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seeds noob journey, Q&A (SIPs, media, seedlings)

i fell down rabbit hole with this hobby in early may, and i'd like to share what i've done so far (especially my mistakes) and ask some questions.
it started with some seedlings and a few mature reaper (?) plants from a nursery, and now i've got some very small seedlings of my own going.

my grow log:

5 gallon bucket sub-irrigated planters (SIPs):
i'd like some kind of raised bed setup eventually, but i'm starting with containers.
i made some bucket SIPs as shown here:
it's hard for me to properly critique the concept, but for now, i will assume it is not a bad way to go.
however, i made some mistakes.

let me illustrate:


these were large nursery seedlings purchased at the same time and replanted at the same time.
the one on the left was potted in miracle grow potting mix, and the one in the SIP is in my mix.
despite having less soil volume, the one on the left has at least double the plant mass.

first of all, i didn't pack the net pot ('wick') very tightly with media, and weeks later, a lot of what was in the cup has eroded away into the reservoir. this probably adversely affects wicking.


second, i suspect my media is not so great.

i based it on this mix:

LGHT said:
Mix #15:
2 parts vermiculite
2 parts perlite
3 parts topsoil
3 parts peat
2 parts cow manure
1/2 part bonemeal
but i didn't have verm, so i think my mix was something like this:

3 parts perlite
3 parts topsoil
4 parts peat
2 parts cow manure
1/2 part bonemeal
1/4 part worm castings
and a little dolomitic lime
poking my finger in, it feels more compacted than miracle grow potting mix. too dense i think.
and let me tell you, the reservoir fluid became incredibly foul. like sewer. i'm thinking the manure had something to do with it.
at some point, i changed it out for fresh water and also ran a bunch of water through the media to try to flush it out a little.
later, i also changed out the water a second time (without flushing). the reservoirs were foul but not as bad as the first time.

proposed remedy:

unpot them, isolate the rootballs, and repot in new media. and more of it. i'll fill them nearly to the top this time. it's inexpensive media anyway.
solid7 said:
Just a note on that... when you fill your containers, you want to actually fill them. Reason being, peat compacts when it gets wet, and as it gets degraded by microbial activity. (as you have probably noticed) Every container has a saturation zone, and the less media in the container, the higher this zone reaches. That's important, because your plant isn't going to love to grow into that saturated zone. When you get really skilled at growing, you'll know how to deal with it better. But until you are aware of the problems it causes, it won't really be intuitive.
It can exacerbate problems with things like overwatering, as it will have a higher % of saturation, and will also take longer to evaporate. So you may be watering when the media appears dry, but it could be very wet underneath.
That could potentially be problematic for feeding (excessive nutrient retention) as well.
could this advice potentially change for a SIP though? i guess i need to figure out how far up the bucket it effectively wicks with the new media.
but if i were upgrading a smaller plant (like how mine were a month ago -- coming from something like a 1 pint (500mL) pot), isn't it possible that the roots wouldn't get moisture if i filled it all the way up?

new media formula:

solid7 said:
If you want cheap, it's really hard to beat rolling your own.  Simple recipe that works incredibly well:
70% peat
25% perlite
5% good quality compost
Buy a cheap organic fertilizer like Job's or Espoma - either of those has just about everything that you need to get started.  Mix a couple of cups per every 5 gallons, and done.  Keep it simple. 
Overwhelming vote of confidence for Alaska fish.  I wouldn't worry too much about the Nitrogen.  Nitrogen is the most mobile of all the elements that you will give your plants.  It's always going to be one of the most likely to need replenishing, and the least likely to remain in the concentration that you apply it.  And the fish juice is about more than just Nitrogen.  So use it with confidence.
solid7 said:
The only thing I might do differently for a SIP, is to cut the final mixture with some pine bark fines. That mix that I referenced, but add THAT mix to the pine bark fines, at a ratio of about 1:2 (pine bark to THAT mix) to start off with. The fine pine bark doesn't take away any of the mix's properties, but it DOES help greatly to retain structure of the mix. And, it's a very cheap filler.
cutting this with pine bark fines 1:2 fines:mix as suggested, that would give:

14 parts (47%) peat
10 parts (33%) pine bark fines
5 parts (17%) perlite
1 part (3%) compost

does that seem a little low in perlite?

a media i had in mind was peatlite with a perlite content of ~50%
i just found perlite at a fair price. turns out there's a manufacturer 30min away (silbrico / hometown perlite, for anyone looking for it in chicagoland), and i picked up a 4 ft^3 bag for $16...
so i have a lot of it now and wouldn't be opposed to using it up.
i don't know what kind of compost i'll be able to find, but i'm swearing off anything manure-based.
is mushroom compost from home depot going to cut it?
also, where do i get pine bark fines? home depot? is there any particular 'grade' to look for?
edit: after reading, it looks like bark fines are hard to find in some areas. i guess i'll see what's around here.
should i mulch the SIPs after repotting? probably, right?
i got my old pH meter back up and running. amazingly, it's been stored dry and neglected for years, but i soaked it in conc. KCl for like a week and then tried calibrating it, and it's working great.
it's probably a good idea to check the new media's pH and adjust with dolomitic lime, right?
wetting agents:

after reading the peat-lite thread i linked to above, i do see the appeal of using a wetting agent.
however, i couldn't find one that had the right mix of perceived safety and availability.
i was a little bit sketched out by alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE).
alcohol exthoxysulfates (AES) could be safer, but i couldn't find where to buy it.
see also http://thehotpepper.com/topic/46057-sorbitol-20-non-ionic-surfactant-for-potting-soil/

i guess i'll just not bother with it.

i haven't used additional ferts yet, but i did water them (infrequently) because i wasn't confident that the SIPs were wicking correctly.
it's been 1-1.5 months since potting them, so they're probably due for some kind of nutrients.
i bought some dyna-grow foliage-pro, and i think i'll stick with it for a bit.
it's cheap as hell and easy to work with (concentrated).

Dyna-Grow said:
Maintenance: Mix ¼ – ½ tsp. per gallon of water with every watering.
Production: Mix 1 tsp. per gallon of water, once a week.
Monthly Feeding: Use 2 – 3 tsp. per gallon of water.
Siphon Mixer: (1:15 ratio) Mix 2 – 4 fl. oz. per gallon of water for a concentrate feed solution.
Foliar Application: Mix ¼ – ½ tsp. per gallon of water and spray directly of leaves.
after repotting, should i start using it right away?
1/4 tsp per gallon of water (1:3000)?

for my SIPs, should i initially douse the media with 1:3000 and then fill the reservoir with it too?
seedling nutrients:
i've got some seedlings in rapid-rooter plugs. when should i give them dyna-grow? when they have their 2nd set of true leaves?
and should i give it every watering (1:3000)?
foliar spray, delivery agents:

is it just a troll? could i do it from time to time?


it sounds cool, but it might not even be worth doing if you're not using a delivery agent (and optionally a surfactant). i was having trouble finding such a product.
pests, diseases:

pretty nice PDF if you haven't seen it

ok, that was a long one.
thanks guys
A small thing, but a SIP is a "sub-irrigated planter". ;)
Foliar feedng for a newbie - no
Perlite content - not low, considering that you've cut it with lots of bark. (take it out and it's about 1/4)
Sewer smell - definitely the manure.  Commercial feedlot cow shit is not good quality compost, and questionable for food growing.
Foliage Pro nutrient - definitely a yes
Wetting agents - NO!  That's what compost is for.  Don't waste the time/money.
I would strongly advise you to water your nutrient in from the top.  DO NOT drop foliage pro into your reservoir.  It doesn't work effectively, when you do. (it will actually accumulate most of the calcium in the bottom, and you lose one of its biggest strengths)  Remember, SIPs were designed around dry ferts, and usually, they are covered on top, to keep rain out.  However, these planters work incredibly well as conventional planters.  I like to run straight water through the tube, but ALL food through the media.
I understand your concern about the perlite, but don't worry.  50% is pretty high, for just about anything short of a Hempy bucket.  Which would be fine as a concept, but then you've wasted money and time buying compost and bark.

That pine bark fines is available at our local Wal-Mart, by the way.  It looks like this:
yes. fixed. i was looking at self-watering planter and i guess i combined the two in my head.
top feed it, eh?
which sounds better, weekly or monthly? and should i basically saturate the media when i feed?
Dyna-Grow said:
Production: Mix 1 tsp. per gallon of water, once a week.
Monthly Feeding: Use 2 – 3 tsp. per gallon of water.
the bark mulch product you linked to is in stock at a couple of local walmarts. hooray
and is mushroom compost from home depot / walmart ok?
sinensis said:
yes. fixed. i was looking at self-watering planter and i guess i combined the two in my head.
top feed it, eh?
which sounds better, weekly or monthly? and should i basically saturate the media when i feed?
the bark mulch product you linked to is in stock at a couple of local walmarts. hooray
and is mushroom compost from home depot / walmart ok?
Do exactly what the package says for mixing.
Personally, what I like to do, is to mix per the instructions, but then just water out of a can, the amount that I think is sufficient for a week's feeding.  What is that, you might ask?  Well, for small plants, I might just run over them really quickly, whereas a full size plant might get close to the whole watering can.  Then, you top off the bottom, until water is just starting to flow.
I don't like mushroom compost, but if it's what you can get, use it.  The preference is always going to be towards worm castings. (if buying, but homemade is best)
alright, here is where i'm at right now:

and this is what's in it:
17.5 gal (58%) peat (loose)
5 gal (17%) perlite
7.5 gal (25%) pine bark mulch
micro (not factored into the percentage breakdown since i measured them by weight anyway):
1.5 lb (680 g) worm castings
0.8 lb (360g, ~2 cup) bone meal
0.44 lb (200 g) dolomitic lime (pelletized)
since i have my pH meter working now (and freshly calibrated), i decided to actually look at pH. 
i measured the peat before i started and found it to be quite acidic, so i added some lime. the mix was still acidic, so i added more and measured again.
my pH testing procedure:
take a big handful of media and add tap water to make a thick slurry. i used tap (slightly basic) since that's what i'm using to water my plants anyways.
then i wait 5 minutes (stirring occasionally) in case additives need time to dissolve, filter it through a paper towel, and test the filtrate.
pH results:
peat: 4.2
media (no lime): sadly, i didn't test it
media (only 100g dolomitic lime added): 4.6
media (200g lime i.e. the recipe above): 4.5
my concerns:
i already kind of regret using bone meal. i should have learned my lesson with the manure. it smells awful, and i can smell it strongly in the media lol. i was low on worm castings, and walmart didn't have any when i went to get pine bark mulch. they also didn't have any kind of compost except manure. i was too lazy to make another trip, so i grabbed bone meal because it seemed like the best alternative.
after adding pelletized dolomitic lime, i'm not seeing a measured improvement in pH. what do you guys use? is there some kind of lime dust (instead of pellets) that's better for this application? i tried my best to mix up the media very well, but who knows if any lime was in the samples i grabbed. does the lime i'm using take a really long time to dissolve or something? i'm going to drag this tarp of media into the garage for now and not bother with repotting until i figure this out. sigh. spraying the pile with dilute NaOH is tempting, but the idea would probably somehow backfire on me.
about the pine bark mulch:

that's what the bag i got looks like btw.
i realize i went a little light on it, but i can easily just add more. doesn't help much with the pH issue though.
How did we get back to this point? :D
Why bone meal in containers?  Bone meal isn't immediately available, and doesn't break down well in containers.  Especially if you live in a temperate climate, and don't have continuous, prolonged microbial activity.  Plus, rendering plants, and pathogens...  Eww.  It's as bad as the manure, dude. 

Bone meal is for the compost pile, or soil.  (for the long haul)  Seriously, chuck that crap, and let's get you growing some peppers.
Don't mess with powdered lime.  The dolomitic lime takes some time.  IF it's in there, try to be patient.  It's large particle stuff, so it's got to react, and that happens kinda slow.  But if you really feel fidgety, you can make some right now liming solution with eggshells and vinegar.  Oh, but it's gonna take a day or two. (or three)  Also, you may be able to find oyster shell flour, to use as is, or make solution with vinegar.  But stay away from powdered lime.  If you get the wrong stuff, you'll be done for the season.
Just wait for the dolomitic lime...  You'll see the pH come up over the next couple of days.  You did water it all good, right?
Have you already mixed in the bone meal?  That is really not going to be a compost substitute.
Why didn't you use the worm castings as part of the mix?  THAT is compost!  Up to 5% of the overall total...
i did not repot anything yet, it's all on the tarp. unwatered. maybe i'll grab a new sample and make a slurry and let that sit overnight and measure tomorrow.
yes, bone meal is in there already. would you add some mushroom compost (will have to go to home depot), or should i chuck this media and start over just because of the bone meal? it's a shame because it's like 30 gallons. but the media is kind of smelly now.
solid7 said:
Why didn't you use the worm castings as part of the mix?  THAT is compost!  Up to 5% of the overall total...
i added a small amount in. it was like a pound or two. seemed like at most a third left of what was a 6lb bag. basically i didn't use it because i was in a rush and walmart didn't have anything that seemed remotely applicable to me except for humus+manure, bone meal, and blood meal. bone meal seemed to have more nutrients in it (and calcium) than blood meal. bahh i knew i should have just gone to home depot after haha
I gotta be honest, I don't really know what advice to give you.  You got good advice, but couldn't resist the urge to rush.  If I tell you throw it out, I'm the bad guy, and if I tell you that you can use it, but you need to do this, and that, and the other, then you're chasing your own tail, and it makes me look like the bad guy again.

At this point, I'd just gonna bow out.  I can't really add to the advice that I initially gave you, and I don't really want to be in the business of remedying stink pot, or suggesting endless alternatives. (due to second guessing, or?)  So, maybe somebody else wants to pick this up.  Otherwise, you have the option to go back to square 1, and do it right, without getting excitable.  And to be perfectly honest, maybe you just want to wait until next year, when you can think it through calmly, and start right.  It's getting awfully late in your zone to be starting new peppers, anyway.

Good luck.
bad guy? lol
i'm not getting upset over any of this, it's just a hobby. it's fun to experiment and learn
and if it was an ok idea a week ago, i think it's still an ok idea now
also nice to have experience with pH adjustment. still figuring that out
and again thanks for the advice!
sinensis said:
bad guy? lol
i'm not getting upset over any of this, it's just a hobby. it's fun to experiment and learn
and if it was an ok idea a week ago, i think it's still an ok idea now
Understood.  My point of view is that if it's just experimentation, you've got full latitude to do that, without any further advice.  And, if it's a good useable media that you want, then again, the advice is still there, ready to be put into practice.  :thumbsup:
i've decided not to use this stuff for my peppers, but i'll play with the pile's pH until i get that figured out and then toss it in the graveyard. oh well.
i still have plenty of the other materials, and it's all inexpensive stuff.
once i know what i'm doing with pH, i'll mix up a new batch with worm castings then repot.
i'm eager to retest the slurry tonight and see if it went up at all.