Mel's Mix versus 100% Compost

bsntech(5b)March 2, 2009

Hello all,

I am starting some boxes for growing. I don't have much room around the yard for doing any growing, but I have a big driveway so I made a 2' wide x 16' long x 1' tall box to put veggies in.

I have the Square Foot Gardening book and have read about Mel's Mix (1/3 compost 1/3 vermiculite 1/3 peat). However, I find this pretty cost intrusive to fill such a large container with all of this.

Just down the road from us we have a county compost facility.

What is everyone's take on Mel's Mix versus using 100% compost to fill the containers?

Thank you!

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My beds are filled with a mixture of "what can I get my hands on", so I'm not the best one to judge. However, I know John grows in 100% compost and is pretty happy with it.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2009 at 6:57PM
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I used 100% compost from my county compost facility. It's been good for me for three years. I make my own compost and add a little on top each spring.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2009 at 8:35PM
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I use 100% compost and my garden performs very well.


Here is a link that might be useful: Annie's Kitchen Garden

    Bookmark   March 2, 2009 at 8:41PM
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engineeredgarden(7, nw Alabama)

Can't help on this one...John is the man.


    Bookmark   March 2, 2009 at 8:44PM
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Thank you for the replies. I expected that 100% compost would be just fine, but Mel's mix seems to be pretty popular.

I just hope that with using compost, there won't be an over abundance of nitrogen that will cause the plants to produce more foliage than veggies.

I plan to use 100% compost from our county compost facility which is about two miles down the road from me - just a matter of getting it to the house since I have a little mid-size car. Guess I'll have to load up a bunch of five-gallon buckets and make several trips back and forth.

Recently I visited the compost facility and there are quite a lot of wood chips in the compost too - I hope this doesn't cause too much of a problem - especially for the root veggies like carrots. The compost place accepts branches that they chip up along with leaves, grass clippings, and generally other lawn items.

    Bookmark   March 2, 2009 at 10:30PM
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sinfonian(U8b A2 S5 SeaWA)

I splurged on Mel's Mix and am very happy with it, but if cost is an issue. leave out what you can't afford. You'll be fine with 100% diverse compost.

Good luck and enjoy your garden!

Here is a link that might be useful: Sinfonian's garden adventure

    Bookmark   March 3, 2009 at 12:47AM
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Called the county compost facility yesterday and they said they have a pile specifically for gardeners at the location. They said it contains manure and other good organics, but probably requires some dirt to be mixed in with it.

The nice thing is that they do not charge for any of it - so you cannot beat getting the stuff for free. Even if I were to buy bags of topsoil for the two containers I have (one is 32 sq ft with a potato bin built-in that is 2x3 in size - the other is 80 sq ft), it would cost well over $100 just in topsoil.

Plan to pick some up today - I will probably ask about mixing it in with some of their other compost if the gardener's heap is a little too muddy-like or not friable.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2009 at 9:29AM
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Compost is great stuff. My first year, my garden was pretty close to 100% compost, not all of it finished, there were still a lot of leaves and such recognizable in it. My compost was mostly homemade from leaves, grass and kitchen scraps, although I did get a bit from the city compost site. It was definately high in nitrogen, because leave got HUGE - my zucchini leaves were, I swear, 18 inches across or more. Turnips went crazy and we ended up giving greens away. I also think I had calcium problems, because I got blossum end rot on the zukes and some of the tomatoes I planted. I added some lime around them, which helped a bit. The second year, I added some left-over potting soil and playground sand, just to get rid of it. Compost does settle a lot and the third year I added some more, and a few bags of really good "garden soil" from the store. I also empty my old pots of potting soil into the bed. Not sure what's going in my bed this year!

    Bookmark   March 5, 2009 at 11:08AM
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I work at a local nursery that planted SFG demonstration beds last fall using different mixes.

Mel's Mix in front bed (bottom of picture):

Straight manure (planted with some different plants, though the kale and lettuce look about the same as in the Mel's Mix):

Here is a link that might be useful: Blog post with more pics and info

    Bookmark   March 7, 2009 at 1:36PM
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Great pictures for a comparison of 2 beds with similar sun and water but just different soil composition.

I think what it means is that the general population have moved away from having backyard gardens and we have lost some general information about how to grow stuff. Our grandparents or great-granpparents always threw stuff into the yard, but they may not have known about all this nutrition and mineral stuff (though some may have). They just knew that fish and banana peels were good.

So when a guideline comes along, whether in the SFG book or YT video or even Grandma's old soil recipe, we use it and swear by it.

At the same time, there are more products on the market that basically give us the NPK ratios for different kinds of plant growth, but they don't advertise that. They just advertise about bloom, leaf growth, or root growth, and even everything all at once. So another gardener might say, he mixes in all of these things and and has good results so he doesn't go with just the basic formula of Mel's mix.

Another might say, he doesn't use a raised bed but he uses liquid feed and everything turns out great.

If the soil, whatever way you mix it, can provide these nutrients to the plants, and sun and water are sufficient, then you will generally get decent results. As an example, the picture shows the bed just using dairy manure, not a mix of 5 different kinds of manure, but the plants look great! Another example is alys' compost that is great but found out it needs just a bit more of calcium.

But so does the bed with just compost.

At the same time, not all compost has the same texture and properties, so I think that's where you'll have to determine if the compost you are using will be sufficient. We all say "we grow in compost" but we could all be using different brands and products, or even home-made compost.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 4:49PM
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This year my wife bought me the new SFG book for my birthday and I decided that I would try the method, but change it to suit my budget. I like to garden, but we try to be frugal about spending money on vegetables... especially when it's sometimes cheaper just to buy them from the store.

Anyway, Mel's Mix is very expensive compared to just using my own home-made compost, which is free. I also try to conserve resources by only using what I can make or what I have on my land. This year was the first year I used solely what I had on hand to construct my SFG. This included dead leaves from the fall that I raked up and compost, of course.

There is a lot of dense clay soil in my region of the smoky mountains. Fortunately, amending that soil with the leaves and compost have made it really fertile for vegetables, albeit the "tilth" still leaves something to be desired. Tiny seeds never seem to germinate where you want them to. Slightly larger plants can simply be transplanted into place if they don't grow in their assigned spacing. I just did that very task with my spinach seedlings, pictured below.

Still, for only using what I had on hand and a few bucks for some simple potting soil from the Dollar Tree, I am confident my SFG soil will perform just as well as the original Mel's Mix recipe. I still think Mel's Mix is simply a way of fool-proofing growing plants for a less experienced gardener. It does what it is designed to do, although too expensive for me to justify the cost (considering the much cheaper alternatives).

If I remember, I will update this thread later in the season with the progress of my plants.

Here is a link that might be useful: My frugal vegetable growing guide

    Bookmark   April 10, 2014 at 8:45PM
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Compost for me too. For the financial reasons. I do use a good potting soil mix for the problems tripleione mentioned. For tiny seeds I put a very thin layer of potting soil on the top of the area where I will be using the small seeds. Sift a layer over the top of the seeds, and then press down with a board. This seems to help keep them in place a little better. Also if your local compost supply has too much big bark bits in it, you can make a sifter with large hardward cloth. stretched over a square made of board.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2014 at 9:59PM
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My dad tried using good quality compost for his raised beds, but found that in the heat of summer, the compost became so compacted that the plants couldn't grow. After mixing in perlite and peat, he has had a great garden.

So, I would make sure the soil stays loose enough for the roots to grow in. If it feels too firm, add something fluffy like dried grass clippings, fine pine bark chips, chopped dried leaves, etc.

In my opinion, having a little bit of peat and vermiculite or perlite is better than none. Like you, I didn't like the up front cost of those, but since they would stay in my garden from year to year, I figured it was good to have it. I do have a higher ratio of my homemade compost than the third recommended, but my plants grow really well and I think having some peat and vermiculite is better than none. But that's just my opinion.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2014 at 12:04PM
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I too use the city compost to amend the soil. It needs to cure another 6 months after I pick it up before it is ready. If it is added immediately it would take too much nitrogen out of the soil - I found out the hard way.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2014 at 11:32AM
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I choose to go with Mel's mix and couldn't be happier. I have some things I grown in straight compost, it certainly works too. But I notice the compaction as well. I'd try to get some vermiculite. I have stopped using 1/3 because it is expensive but I still mix some in to help keep it fluffy.

    Bookmark   April 24, 2014 at 12:08PM
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It's been a little over two weeks since I last posted, and I thought an update was in order.

As I expected, most of my plants are doing just fine in my native soil amended only with compost and leaves from around my yard. I don't think this soil is any less fertile than Mel's Mix and I don't think I would have benefited much from buying all the ingredients.

One thing I did not anticipate was how much this soil attracts slugs. They have completely decimated some of my crops, although the ones they haven't touched look wonderful. Carrots, for example, were looking great the first few days after germination, and then they disappeared overnight. My broccoli, cauliflower and kale all have a bit of slug damage as well. I'm battling them the best I can, with beer traps and hand picking them into a pan of soapy water.

Would the Mel's Mix have been a less-ideal environment for slugs? I would say most likely. Would it justify it being worth the price? Not unless you absolutely can't deal with them on your own. I'm making a good dent in their numbers and my plants are growing well. I will just transplant or resow plants that are doing well into the empty spaces.

Will try to update again later this month.

Here is a link that might be useful: Progress of my garden in late April 14

This post was edited by tripleione on Thu, May 1, 14 at 13:13

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 1:12PM
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Thanks for the update, I'm glad you were able to come back to the thread and not just disappear. But I think the experiment also needs a control or let's say, at least an alternative to compare to.

There is no debate that what you have, is good. Your plants are healthy and you get good harvests. But it should be compared with something. As an example:

So to keep the costs down, which was one of your concerns, it could be something like this. 1 sq ft is your soil without your amendments. 1 sq ft is your soil with amendments. The last 1 sq ft is a soil mix akin to Mel's Mix. You could even modify it instead of using 5 different composts, then you just use your compost and leaves mixture. The other 2/3rds of mix remains the same. Though if you do that, I could see that to really test against Mel's Mix recipe, you would necessarily want to use at least 5 different compost mixtures, otherwise some might say the recipe wasn't really followed.

However, for the spirit of the test, I think it would be OK without that .

If you don't put it in a raised bed to keep the mix as unadulterated as possible, then at least it could also be placed into a hallowed out piece of ground near the other 2. In other words, this in-ground 1 sq ft is Mel's mix, not native soil or native soil with amendments.

They should all be in a similar spot to get as much of the same exposure to rain, water, and other conditions, including slugville, as possible.

The slugs seek out conditions and plants that they like. Your seedlings look like none have been attacked yet, but the other seedlings have have. They may like hanging out under the leaves and sticks nearby. If it's the seedlings they like, then raised beds would not necessarily keep them away.

They may also be proceeding in order of favorites, and in time, some seedlings may get too big for them to attack. What I mean by saying this is that we can't say certainly that Mel's Mix would not have similar slug attacks on seedlings, and if any didn't get attacked, it might be because of the seedlings outgrowing or just slugs that weren't that hungry that day.

Recently, I was growing something by placing cuttings directly to the ground. I have replaced some cuttings about 6 times because slugs keep eating them. They are only eating in this area. The same cuttings in other areas are not getting eaten. Maybe this area has a large population, or they keep working at a cutting until finally it falls (timber!!). After that, they make short work of it on the next night. It's pretty much gone after witnessing it be almost cut or totally cut and lying on the ground the day before.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 1:42PM
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Hi gardenper,

You make some good points, I would indeed need some sort of control bed with an unmodified Mel's Mix recipe if I wanted to test to see which one was really better. I definitely haven't recorded any data, either, other than my seasonal log of what I planted. My garden is also behind a shed, which casts a shadow over part of it during the day... it would be difficult to compare different beds because of this, even with all other things being equal.

My articles were more centered around how to make the most of what you have while spending the least amount of money possible. I know a lot of novice gardeners and experienced gardeners feel the need to buy a lot of plant starts and soil amendments to have a successful garden and I wanted to show people that wasn't absolutely necessary. I spent a little under $30 this year on gardening supplies (mostly seeds, but a few random other things as well) and I expect to grow much more than $30 worth of food this year.

If you take labor into account, the amount of hours I have spent in the garden doing various typical tasks, plus the amount of time I have spent hunting slugs throughout each day, it probably doesn't have that great of an ROI. However, I find gardening fun and I love to play around with different variables and designs, so to me it is not a big deal to spend so much time on it. On the other hand, I don't have a lot of money, so I try to conserve that "resource" whenever I can.

The reason I think Mel's Mix may have not attracted so many slugs is that a lot of the dead leaves were not completely broken down when I started sowing seeds, and dead, moist leaves under the wooden boards I used as borders provide wonderful conditions for slugs to hide and breed. I don't think the Mel's Mix would have this problem, since dead leaves aren't a part of the recipe. We have also been getting a large amount of rainfall, which keeps my soil very moist. That makes the slugs very happy.

My compost pile is right next to all of my garden beds, however... it could just be that they are all migrating from there into my vegetable bed. It's hard to say, but all I do know is that I have to keep their numbers down.

Thanks for the comment!

    Bookmark   May 1, 2014 at 3:13PM
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You could easily amend the compost with a good quality potting mix and get a lighter soil mix to make it easier on the roots.
A 50/50 mix would be good.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2014 at 5:38PM
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I've been getting a lot of traffic to my blog from this thread, so I thought I would update everyone on how my garden fared since the last time I posted.

CrosStitching and pumpkins4u both made excellent points that I also experienced during the season. The soil became quite a bit more compacted over the summer. The daytime sun and heat baked it to a crisp, then afternoon thunderstorms pelted it with rain.

The plants that were already established still did great (well, maybe not great, but it was more due to pest and groundhog problems... not the soil). However, I did not have any luck sprouting seeds that were any smaller than the size of a green bean. I tried planting lettuce, parsley, carrots and sage, but I couldn't get any of them to germinate. Surprisingly, I did have a volunteer habanero plant germinate halfway through the summer that have almost ripe peppers on them just now.

One thing I noticed about square foot gardening is that it is not really suited for growing really large plants, like cauliflower and tomatoes. I spent half the season waiting for my cauliflower to make heads and eventually ripped them up because of the overwhelming amount of worms that kept eating its leaves. I wasted so much space that could have been used to grow more spinach, lettuce, bush beans, beets, and other small stuff that would have given me way more food in less space. Next year, I am only going to be growing smaller crops in my square foot garden, and larger veggies will go into traditional rows or wide beds.

Here's a pic of the square foot garden in early June. You can see the spinach bolting, as well as cilantro doing the same in the background. I had just planted bush beans in the middle, and a few peppers were in there somewhere, too. In the corners, you can see my kale just starting to get big. I also planted a marigold that eventually went on to take over most of the bed later in the year...

    Bookmark   October 21, 2014 at 10:47AM
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This picture is from the last day in July. I had already ripped up most of the cauliflower, and I was attempting to germinate lettuce in the very back... I got a few sprouts but they either died from the heat or root damage. Not sure.

You can see how much larger the kale and bush beans grew, and the marigold was just starting to bloom.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2014 at 10:52AM
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Here is a shot from mid-August. I ripped up the last of the cauliflower at this point.

The kale, bush beans and the single marigold plant are taking up most of the space in this shot. I had no idea how large marigolds would get.


Even this late in October, the marigold is making new blooms! And my kale looks awesome. The rest of the bed is mostly barren now. We haven't had a frost yet, but the temperatures have gotten low enough (mid 30s) to damage the sensitive plants like basil and beans. The habanero pepper plant is still hanging on, and I hope the peppers will ripen up before the first frost!

Despite the compaction issues, I am still planning on using 100% homemade compost for my square foot garden next year instead of using Mel's Mix or adding in other ingredients. I think the key to keeping the soil from getting compacted is mulching, which is what I plan to do next season. At least that's my hunch.

Thanks to everyone who checked out my blog from this thread, and I hope these updates provided a little insight on using compost instead of Mel's Mix. I can say without a doubt that compost is an effective (and much cheaper) alternative to the soil mix recommended by Mel.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2014 at 11:07AM
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In general compost gathered from local municipalities are from tree cuttings and leaves, might be more however in my opinion not enough to be accounted.
I started my beds 2 seasons ago and had to use my local city compost, after asking the mgr what was in it I decided to add.
I added into the 1/3rd compost mix required chiccity doo doo, mushroom manure, biochar, and horse manure.
All in small amounts added to the city compost.Everything worked fine, point I am trying to make is..municipal compost hasn't all that's needed , it's good, but needed to add to it/
I now make my own compost and it has everything + more.

    Bookmark   December 24, 2014 at 9:11AM
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