Homemade Potting Soil

Feel like a gardener all year long and save money at the same time.

The Secret to Perfect Potting Mix

Plants in pots have needs that contradict each other. Specifically, they want 1) a steady, copious supply of water, and 2) soil that's light and airy. With garden dirt, you can't have both things at once (unless your garden grows on almost pure sand, which is more a difficulty than a boon since it obliges you to water every day). When you saturate most kinds of dirt, you drive out the air. Without air, roots suffocate. Then, deprived of roots, the top of the plant can't get enough water (making for a strange condition in which roots drown and leaves die of thirst). As the leaves turn yellow and then wither, stems die. In the worst case, roots and top both die (as they often do in the landscape when weeks of rain keep the ground sopping wet, or put it underwater).

In a pot, garden dirt would stay continually saturated in the bottom few inches, for the same reason that a wet sponge held on end is soaking wet at the bottom and only damp at the top. Your plant would root only above the saturated zone and its growth would be restricted. On the other hand, with potting mix, even the wettest portion at the bottom of the pot has enough air for roots to grow vigorously (as you'll discover at the end of the growing season when you unpot geraniums onto the compost pile and see how thickly the roots have grown at the bottom of the root ball).
Use homemade potting soil to propagate your own houseplants -- click here to learn how!

The Chemistry Behind Potting Soil

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Potting mix resolves the contradictions by combining two ingredients with opposite qualities, one that holds water and one that keeps the mix open and light.

In the best potting mixes, the ingredient that holds water is milled sphagnum peat moss. It is harvested from bogs that have been drained, so the moss has dried and turned a light brown color. (You can often tell whether a commercial mix contains peat moss by its color -- if the mix is black, it probably doesn't.) After harvest, the peat goes through a mill that breaks the long strands of sphagnum into short pieces, which pack tightly together and so hold more water than unmilled moss, volume for volume. Under a microscope, the structure of the fibers shows lots of empty cells. Like the pores in a sponge, these drink and hold water. In fact, a pot of milled sphagnum peat moss will hold so much water and pack so tightly that roots risk running short of air.

Potting mix includes perlite to separate the fibers of peat moss and make spaces for air. Perlite is made by heating bits of a glasslike mineral until they expand into puffy, lightweight particles. It holds no water, aside from the little that clings to the surface of each particle.

The Importance of Vermiculite and Perlite

+ enlarge image Along with sphagnum, good potting mixes contain perlite, which keeps the texture light so roots have the air they need to grow.

Some recipes for potting mix substitute vermiculite for perlite, or combine the two. Like perlite, vermiculite separates the fibers of peat moss so the mix is more porous, but vermiculite also holds a lot of water (it's made from particles of a mineral that has many thin layers, which expand like an accordion when heated and capture water between them). I prefer perlite alone, but for plants that like a lot of water, or for pots that might dry out too fast because they will sit in hot places (such as on a brick patio, against a south-facing wall) I sometimes reduce the perlite by half and make up the difference with vermiculite.

There are other ways to vary the ingredients, but here's the most common: If you pot a tall plant, such as an ornamental grass, that a strong wind might blow over, pot and all, you can add weight to the potting mix by swapping sand for some of the perlite. I reduce the perlite by one-fourth, then add the same volume of sand or a bit less. Sand makes good ballast, and it also creates pores in the potting mix.

How to Make Your Own Potting Mix

+ enlarge image Along with sphagnum, good potting mixes contain perlite, whichkeeps the texture light so roots have the airthey need to grow.

Most garden centers sell peat, perlite, and vermiculite by the bag. You can find sizes so small they will barely fill a 12-inch pot. They're expensive compared to larger sizes so I buy in bulk. Peat comes compressed in sizes ranging from one cubic foot to 6 cubic feet. The big bags are so heavy you might want help lifting one, but they also give you a long-lasting supply at a modest price. My bag lasts almost two years, though I put out two dozen pots every spring. I've only seen perlite come in small bags or bushel bags, which are my preference. One bushel bag is enough for 3 to 4 cu ft of compressed peat. Vermiculite is hard to find in bulk. You may have to settle for the small bags, another reason to use it sparingly.

My recipe for potting mix, adapted from recommendations by research at Cornell University, is 3 parts peat to 2 parts perlite, by volume. Sometimes, I skimp on the perlite (reducing it to 1-1/2 parts or even 1 part). The plants don't seem to notice. For a scoop, I use a plastic pot with small drain holes. Be careful when you scoop and pour perlite. Along with the big particles, the bag contains fine dust that will rise in a cloud. Avoid breathing the dust.

I make potting mix on the lawn, patio, or driveway, with lots of open space around me. I hold the bag away from my body as I scoop, with my face to one side -- likewise when I pour the perlite into the wheelbarrow. Then I step away until the dust settles or wafts downwind, a matter of seconds. You should take the same care with peat, which is usually dry and dusty. I break up the peat while it's still in the bag, loosening it and chopping it with a spade until it has no clumps. Work gently to keep dust from rising.

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Add perlite and peat until the wheelbarrow is about two-thirds full. If you add more, you'll have trouble mixing the ingredients without spilling.

You can add a sprinkling of ground limestone, which some researchers recommend to counteract the acidity of peat moss. I sometimes do, sometimes don't, and can't see a difference in the way the plants grow. Then I turn the pile with a spade, a job that takes three minutes, working carefully. If you don't have a wheelbarrow, you can pour the ingredients on a clean patch of driveway and mix them there. Be sure it's clean (and your spade too). Peat and perlite are both sterile, which means potting mix is sterile and so doesn't expose plants to any diseases. Seedlings, which sometimes suffer or die from fungus diseases, always do best if you start them in a sterile mix. As you finish mixing the peat and perlite, break up any lumps of peat by hand. Wear gloves. Some people who work with peat every day have contracted a fungus disease through cuts on their hands.

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