Understand Plant Survival Needs | Soil Basics

Keep your plants healthier by understanding their needs

To understand what goes into the perfect potting mix, it’s helpful to appreciate how plants thrive. Plants have four basic survival needs: water, air, food, and soil structure that shelters roots.


1. Water: Roots pull water from the space between particles. If the mix is too dry, they can’t pull hard enough; if it’s too wet and waterlogged, they can’t function. To complicate things, container mixes can collapse under the weight of water that doesn’t drain, yet they also dry out more quickly than native soil. Water-holding and water-draining ingredients balance these demands in the potting mix.
2. Air: Living roots need oxygen and plentiful space to grow. For this, potting mixes need an ingredient that will fluff and lighten, allowing water to drain and roots to breathe.
3. Food: Organisms and organic matter in soil retain nutrients and feed plants. Plant nutrients in container gardens, on the other hand, are added artificially. In a potting mix, these nutrients are supplied by organic materials, along with organic or chemical fertilizers.
 4. Structure: Materials that add structure in potting mixes help to anchor roots and shelter them from harsh conditions. These ingredients also prevent compaction and add weight to keep containers from toppling over

Common Commerical Ingredients for Soil Mixes

This article first appeared as a sidebar in the article What’s in the Bag by Elizabeth Murphy from Issue #186 of Fine Gardening.

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  1. User avater
    simplesue 04/05/2019

    Interesting to see the common commercial ingredients, I always wondered about that.

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