Wow - alarming soil test results (with plant pics)

indiana_veggies(5/6)May 31, 2009

My husband and I built 4 (4X4) SFG's last fall, using Mel's mix. Without having homemade compost at the time, we bought the recommended 4 or 5 types of store bought compost, including composted manure, MR compost, and "organic compost" from a reputable local nursery that they said was plant based. It sat all winter, and we planted in the spring.

I've had the uncomfortable feeling that things aren't growing as fast as they should. I've read people saying that they didn't have great growth the first year from SFG's, and I've been topdressing with some compost and I've used a couple kinds of fertilizer. (Tomato Tone and Miracle Grow for toms). Still not looking great, and my tomatoes seem stunted with curling leaves. The curling leaves made me worry that I was either watering too much (but the soil felt dry every time I watered), or fertilizing too much (I've fertilized twice in a month).

I didn't want to guess at treatment without doing soil testing, so I bought a "Ferry-Morse" home testing kit from the hardware store. Here's what I got:

Very Alkaline (the color matched the darkest green level - 7.5, but I don't know if it's right around 7.5 or even higher since it reached the test's limits)

Nitrogen - very low (on a color scale from light pink to maroon, my solution was clear to "I can almost talk myself into believing it's got a pink tinge")

Phosphorus - high to medium

Potash - very low (the test resulted in varying degrees of cloudiness, and my solution was perfectly clear.)

While I can't swear that the test kit itself was great, I have enough chemistry background to feel confident that I used it correctly. I scooped some soil out about 3-4 inches from the base of one plants for the sample.

So, I'm surprised that my mel's mix is so basic (I thought if anything all that peat would make it acidic?). I'm also surprised that even though I've fed this SFG twice in a month, both N and K are reading off-the-charts low.

And I'm bummed,

So, what do I do now? I want to leave the plants in place and top dress and fertilize to try to amend as well as I can. Next spring I'll have a lot more compost to mix in, but for now, I'm hoping to increase acidity and fertilize and salvage what I've got this year.

On a related note, I have been negatively surprised at how easily this soil dries out, and I've read a lot of people on this forum say "yup, I water just about every day". Mel did claim that the peat, compost, and vermiculite would really help maintain moisture, but my experience is that it drains really easily and needs to be watered almost every day (and we haven't even gotten summer heat yet!). I feel like I'm just washing away nutrients out of this easily draining soil every time I water.

Thanks for any advise you all have!



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So, I think I'm going to pull back mulch, top dress with compost and MG potting mix (which is 50% compost) mixed together, digging it in a little (as much as possible without disturbing roots). My thought is that all the plants I have in containers (a SWC, potato bin, and some herb pots) are doing great in the MG potting mix, and the raised SFG beds are not that different from containers, really.

I'm also going to water with MG for tomatoes in the little application sprayer you hook up to your hose.

I don't know what I'm going to do about raising the acidity levels - I still don't know why the pH is so high when the stuff is 30% or more peat. I'll have to keep reading up - I've seen ideas like pine fines (which I couldn't find), diluted vinegar, peat, sulfur. I just haven't read enough to have made up my mind what to try.

If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them!

    Bookmark   May 31, 2009 at 4:04PM
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tishtoshnm Zone 6/NM

Do you have hard water? If so, that could impact the acidity. I am sure that there are more knowledgeable here who can help with some of the issues.

One thing I have noticed is that my plants in containers retain the moisture better because I did not fill the containers full so they have somewhat of a protection from our ever present wind and sun (even the black plastic containers).

    Bookmark   May 31, 2009 at 5:42PM
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Just another thought, especially with the curling:curling and poor growth could be a herbicide contaminant in any of the commercial mixes, or perhaps a nearby neighbor's lawn service allowed some to drift your way. It's always difficult to be specific when so many commercial products are involved. Once you've started your own compost, and you know what's going into it, things should get better.
It reminds me of starting an aquarium - at first the system fluctuates a lot, but once it's been working for a while,
it adjusts. MG potting mix has been pretty poor in quality, and has more compost of unknown origin in it. I would suggest top dress with a high quality soil-less mix that is mostly peat moss and perlite, with a sustained release fertilizer, which should get you through this growing season, and neutralize the pH. (Soil-less mixes are pH buffered, unlike peat moss which is not adjusted.) Premier Pro-Mix is one example.

Here is a link that might be useful: Premier Pro-Mix

    Bookmark   May 31, 2009 at 10:34PM
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Thanks for the input so far. We do have hard water, and I hadn't realized that would affect pH levels. But I don't think it's weirdly hard. As a matter of fact, the water treatment plant tested our water just a couple months ago and it was something like 6 parts per whatever their unit was, and the guy said that was a fine reading. He said that really hard water would read as high as 30.

Asters - I had thought about the possibility of herbicide drift, although I hadn't considered contaminated commercial composts. My neighbors did have their lawn treated for weeds about 3 weeks before I set out my tomatoes. The SFG that the toms are in is just about 8-10 feet from the property line, so it very easily may have gotten drift, but would it still be bothering plants now (6 or 7 weeks after the spraying)? And I have a different SFG with peppers in it that would be pretty well protected from that treatment 7 weeks ago, and they have also been very sluggish to grow.

Except for my peas, I've felt that every plant in my 4 SFG boxes is stunted. I've never grown peas before, and I did think they'd get taller, but they look healthy and are producing well. Since they get their N from the air, I thought that supported the idea that the soil is not rich enough, as the results of my at-home soil testing show.

Asters - I would have taken your advice about the brand name of the potting mix I top dressed with, but I already did it last night with MG. I had read a few people on Garden Web that liked it, so I went with that.

I'm sure hoping these plants perk up! We've got awfully tall trellis for a bunch of tomatoes that don't seem interested in getting very tall!

    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 7:45AM
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snowmanaxp(7b NC)

Several of my tomato plants look like yours and everything I looked up hinted that it was most likely herbicide drift. But I checked with my neighbor and he didn't apply anything and it has only affected some of my tomato plants which are currently planted 1 ft apart. Plus I have a number of other pepper plants that are healthy as can be (other than slug and snail damage). We have had several heavy rains over the past month, but even with those it does dry out in between, so I am at a loss too.

They do seem to continue to grow, just a bit slower, and I am still getting fruit set on them.


    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 8:55AM
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Almost every one of my tomato plants, grown from seed and babied, looked just like that. I had mine (beautiful, strong plants) hardening off on the back patio when the lawn service came to spray for crabgrass, and about three days later they all curled up and looked sickly. Some of the other had already been planted, and all but seven plants looked the same. I ended up pulling out and replacing 8 of them, and tossed out all the remaining unplanted ones. I left six that were less severely affected, but I didn't have much hope for them. But I acted too quickly...after a few days of hot weather, the sickly plants perked up and began growing and blossoming. They look absolutely normal now. I probably destroyed about 30 plants that might have lived had I been more patient, but I didn't want to take a chance at not having any tomatoes this year!


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

    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 10:04AM
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Dan Staley

Side dress with some fert.


    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 10:54AM
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sinfonian(U8b A2 S5 SeaWA)

I agree with Dan, maybe fish emulsion or something similar.

Boy am I glad I don't treat my lawn and haven't for years. Bad news. Yikes.

Good luck and build your own compost so it's solid next panting.

    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 11:19AM
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Dan Staley

It seems from reading this forum that first year Mel's methods often need additional fert inputs until something happens. Don't know what or really why as I'm not a strict Mel-er (Mel 'un? ), but that certainly looks like the issue to me reading the same thing over and over and over and over and over on this board.

Second, again, over and over, home test kits should be used with caution. If the OP didn't use distilled water, the results are in question. If distilled water was used, the results are just a general 'in the ballpark' guideline. Not a baseline, but a rough idea.

I like the fish emulsion suggestion and maybe some fert with complete micronutrients and maybe a few handfuls of soil from a mature productive garden so the critters can start doing their thing. After harvest, I'd do some peas (for eating) or clover or something for green manure too.


    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 12:33PM
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sinfonian(U8b A2 S5 SeaWA)

I too have seen the first year issues, but I had nothing like it. I think it's a compost issue. I got lucky my first year, but also started my own compost ASAP to supplement. I think switching to a home made diverse compost for additions has really helped.

In the end, not all composts are created equal, and you can't be sure you're getting good stuff even from a reputable source, so make your own as soon as possible. Good luck and enjoy your garden!

    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 4:09PM
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"Boy am I glad I don't treat my lawn and haven't for years. Bad news. Yikes."

Sinfonian, when you're 70 years old and your body just feels worn out and tired, and your irrigation water pumps out weed seeds all over your property and you just can't keep up with them and still maintain a respectable looking house and garden, you might resort to a lawn service to help you out just a little bit. I do what I can, but I'm not Supergranny.


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

    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 6:06PM
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Dan Staley

I'm not Supergranny.

That's not the thought one gets when visiting your blog. ;o)


    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 6:24PM
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Oh, Dan, you're such a tease! ;-)


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

    Bookmark   June 1, 2009 at 7:45PM
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Do you have a Whole Foods or something around that might sell some Compost Tea. It makes a big difference in my plants. Last year before I started sfg's and this year with my first sfg. My husband swears by the compost tea. I am trying to figure out how to make some of my own. It is 3.99 a gal at whole foods. So one gal doesn't go far.

With watering my sfg's I noticed that it takes a while to get it good and soaked, but now that they are, I have mushrooms in one or two. Maybe too much water now? I don't know.
My only suggestion is compost tea. But I am sure there are more on here that know much more than I.

Here is a link that might be useful: My garden blog

    Bookmark   June 2, 2009 at 11:05AM
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sinfonian(U8b A2 S5 SeaWA)

Granny, don't think I was saying nobody should us a lawn service, just not me trying to grow good soil. I get it that you can't keep up that immaculate yard AND your garden. I was just saying weed and feed stuff isn't great for compost.

And I agree, you are SuperGranny!

    Bookmark   June 2, 2009 at 4:32PM
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Sinfonian, I never use my grass clippings for compost for a few weeks after the crabgrass pre-emergent is applied. That's the one and only time we have an herbicide put on the lawn, along with four fertilizer treatments a year. After seeing EG's most recent blog, I'm thinking I may have over fertilized my tomatoes to make them look like that, as I was using a diluted MG every time I watered them. Maybe I can't blame the lawn service after all.

SuperGranny (yeah, sure)

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

    Bookmark   June 2, 2009 at 6:32PM
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Well, since I made the original post, I top dressed with a mixture of MG potting mix and my own compost, which is mostly leaves and kitchen scraps. I also watered with MG for tomatoes, and poured some very diluted fish emulsion on everything.

Here's the update (3 days later). Everything BUT the tomatoes look a world better. the broccoli, carrots, beets, lettuce, onions, leeks, and peppers all grew overnight and look greener and healthier in general. I think the tomatoes have put on some new growth, and they have continued to get new flowers and set fruit, but they leaves are still all curled, and the plant in general has a sad look to it.

I'm still at a loss about what the exact problem is, but I'm leaning toward it being a combination of poor nutrition and perhaps some herbicide drift from the neighbor's application.

I think we are going to give the tomatoes some time, but we're also going to build one more SWC and get a couple tomato plants from the nursery, just as a back up. The two cherry tomato plants (sweet 100 and husky cherry) in our SWC are absolutely thriving - I think we will do more of those next year!

Thanks to everyone for the input. I will update in a couple weeks to let you know if they lived or not! Granny - my tomatoes do look a lot like the over fertilized ones on EG's blog, but since everything else in the garden showed such overnight improvement when I fertilized, I have to think that at least one of the problems was lack of nutrients. But since the toms are the closest to the neighbor's yard, it very well may be herbicide damage as well.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2009 at 9:29AM
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Could it have been something in your mulch?

    Bookmark   June 6, 2009 at 3:09PM
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gumby_ct(CT it says Z5)

Any chance they could be over watered?? Been getting lots of rain??

I don't believe those home soil test kits and wouldn't put any stock in those results.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2009 at 7:21PM
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Stupid question time: Does it matter whether the leaves are curling upwards or downwards to determine what the cause is? I read an old post just now from '05 and one person posted that upward curling is the result of cold, wet, too moist soil, and downward is herbicide damage.
This is an interesting discussion.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2009 at 1:38PM
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Leaf roll, or leaf curl, is a physiologic distortion that may develop with periods of cool, rainy weather. It cause the lower leaves to roll upward and become thick and leathery. Leaf roll does not affect plant growth or fruit production and requires no treatment.

Herbicides can distort the foliage and fruit of tomatoes. They are especially sensitive to 2,4-D. Damage can bend the leaves down, causing cupping and thickening. New leaves are narrow and twisted and do not fully expand. Fruit may be catfaced and fail to ripen. Exposure can occur when herbicides are applied to lawns for weed control and the spray "drifts". Resultant fumes can also effect the plants for several days after treatment. Clippings from grass that has been sprayed with a herbicide should not be used as mulch in the vegetable garden. If the exposure is minimal, the plant will outgrow the injury. Be sure to water the affected plants thoroughly and often.

Here is a link that might be useful: Common Tomato Problems

    Bookmark   June 8, 2009 at 11:58PM
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If you can get some rain barrels and water with rain water. Nice and soft and will remove herbicides and mineral salts form soil.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2009 at 11:43AM
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novice_2009(zone 6b)

it's really interesting indiana, that you and i used the same kind of test, and got the same results! I hadn't even done much to the soil yet when i tested it (major garden expansion this year). My results were exactly the same. i'm starting to wonder about those test kits.

    Bookmark   June 11, 2009 at 1:16PM
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Well, here's an update on my tomato plants 13 days after my OP. I top dressed with almost 2 inches of MG potting mix and homemade compost combined, and also watered with a MG feeder (MG for tomatoes) on day 1 of my post. 4 days later I gave them some fish emulsion, and on day 7 I fed with the MG hose attachment again.

Then I did my plants the biggest favor of all and went out of town for a week. My husband watered everything once, and then it rained every day for the last 4 days.

I came home to find the entire garden looking 10 times better than when I left (trying not to take it personally...). The broccoli is huge, the leeks and onions are finally looking think, tall, and healthy, the carrots and beets are exploding (even thickening up under the soil), the peppers look healthy, darker green, bigger, taller, with lots of new flowers and big fruit (up to 2 inches) where there had been flowers, and the newly germinated squash and melons had several true leaves each. And the tomatoes (which I'm very emotionally attached to!) look great - no leaf curl, not puny anymore, tons more new flowers and new fruit set, and the fruit that had already started is bigger. I think they're taller too.

So, there may have been some herbicide drift which they've recovered from, but I feel confident that the poor plants were just starving in that 4 kinds of compost compost I had carefully mixed together from 3 different stores!


    Bookmark   June 13, 2009 at 6:38PM
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I'm sure between all the feeding you did and all the rain, which I am sure they loved, it just made a huge difference. All that rain water probably washed away the residual chemicals and your feedings probably helped too!
Your garden looks happy and great!
Glad things have perked up for you!
Happy Gardening
My Garden Blog

    Bookmark   June 13, 2009 at 8:28PM
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etznab(7 NC)

Glad everything is growing better. From the photo, it seems like you are top dressing with a wood mulch. If the wood mulch is "fresh" it will deplete nitrogen levels. I sometimes gets free wood chips from local tree services. And every time I use them, I need to fertilize with extra nitrogen.

I don't think this applies to your situation, but I thought I would share in case someone else is experiencing a similar issue.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2009 at 10:47AM
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