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Potting Soil Recipes

Cook up your own container mix that is suited to your plants

Photo/Illustration: Daryl Beyers

Just as creating a healthy soil environment is crucial for your inground plants, providing a suitable growing medium for your container plants is a key factor to success. Most gardeners do fine with bagged container mixes available at the nursery, but these one-size-fits-all options might not be the best options, especially if you are growing plants with specific soil needs.

Making your own container soil might sound like a lot of unnecessary work, but it can improve your plants’ performance. And because these mixes have the optimal amount of nutrients and proper drainage, they reduce the amount of time you spend feeding and caring for your containers.

Each of the following recipes can be mixed in a wheelbarrow or garden cart and tweaked based on your needs or what is available to you. You can also save time and money by purchasing the items in bulk and making large batches to set aside for a later date or to share with your gardening friends.

Learn more about the ingredients mentioned in these recipes.

Basic Blend

Simple ingredients make this adaptable mix easy and affordable for everyone.

Watch the video

The Recipe
1 part peat moss
1 part perlite
1 part compost
1 part good garden soil

Optional
A handful each of:
Garden lime
Soybean meal
Rock phosphate
Kelp meal

Moisten the ingredients to make mixing easier. Place a ½-inch mesh screen over a garden cart or other large container, and sift all ingredients to remove any large particles. Mix thoroughly.

The handfuls of garden lime, soybean meal, rock phosphate, and kelp meal (any of which can be omitted) provide extra nutrients that enable this mix to feed plants for a year or two without additional fertilization.

—Lee Reich, soil scientist, New Paltz, New York

Woody Plants and Perennials

Photo/Illustration: Steve Silk

This long-lasting mixture is the perfect medium for long-term plants.

Watch the video

The Recipe
1  part peat moss
1  part composted bark
1  part compost
1  part sand
1  part perlite

If the mix clumps together and the compost you use is heavy, add more perlite to ensure good drainage. Use extra compost or bark when growing more mature plants, but don’t make it too rich for young plants—it could damage their delicate roots and stems.

—Rita Randolph, Randolph’s Greenhouses, Jackson, Tennessee

Annuals

Photo/Illustration: Daryl Beyers

High in nutrients, this mix pumps out the flowers without extra feeding.

Watch the video

The Recipe
1  part expanded slate
1  part composted chicken manure
1  part worm castings
1  part composted pine bark
1  part coarse river sand

Because the worm castings and chicken manure provide enough nutrients to last throughout the season and the pine bark continues to increase fer­tility as it decomposes, this mix requires little or no extra feeding on your part.

—Bobbie Saul, Saul Nurseries, Atlanta, Georgia

Alpine Plants

Photo/Illustration: Daryl Beyers

Low fertility and a top-dressing of grit is best.

The Recipe
1  part expanded slate or shale
1  part bagged potting soil
1  part bagged playground sand

Alpine plants are adapted to survive in the bare minimum of soil conditions, so many store-bought mixes high in organic matter won’t work. This recipe makes a lean soil that alpine plants love, but make sure the potting soil you use has no added synthetic fertilizer.

Mulch the surface of the soil with small pebbles or grit to keep the crowns of the plants from rotting.

—Lori Davis, Sunny Border Nurseries, Kensington, Connecticut

Tropicals

Photo/Illustration: Steven Cominsky

The best blend has high fertility and the right pH.

The Recipe
First, mix together:
2  parts composted bark
2  parts pure pine bark
1  part rice hulls

Add a handful of charcoal pellets.

Then combine:
3  parts above mixture
1  part peat moss
1  part perlite
1  part calcined clay

Though tropicals are a diverse group of plants, they generally prefer a loose, acidic, well-drained, fertile soil high in organic matter. Common tropical plants, like cannas and bananas, will grow in any good soil, but this mix will help them attain optimal growth.

—Glenn Stokes, Stokes Tropicals, Jeanerette, Louisiana

Succulents

Perfect drainage makes this recipe succeed.

Watch the video

The Recipe
5  parts perlite
4  parts bagged potting soil
1  part coarse sand
Pinch of rock dust

Top-dress the container soil with small river rock, gravel, aquarium stone, or a fine-grade roofing gravel to keep the crowns of the plants from rotting.

To increase acidity just slightly—something all succulents like—add 1 tablespoon white vinegar to 5 gallons water when watering.

—Jeff Moore, Solana Succulents, Solana Beach, California

Regional brands are a good bet

If you want great container soil but aren’t ready to make it yourself, check out some local options. These are just a few examples, from small companies seeking to provide high-quality organic alternatives to larger, mass-produced products. Most are available at local independent garden centers. Ask for them by name, or look them up online.

South: Lady Bug Natural Brand Vortex Potting Soil, www.ladybugbrand.com

Mid-Atlantic: Organic Mechanics Peat-Free Potting Soil, www.organicmechanicsoil.com

Midwest: Father Dom’s Premium Organic Potting Mix, www.godsgoodearth.com

Northeast: Coast of Maine Bar Harbor Blend Premium Potting Soil, www.coastofmaine.com

West: Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil, http://blackgold.bz

Photos, except where noted: Krista Hicks Benson
From Fine Gardening 125 , pp. 42-47

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