other materials like large organic molecules. Osmosis is a natural phenomenon that is natures attempt at creating a balance (isotonicity) in the concentration of solutes in water inside and outside of cells. Water and ionic solutes will pass in and out of cell walls until an equilibrium is reached and the level of solutes in the water surrounding the cell is the same as the level of solutes in the cell.

This process begins when the finest roots absorb water molecule by molecule at the cellular level from the surface of soil particles and transport it, along with its nutrient load, throughout the plant. I want to keep this simple, so Ill just say that the best water absorption occurs when the level of solutes in soil water is lowest, and in the presence of good amounts of oxygen (this is where I get to plug a well-aerated and free-draining soil), ;o). Deionized (distilled) water contains no solutes, and is easiest for plants to absorb. Of course, since distilled water contains no nutrients, using it alone practically guarantees deficiencies of multiple nutrients as the plant is shorted the building materials (nutrients) it needs to manufacture food, keep its systems orderly, and keep its metabolism running smoothly.

We already learned that if the dissolved solutes in soil water are low, the plant may be well-hydrated, but starving; however, if they are too high, the plant may have a large store of nutrients in the soil, but because of osmotic pressure, the plant may be unable to absorb the water and could die of thirst in a sea of plenty. When this condition occurs, and is severe enough (high concentrations of solutes in soil water), it causes fertilizer burn (plasmolysis), a condition seen when plasma is torn from cell walls as the water inside the cell exits to maintain solute equilibrium with the water surrounding the cell.

Our job, because you cannot depend on an adequate supply of nutrients from the organic component of a container soil, is to provide a solution of dissolved nutrients in a concentration high enough to supply nutrients in the adequate to luxury range, yet still low enough that it remains easy for the plant to take up enough water to be well-hydrated and free of drought stress. Electrical conductivity (EC) of, and the level of TDS (total dissolved solids) in the soil solution is a reliable way to judge the adequacy of solutes and the plants ability to take up water. There are meters that measure these concentrations, and for most plants the ideal range of conductivity is from 1.5 - 3.5 mS, with some, like tomatoes, being as high as 4.5 mS. This is more technical than I wanted to be, but I added it in case someone wanted to search "mS" or "EC". Most of us, including me, will have to be satisfied with simply guessing at concentrations, but understanding how plants take up water and fertilizer, as well as the effects of solute concentrations in soil water is an important piece of the fertilizing puzzle.

Now, some disconcerting news - you have listened to all this talk about nutrient concentrations, but what do we supply, when, and how do we supply them? We have to decide what nutrients are appropriate to add to our supplementation program, but how? Most of us are just hobby growers and cannot do tissue analysis to determine what is lacking. We can be observant and learn the symptoms of various nutrient deficiencies though - and we CAN make some surprising generalizations.

What if I said that the nutritional needs of all plants is basically the same and that one fertilizer could suit almost all the plants we grow in containers - that by increasing/decreasing the dosage as we water, we could even manipulate plants to bloom and fruit more abundantly? Its really quite logical, so please let me explain.

Tissue analysis of plants will nearly always show NPK to be in the ratio of approximately 10:1.5:7. If we assign N the constant of 100, P and K will range from 13-19 and 45-70 respectively. (Ill try to remember to make a chart showing the relative ratios of all the other 13 essential nutrients that dont come from the air at the end of what I write.) All we need to do is supply nutrients in approximately the same ratio as plants use them, and in adequate amounts to keep them in the adequate to luxury range at all times.

Remember that we can maximize water uptake by keeping the concentrations of solutes low, so a continual supply of a weak solution is best. Nutrients dont often just suddenly appear in large quantities in nature, so the low and continual dose method most closely mimics the nutritional supply Mother Nature offers. If you decide to adopt a "fertilize every time you water" approach, most liquid fertilizers can be applied at to 1 tsp per gallon for best results. If you decide thats too much work, try halving the dose recommended & cutting the interval in half. You can work out the math for granular soluble fertilizers and apply at a similar rate.

The system is rather self regulating if fertilizer is applied in low concentrations each time you water, even with houseplants in winter. As the plants growth slows, so does its need for both water and nutrients. Larger plants and plants that are growing robustly will need more water and nutrients, so linking nutrient supply to the water supply is a win/win situation all around.

Another advantage to supplying a continual low concentration of fertilizer is it eliminates the tendency of plants to show symptoms of nutrient deficiencies after they have received high doses of fertilizer and then been allowed to return to a more favorable level of soil solute concentrations. Even at perfectly acceptable concentrations of nutrients in the soil, plants previously exposed to high concentrations of fertilizer readily display these symptoms.

You will still need to guard against watering in sips, and that habits accompanying tendency to allow solute (salt) accumulation in soils. Remember that as salts accumulate, both water and nutrient uptake is made more difficult and finally impaired or made impossible in severe cases. Your soils should always allow you to water so that at least 10-15% of the total volume of water applied passes through the soil and out the drain hole to be discarded. This flushes the soil and carries accumulating solutes out the drain hole.

I have recently switched to a liquid fertilizer with micronutrients in a 12:4:8 NPK ratio. Note how closely this fits the average ratio of NPK content in plant tissues, noted above (10:1.5:7). If the P looks a little high at 4, consider that in container soils, P begins to be more tightly held as pH goes from 6.5 to below 6.0, which is on the high side of most container soils pH, so the manufacturer probably gave this some careful consideration. Also, P and K percentages shown on fertilizer packages are not the actual amount of P or K in the blend. The percentage of P on the package is the percentage of P2O5 (phosphorous pentoxide) and you need to multiply the percentage shown by .43 to get the actual amount of P in the fertilizer. Similarly, the K level percentage shown is actually the level of K2O ( potassium oxide) and must be multiplied by .83 to arrive at the actual amount of K supplied.

To answer the inevitable questions about specialty fertilizers and "special" plant nutritional requirements, let me repeat that plants need nutrients in roughly the same ratio. Ratio is an entirely a separate consideration from dosage. Youll need to adjust the dosage to fit the plant and perhaps strike a happy medium in containers that have a diversity of material.

If nutrient availability is unbalanced - if plants are getting more than they need of certain nutrients, but less than they need of others, the nutrient they need the most will be the one that limits growth. There are 6 factors that affect plant growth and yield; they are: air water light temperature soil or media nutrients. Liebig's Law of Limiting Factors states the most deficient factor limits plant growth and increasing the supply of non-limiting factors will not increase plant growth. Only by increasing most deficient nutrient will the plant growth increase. There is also an optimum combination?ratio of the nutrients and increasing them, individually or in various combinations, can lead to toxicities.

When individual nutrients are available in excess, it not only unnecessarily contributes to the total volume of solutes in the soil solution, which makes it more difficult for the plant to absorb water and nutrients, it also often creates an antagonistic deficiency of other nutrients as toxicity levels block a plant's ability to take up other nutrients. E.g., too much Fe (iron) can cause a Mn (manganese) deficiency, with the converse also true, Too much Ca (calcium) can cause a Mg (magnesium) deficiency. Too much P (phosphorous) can cause an insoluble precipitate with Fe and make Fe unavailable. It also interferes with the uptake of several other micro-nutrients. You can see why its advantageous to supply nutrients in as close to the same ratio in which plants use them and at levels not so high that they interfere with water uptake. I know Im repeating myself here, but this is an important point.

What about the high-P "Bloom Booster" fertilizers you might ask? To induce more prolific flowering, a reduced N supply will have more and better effect than the high P bloom formulas. When N is reduced, it slows vegetative growth without reducing photosynthesis. Since vegetative growth is limited by a lack of N, and the photosynthetic machinery continues to turn out food, it leaves an expendable surplus for the plant to spend on flowers and fruit. Plants use about 6 times more N than P, so fertilizers that supply more P than N are wasteful and more likely to inhibit blooms (remember that too much P inhibits uptake of Fe and many micro-nutrients - it raises pH unnecessarily as well, which could also be problematic). Popular "bloom-booster" fertilizers like 10-52-10 actually supply about 32x more P than your plant could ever use (in relationship to how much N it uses) and has the potential to wreak all kinds of havoc with your plants.

The fact that different species of plants grow in different types of soil where they are naturally found, does not mean that one needs more of a certain nutrient than the other. It just means that the plants have developed strategies to adapt to certain conditions, like excesses and deficiencies of particular nutrients.

Plants that "love" acid soils, e.g., have simply developed strategies to cope with those soils. Their calcium needs are still the same as any other plant and no different from the nutrient requirements of plants that thrive in alkaline soils. The problem for acid-loving plants is that they are unable to adequately limit their calcium uptake, and will absorb too much of it when available, resulting in cellular pH-values that are too high. Some acid-loving plants also have difficulties absorbing Fe, Mn, Cu, or Zn, which is more tightly held in alkaline soils, another reason why they thrive in low pH (acid) soils.

So, If you select a fertilizer that is close in ratio to the concentration of major elements in plant tissues, youre going to be in good shape. Whether the fertilizer is furnished in chemical or organic form matters not a whit to the plant. Ions are ions, but there is one major consideration. Chemical fertilizers are available for immediate uptake while organic fertilizers must be acted on by passing through the gut of micro-organisms to break them down into usable elemental form. Since microorganism populations are affected by cultural conditions like moisture/air levels in the soil, soil pH, fertility levels, temperature, etc., they tend to follow a boom/bust cycle in container culture, which has an impact on the reliability and timing of delivery of nutrients supplied in organic form. Nutrients locked in hydrocarbon chains cannot be relied upon to be available when the plant needs them. This is particularly an issue with the immobile nutrients that must be present in the nutrient stream at all times for the plant to grow normally.

What is my approach? I have been very happy with Miracle-Gro 12-4-8 all purpose liquid fertilizer, or 24-8-16 Miracle-Gro granular all-purpose fertilizer - both are completely soluble. I incorporate a granular micro-nutrient supplement in my soils when I make them (Micromax) or use a soluble micro-nutrient blend (STEM). I would encourage you to make sure your plants are getting all the micro-nutrients. More readily available than the supplements I use is Earth Juices Microblast. Last year, I discovered a fertilizer by Dyna-Gro called Foliage-Pro 9-3-6. It is a 3:1:2 ratio like I like and has ALL the primary macro-nutrients, secondary macro-nutrients (Ca, Mg, S) and all the micro-nutrients. It performed very well for me.

When plants are growing robustly, I try to fertilize my plants weakly (pun intended) with a half recommended dose of the concentrate at half the suggested intervals. When plants are growing slowly, I fertilize more often with very weak doses. Its important to realize your soil must drain freely and you must water so a fair amount of water drains from your container each time you water to fertilize this way. This year my display containers performed better than they ever have in years past & they were still all looking amazingly attractive at the beginning of Oct when I finally decided to dismantle them because of imminent cold weather. I attribute results primarily to a good soil and a healthy nutrient supplementation program.

What would I recommend to someone who asked what to use as an all-purpose fertilizer for nearly all their container plantings? If you can find it, a 3:1:2 ratio soluble liquid fertilizer (24-8-16, 12-4-8, 9-3-6 are all 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers) that contains all the minor elements would great.

How plants use nutrients - the chart I promised:

I gave Nitrogen, because it's the largest nutrient component, the value of 100. Other nutrients are listed as a weight percentage of N.
N 100
P 13-19 (16) 1/6
K 45-80 (62) 3/5
S 6-9 (8) 1/12
Mg 5-15 (10) 1/10
Ca 5-15 (10) 1/10
Fe 0.7
Mn 0.4
B(oron) 0.2
Zn 0.06
Cu 0.03
Cl 0.03
M(olybden) 0.003
To read the chart: P - plants use 13-19 parts of P or an average of about 16 parts for every 100 parts of N, or 6 times more N than P. Plants use about 45-80 parts of K or an average of about 62 parts for every 100 parts of N, or about 3/5 as much K as N, and so on.

If you're still awake - thanks for reading. It makes me feel like the effort was worth it. ;o) Let me know what you think - please.
Al

Here is a link to the first posting of A Fertilizer Program for Containers

Another link to information about Container Soils- Water Movement and Retention

NOTES:

<none>
clipped on: 01.17.2012 at 05:13 pm    last updated on: 01.17.2012 at 05:22 pm

A Soil Discussion

posted by: tapla on 11.06.2007 at 12:18 am in House Plants Forum

A Soil Discussion

Ive been thinking about what I want to say about soils here, and how I should open. Im going to talk a little about soils primarily from the perspective of what is best for the plant - not the planter. ;o) More often than not, the two ideas are mutually exclusive, and the plant suffers loss of vitality for grower convenience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Probably none of us can afford the time it would take to give our plants the best care possible, and we need to decide on an individual basis, how much attention we can pay our plants. Ill explain later.

Let me start by saying that whenever I say plants I mean a very high % of house plants and freely allow that there are exceptions to every rule; but, we need to learn the rules before we can recognize the exception. Im going to offer a few (of what I think are) rules I believe are difficult to challenge, and that Ive adopted in my growing practices after a fair amount of study and consideration. Im going to leave light levels out of this conversation after acknowledging that they are probably just as important as soil to a planting, the difference being, we can recognize and change poor light levels easily if we choose, but poor soils are not so easily remedied.

Rule: Plants need air in the root zone as much as they need light and water. The soils we usually buy in a bag either do not supply enough aeration from the outset, or they do not supply it for a long enough period. Most, or at least many readers are expecting their plants to live in the same soil for several years, when the fact is that most peat based soils substantially collapse within a single growth cycle. That is to say that the peat particles break down into continually smaller pieces. This reduces the number of macropores (large air pockets), causes compaction, and increases the amount of water the soil holds in root zone and increases the length of time it remains there.

What does this mean to our plants? Well, there is the specter of root rot, but even if we set that aside, there is something more subtle occurring. Whenever roots are deprived of oxygen (O2) they soon begin to die - incrementally. First, and after only a few hours in saturated conditions, the finest roots that absorb water and nutrients begin to die. Already, the plant is operating under stress. Gradually, thicker roots die unless the plant uses the water in the root zone or it evaporates and O2 is allowed back into the soil. When adequate aeration is restored, the plant is disadvantaged, because fine rootage has died. The plant begins to regenerate the lost roots, but guess what? It has to call on energy reserves it has stored because the roots cannot efficiently take up water and the building blocks from which it makes food (nutrients/fertilizer). This stored photosynthate that goes to root regeneration would have been used to increase biomass - flowers, fruit, foliage, stem thickness. See how subtly aeration affects growth?

Rule: Our number one priority when establishing a planting should be to choose a soil that guarantees adequate aeration for the expected life of that planting. We can easily change every other cultural influence if we choose. Light, temperature, nutrients, moisture levels .. all can be changed, but we cannot change aeration, so we really need to consider that as a priority.

It is here where we need to bring attention to the fact that, as alluded to above, convenience has costs. Im not saying that in chiding fashion. I simply want to make the point that when youre able to go several days to a week without watering, in a high % of cases, the cyclic death and regeneration of roots is taking place. The plant is growing under stress and is weakened to varying degrees, depending on the severity of O2 deprivation in the root zone.

Rule: A fast soil that drains freely will be far superior from a plant vitality perspective than a more convenient soil that stays wet. The cost: Youll need to decide if youre willing to water and fertilize more frequently to secure the added vitality.

I could go on for days about soil, but Im hoping that Ill be able to discuss HOW we can get to a better place with regard to our soils through answering any questions that might come up, and exploring options. Before I close, I would like to talk for a minute about another bane of poor soils.

Many of us recognize what we consider the main danger of overwatering - root rot, and do our best to prevent it. Most often, its by watering sparingly so the soil is never saturated, but let me explain what happens when we do this.

Plants best take up water and the ions dissolved in it when the ion level is very low. This ion level is measured by either electrical conductivity (EC) or the total amount of dissolved solids (TDS). Problems arise when the TDS/EC level is low, when the plant can take up water easily. It remains hydrated, but starves because there is not a high enough concentration of ions in the soil water. If the level of TDS/EC is too high, the process of osmosis is affected, and the plant cannot efficiently take up either water OR nutrients, and the plant can starve or die of thirst in a sea of plenty. Its up to us to supply the right mix of all the nutrients in a favorable range of TDS/EC.

Im sorry to be a little technical, but Im getting to a point. When using soils that are not fast enough to allow us to water copiously and continually flush the salts that accumulate from fertilizer and irrigation water something unwanted occurs. If we do not flush the soil, these salts accumulate. This pushes up the level of TDS/EC and makes it increasingly difficult for the plant to take up water and nutrients.

Imagine: A soil that is killing our most efficient roots, which stresses the plant and makes it more difficult to take up water due to the lack of those roots, while it insures that the level of TDS/EC will rise, making it difficult or impossible on yet another front for the plant to take up water and nutrients. Is it any wonder that our plants start to struggle so mightily toward winters end? Are we really seeing the effects of low humidity or do you think it might be drought stress brought on by either an inappropriate soil or less than favorable watering practices? Probably a little or a lot of both.

Rule: Whenever you consider a plant in trouble, you must consider not only the plant, but the rest of the planting as well - including the soil. The insect infestations, diseases, and stress/strain we so often need help with here, can almost always be traced back to weakening of the organism due to an inappropriate soil (or, as noted, inadequate light - though in an extremely high % of cases, it is indeed the soil).

This only touches on the cause/effect relationship of the soil to the planting. If there are questions, Ill try to answer them. If there is disagreement on a point or points, Ill offer the science behind my thinking and you can decide individually if the things I set down make sense.

I would strongly urge anyone who wasnt long ago bored to tears to follow this link to another thread I offered on the container gardening forum. If you want to get into the science and physics of what happens to Water in Container Soils, this will help explain it. You'll also come away with the knowledge of what makes a good soil.

I hope this starts a lively discussion and provokes lots of questions, but more importantly, I hope it eventually, and as the thread progresses, helps put a few more pieces of the puzzle together for at least a few forum participants. ;o)

Please forgive grammer/spelling errors. It's late here & I'm weary. ;o)

Al

NOTES:

<none>
clipped on: 01.16.2012 at 07:20 pm    last updated on: 01.16.2012 at 07:28 pm

Container soils and water in containers (long post)

posted by: tapla on 03.19.2005 at 03:57 pm in Container Gardening Forum

The following is very long & will be too boring for some to wade through. Two years ago, some of my posts got people curious & they started to e-mail me about soil problems. The "Water Movement" article is an answer I gave in an e-mail. I saved it and adapted it for my bonsai club newsletter & it was subsequently picked up & used by a number of other clubs. I now give talks on container soils and the physics of water movement in containers to area clubs.

I think, as container gardeners, our first priority is to insure aeration for the life of the soil. Since aeration and drainage are inversely linked to soil particle size, it makes good sense to try to find a soil component with particles larger than peat and that will retain its structure for extended periods. Pine bark fits the bill nicely.

The following hits pretty hard against the futility of using a drainage layer in an attempt to improve drainage. It just doesn't work. All it does is reduce the soil available for root colonization. A wick will remove the saturated layer of soil. It works in reverse of the self-watering pots widely being discussed on this forum now. I have no experience with these growing containers, but understand the principle well.

There are potential problems with wick watering that can be alleviated with certain steps. Watch for yellowing leaves with these pots. If they begin to occur, you need to flush the soil well. It is the first sign of chloride damage.

One of the reasons I posted this is because of the number of soil questions I'm getting in my mail. It will be a convenient source for me to link to. I will soon be in the middle of repotting season & my time here will be reduced, unfortunately, for me. I really enjoy all the friends I've made on these forums. ;o)

Since there are many questions about soils appropriate for containers, I'll post by basic mix in case any would like to try it. It will follow the Water Movement info.

Water Movement in Soils

Consider this if you will:

Soil need fill only a few needs in plant culture. Anchorage - A place for roots to extend, securing the plant and preventing it from toppling. Nutrient Sink - It must retain sufficient nutrients to sustain plant systems. Gas Exchange - It must be sufficiently porous to allow air to the root system. And finally, Water - It must retain water enough in liquid and/or vapor form to sustain plants between waterings. Most plants could be grown without soil as long as we can provide air, nutrients, and water, (witness hydroponics). Here, I will concentrate primarily on the movement of water in soil(s).

There are two forces that cause water movement through soil - one is gravity, the other capillary action. Gravity needs little explanation, but for this writing I would like to note: Gravitational flow potential (GFP) is greater for water at the top of the pot than it is for water at the bottom of the pot. I'll return to that later. Capillarity is a function of the natural forces of adhesion and cohesion. Adhesion is water's tendency to stick to solid objects like soil particles and the sides of the pot. Cohesion is the tendency for water to stick to itself. Cohesion is why we often find water in droplet form - because cohesion is at times stronger than adhesion, waters bond to itself can be stronger than the bond to the object it might be in contact with; in this condition it forms a drop. Capillary action is in evidence when we dip a paper towel in water. The water will soak into the towel and rise several inches above the surface of the water. It will not drain back into the source. It will stop rising when the GFP equals the capillary attraction of the fibers in the paper.

There is, in every pot, what is called a "perched water table" (PWT). This is water that occupies a layer of soil that is always saturated & will not drain at the bottom of the pot. It can evaporate or be used by the plant, but physical forces will not allow it to drain. It is there because the capillary pull of the soil at some point will equal the GFP; therefore, the water does not drain, it is "perched". If we fill five cylinders of varying heights and diameters with the same soil mix and provide each cylinder with a drainage hole, the PWT will be exactly the same height in each container. This is the area of the pot where roots seldom penetrate & where root problems begin due to a lack of aeration. From this we can draw the conclusion that: Tall growing containers are a superior choice over squat containers when using the same soil mix. The reason: The level of the PWT will be the same in each container, with the taller container providing more usable, air holding soil above the PWT. Physiology dictates that plants must be able to take in air at the roots in order to complete transpiration and photosynthesis.

A given volume of large soil particles have less overall surface area in comparison to the same volume of small particles and therefore less overall adhesive attraction to water. So, in soils with large particles, GFP more readily overcomes capillary attraction. They drain better. We all know this, but the reason, often unclear, is that the PWT is lower in coarse soils than in fine soils. The key to good drainage is size and uniformity of soil particles. Large particles mixed with small particles will not improve drainage because the smaller particles fit between the large, increasing surface area which increases the capillary attraction and thus the water holding potential. Water and air cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Contrary to what some hold to be true, sand does not improve drainage. Pumice (aka lava rock), or one of the hi-fired clay products like Turface are good additives which help promote drainage and porosity because of their irregular shape.

Now to the main point: When we use a coarse drainage layer under our soil, it does not improve drainage. It does conserve on the volume of soil required to fill a pot and it makes the pot lighter. When we employ this exercise in an attempt to improve drainage, what we are actually doing is moving the level of the PWT higher in the pot. This reduces available soil for roots to colonize, reduces total usable pot space, and limits potential for beneficial gas exchange. Containers with uniform soil particle size from top of container to bottom will yield better drainage and have a lower PWT than containers with drainage layers. The coarser the drainage layer, the more detrimental to drainage it is because water is more (for lack of a better scientific word) reluctant to make the downward transition because the capillary pull of the soil above the drainage layer is stronger than the GFP. The reason for this is there is far more surface area in the soil for water to be attracted to than there is in the drainage layer.

I know this goes against what most have thought to be true, but the principle is scientifically sound, and experiments have shown it as so. Many nurserymen are now employing the pot-in-pot or the pot-in-trench method of growing to capitalize on the science.

If you discover you need to increase drainage, insert a wick into the pot & allow it to extend from the PWT to several inches below the bottom of the pot. This will successfully eliminate the PWT & give your plants much more soil to grow in as well as allow more, much needed air to the roots.

Uniform size particles of fir, hemlock or pine bark are excellent as the primary component of your soils. The lignin contained in bark keeps it rigid and the rigidity provides air-holding pockets in the root zone far longer than peat or compost mixes that rapidly break down to a soup-like consistency. Bark also contains suberin, a lipid sometimes referred to as natures preservative. Suberin is what slows the decomposition of bark-based soils. It contains highly varied hydrocarbon chains and the microorganisms that turn peat to soup have great difficulty cleaving these chains.

In simple terms: Plants that expire because of drainage problems either die of thirst because the roots have rotted and can no longer take up water, or they starve to death because they cannot obtain sufficient air at the root zone for the respiratory or photosynthetic processes.

To confirm the existence of the PWT and the effectiveness of using a wick to remove it, try this experiment: Fill a soft drink cup nearly full of garden soil. Add enough water to fill to the top, being sure all soil is saturated. Punch a drain hole in the bottom of the cup & allow to drain. When the drainage stops, insert a wick several inches up into the drain hole . Take note of how much additional water drains. This is water that occupied the PWT before being drained by the wick. A greatly simplified explanation of what occurs is: The wick "fools" the water into thinking the pot is deeper, so water begins to move downward seeking the "new" bottom of the pot, pulling the rest of the PWT along with it.

Having applied these principles in the culture of my containerized plants, both indoors and out, for many years, the methodology I have adopted has shown to be effective and of great benefit to them. I use many amendments when building my soils, but the basic building process starts with screened bark and perlite. Peat usually plays a very minor role in my container soils because it breaks down rapidly and when it does, it impedes drainage.

My Soil

I'll give two recipes. I usually make big batches.

3 parts pine bark fines
1 part sphagnum peat (not reed or sedge peat)
1-2 parts perlite
garden lime
controlled release fertilizer
micro-nutrient powder (substitute: small amount of good, composted manure

Big batch:

3 cu ft pine bark fines (1 big bag)
5 gallons peat
5 gallons perlite
1 cup lime (you can add more to small portion if needed)
2 cups CRF
1/2 cup micro-nutrient powder or 1 gal composted manure

Small batch:

3 gallons pine bark
1/2 gallon peat
1/2 gallon perlite
handful lime (careful)
1/4 cup CRF
1 tsp micro-nutrient powder or a dash of manure ;o)

I have seen advice that some highly organic soils are productive for up to 5 years. I disagree. Even if you were to substitute fir bark for pine bark in this recipe (and this recipe will far outlast any peat based soil) you should only expect a maximum of three years life before a repot is in order. Usually perennials, including trees (they're perennials too, you know ;o)) should be repotted more frequently to insure vigor closer to genetic potential. If a soil is desired that will retain structure for long periods, we need to look to inorganic amendments. Some examples are crushed granite, pea stone, coarse sand (no smaller than BB size in containers, please), Haydite, lava rock, Turface or Schultz soil conditioner.

I hope this starts a good exchange of ideas & opinions so we all can learn.

Al

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clipped on: 01.16.2012 at 07:23 pm    last updated on: 01.16.2012 at 07:23 pm