Quick ‘n Easy Mel’s Mix

In his hugely popular gardening book, All New Square Foot Gardening, Mel Bartholomew emphasizes the importance of a good soil mixture as the foundation of successful gardening. In fact, he makes a point of his belief that there is nothing more important. He goes on to provide a recipe for making a mix that meets his exacting specifications. He calls this mix “Mel’s Mix.”

Bartholomew goes to great lengths to describe the rationale behind each of the ingredients in his mixture, giving the reader a solid understanding of the importance of each and the role played by each in providing proper nourishment for the plants, for helping the soil to both drain well and retain moisture at the same time, and for keeping the soil loose, friable, and lightweight, all of which serve to make gardening with this mixture a pleasurable and rewarding experience. He also gives detailed instructions on preparing a batch of Mel’s Mix suitable for filling a raised bed. He talks about how many bags of each ingredient to use to get the right proportions and then how to ensure that the ingredients are well mixed before transferring to the raised bed. I have followed his recipe exactly as written, including the use of two people to repeatedly fold and unfold a tarp spread out in the yard. The instructions work beautifully.

But what if you don’t need to fill a whole raised bed, but still want to make some Mel’s Mix? For instance, what if you only need enough to transplant some seedlings into some intermediate sized pots? Or, what if you’re trying to expand a container garden by a few pots?

The steps below show what I do. I use this method to make five gallons of Mel’s Mix at a time.

Before I get into the steps, I would like t emphasize that the use of compost made from diverse sources is every bit as important as if you were making a bed-sized batch. The key is to avoid using compost made from a single ingredient, such as all mushrooms or all manure, for instance. If you make your own compost, you should be fine. If you buy it commercially, Bartholomew’s advice about buying at least five different types is still sound. Otherwise, you will end up with highly imbalanced nutrients in your soil, and your plants will suffer for it. There is no easy shortcut for this if you’re buying compost from commercial sources.

Having said that, the steps for making five gallons of Mel’s Mix are as follows. Start by filling a 5-gallon bucket one-third full of mixed compost.


Next, add enough peat moss to fill the bucket two-thirds of the way.

Then add enough vermiculite to fill the bucket the rest of the way.


Now that the bucket is filled with the ingredients, pour the contents into a second bucket.


Continue pouring back and forth between the two buckets until it takes on a uniform color and appearance. You may find that the peat moss and the compost have some clumps that need to be broken up. This is normal. Simply crumble it by hand as you encounter it. The whole process should take no more than about 10 minutes.


When you’re through pouring the mixture back and forth between the two buckets, your small batch of Mel’s Mix is ready to use! It is well suited to most gardening applications. I used today’s batch to transplant some month-old tomato and pepper seedlings to their new homes in small pots, where they will spend the next several weeks getting big enough and strong enough to plant in my fall garden.


Happy gardening!

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mommado6 on July 4, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    I can taste those tomatoes already!!!


  2. Posted by Harold Rhenisch on July 4, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Looks nice! Great to see a post about dirt. Verry nice. That vermiculite always made me cough. Or was that the perlite? Cough cough. Even the mask didn’t help, so what the heck. Here’s how I made soil for my new tomato beds, which had just spent a decade under ground cloth, under bark chips, in some man’s attempt to eradicate life from the world. I bought the place and after a year rescuing the rest of the garden (which was covered in, gasp, gravel, groan), I planted so much lovely green stuff that i had no room for tomatoes, so up on the slope they went, all terraced and everything, which took two weeks of hammering and digging and pick axing. When it came time for soil, this is what I did: 1 part sand and crud that was there; 1 part clay from the other end; 1 part rotted manure; 2 parts of that ten year old bark chip crud; and a lot of mixing. When I ran out of bark crud, I bought some peat moss. That worked, too. It’s really nice stuff, both ways. It holds water, but doesn’t clump up, and smells real nice, too. The tomatoes are growing like all get out out there. Go, ladies, go! But then, I was in a rescue situation, and away from greenhouse damp off trubbles. I have great hopes for my black tomatoes (3 kinds). Mmmmmm.


    • Thanks for sharing this! I’m tired from hearing it though. I think I need a break!! BTW, what kinds of tomatoes are they? I have several varieties, but no blacks just yet. They tend to prefer a short, cool season, if I recall. Not sure how well they would do here in Florida, given that our cool season coincides with short days, but it might be worth a try!


      • Posted by Harold Rhenisch on July 4, 2012 at 6:56 pm

        I have three black ones. I’ll dig around and grub out the labels later. One is Russian, one is a German, one is a cherry. I had these amazing brown tomatoes last year, but no idea what they were, and am hoping that I can find them again. They were, like, pre marinated in balsamic vinegar. Too delicious. I saw them on the shelf in Germany a few weeks back. What are these? I asked. Oh, they come from Spain. We have to get some! But we have them in our garden! What’s the name! I dunno. Mysterious tomatoes. A rest sounds good. Mine are officially planted. Slowwwwly my shoulders will recover from all that digging. Our season is wet, then HOT and dry, then short. Put those tomatoes through their paces. They ripen up in late August and into September, then there’s a big pick of green ones to beat the frost. Clever me, bought some green ones the other day. That’ll make picking interesting.

  3. Great tip for easy mixing. Thanks!!


  4. I wish I could afford to fill my raised beds with this stuff. 🙂


    • Yes, with as many raised beds as you have, that could be quite an expense! To fill a single 4×4 bed, I think it cost me in the range of $20-25 for the peat and vermiculite.

      Have you thought about changing out the soil in a single bed to see if any increase in yield is worth the cost and effort?


  5. Posted by Tammy on May 12, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    What five components did you use for the compost mix?


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