I have no idea what I'm doing...

Raptor666June 13, 2014

...but I'm pretty sure I've screwed up. I did try a search, but I could find anything pertinent to my situation.

I bought some pepper and tomato plants on random impulse a few weeks ago, and the next week bought cantaloupe on another spontaneous whim. I was trying to save some money on foods I like but I had no idea that it'd be this much time and effort and money. I didn't have any prepared bed; I figured I could just pick a sunny spot and stick 'em there. Turns out, 2-8 inches below the top soil (depending on where I dig -- even four feet apart can be a huge difference) is nothing but thick mucky orange clay, and underneath that, if I go deep enough, there's a hard rocky red clay (see attached picture).

I've read that tomato roots can get 2ft deep and about as wide across, so what I've doing since I planted the first is digging a hole that deep and wide, throwing a few of last years leaves in the bottom along with the larger clods of grass and top soil, minus any weeds I can pick out, and mixing that up in the hole til it's fine and crumbly. I've then been backfilling with Miracle Gro and composted manure I bought plus the dark friable dirt under the leaves in the corner of the yard (only yesterday did I learn that this "woodland compost" is actually nutrient poor [no matter, I got the compost and Miracle Gro], being that tree leaves are fairly tough and woody, but it does hold on to moisture apparently). I couldn't tell you the ratio, I've just been winging it. I used much more manure for the second tomato with only a shovel full of Miracle Gro and some crushed eggshells that I'd let sit in vinegar (to release the calcium) to see how that would go. I used much more Miracle Gro for the last three (I read that cantaloupes prefer just compost/manure, so trying to save it for that). I only had enough for the one though.

I've probably killed at least one of the two Earl Girl tomatoes; there were two in one peat pot, and since I read that they should be at least 2-3ft apart, I tried separating them. In retrospect I probably should have just let them grow together, because the roots were so entangled I wound up tripping off probably most of the roots on the smaller plant. I let it soak in warm water while I prepared the planting hole for it, dunno if that helps or not. The two Big Boys, the first two I planted seems kind of okay, maybe a bit stunted since they were root-bound because of sitting in their pots so long (I made the mistake of buying the biggest plants I could find). I've read variously to plant in Miracle Gro, or composted manure with fertilizer (I seem to have lost the back of fertilizer I bought) or with added crushed egg shells for calcium, ground banana peels for phosphorus, and coffee grounds for nitrogen (I don't drink coffee and I don't know anyone that drinks anything other than instant coffee -- I do drink tea, would tea leaves work just well?). I do recall my grandfather mixing manure, coffee grounds, and eggshells right into his bed, though my grandmother recommends Miracle Gro. Meanwhile, I know you're supposed to cage the tomatoes as soon as you transplant, but I screwed even that up and bought the wrong size cages (way too short!) that I now have to take back.

I digress. I have not been able to plant anything else because it's been raining for three days and the ground's a saturated soggy swampy swale. I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to plant in that -- I'm actually worried what I've planted is drowning -- but I'm also worried what I've got left to plant (1 grape tomato, 2 diff red pepper, 2 diff cantaloupes, a bunch of sunflowers and marigolds) is getting really root-bound in their tiny pots (the grape tomato is actually growing a lot of roots through its peat pot).

So I'm just sitting here kind of bemused. There's too much contradictory information. I have no idea what to do at this point and it seems like everything that can go wrong has and it's taking much more effort that I initially thought. I'm frustrated and tired and ready to say feckitall and tear everything up and throw the whole lot out.

If anyone has any clue what I should be doing at this point to salvage this mess, preferable with minimum time and/or money on my part, I'd love to hear it.

If anyone has any links to a scientific consensus or study as to what actually works best, I'd really appreciate that most of all.

TL;DR I'm a combination of lackadaisical and pssed off and ready to salt the ground with copious amounts of Fluorine, Uranium, Carbon, Potassium, Iodine, Technetium. Please help. :(

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One piece of advice is if you can't dig down, go up! Build some sort of a wooden board or concrete block box on top of the soil and then fill that with anything you have, even dirt from another area. This can all be very inexpensive. Don't worry about fertilizers until later. Poke at it over the weeks, months, and years and it will improve. There IS no best method, though.

    Bookmark   June 13, 2014 at 1:53PM
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slowjane CA/ Sunset 21

1) build some simple raised beds and/or get some big containers 2) start a pottery/artist's clay business. the natural color of that clay is kind of amazing! ;)

    Bookmark   June 13, 2014 at 2:11PM
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slowjane CA/ Sunset 21

the other thing i would say is that you've maybe made it all too complicated - don't worry too much about eggshells/coffee grounds and all that - you need to focus on your main problem which is clay soil - solve that, and then simplify your process. plants need good drainage, sunlight and nutrients (compost is good - but pick one, simplify things and limit your variables so you don't go crazy!)

it seems like what you need to be adding to clay is sand since drainage is the problem - but i haven't had to deal with that and i'll defer to others.

you seem to have invested a lot of time and research so don't quit when the going gets a little tough! ;) gardening is actually very simple - but quickly can get insanely complicated as you've found. i say identify your main problems and start from there.

also, when you say you're backfilling with miracle gro what product are you referring to?

    Bookmark   June 13, 2014 at 2:27PM
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I'd say go with containers this year and build some raised beds for next year.

Editing since I just realized you said you already planted. I wouldn't worry too much. Try not to overwater since you probably have some poor drainage in that soil. Feed them and don't fret too much. :) Plan ahead for next year. I recommend raised beds. I built mine last year after dealing with god awful drainage with our clay soil and couldn't be happier with them.

This post was edited by CaraRose on Fri, Jun 13, 14 at 15:04

    Bookmark   June 13, 2014 at 3:01PM
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If you have access to copious amounts of uranium nearby, you have many more problems coming than just not having a good crop of tomatoes this year.

Learning to garden is a process. Chill, read, and join the community here and by next year, you will be ready to grow big bowls of beautiful tomatoes and veggies.

    Bookmark   June 13, 2014 at 4:00PM
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I hope you don't get too discouraged on your first try. We all make lots of mistakes when we try something new. I agree that you're making it too complicated.

Don't use any vinegar. Vinegar is often used to kill weeds, but it leaves the soil dead where it is applied. We get fantastic tomatoes by putting one plant in a large pot with good soil amended with lots of compost and powdered or crushed eggshells (maybe half a cup) that you can just mix in the soil near the bottom of the pot - the roots will find it. If the soil is too heavy, add in some perlite and perhaps a coarser soil such as ProMis to allow for good drainage. The tomatoes don't want to sit in too much moisture; they want it damp, not sodden. We don't bother with Miracle Grow or any synthetic fertilizers. The soil is the most important thing in any gardening endeavor.

There is much good information on so many of the forums on the GardenWeb. You may want to read the soil and compost forum for help.

    Bookmark   June 13, 2014 at 4:06PM
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I too have red clay. It can be amended with lots of organic material such as compost but this takes time. For me I use raised beds and mostly containers. Here is a shot of my tomatoes in a rain gutter grow system in grow bags as containers. For me the containers work really well.


    Bookmark   June 13, 2014 at 6:16PM
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Geeze, didn't realize I left such a rambling mess of a post; sorry about that, lack of sleep and stuff. I reckon too that my hyperbolic snark got lost in the text; I cba to pull up what I have planted, although I'd probably take back everything else I haven't used yet. I don't even know where I'd find uranium this time of year! (The list of chemicals, btw, is a bit of a geek code -- please don't call the feds on me!)

The eggshells in vinegar idea I got from this vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ycETgNRe5k The vinegar is neutralized by the eggshells so long as you don't use too much, and you can always dump the excess liquid and maybe give the rest a bit of a wash.

I did consider pots, but I think that would get a bit expensive, buying containers and extra soil and whatnot. Also, I read that the Big Boys get fairly big, like 6-7ft tall. Raised bed, same thing, besides being a bit late, plus I dunno how it would look or where I could put it. Adding sand, I dunno about that... from what I've read I'd need to add 75-60% sand for drainage, otherwise it'd just stick among the clay and make things worse.

I'm actually not sure if it's the type of clay they can use for pottery, although I did consider using it myself to maybe try and make some adobe bricks to put around the garden.

Thanks for the replies, suggestions, etc.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2014 at 10:53PM
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Raptor, that was a hell of a funny post !

I did somehow a bit like you, and I also have clay. On top of that I have family for 3 weeks now so no time for the tomatoes.

Well, after the over watering, they seem to be doing nicely. They grow among bermuda grass, are like bushes, with some branches still going upwards and others crawling on the ground, because no time and 2 left hands here, hence no cages.

We've already eaten some stupice.

Obviously it can't last. I guess I'll have to do some sort of work to take care of them or they'll die.

What I learnt so far is that they're like us, they want to survive and transmit their genes ;-)

Don't worry too much. You might be surprised by how much tomatoes want to live.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2014 at 11:30AM
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slowjane CA/ Sunset 21

ha i got the geek code finally...knew it looked familiar....

well, see how the ones in the ground do - and if you don't return the other plants, i keep eyeing these grow pots online - much cheaper than big terracotta pots, though you still have to buy soil (or dig some up from top layer in your yard and then amend with compost/organic matter?) link to the grow bags below...
and simple raised beds aren't too hard to build - buy two 8' x 6" cedar (or redwood boards) get them to cut one in half and screw them all together - voila! or make it whatever size you want. there's a method (cult) called square foot gardening which might be useful to you - and they (we) have our own forum....

also, raptor (tangent) i did make my own adobe bricks from clay i dug up from an old riverbed north of los angeles. it's a good time. ;) i wonder if you could make yellow ones and red ones if you kept the clay separate. of course, how to make them, now that's a whole other rabbithole...;)

Here is a link that might be useful: grow bag

    Bookmark   June 17, 2014 at 2:05PM
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centexan254 zone 8 Temple, Tx

As long as you cut the grass out the plants will grow there. You will just have to be careful about over watering. Also keep expectations realistic. For squash, and melons just make a mound for them. Liquid fertilizer will help. While they may not grow the greatest they will grow provided the weather is suitable, and they are not over watered, and not left unwatered to burn.

Also to help in planting water the plant in the peat pot till the pot is saturated to the point that it falls apart when you handle it. Then rip it down the side and peel it off. Make sure the bottom is removed as well. Then plant.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2014 at 3:49PM
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A big hole full of porous soil surrounded by hard clay will fill up like a bowl when it rains. You need to build up a little so not all the roots will be inundated -- otherwise your plants will die after the first heavy rain.

I speak from experience.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2014 at 3:55PM
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I totally had a geek moment when you mentioned technetium. There is technetium, uranium, and iodine all over the area surrounding the Oak Ridge Nat'l Lab where my husband works. The plants in that area seem to be fine with it, though.;-)

As for grow pots, I was under the impression that for tomatoes you should just get a 5 gallon bucket, put some holes in it, get 12 in a plastic liner/pan for 89 cents for it to drain into, add a cage/stake and you were good to go. That's what we did and it seems to be working fine. For pepper plants we used some plastic bins that the tidy cat litter came in with a plastic liner under it.

I second pulling the peat pot off of the plant. I followed the directions that say to soak it and then plant it in the pot, but a couple weeks later I had to dig up the pots again and remove the peat pot because the plants weren't really growing. After that peat pot was gone they grew a lot.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2014 at 10:47PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

This has been a pretty funny, and interesting thread. It kind of amazes me how different we all are and of course how very different our experiences are on any given day.

Raptor, it seems like you have put in some effort and time to try to research how to go about growing these plants but at this point, I would be asking myself if I really wanted to pursue it.

What sticks in my mind, is that your original reason to impulsively bring home these plants was to 'save money' growing your own vegetables instead of buying them. I think most of us start out with that intention. Are gardeners really 'saving money' growing their own vegetables? I think I’ll start a new thread on that topic.

If you had gotten the plants home and dug a hole in the ground and found great soil then it might have been a piece of cake. Once you dug that hole and found all that thick clay, it becomes more problematic. You can overcome that, for sure, but it will require more effort and time and money. If you have become more interested in the activity of gardening, then it may be worth it for you to pursue it, but if you are only trying to ‘save money’ growing vegetables, it might take an initial investment that would take some time to recoup before you were saving money.

I hope you will continue with it and as Lucille said so well, ‘Learning to garden is a process. Chill, read, and join the community here and by next year, you will be ready to grow big bowls of beautiful tomatoes and veggies.’

    Bookmark   June 19, 2014 at 4:53AM
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Daisyjoy5(7 _ NW GA)

How about for the others that are ready to plant, you dig your holes and mix in some additional soil and compost and call it a day? Forget about all of the other things for now and just get them in the ground with a minimum of ingredients.

I'm by no means an expert gardener - it's my second year, really, but I have already learned that it's pointless to stress over things... they will grow or they won't. LOL. You may be surprised at how hardy they can be, and if they don't make it then you know what not to do next year. :)

Good luck!

(PS, I live in GA and we have lots of clay as well... I mixed in some top soil and compost and that was it, and mostly everything is growing great)

    Bookmark   June 19, 2014 at 10:26AM
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