The Great Potting Soil Debate


For the last several years I’ve written a series of articles for Garden Chic magazine (a business magazine for owners of independent garden centers) in which I call up owners of independent garden centers and ask them a whole bunch of questions about how they promote organic gardening. As the owner of a retail business myself, I’ve always found these conversations to be fascinating.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling used books or new plants–some things about retail just never change.

One thing that always amazes me about these interviews is how fanatical people can get about potting soil.  These garden center owners really sweat the decision over what potting soil to carry–they run side-by-side trials, they survey their customers, they scope out the competition. Most of them seem to have one brand that they absolutely swear by, and a couple others that they carry to please the non-believers.

I’ve never been much of a container gardener myself (What?  You want a drink of water?  Get it yourself–I’m busy!) but this year I remade part of my garden and turned it into a really cool hangout space that is all about the containers.  (I’ll show you pictures soon.)  And guess what?  Suddenly, potting soil became a BIG issue in my life.

I’m a big believer in shopping locally, and luckily, the FoxFarm Soil & Fertilizer Company is located right here in town.  They make a super-ultra premium potting soil called Ocean Forest, and a more affordable version called Happy Frog.  Both have all kinds of good stuff added, like worm castings, bat guano, fish and crab meal, etc. etc. So I used a little of both in this new garden I’ve been working on.

What about you?  Is there a potting soil you absolutely insist on using?  And if so, why–is it because it’s cheap, convenient, or just really awesome?  Is money any object in the quest for the perfect bag of black stuff?


  1. I stopped using potting soil. Too expensive for my big pots! Instead, I just use composted chicken bedding: pine shavings plus chicken manure.

    Plants are very happy–as least as happy as they can be, given my unwillingness to babysit also.

    • I have used my composted chicken bedding as mulch on pots, but I never thought to try it as planting medium. Maybe I’ll give that a try……if I can ever spare any. I have sandy soil that needs all the organic matter I can give it.

  2. Ocean Forest is a phenomenal draw to indoor herb and tomato growers. Happy Frog also an excellent soil. Our company sells approx. 10,000 bags of these two products each year. Pro-Mix BX (3.8 CF bale) is also a huge seller at 7-10 truckloads a year.

    We also sell 3-5,000 bags of MG Garden Soil for those who insist.

    People are freaky about their soils because it is one thing they actually get in contact with and get their hands dirty

    The TROLL

  3. I have a lot of big pots (smaller ones too) and don’t want to spend hundreds to buy potting mix, so I make my own. Compost/manure mix is cheap in bulk, same for a large bag of perlite, a compressed block of peat (coir is not readily available here yet), and some cheap bags of topsoil (depending on what I’m planting). I can mix up loads of the stuff for a reasonable price every year!

  4. Having read the post and responses, I’m not sure I should even admit this. I use Scott’s Miracle Gro Potting Soil Mix. I also eat hamburger helper and like to watch dancing with the stars. OK, those last two I made up. Oh, but I do keep my potting soil year to year by refreshing it with a little compost. Does that make it better?

  5. I do not have much luck with pots. Over water under water what do you mean fertilize on a regular basis? I usually use a home brew mix or a basic cheap generic soil. Well, this season all that was left at the store was the evil miracle grow kind and I did not want to drive across town to another store. So I got it. And my pots looked the best they ever have. Damn, I hate when that happens.

  6. ProMix is my choice. I’ve used it for many years, ever since working as a teenager in a greenhouse that used it. I like its texture and water/air holding capabilities. To keep costs down I put upturned pots inside my large containers to use up some of the space. I also “refresh” last years’ mix by adding 50% new and throwing half the old into my compost pile. I buy one or two bales per year and have watched the price increase steadily, but it’s worth it to me for the results I get.

  7. From a professional horticulturist with a BS in Hort and 20 years in the business:

    There is entirely too much fuss and expense attached to commercial potting soils, many of which have components that undermine our environment: quarried peat moss, fossil-fuel based fertilizers, air-lifted coir, etc. And it’s in plastic bags made from fossil-fuels.

    In my backyard nursery and with my wife’s pots, we’ve adopted a variation of the potting mix that many local professional nursery owners use, such as Tony Avent at Plant Delight’s Nursery. Tony uses about two parts compost and one part sandy soil from his property. It drains well, has plenty of nutrients, low carbon footprint and uses no peat moss (which is only a sustainable product if you think in terms of 10,000 year cycles of re-growth.)

    Our personal variation is about half compost and half pine bark fines from a local supply yard. And when I pot up, I also toss in one or more big handfuls of a mixed organic fertilizer depending on how big the pot is. No need for multiple liquid applications of fertilizer.

    If you don’t want to buy in bulk, do as an earlier poster describes and 1) buy bags of compost and 2) mix it with the finest local organic mulch (pine bark, etc.) and 3) with handfuls of mixed organic fertilizer. There’s no one right formula–any half and half or 2:1 ratio of these two main components will work great, cost less, support local businesses, be better for the environment, etc.

    Many of the commercial products at the garden centers (god love ’em) are not unlike the numerous options for breakfast cereal at the grocery store: each brand is some minor variation with flashy graphics in an attempt to take more market share from a competitor.

    Last, I don’t look askance at people who use store bought potting soil, but if you do go that route, I do hope you’ll at least consider using something that doesn’t have peat moss and that uses organic fertilizers. Good look and keep those pots mulched too! They do get thirsty no matter what potting soil you use.

    • “quarried peat moss, fossil-fuel based fertilizers, air-lifted coir”

      I have long wondered about peat moss, don’t like fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, and thanks for mentioning the coir to avoid.

      I’ve found some organic weed killer, one ingredient of which is clove oil–smells absolutely wonderful! I have pre-emergent corn gluten, which cuts down on hand-weeding. Getting the usual garden service to understand use it or don’t work for me seems to be difficult. I found an organic weed&seed for lawns, used at the other house, but in this rental, the owner pays for the lawn in front (NO TREES!), and I have yet to be here when the mow&blow crew are. They have the sprinklers on in the middle of the day! Not sure how to set that brand, so I’m having someone come out to change it for me.

    • @Frank Hyman: Great points. We’ve used pretty close to what you’re describing but this past summer we started adding worm castings from our worm bin, which seemed to really make a difference. It’s light, full of beneficial microorganisms, and is a relatively slow release power house fertilizer. Can you share your source for good organic fertilizers or does it vary?

  8. Hell, I’d buy the Happy Frog just for the label! (Honestly, for as visual a bunch as gardeners are, we get such BORING labels…)

    I buy some organic stuff in a pink bag–Nature’s Earth’s Something’s Something–and don’t sweat the details. I doubt any of them are made of poison, and my choice is more a desire not to give Scott’s my money than any belief of purity.

    And I remember to fertilize my pots approximately once a year.

  9. I haven’t purchased a bag of potting soil since I don’t know when. Our city provides free composted mulch from green bin collection. I sift that to remove the really coarse stuff, add a little peat and perlite and I’m ready to plant. If I wasn’t in arid L.A., I wouldn’t even bother with the peat. Even so, I’m still on the same bale I bought 3 years ago and I usually go through a couple hundred #1s a year. However, I only use that mix for a year and then the plant either has to go in the ground or get potted up/repotted and the medium mixed into the garden because the organic fraction breaks down too much and gets soggy resulting in decreased vigor . If I am planning on a plant being in a pot for longer than a year, I use a mix that is mostly inorganic with structural stability and then treat it like a “to waste” hydroponic setup.

    • I’m leary of getting city mulch because I don’t know what was done to the ingredients before they were put out at the curb. I don’t know if the conventional pesticides, herbicides, or the like were used by those putting green waste out for collection.

      Once we sell the house we had to leave (we rent now) and my husband gets a better job (on the horizon!), I want a worm composting tower. I’m sold on EB Stone’s gardening line, but I must look up the Fox Farm folks’ products here in the South (SF) Bay.

      BTW, Amy, those Fiskar loppers you demo’d in a video–everyone who uses mine adores it.

      • I’ve never had a problem with city compost and I don’t expect to. It is seriously hot composted, like to the point where you have to be careful when you pick it up that you don’t hurt yourself from the heat. Plus, ours is tested for heavy metals which I am more concerned about than minute traces of pesticide.

  10. We buy around 10 cubic yards a year to supplement our own compost piles for our garden but we have a lot of raised produce beds and fruit trees. The idea of buying something wrapped up in a plastic bag for who knows how long just makes me wonder how ‘alive’ the soil still is. We have a great local supplier who makes something called mango mulch (but has nothing to do with mangoes). What I like best about it is they test it regularly for pesticide residues and won’t make it if the levels are too high. Needless to say, that’s becoming harder and harder to find these days.

  11. Normally I mix up some stuff for the pots – but this year I was busy and bought the cheap potting soil from a local big box store. BIG mistake. Nothing grew, a few things actually died. I amended the poor pots with some compost on top and I’m getting a ‘pleasant’ fall show. But really – what was in those bags? It was black, it was dirty but it could have been tar sands masquerading as soil. I’ll never be comfortable with bagged stuff again.

  12. I use the same soil in my permanent pots that I use when I grow from seed, dirt from my yard. My permanent pots contain what I grow in most of my garden, native, Mediterranean, Aussies and succulents (Southern California garden). When starting veggies, I use my homemade compost or compost that comes from a local recycling center that I buy by the cubic yard. My 3/4 ton pickup full of that costs about $10-$20. I do occasionally (once every year or so) add a little of above named compost for top dressing pots. They seem happy.

    Kudos to everyone who is staying away from peat moss and other non-renewables.

  13. I usually buy cheap bagged soil that doesn’t have a lot of chemical additives, then I mix in a little good stuff such as green sand or something with iron and/or I water with seaweed and fish emulsion. I have about 80 potted plants and for the most part, they seem to do well–even when I ended up using some really heavy unbagged soil from a soil yard. I also never throw my soil away unless the plant growing in it died of a disease, and I often top-dress pots with compost or leaves that act as mulch.

  14. Fox Farm huh ? So exactly what are you growing in those containers ???
    The garden center I am associated with sells Greenall , Ednas Best and Dr Earth Pot of Gold. The Greenall (from EB Stone in Suisun) is the most popular , I think because it comes in the biggest bag. Personally I use Ednas, I just like the texture better , and it is organic. I believe quality potting soils all have similar results, and crappy el cheapo potting soil is is just that –el cheap-o and crappy, too many big chunks of forest products that eat up the nitrogen trying to break down. Ultimately it’s about water retention vs. drainage.

  15. I buy bags of soil only for seed starting. This year I tried Happy Frog and another organic brand with a less-memorable name, maybe EB Stone. For containers, I use my own homemade compost plus recycled soil (from old pots), and sometimes some perlite. I mulch with the wood chips I sift out of the compost. I have also used peat and perlite for seed starting, because that’s what most of the commercial seed-starting mixes, including ProMix, are based on. I liked Happy Frog for aesthetic reasons: it looked more like compost.

    I’ve avoided most bagged products and ferts because I don’t use slaughterhouse products in my garden or my kitchen.

  16. I use a couple of bales of Pro-Mix every year for my own containers and plants I grow for others. For growing transplants, the even texture and known drainage/moisture retaining qualities are essential. While I make a fair amount of compost, it’s not enough even for my own containers. Our municipality does not test the compost for pesticides or other contaminants, and with the number of people using long-acting herbicides, it’s not worth the risk. Horse and cow manure are iffy for the same reason.
    I do use some poultry manure from my own hens (used bedding with pine shavings) from my own hens, but it dries out too fast. We used to be able to get pine bark fines, but the poultry compost industry snatched them up some years ago.

  17. I love what Frank Hyman shared. I think every gardener has used their share of bagged potting soil (I certainly have), but making an effort to D.I.Y. is the future. You can do it–just think about how much oil it takes to truck that potting soil all over the country!

  18. Last year my husband made a lettuce table for me, I bought bagged soil to use in it, I was very astonished and sad to see trash in this mix. Don’t know if it was psychological or not but the lettuce tasted off and could not bring myself to eat it. Trying hard to figure out how to make my own dirt.

  19. Jeff Gilman wrote a post on this topic in March of this year. (see link below) I followed his advice and wasn’t disappointed. I have however decided to give up on having hanging baskets. Too much babysitting as others have mentioned, having to put a pot under the basket on my porch (where I do in fact hang out) to catch the drips, and just generally messy and difficult to water, etc. So I am going to concentrate on the other containers and the vines that grow up the porch posts and I think I’ll continue to use the Miracle-Gro Moisture Control mixed with regular topsoil in the containers.

    About the Burn Out for weed control. I am currently just getting over a nasty 10 day break out on my arms from merely picking up the plastic bottle and moving it from one place on my garden shed shelf to another. My husband has kindly disposed of it for me. And now he can say he helped with the gardening this year.

  20. Let’s all be clear about one thing. There is no soil in potting soil. Real soil in a pot won’t drain well. The main ingredient of the vast majority of potting mixes as they should properly be called is composted forest products. Everyone is growing their potted plants in decomposed wood chips unless they are using a peat based mix. Even bags labeled as top soil are mostly composted forest products, i.e. wood chips. All those plants and all those vegetables growing just fine in pots full of wood chips when some fertilizer is added. Imagine that.

    • This is important. Container culture is very different from in ground culture and what works in your garden may not be the best choice for your patio.

      • I can only speak from my experience. I have had my plants in pots for six years. These posts contain the dirt from my yard. It is primarily dg, disintegrated granite, and it works well for my plants in pots. As I mentioned in my earlier comment, these plants are well suited for this growing medium, many would suffer badly if standard fertilizer were used. Many of my Australian plants do not tolerate high levels of phosphorus. Many of my Southern California natives do not tolerate high levels of nitrogen. My cousin in England has loam in her garden. She uses that for her pots. Both of us have success. I don’t know what happens for those who live in areas where the ground is primarily clay. (My favorite commenters on this thread are Michelle Owens and Frank Hyman.)

        • You may be perfectly lucky and have garden soil that works well in containers, or maybe not. I have used crappy clay soil in pots and have gotten things to grow in them. They sure weren’t growing the best that they could. Growing and growing well are two completely different things. But sure, different plants grow well in different substrates. I wouldn’t grow my containerized succulents in composted mulch, garden soil, or unsifted DG . They only get pumice.

  21. I have used happy frog for the past 5 years, its a great potting soil, has all the required ingredients with a low cost in mind.

    Its the only stuff I buy.

  22. I would buy a bag of whatever the growers are using …and ‘Add Away’ with your secret potions and fertilzers, and see what happens. If it ‘grenades’, try something different next growing season.

  23. This year I purchased two flats of mixed dahlias grown from seed from a popular local nursery. I planted most in flower beds along both sides of my driveway, some at the cemetery, and being frugal I planted the remaining 8 left in the flat in two matching containers on the deck. All the plants were fabulous except the ones in the containers. They just sat there and did nothing. I had purchased a bag of potting mix at another nursery labeled “our own potting mix”. Perhaps if I scattered the rest of that bag on my lawn I would not have to mow so frequently!

  24. I have never found a potting mix that you can purchase and will be a an all in one solution. Mix and custom blending your own potting mix is always the best choice. You can get so much more out of your soil.

  25. Potting soil has become a BIG seller the past 20-25 years because of POT…not the pots you plant your plants in but the pot that grows in the pots…Nobody will admit it but it is true…Tractor trailer loads get hauled around the country because high value growers want the brand that produced the big buds last year. It is all a wink and nod situation…with millions of dollars at stake…

  26. Several years ago I constructed a bin where I dump excess potting soil from plants I have purchased plus leftover Fafard potting soil. A local trucking firm makes their own potting mix of 1/3 each topsoil, compost and cow manure. I add that in their as well. Seems to work for me. Plus I can bury those perennials I didn’t have a chance to plant in this bin (it’s rather large!) for the winter. Works for me!

  27. Not to hijack this thread, but I’m interested in seeing if I can have a short sale and I have no idea how to find a local, highly regarded realtor… do you have any info on this realtor? They’re located in sacramento, 20 min from me and I can’t find reviews on them – Becky Lund & Associates – Sacramento Realtors, 8814 Madison Avenue #2 Fair Oaks, CA 95628 (916) 531-7124

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