CONTAINER SOILS - WATER MOVEMENT and RETENTION
by Al (Tapla) Fassezke
by Daniel Gentile
Guilty! I’ve hijacked a forum thread and turned it into an article. I didn’t mine it or try to make it my own. I copy/pasted in entirety and reposted here. It’s out-and-out piracy... and I’m proud.
I’ve grown plenty in my life but never gave potting mix a second thought. Then I started collecting fig trees and everything changed. Helping a fig tree grow and produce delicious fruit from one or two potted fig trees was easy. Doing the same for a dozen pots became tough. When the collection reached 50 it was overwhelming. By the time our collection reached 150 potted trees in varying stages of growth, I was a basket-case and a lost soul in a sea of potting mix. Potting mix was on my mind day and night. It seemed every tree was growing in a different mix and every mix had an agenda of its own.
I was on the old Gardenweb forum researching Maltese Falcon when this post flew onto my radar. The thread was already in it’s 13th or 14th printing and had thousands (literally) of responses. It was late and figured I’d be asleep before finishing the first paragraph. My life changed. I read to the end and felt like I was just handed a treasure map. It was the first time the ‘potting mix paradox’ seemed clear to me. After reading one time, Al was able to make me understand the reason potting mix makes something grow well and gave me the recipe to make what I have, better. Not embellishing here.
I’ve come a long way since that first reading and often find myself going back to read past and new comments. It never gets old. Al is always the perfect gentleman and answers questions where he can. Most importantly, Al keeps everything from the original post fresh and up-to-date. He reposts in entirety every time the thread reaches its limit of responses. So everything written here is relevant.
Because of figBid I get asked a lot about potting mix. I am not a guru nor do I proclaim to be an expert, but I’ve learned enough from this one piece to last a lifetime of growing. So conversations of potting mix inevitably turn to Al’s original post. After reading it for yourself, a normal course of questions will arise and I have to refer you back to Al’s original post from Gardenweb, which is now Houzz. But I can help readers with ingredient resources in the northeast, especially those in the NYC area.
My justification for recycling this wonderful post here is the desire to help others and nothing else. Please take the time to read it. I hope it impacts your hobby as its impacted mine. The author Al is not associated with figBid at all. If you like the article please reach out to Al on Houzz and let him know. Al’s handle there is Tapla and you can get there by clicking any of the links that Al has embedded toward the end of the article. Without further adieu, here is the 22nd printing of Al’s original post in entirety. Happy reading!
"A 2-bit plant in a $10 soil has a future full of potential, where a $10 plant in a 2-bit soil has only a future filled with limitations."
~ Al Tapla
Hello! Houzz's new format has presented some challenges, but it looks like there has been some changes that will allow me to repost the thread in its entirety. Hopefully you'll view that as a GOOD thing. I need to thank all the growers and good people who have been so supportive of the thread over the years. Their contributions are one of the main reasons viewers continue to find interest in it, so thank you very much! If you find value in the information I have set down in this post and feel there is anything pertaining to the topic that should be added or explored in more detail, please contribute your suggestions. My goal was to offer soil-related information with the potential to help you increase the reward you get in return for your efforts. What might I do to increase the value of this offering?
As you eye the length of this post, one thing you might ask yourself is, "Why the interest and all this talk about soils and water retention?" In all honesty, soils obscure the reason we talk about them - they hide the roots and the roots' state of vitality. Vitality is not the same as vigor. Vigor is a genetic factor, something the plant is endowed with because of how it was programmed by Mother Nature. It is also something we have no sway over. Vitality, on the other hand, is dynamic and variable, essentially a measure of how well a plant is/has been able to deal with the cultural hand it has been dealt. Vitality is something you have much control over. It is the visual signals we get from the parts of the plant we CAN see that allow us to take measure of the condition of the roots, their vitality. Soil choice, combined with watering habits, have a very significant impact on root health. As you read, keep in mind that good root health and root function is an essential PREREQUISITE to a healthy plant. You cannot expect to grow healthy plants without a healthy root system - it is impossible; which brings us full circle to why we discuss soils.
Poor root health is responsible for a very high percentage of the ills that befall plants, and the reasons people flock to the forums seeking help for widely varying issues. Poor root health means a reduction in vitality, which leaves the plant looking shabby while compromising its ability to defend itself against insects and diseases.
So let us talk about some things we can implement that should go a very long way toward providing you with the ability to consistently keep the root systems of your plants happy.
I started this thread about 10 years ago, in March of '05. So far, it has reached the maximum number of posts GW allows to a single thread twenty times, which is much more attention than I ever imagined it would garner. I have reposted it in no small part because it has been great fun, and a wonderful catalyst in the forging of new friendships and in increasing my list of acquaintances with similar growing interests. The forum and email exchanges that stem so often from the subject are in themselves enough to make me hope the subject continues to pique interest, and the exchanges provide helpful information. Most of the motivation for posting this thread another time comes from the reinforcement of hundreds of participants over the years that strongly suggests the information provided in good-spirited collective exchange has made a significant difference in the quality of their growing experience. I'll provide links to some of the more recent of the previous dozen threads and more than 3,000 posts at the end of what I have written - just in case you have interest in reviewing them. Thank you for taking the time to examine this topic - I hope that any/all who read it take at least something interesting and helpful from it. I know it's long, and grows a little longer each time it's reposted. My hope is that you find it worth the read, and the time you invest results in a significantly improved growing experience. Since there are many questions about soils appropriate for use in containers, I’ll post basic mix recipes later, in case any would like to try the soil. It will follow the information.
Before we get started, I'd like to mention that I wrote a reply and posted it to a thread some time ago, and I think it is well worth considering. It not only sets a minimum standard for what constitutes a ‘GOOD' soil, but also points to the fact that not all growers look at container soils from the same perspective, which is why growers so often disagree on what makes a 'good' soil. I hope you find it thought provoking:
IS SOIL 'X' A GOOD SOIL?
I think any discussion on this topic must largely center around the word "GOOD", and we can broaden the term 'good' so it also includes 'quality' or 'suitable', as in "Is soil X a quality or suitable soil?”
How do we determine if soil A or soil B is a good soil? and before we do that, we'd better decide if we are going to look at it from the plant’s perspective or from the grower's perspective, because often there is a considerable amount of conflict to be found in the overlap - so much so that one can often be mutually exclusive of the other.
We can imagine that grower A might not be happy or satisfied unless knows he is squeezing every bit of potential from his plants, and grower Z might not be happy or content unless he can water his plants before leaving on a 2-week jaunt, and still have a weeks worth of not having to water when he returns. Everyone else is somewhere between A and Z; with B, D, F, H, J, L, N, P, R, T, V, X, and Y either unaware of how much difference soil choice can make, or they understand but don't care.
I said all that to illustrate the large measure of futility in trying to establish any sort of standard as to what makes a good soil from the individual grower's perspective; but let's change our focus from the pointless to the possible.
We're only interested in the comparative degrees of 'good' and 'better' here. It would be presumptive to label any soil “best". 'Best I've found' or 'best I've used' CAN sometimes be useful for comparative purposes, but that's a very subjective judgment. Let's tackle 'good', then move on to 'better', and finally see what we can do about qualifying these descriptors so they can apply to all growers.
I would like to think that everyone would prefer to use a soil that can be described as 'good' from the plant's perspective. How do we determine what a plant wants? Surprisingly, we can use %s established by truly scientific studies that are widely accepted in the greenhouse and nursery trades to determine if a soil is good or not good - from the plant's perspective, that is. Rather than use confusing numbers that mean nothing to the hobby grower, I can suggest that our standard for a good soil should be, at a minimum, that you can water that soil properly. That means, that at any time during the growth cycle, you can water your plantings to beyond the point of saturation (so excess water is draining from the pot) without the fear of root rot or compromised root function or metabolism due to (take your pick) too much water or too little air in the root zone.
I think it's very reasonable to withhold the comparative basic descriptor, 'GOOD', from soils that can't be watered properly without compromising root function, or worse, suffering one of the fungaluglies that cause root rot. I also think anyone wishing to make the case from the plant’s perspective that a soil that can't be watered to beyond saturation w/o compromising root health can be called 'good', is fighting on the UP side logic hill.
So I contend that 'GOOD' SOILS ARE SOILS WE CAN WATER CORRECTLY; THAT IS, WE CAN FLUSH THE SOIL WHEN WE WATER WITHOUT CONCERN FOR COMPROMISING ROOT HEALTH/ FUNCTION/ METABOLISM. If you ask yourself, "Can I water correctly if I use this soil?" and the answer is 'NO' .... it's not a good soil .... for the reasons stated above.
Can you water correctly using most of the bagged soils readily available? 'NO', I don't think I need to point to a conclusion.
What about 'BETTER'? Can we determine what might make a better soil? Yes, we can. If we start with a soil that meets the minimum standard of 'good', and improve either the physical and/or chemical properties of that soil, or make it last longer, then we have 'better'. Even if we cannot agree on how low we wish to set the bar for what constitutes 'good', we should be able to agree that any soil that reduces excess water retention, increases aeration, ensures increased potential for optimal root health, and lasts longer than soils that only meet some one's individual and arbitrary standard of 'good', is a 'better' soil.
All the plants we grow, unless grown from seed, have the genetic potential to be beautiful specimens. It's easy to say, and easy to see the absolute truth in the idea that if you give a plant everything it wants it will flourish and grow; after all, plants are programmed to grow just that way. Our growing skills are defined by our ability to give plants what they want. The better we are at it, the better our plants will grow. But we all know it's not that easy. Lifetimes are spent in careful study, trying to determine just exactly what it is that plants want and need to make them grow best.
Since this is a soil discussion, let's see what the plant wants from its soil. The plant wants a soil in which we have endeavored to provide in available form, all the essential nutrients, in the ratio in at which the plant uses them, and at a concentration high enough to prevent deficiencies yet low enough to make it easy to take up water (and the nutrients dissolved in the water). First and foremost, though, the plant wants a container soil that is evenly damp, never wet or soggy. Giving a plant what it wants, to flourish and grow, doesn't include a soil that is half saturated for a week before aeration returns to the entire soil mass, even if you only water in small sips. Plants might do 'ok' in some soils, but to actually flourish, like they are genetically programmed to do, they would need to be unencumbered by wet, soggy soils.
What defines our proficiency as growers is our ability to identify and reduce the effects of limiting factors, or by eliminating those limiting factors entirely; in other words, by clearing out those influences that stand in the way of the plant reaching its genetic potential. Even if we are able to make every other factor that influences plant growth/ vitality absolutely perfect, it could not make up for a substandard soil. For a plant to grow to its genetic potential, every factor has to be perfect, including the soil. Of course, we'll never manage to get to that point, but the good news is that as we get closer and closer, our plants get better and better; and hopefully, we'll get more from our growing experience.
In my travels, I've discovered it almost always ends up being that one little factor that we willingly or unwittingly overlooked that limits us in our abilities, and our plants in their potential. MOTHER NATURE ALWAYS SIDES WITH THE HIDDEN FLAW.
CONTAINER SOILS - WATER MOVEMENT and RETENTION
As container gardeners, our first priority should be to ensure the soils we use are adequately aerated for the life of the planting, or in the case of perennial material (trees, shrubs, garden perennials), from repot to repot. Soil aeration/drainage is the most important consideration in any container planting. Soils are the foundation that all container plantings are built on, and aeration is the very cornerstone of that foundation. Since aeration and drainage are inversely linked to soil particle size, it makes good sense to try to find and use soils or primary components with particles larger than peat/ compost/coir. Durability and stability of soil components so they contribute to the retention of soil structure for extended periods is also extremely important. Pine and some other types of conifer bark fit the bill nicely, but I'll talk more about various components later.
What I will write also hits pretty hard against the futility in using a drainage layer of coarse materials in attempt to improve drainage. It just doesn't work. All it does is reduce the total volume of soil available for root colonization. A wick can be employed to remove water from the saturated layer of soil at the container bottom, but a drainage layer is not effective. A wick can be made to work in reverse of the self-watering pots widely being discussed on this forum now.
CONSIDER THIS IF YOU WILL:
Container soils are all about structure, and particle size plays the primary role in determining whether a soil is suited or unsuited to the application. Soil fills only a few needs in container culture. Among them are:
- Anchorage - a place for roots to extend, securing the plant and preventing it from toppling.
- Nutrient Retention - it must retain a nutrient supply in available form sufficient to sustain plant systems.
- Gas Exchange - it must be amply porous to allow air to move through the root system and gasses that are the by-product of decomposition to escape.
- Water - it must retain water enough in liquid and/or vapor form to sustain plants between waterings.
- Air - it must contain a volume of air sufficient to ensure that root function/metabolism/ growth is not impaired.
This is extremely important and the primary reason that heavy, water-retentive soils are so limiting in their affect. Most plants can be grown without soil as long as we can provide air, nutrients, and water, (witness hydroponics). Here, I will concentrate primarily on the movement and retention of water in container soil(s).
There are two forces that cause water to move 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 container than it is for water at the bottom. 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; in other words, water's bond to itself can be stronger than the bond to the object it might be in contact with; cohesion is what makes water form drops. 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, and it will stop rising when the GFP equals the capillary attraction of the fibers in the paper.
There will be a naturally occurring "perched water table" (PWT) in containers when soil particulate size is under about .100 (just under 1/8) inch. Perched water is water that occupies a layer of soil at the bottom of containers or above coarse drainage layers that tends to remain saturated & will not drain from the portion of the pot it occupies. 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 surpass the GFP; therefore, the water does not drain, it is said to be 'perched'. The smaller the size of the particles in a soil, the greater the height of the PWT. Perched water can be tightly held in heavy (comprised of small particles) soils where it perches (think of a bird on a perch) just above the container bottom where it will not drain; or, it can perch in a layer of heavy soil on top of a coarse drainage layer, where it will not drain.
Imagine that we have five cylinders of varying heights, shapes, and diameters, each with drain holes. If we fill them all with the same soil mix, then saturate the soil, the PWT will be exactly the same height in each container. This saturated area of the container is where roots initially seldom penetrate & where root problems frequently begin due to a lack of aeration and the production of noxious gasses. Water and nutrient uptake are also compromised by lack of air in the root zone. Keeping in mind the fact that the PWT height is dependent on soil particle size and has nothing to do with height or shape of the container, we can draw the conclusion that: If using a soil that supports perched water, tall growing containers will always have a higher percentage of unsaturated soil than 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. From this, we could make a good case that taller containers are easier to grow in.
A given volume of large soil particles has less overall surface area when compared 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 simply drain better and hold more air. We all know this, but the reason, often unclear, is that the height of the PWT is lower in coarse soils than in fine soils. The key to good drainage is size and uniformity of soil particles. Mixing large particles with small is often very ineffective because the smaller particles fit between the large, increasing surface area which increases the capillary attraction and thus the water holding potential. An illustrative question: How much perlite do we need to add to pudding to make it drain well?
I already stated I hold as true that the grower's soil choice when establishing a planting for the long term is the most important decision he/she will make. There is no question that the roots are the heart of the plant, and plant vitality is inextricably linked in a hard lock-up with root vitality. In order to get the best from your plants, you absolutely must have happy roots.
If you start with a water-retentive medium, you cannot effectively amend it to improve aeration or drainage characteristics by adding larger particulates. Sand, perlite, Turface, calcined DE ...... none of them will work effectively. To visualize why sand and perlite can't change drainage/aeration, think of how well a pot full of BBs would drain (perlite); then think of how poorly a pot full of pudding would drain (bagged soil). Even mixing the pudding and perlite/BBs together 1:1 in a third pot yields a mix that retains the drainage characteristics and PWT height of the pudding. It's only after the perlite become the largest fraction of the mix (60-75%) that drainage & PWT height begins to improve. At that point, you're growing in perlite amended with a little potting soil.
You cannot add coarse material to fine material and improve drainage or the ht of the PWT. Use the same example as above & replace the pudding with play sand or peat moss or a peat-based potting soil - same results. The benefit in adding perlite to heavy soils doesn't come from the fact that they drain better. The fine peat or pudding particles simply 'fill in' around the perlite, so drainage & the ht of the PWT remains the same. All perlite does in heavy soils is occupy space that would otherwise be full of water. Perlite simply reduces the amount of water a soil is capable of holding because it is not internally porous. IOW - all it does is take up space. That can be a considerable benefit, but it makes more sense to approach the problem from an angle that also allows us to increase the aeration AND durability of the soil. That is where Pine bark comes in, and I will get to that soon.
If you want to profit from a soil that offers superior drainage and aeration, you need to start with an ingredient as the basis for your soils that already HAVE those properties, by ensuring that the soil is primarily comprised of particles much larger than those in peat/compost/coir/sand/topsoil, which is why the recipes I suggest as starting points all direct readers to START with the foremost fraction of the soil being large particles, to ensure excellent aeration. From there, if you choose, you can add an appropriate volume of finer particles to increase water retention. You do not have that option with a soil that is already extremely water-retentive right out of the bag.
I fully understand that many are happy with the results they get when using commercially prepared soils, and I'm not trying to get anyone to change anything. My intent is to make sure that those who are having trouble with issues related to soil, understand why the issues occur, that there are options, and what they are.
We have seen that adding a coarse drainage layer at the container bottom does not improve drainage. It does though, reduce the volume of soil required to fill a container, making the container lighter. When we employ a drainage layer in an attempt to improve drainage, what we are actually doing is moving the level of the PWT higher in the pot. This simply reduces the volume of soil available for roots to colonize. Containers with uniform soil particle size from top of container to bottom will yield better and more uniform drainage and have a lower PWT than containers using the same soil with added 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 on soil particles for water to be attracted to in the soil above the drainage layer than there is in the drainage layer, so the water perches. 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 employ 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, you can simply insert an absorbent wick into a drainage hole & allow it to extend from the saturated soil in the container to a few inches below the bottom of the pot, or allow it to contact soil below the container where the earth acts as a giant wick and will absorb all or most of the perched water in the container, in most cases. Eliminating the PWT has much the same effect as providing your plants much more soil to grow in, as well as allowing more, much needed air in the root zone.
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 suffer/die because there is insufficient air at the root zone to insure normal root function, so water/ nutrient uptake and root metabolism become seriously impaired.
To confirm the existence of the PWT and how effective a wick is at removing 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 and allow the water to drain. When drainage has stopped, insert a wick into the drain hole . Take note of how much additional water drains. Even touching the soil with a toothpick through the drain hole will cause substantial additional water to drain. The water that drains is water that occupied the PWT. A greatly simplified explanation of what occurs is: The wick or toothpick "fools" the water into thinking the pot is deeper than it is, so water begins to move downward seeking the "new" bottom of the pot, pulling the rest of the water in the PWT along with it. If there is interest, there are other simple and interesting experiments you can perform to confirm the existence of a PWT in container soils. I can expand later in the thread.
I always remain cognizant of these physical principles whenever I build a soil. I have not used a commercially prepared soil in many years, preferring to build a soil or amend one of my 2 basic mixes to suit individual plantings. I keep many ingredients at the ready for building soils, but the basic building process usually starts with conifer bark and perlite. Sphagnum peat plays a secondary role in my container soils because it breaks down too quickly to suit me, and when it does, it impedes drainage and reduces aeration. Size matters. Partially composted conifer bark fines (pine is easiest to find and least expensive) works best in the following recipes, followed by uncomposted bark in the Bark fines of pine, fir or hemlock, 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 too quickly break down to a soup-like consistency. Conifer bark also contains suberin, a lipid sometimes referred to as nature's preservative. Suberin, more scarce as a presence in sapwood products and hardwood bark, dramatically slows the decomposition of conifer bark- based soils. It contains highly varied hydrocarbon chains and the microorganisms that turn peat to soup have great difficulty cleaving these chains - it retains its structure.
Note that there is no sand or compost in the soils I use. Sand, as most of you think of it, can improve drainage in some cases, but it reduces aeration by filling valuable macro- pores in soils. Unless sand particle size is fairly uniform and/or larger than about BB size, I leave it out of soils. Compost is too fine and unstable for me to consider using in soils in any significant volume as well. The small amount of micro-nutrients it supplies can easily be delivered by one or more of a number of chemical or organic sources that do not detract from drainage/aeration.
The basic soils I use ....
The 5:1:1 mix:
5 parts pine bark fines, dust - 3/8 (size is important
1 part sphagnum peat (not reed or sedge peat please) 1-2 parts perlite (coarse, if you can get it)
garden lime (or gypsum in some cases)
controlled release fertilizer (if preferred)
2-3 cu ft pine bark fines
5 gallons peat
5 gallons perlite
2 cups dolomitic (garden) lime (or gypsum in some cases) 2 cups CRF (if preferred)
3 gallons pine bark
1/2 gallon peat
1/2 gallon perlite
4 tbsp lime (or gypsum in some cases) 1/4 cup CRF (if preferred)
I have seen advice that some highly organic (practically speaking - almost all container soils are highly organic) container soils are productive for up to 5 years or more. I disagree and will explain why if there is interest. Even if you were to substitute fir bark for pine bark in this recipe (and this recipe will long outlast any peat based soil) you should only expect a maximum of two to three years life before a repot is in order. Usually perennials, including trees (they're perennials too) should be repotted more frequently to insure they can grow at as close to their genetic potential within the limits of other cultural factors as possible. If a soil is desired that will retain structure for long periods, we need to look more to inorganic components. Some examples are crushed granite, fine stone, VERY coarse sand (see above - usually no smaller than BB size in containers, please), Haydite, lava rock (pumice), Turface, calcined DE, and others.
For long term (especially woody) plantings and houseplants, I use a superb soil that is extremely durable and structurally sound. The basic mix is equal parts of screened pine bark, Turface, and crushed granite.
The gritty mix:
1 part uncomposted screened pine or fir bark (1/8-1/4")
1 part screened Turface
1 part crushed Gran-I-Grit (grower size) or #2 cherrystone
1 Tbsp gypsum per gallon of soil (eliminate if your fertilizer has Ca) CRF (if desired)
I use 1/8 -1/4 tsp Epsom salts (MgSO4) per gallon of fertilizer solution when I fertilize if the fertilizer does not contain Mg (check your fertilizer - if it is soluble, it is probable it does not contain Ca or Mg. If I am using my currently favored fertilizer (I use it on everything), Dyna-Gro's Foliage-Pro in the 9-3-6 formulation, and I don't use gypsum or Epsom salts in the fertilizer solution.
If there is interest, you'll find some of the more recent continuations of the thread at the links below:
If you feel you were benefited by having read this offering, you might also find this thread about Fertilizing Containerized Plants helpful.
If you do find yourself using soils you feel are too water-retentive, you'll find some Help Dealing with Water Retentive Soils by following this embedded link.
If you happen to be at all curious about How plant growth is limited, just click the embedded link.
Finally, if you are primarily into houseplants, you can find an Overview of the Basics that should provide help in avoiding the most common pitfalls.
As always - best luck. Good growing!! Let me know if you think there is anything I might be able to help you with.