Slow Growing, confused!!

rachaelstarrJune 3, 2011

Hi all,

I have some square foot gardens on the patio of my condo, and have been growing vegetables in it for about 2 years now. I have a 5x2 box and 2 1x3's.

For the most part, everything I plant is very slow growing. The carrots I had over the winter grew for 4 months before I finally pulled them, and they were very small (3-4 inches). Same thing with my beets and the onions I have tried to grow.

I thought it could be that they weren't getting enough sun, as they were only getting about 5 hours during the winter months.

But now, I have planted both zucchini and cantaloupe in the garden. The zucchini is doing amazing, is huge, healthy and producing a ton. The cantaloupe that I planted at the same time, is barely about a foot tall/long. Here is a picture of both plants:

You can see the zucchini on the far end, and the cantaloupe is in the bottom left square. It has been growing for about almost 3 months (from seed: seeds of change muskmelon) It just started flowering but I'm pessimistic that it will lead to anything since the plant is so small. It seems healthy, it's just very small. The rest of the plants are strawberries and they are just kind of sitting there too.

I started the soil with what is recommended in the sfg book (1/3 each of vermiculite, peat moss and good compost). Every time I replant a square I mix in a good amount of compost again (E.B. Stone organic compost). I feed about every 45 days with E.B. Stone organic tomato and vegetable food. I do a good deep water every few days depending on the weather.

I don't know what else I can do! It's confusing to me that the zucchini's (which were planted from plants bought at the nursery) would be doing so well and the cantaloupe is so blah.

Sorry for the long winded post, wanted to make sure any helpers would have most the info they need.

Thanks in advance,


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chudak(10 San Diego)

I had problems with slow growing/stunted plants in the past with Mels' mix and it was ALWAYS because my soil was dry. I'd water and water and water and thought the beds were well watered but then if I'd dig down a couple inches into the beds I'd find that the soil was BONE dry. It turns out that most of the water was just running off the sides of the top of the soil and never soaking in.

I stopped using Mel's mix and had my new beds filled with top soil by my landscaper when I redid my backyard. That coupled with drip and now my garden is booming.

I'd definitely get yourself a soil meter and test various areas in your beds or simply dig around a bit and verify that your beds are getting enough water.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2011 at 7:41PM
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First year at raised bed gardening. Went by the book using the prescribed mixture. The only thing that we varied on was where the book said to use a variety of compost to get more of a balance of nutrients. We missed that part when we read the book. Things are not growing and it appears stagnant. Trimming around the boxes last night I saw several little white roots clinging to the weed cloth, possibly root bound?. Thinking about starting over. I would double the depth of the beds and revamp the soil mix to have more stability for the plants and to hold the moisture more effectively. Thinking it would be good to use top soil mixed with some portion (not sure what the best ration would be)of my expensive experiment(mel's mix)so it's not a total watse of money. My husband isn't convinced it's a wash yet. He's tired from building all the boxes, wire covered covers, removing sod, leveling ground, etc. It's been a lot of work which I'm fine with had the outcome been more "fruitful/vegeful". Discouraged as I was so into the whole experience. Suggestions are welcome.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2011 at 8:12AM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

My original beds were 8 inch pine and filled with Mel's mix. I hand watered them. They had landscape cover on the bottom.

I had nothing but problems with those beds. Nothing ever thrived in them.

I built new beds last summer and made them 12" deep. I didn't put weed barrier on the bottom of them and filled them half full with good top soil mix that my landscaper brought in and then mixed in an abundance of compost to fill them the rest of the way. I plumbed them all up with drip irrigation. The only time I hand water any more is after I've planted seeds or seedlings to get them established. The routine watering is all done on a timer with the drip.

My garden is now thriving.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2011 at 2:59PM
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I am so glad that there are others having the same problem! I'm not only confused, but frustrated and disappointed. This is my third crop in my square foot gardens and it seems to be a hit and miss with success. I had only a couple of plants do o.k. last season, but it has not been as successful as I had hoped. I have two 8 square raised beds, 6 inches deep that I ordered right from Mel's site. Used Mel's soil purchased at a local nursery. Added compost in between crops. At first I think I was watering too much. Things were slow growing but I got mushrooms, which I am told is a sign of good soil. I cut back on the watering and the mushrooms went away, but the plants are just stunted. I even built a 12 inch deep bed to see if things would improve in a deeper situation. I planted corn almost two months ago and they are only three feet tall.
I live in AZ, very dry climate and with temps in the triple digits already I have to water every day. At first I thought it was just the dry climate but now that I'm seeing other people that are having the same slow growing problem I think I'm going to change out the soil.
I planted most of these plants late March, some in April. I took these pictures in May and here a month later, there is no difference at all. The only plant producing is my jalapenos. I can't seem to get cilantro to do anything and even when I buy a plant at the nursery and plant it in the soil, it only last a couple of weeks.

Here is a link that might be useful: karen's garden pics

    Bookmark   June 7, 2011 at 3:08AM
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snibb(Salt Lake City)

tiredmamaof5-check email....

    Bookmark   June 7, 2011 at 11:36AM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

One thing that may help in your climate is to heavily mulch your soil with stray or grass clippings. It will prevent the soil from drying out. Once Mel's Mix dries out it is near impossible to rewet. The peat moss actually repels water like oil.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2011 at 12:52PM
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Thanks so much everyone!!

I really do think it may be a watering issue... I went out and bought a soil test kit as well as a water meter. Soil test returned 'neutral to slightly acidic' which I think is fine.

The water meter has revealed some interesting results though. It seems that right after I water, the top 3 inches or so of the soil will be 'wet' or 'moist', then below that it is still dry! Then when I stuck it down to the bottom of the bed (12") It read 'wet'!

I really do think the pete moss was a bad decision. Not only environmentally but in other ways as well. It does seem like instead of the water soaking throuh it just comes out the bottom...

So if my plants really aren't getting enough water, wouldn't they die? Or look unhealthy? Because everything looks healthy (upright, green) but is just so small!

    Bookmark   June 7, 2011 at 1:11PM
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snibb(Salt Lake City)

rachaelstarr....there are several reasons why some things may not grow as we like. Done right though, its not the Mels mix. Make no mistake about it, peat moss is not your problem-peat moss does not repel water either. If you dont believe it, try this easy and simple 15 minute experiment. First, empty out a margarine container and clean it well. Drill 4-1/2" holes in the bottom Second, fill it completely up with dry peat moss. Third, fill up a glass measuring cup with 2 cups of water. Fouth-put your margarine container in the water and set your timer for 15 minutes. After 6 minutes, lift out the margarine cup and you will notice that you now only have 1 cup of water. Where did it go? Its in the peat moss. If you want, you can weigh it before and after as well. After 15 minutes, there is less than a cup of water left in the measuring cup. After 30 minutes, the dry peat moss will now be darkened, and it will be soaked with water. Peat moss does not repel water! Some advise is suspicious at best. You might have something else that is causing your trouble, but Mels mix isnt one of them.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2011 at 3:03PM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

@snibb...with all due respect: your test isn't realistic because it test what happens to water that is kept in static contact with peat moss over a long period. This isn't what happens when you water; the water runs over the peat moss and out the bottom of the bed without the prolonged contact your test requires.

I had exactly the same results as rachaelstarr describes with mel's mix: after watering the top couple of inches would be wet but then the soil would be BONE DRY underneath it!! I struggled with this in my garden for two long years.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 10:07AM
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snibb(Salt Lake City)

The test is very realistic, and it did not take very much time at all. If peat did repel water, then it would not have pulled water up. Peat mixed with vermiculite and compost will keep it in contact with the water even more. I think you have made it too complicated and it doesnt need to be so. But, as I read your earlier post, I did notice 2 things that improved your garden: 1)you amended with more compost and 2)you watered more! Thats the two biggest things why SFGers have trouble. First they dont use the correct mix, and then they dont water enough. If you go out to your garden and you can see its dry, you do need to water it-its that simple. Agriculture folks wouldnt have much of a need for peat moss if it didnt help to improve existing soil, to lighten the soil, and to help in water retention. There has to be millions of SFGers who have used Mels mix successfully. As mentioned earlier, it has to be something else-like a lack of water.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 1:15PM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

From the forums on this very website:

"Peat moss is hydrophobic and unless it is wet well before use and kept damp it will repel water even in the soil."

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 1:55PM
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snibb(Salt Lake City)

With all due respect, that doesnt make it accurate. Hmmm...thats ok though. I guess I will just stick to the peat and you can use whatever worked for you and we can all be happy. But, if I used your logic from above, I should be able to fill my margarine cup with rocks and it would absorb water because it is in static contact? We know that wouldnt be the case. How about a group that would know? I think the experiment speaks for itself my friend....

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 2:48PM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

Your own link indicates that you either have to soak the peat moss overnight in contact with water or use a wetting agent to help wet it if it dries out. Sure sounds like it doesn't easily absorb water once it's dry.

Whatever...I'd suggest that rachaelstarr make up her own mind by doing some experimenting with different soil compositions and draw her own conclusions.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 3:49PM
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snibb(Salt Lake City)

I agree. We should just let rachel make up her own mind on the subject. Not sure how you came away with your final conclucion after reading the link though. But, its pretty clear it doesnt repel, which was my simple point..happy gardening

I think you should post up some pictures of your garden thoug! It sounds like you've had a lot of success

    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 4:27PM
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Thanks again everyone for the advice. I know a lot of people have a lot of opinions from their own research and experience, so I am trying to absorb all I can from the feedback!

One last confirmation; is it possible for a plant to look completely healthy (other than small size) and be under-watered?


    Bookmark   June 8, 2011 at 6:46PM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

"One last confirmation; is it possible for a plant to look completely healthy (other than small size) and be under-watered? "

In my opinion: yes. The plants will get some water from the roots near the surface but if you are not getting good water saturation down in the main root zone you'll have problems.

As for pictures...

Here is a picture of one of my old beds with Mel's mix:

Here are some pictures of my beds last year after I had my backyard relandscaped and rebuilt the beds:

bush beans:



View of all the beds:

Anyways, good luck!

    Bookmark   June 9, 2011 at 4:18PM
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This thread has been helpful to me as I have experienced the same problems with lack of germination, slow growth and leggy seedlings others have noted. We followed Mel's instructions for the mix and had fairly good results last year. This year very poor so far. We had a very wet spring so didn't water as it rained every day. Now very hot and dry so am watering--we're in PA. In digging down into an empty square, I found good moisture in the top couple of inches, very dry further down and to my great surprise at the bottom, 8" or so down, VERY wet soil. There is garden cloth at the bottom of the box. I know many have had great success using the mix, so I am wondering how to proceed, as it sure isn't working for us. If the watering is so much more critical with this method than conventional gardens, and the mix is so "touchy", I wonder if perhaps, as others have done with good results, just adding some good top soil to the mix might really be the best (and certainly far cheaper than originally assembling the mix) way to proceed? Would appreciate thoughts, please.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2011 at 9:45AM
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Sorry if this seems very 'noob'-ish, but what do you mean when you refer to top soil? Can I buy it somewhere?

As it stands, every time I replant a square I add about 1-2" of e.b. stone organic compost.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 1:40PM
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What I plan to use is Miracle Gro Garden Soil for Flowers and Vegetables, as I have heard that the generic bags of top soil can be from anywhere, including what was scraped up from the wreckage of New Orleans after Katrina. If you go that route be sure to get the product designed for in ground use. There is another one to be used for containers.

I've also added compost whenever replanting a square. Not familiar with the E.B.Stone product, but usually Lowe's has a few different kinds of compost on sale, and we have composted horse manure and leaf mold here, giving us a lot of variety.

Another thought I had about this water drainage issue is that we went to great trouble not to mention expense, to use vermiculite when we established the beds. I've read where many people can't find it and so modify the mix to some extent. I wonder if actually having 1/3 of the soil in vermiculite might be contributing to the upper range dry soil problem in that it only facilitates the drainage of the soil (if I understand its use correctly, eg, to lighten the soil). Whatever, in my garden most of the moisture is ending up in the bottom of the square even with daily strong rains. I don't see how adding some *good* top soil can't do anything but help. But I've been wrong before! :-)

Last but not least, a soil test should give us a non-guesswork idea of what might be off with the bed contents.

    Bookmark   June 12, 2011 at 5:21PM
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chudak(10 San Diego)

"Sorry if this seems very 'noob'-ish, but what do you mean when you refer to top soil? Can I buy it somewhere? "

Not at all. Many companies sell 'top soil'. It is basically 'engineered' soil that is a mixture of clay, sand and organic matter. You can order it by the (cubic) yard and they'll come and dump it in your driveway. Because it has a very low water content and is loose since it has been mixed it's fairly light and easy to move.

When I had my yard re-landscaped they had to remove a bunch of the old soil since it was predominantly sand fill that was added by a previous owner when they had the pool filled in. There was actually a solid 16" of plain beach sand under an old patio on the back of the property.

They added back 4-6" of topsoil in the whole yard. Things actually grow there now.

    Bookmark   June 13, 2011 at 11:39AM
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Thanks chudak. Is it possible to buy the top soil somewhere else? I live in an apartment so don't have a driveway for them to dump it in!

How much do you think I should mix in when replanting a square? Would it be better than compost in your opinion? Or just different?

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 1:23PM
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chudak(10 San Diego)


There are likely places in your area that sell soils and aggregate. You'd have to contact one of them if you wanted to use topsoil.

Assuming your beds are 12" deep it seems like you have about 16 cu ft of beds (5x2x1, 3x1x1, 3x1x1. You'd need at most a half cu yard of soil to refill all your beds. You could fit that in a couple of 30 gallon trash cans.

IMO before you go and replace all your soil you may want to just experiment around with a couple of things.

1) Try changing how you water. Install drip irrigation in at least one of your beds and use it to slowly water that bed. See if after doing this for awhile you get better water saturation and healthier plants.

2) If you want to try mucking around with soil don't buy a bunch of new topsoil. Just experiment with one of your smaller beds. You can replace the entire contents with 2 bags of outdoor potting soil and see if you get better results with it rather than Mels' mix.

3) Worst case scenario if you replace your beds with new top soil you'd need a half dozen or so 30 gallon trash cans. This is how I get the free compost/mulch from our local landfill and just haul it home in my truck.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2011 at 5:50PM
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