Making Your Own Potting Soil – How to Mix Potting Soil for Indoor Plants
What are the basic components of potting soil?
There are four basic parts of potting soil that you need to account for if you decide to make your own potting soil mix. Different materials can be substituted depending on product availability and your gardening or environmental priorities, but your potting soil mixture will need to contain the following components:
- Base Substrate
- Moisture Retention/Aeration
Choosing a Base Potting Soil Substrate
This is the foundation of the potting soil. The substrate is the most abundant item and will give your soil its bulk and its primary structure. Substrates are generally inert, meaning they offer no nutritional value to your plants. Substrates are largely responsible for the physical form of your potting soil and provide a base to incorporate the other elements of your potting mix.
There are basically two options for substrates:
Coco Coir-Based Potting Mix
This material comes from the husk of the coconut. Coco coir was treated as a waste product for decades until its use as an excellent potting soil substrate was realized. It has fantastic water retention properties and a texture that encourages healthy root development. In recent years, there has been a shift towards greater adoption of coconut coir-based potting mixes, since it is generally considered a more environmentally sustainable option than the other most popular soil substrate option, peat moss. It is usually packaged in compressed blocks that need to be hydrated in order to expand to its full volume.
Peat Moss-Based Potting Mix
Also called sphagnum peat moss, this material is the product of slowly decayed and compacted moss in peat bogs. These centuries-old swamps are harvested by draining and drying the soil so that the peat can then be vacuumed up for transportation to be processed and distributed. The product is a fine, soft, and airy material that has been the go-to substrate for container gardeners since, well, long before anyone was saying “container gardening.” Peat moss holds on to nutrients and water very well but needs additions to provide aeration and better structure for plant roots. Peat moss is also slightly acidic, so it needs to be cut with a substance like lime to neutralize the soil pH.
Adding Moisture Retention and Aeration to Your Potting Mix
Good soil doesn’t just absorb water but will hold on to that moisture over time and release it to healthy plant roots as they need it, while simultaneously not drowning the plant’s roots and causing root rot or a myriad of other issues. Aeration is very important for healthy plant roots, therefore a balance must be struck between soil hydration and aeration. There are a number of soil amendments that help to moderate moisture and air in the root zone and do so simultaneously.
The two most popular amendments for adding moisture retention and aeration to a homemade potting soil mix are:
Vermiculite is the product of silicate materials that are heated to expansion, creating tiny worm-like grains that can be easily mixed into the soil (‘vermiculare’ is Latin for ‘to breed worms’). Vermiculite is excellent at holding on to water in such a way that roots can easily access it without the risk of being drowned, making it an excellent addition to your homemade potting soil mixture. This ties into vermiculite’s other great quality: it provides water retention while also being an aerator. Vermiculite’s porosity is great for retaining moisture while also creating space for air to reach healthy plant roots. Vermiculite’s chemical structure means it will also hold on to soil nutrients for easy access by your plant’s roots. It is slightly more expensive than Perlite, which is why you are more likely to see perlite in store-bought bagged potting soil mixes.
Perlite is another product created by heating an inorganic substance to expand, in this case, volcanic glass. Perlite is extremely lightweight and consists of more air than anything else. Its pore structure releases water to plant roots very easily, although it does not hold that water nearly as effectively as vermiculite. Due to its airier nature, perlite is best utilized in a potting mix where light soil structure and drainage are important, such as with cacti and succulent potting mixes.
Ensuring Your Potting Soil Has Sufficient Nutrition
While soil structure and moisture retention are extremely important, a plant can only get so far without nutritious soil. Since most soil amendments are inert, some kind of nutrient source will need to be added for the sake of healthy roots and plant growth. There are many ways to get nutrients in the soil, and the best kinds for your system are subject to what you are growing and your ultimate goals. We will cover the most popular and feasible for the home gardener. You can also read up a little more on fertilizers here, where we spoke with Tim Flood, of Nature Hills Nursery.
A gardener’s best friend, compost not only provides fantastic nutrition for your plants, but is a great way to recycle food scraps, yard waste, and other organic matter you may otherwise discard. Even if you don’t compost at home, you can still find compost for sale at garden and hardware stores (although we definitely recommend looking into more local sources such as municipal compost or nearby farmers). Compost is full of macro and micronutrients, as well as beneficial microbes and fungi to help your soil stay healthy and be the most productive for your plants.
Organic fertilizers can consist of many different things, from agricultural or animal byproducts to mined materials and plant-derived substances. All organic fertilizers have different nutrient compositions, NPK ratios, and benefits to different plants, and there are far too many to discuss in this overview. You can find a great organic fertilizer recipe here. It is probably wise to add organic fertilizers to all potting soil mixtures, homemade or not, at some point in their life. As plants grow, they consume the nutrients in the soil, and these nutrients have to be replaced somehow in order to maintain productive soil.
Worm castings are an excellent addition to any soil mixture. Also called vermicompost, worm castings are the product of worm digestion. Worms eat organic matter such as food waste, and they produce nutrient and microbe-rich material that resembles humus or topsoil. This material is well-balanced and rich in nutrients and releases nutrients slowly over time so you don’t have to worry about over-feeding your soil. Worm castings are not only a great organic nutrient source, but they also help close the loop in a circular economy of food production, making them a personal favorite soil amendment here at Urban Leaf.
Animal manure must first be composted before you can use it for gardening purposes. Composting breaks down any harmful microorganisms so all that’s left is good, rich plant food. Manure from cows and chickens is most popular, although horse manure is a common choice as well. Fresh manure is very high in nitrogen and can ‘burn’ plants if applied directly. Composting manure makes it a slow-release fertilizer that won’t nutrient burn your plants as fresh manure would. Composted manure provides good soil structure and helps with moisture retention in addition to its great nutritional value for your plants.
How to Add Drainage to Your Potting Soil Mixture
Good soil drainage is the result of a well-balanced soil structure in general but can be modified depending on your plant’s needs. All plants need some degree of drainage in order to develop healthy roots. No soil should be waterlogged and unable to drain, but some plants like cacti and succulents prefer very well-drained soil.
Sand is the most common soil drainage amendment for container potting soil mixtures due to its relative abundance, effectiveness, and ability to blend well into soil mixtures. The small sand grains distribute well and provide dispersed drainage benefits to any potting soil mixture. Sand is also inert, meaning you don’t have to worry about it affecting nutrient availability or soil pH. Coarse sand is generally best.
Pea Gravel or Small Stones
Any kind of small pebbles, gravel, or stones work well to increase drainage in a soil mixture. For most potted plants, these are best used, if at all, in the bottom of the container to allow drainage. Though not necessary for most edible herbs and vegetables, gravel is important for providing the level of drainage preferred by most cacti and other desert plants. Just make sure you rinse any store-bought gravel or pea stones before using them, since they may be covered in silica dust which can present a health hazard.
Pumice is a lightweight volcanic rock with a porous structure that loosens soils and allows for exceptional air circulation. The larger pores create air pockets in the soil, as well as a foothold for beneficial microbes and mycorrhizal growth. Pumice can be used to break up clay soils, and serves cacti and succulent potting mixes well, although it is generally unnecessary for vegetable and herb container gardening.
Wood Chips and Bark
Wood chips composted pine or fir bark, and other similar wood products are common gardening materials due to their low cost and accessibility. Although they are great for mulching and providing aesthetically pleasing ground cover around outdoor greenery, they should not be used for container gardening. While they can help provide drainage in moderation for trees and large shrubs, non-decomposed woody matter ties up nitrogen in the soil, making it inaccessible to plants and potentially necessitating the addition of nitrogen fertilizers.
How to Mix Potting Soil – Recipes for Seedlings, Herbs, and Vegetables, and Cacti and Succulents
Potting Soil for Seedlings
Seedlings like light, airy soil with good moisture retention. Nutrients are not as important for this early stage of plant growth. This soil mixture is for starting seeds before later repotting to richer soil.
- 3 parts coco coir or sphagnum peat moss
- 1 part worm castings or compost
- 1 part vermiculite
- ½ part perlite
Potting Soil for Flowers, Herbs, and Veggies
This mixture is great for most herbs and vegetables. Some flowers like acidic soil or require additional supplementation, but this mixture is a good starting base for any indoor or outdoor plant.
- 2 parts coco coir or sphagnum peat moss
- 1 part worm castings or compost
- 1 part vermiculite
- ½ part sand
- organic fertilizer (the amount depends on which fertilizer you use — all organic fertilizers have thorough instructions on a by-volume basis)
Potting Soil for Cacti and Succulents
Cacti and succulents prefer well-drained, coarse soil. This blend is a good place to start for all desert plants.
- 1 part coco coir or sphagnum peat moss
- 1 part worm castings or compost
- 1 part perlite or pumice
- 1 part coarse sand
- ½ part vermiculite
Benefits of Mixing Your Own Potting Soil
Know what’s in your potting soil, especially for veggie gardening
It pays to have quality soil, both in gardening yields and in health. As opposed to big-brand bagged soil, when you mix your own soil you can ensure that there are no synthetic chemicals, artificial dyes, or foreign objects. That’s not to say there aren’t some great potting soil brands out there, and bagged soil is where most of us start. But there is still something pretty rewarding about knowing exactly what is in your soil and feeling confident that it is the best blend for your individual gardening needs.
Custom-tailor soil blends to your plants
As you become more familiar with mixing your own soil and the results that you get from doing so, it becomes easier to customize your mixes for the plants they will be used for. Whereas bagged soils may come in different blends depending on intended use, mixing your own soil allows you to tweak every little detail, from soil aeration to nutrient balances, providing a level of control unmatched by bagged soil.
Tactile and psychological satisfaction from mixing your own potting soil
The satisfaction of mixing one’s own soil is difficult to measure and inherently subjective, but there is no denying that it is satisfying to mix your own soil. Even if you don’t enjoy the visual and tactile experience of expanding coco coir and mixing it up with other ingredients, the gratification of being self-reliant when it comes to your soil should be enough to please even the staidest of gardeners.