Cleaning up the dirt?


Potting media is one of those things I buy with very little
pleasure. It often seems too expensive, the bags are heavy, and it gets used up
all too quickly, no matter what tricks I employ (other empty
pots in there taking up space, and so on).  And then I’m never sure which type I should get. The
soil-less mix is mainly peat moss. Even though it’s recommended by most of the
longtime gardeners I know, clearly peat moss—the harvesting of which destroys
wetlands—is an at-risk resource. We’ve talked
about that
on this site before. And then there’s the perlite and vermiculate in
the mixes.

While there are many alternatives if you are amending garden
soil or applying mulch, it’s hard to find a potting mix that doesn’t contain
peat moss. I’m not saying there is going to be an alternative available to
consumers soon, but there is a glimmer of hope. The USDA has recently
—as many of you saw—that researchers in Auburn, Alabama are working on
a potting media made entirely from the loblolly pine, which can be farmed
commercially, and grows easily in heavy clay soil. It’s called Whole
Tree—according to the article linked above, it’s being used by commercial
growers to grow seedlings for nursery sale. It may also be evaluated as a soil

In the meantime, it looks like I will be off to the garden
center to find the cheapest stuff I can for planting my container bulbs and
forced bulbs this fall. (I then reuse as much of this media as I can for summer
container plantings, when the bulbs are finished blooming.) I actually prefer a
soil-based media if I can find a good one—it seems to hold the moisture better.
How do you solve the potting media dilemma? Make your own? Don’t bother with
lightening the soil at all? Or are you one of the pro-mix faithful?

Previous articleGuest Rant: The Garden Noir of Charles Goodrich
Next articleTo stop lawn fertilizer from polluting, do we have to kill off the organic fertilizer industry?
Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Brown Earth or Fafard are favorites. Couldn’t find them easily this spring and bought Miracle-Gro to fill almost 15 large new pots.

    Crusty peat moss in some pots. Chunked with too much perlite in some pots. Some pots are just right, alas, the smallest percentage.

    Obviously a bad day for mixing of ingredients at their production facility.

    3 decades of gardening & 1st time to be disgusted with potting soil.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  2. I have to admit to my love and use of ProMix. I feel guilty each time I buy a bale. I try to assuage that guilt by composting everything from garden waste to kitchen scraps to shredded paper and adding it to the mix. I mow my tiny lawn with a reel push mower and use rain barrels to harvest water for my containers. Am I off the hook? Maybe not, but I at least make the effort.

  3. I loved Cravens Brown Earth, used it for years- it was bark based I think, but I can’t find it anymore.

    Started making my own(bark based)encouraged by a gentleman who knows about these things.

    Miracle Grow- worthless.

  4. I live out in the country so I don’t have too many choices. I buy whatever is in the garden center. I am concerned about peat, but the best I can do is cut the potting mix with my own compost, and sometimes a bit of garden soil. I’m not very scientific, but I want the mix to hold moisture for 24 hours at least.

  5. I am with Tara above on Miracle Gro – not so great this year. Way too expensive and like you mentioned about all potting mixes, it is used up too quickly, no matter how you try to extend it’s use. Mix too light weight and airy, where some pots blew over in the wind, even ceramic. Miracle Gro does make the plants grow, and they became too top heavy for the pot. Reminder to self, weight the pots down first. Was picking up those buggers all summer.

  6. I always threw some garden soil and compost together for my pots and they never did that well. So I finally tried a bag of the professional stuff, don’t remember what. And my pots still didn’t do well. So it is me, not the potting material. I am just going to forgo pots thus ending the dilemna of choosing environmentally correct potting soil.

  7. Been using Pro-Mix for over 30 years; guess that makes me one of the faithful. However, I do cut it with plenty of homemade compost and Perma-Til which works well as an aerator in this area where unusually heavy rains can often saturate the soil to the point where the perlite floats away.
    I love the idea of a loblolly based mix. Any new revenue for the local tree farmers is very welcome.

  8. I make my mix out of coir fiber bales. I soak them in a weak mix of organic liquid fertilizer and water, and add some perlite. I don’t know how expensive the finished product is, but I don’t have lots of huge bags sitting around my basement, either. It seems easier to rehydrate than peat moss as well.

  9. I strongly prefer coco coir, but it’s not all that cheap despite being so allegedly abundant and low-impact on habitat. Is the peat lobby behind this?

    Anyway, coir, worm castings, and compost (home, not bagged) seem to work best for me. I treat each pot with plant-specific amendments as well (guano, crab meal, humate, alfalfa meal, etc.).

  10. I could use more recipes for making my own (houseplant) potting “soil.”

    I haven’t found a good option available locally. Around here I can buy Miracle Grow or some stuff that’s even worse. I guess I need to go to some of the garden centers that are over a half hour drive and see if any of those are good. That means I’ll need to fill the car to justify the trip and have bags of material piled up in the basement. Thank goodness I have a large basement!

    I do throw “used” potting soil into the compost bin along with any plants that aren’t full of seeds so at least I don’t fill the landfills with it. It assuages my guilt at using a peat moss based potting soil a little.

  11. I’m also on the coir+compost train. I’m trying to kick the vermiculite habit. I’m going to try using expanded clay pellets they use in hydroponics. They are reusable indefinitely provided you sift them out of the potting soil. With the exception of the compost, these are all considerably more expensive.

    I did get a flyer in my area from a company that is making potting soil by composting grocery store produce that’s spoiled. I’ve asked them for more info and am waiting to hear back from them. It has possibilities.

  12. Why use potting mix?

    I start almost everything in soil from my garden, sandy, poor soil. My plants have to live on that diet eventually, so they may as well start off that way. When I want to start cuttings in soil-less media, I use perlite. As soon as they have roots I use the garden soil. (If I am growing vegetables, they get a raised bed of compost and garden soil.) I mulch everything to retain moisture.

  13. sometimes I buy potting mixes, but mostly just use compost, yep, just from the pile, in pots. I grow vegies and start perennials in large pots. None of them seem to mind the lack of commercial soil.

  14. I use Happy Frog for the most part and I’ve been really happy with it. I need a good soil because most of my pots are potted up and kept going for years. Cheaper soils break down way too quickly.

  15. It depends on what I’m planting. If it’s tomatoes or cukes in a pot, then a cheap potting soil with worm castings from my worm farm and perilite for drainage. If I’m planting bulbs, then cheap potting mix mixed with lots of sand and some perilite and fine lava, especially a nice layer of sand around the bulbs for drainage and preventing rot.

    For my bonsai? Mix my own for sure. 5 parts akadama (imported from Japan), 3 parts huga (or if I’m out expanded shale or small clay hydroponic pellets), 2 parts fine black or brown lava, and 1 to 2 parts composted rice hulls. Only way to get the right drainage. And bonsai azaleas: 4 parts kanuma (imported from Japan) and 1 part orchid bark.

    Some people might roast me for buying products getting shipped over from Japan, but until there is a suitable equivalent for akedama and kanuma, I will continue to pay the $20+ a bag for these items for my bonsai collection. When you have a tree worth hundreds of dollars, you’d spend the money to make sure it was in the right potting mix too.

  16. I sat in the potting soil section for way too long this year. I think I finally bought a Scott’s mix, but if vermiculite wasn’t expensive or I needed more soil I would have made my own with 1 part vermiculite, 1 part peat, and 1 part compost.

  17. Peat Moss does not deplete wet lands. Perlite and vermiculite are also natural materials. I sell truckloads of Miracle gro soil every year despite the fact I lecture against it’s use in my 30-40 garden talks each year.
    Are you listening Mr. Hagedorn…your soil sucks!

    Pro-Mix is awesome for an inert soil mix. Beat is Pro-Mix cut 1/3-1/2 with compost.
    Happy Frog is cool so is Ocean Forest.
    Coco coir is not expensive if you buy a 10 lb block that when wet opens to 2-3 CF Even then not a good mix by itself.

    I hate buying soil even when I get a great deal on broken bags or even free samples. So the answer is compost with inexpensive, renewable and 100% sustainable peat moss.
    BTW look at the total footprint to take lob-lolly pines, process them and ship them 1200 miles from the deep south to the northeast. vs the footprint of peat harvested and sent 500-800 miles from Canada EH?

    The TROLL
    Readying the troops for he IGC!!!!

  18. I was a fan of Fafards too, but can’t find it anymore. I bought a huge bag of mix from a local garden center this year, I’m sorry I don’t remember the brand. The owner said it was what she used. It was largely peat with some compost and perlite. I mixed that with a good quality bagged topsoil, about 1 part topsoil to 3 parts mix. It seemed to work out pretty well. I’m not a fan of pure mixes, I think plants need DIRT. I’ve tried using my own soil in pots, mixed with vermiculite, compost, etc, but it was still far too heavy. The clay in my yard turns to bricks when it’s in pots, even when it’s mixed down.
    Friends have told me stories about using Miracle Gro soil and the results, none of them good. One of them bought 3 bags at an end of season sale last year and everything she planted in it this summer either died completely or might as well have.

  19. Gentle Gardener makes its own sustainable container garden potting mix. 15 years ago in Great Britain gardeners started picketing/boycotting DIY stores and garden centers over peat based potting soil; I was at Findhorn and Kew and sat up and took notice. Took 10 years to develop supply chain of alternatives here in the clueless, cheap transport US.

    A few steps to enlightened dirt/soil:

    First, make your own compost and/or worm castings (compost), and aged leafmould (what the Brits call a pile of chipped/shredded leaves left for a year to decompose). Second, get locally made municipal compost if it’s not all been sold to a commercial compost company locally. Third, buy only locally made compost from a reputable supplier, and ensure it doesn’t have persistent herbicides in it. We have a very good one near Charlottesville from Panorama Farms called Panorama Paydirt. There are sometimes shortages due to demand. Our local worm compost is Black Gold Organics.

    Coir Bricks are portable, peat-free potting media from a quickly renewable source (peat bogs.. not so quick). We supplied Brent Heath from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs with coir for a container garden bulb planting workshop and he loved how the fibres give the root hairs of bulbs something to cling to. (He too is a Fafard peat fan but that’s Canadian and not very sustainable from a transport perspective, not to the midAtlantic or South).

    You need warm water and TIME to expand the coir. We mix in a muck bucket with the hot water, load and by the time we are at the job site, it’s done. Extra bricks are portable and take up lots less room than bags/bales of promix. Extra worm compost helps too.

    Mulching the tops of pots with coir chips, stones or moss or even found objects helps with soil loss. I too want to experiment with corel stones from the hydroponics folks.

    As with so many other things, you get what you pay for, BUT, the best is homemade and free. Also a very good workout turning the compost from bin to bin to tumbler. I find shoveling this particular s… much more meditative and enjoyable than the corporate kind….

  20. Wow, thanks everyone for giving me some great ideas. Up to now, I’ve just been mindlessly buying “potting soil” for my potted plants and not thinking too much about it (very different from what I do in my “in the ground” garden). I’ve had a couple of indoor potted plants for at least 20 years, and just re-pot them every year; wonder what they’d do with some “new” type of soil. I will try some of these ideas out.

  21. gosh, I’ve never heard of any of the brands mentioned so far. I go with Gardener & Bloome or Black Gold potting soil, which I cut with up to half garden soil (basically sand) and, if I can find it, coir. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we have an abundance of local (ie within our region) makers of mulch & soil amending mixtures made from greater or lesser percentages of ‘hemlock’ bark (I bet it is Douglas Fir).

    I recycle potting soil too, though I don’t feel like such a cheapskate now, after reading a few other comments. When I empty dead containers of annuals in the fall, I stuff the old soil mix into large plastic storage bins. In the spring I beef them up with garden soil, maybe some more coir, worm castings and a big blob of ‘new’ potting soil from bags. I’m pretty casual about the proportions, and I always throw in some organic fertilizer like Dr. Earth.

    For annual flowers in containers, and for potted geraniums that I carry over from year to year, I sprinkle on some (gasp) Osmocote, which is only the second non-organic product I can remember using in almost 40 years of gardening.

    Our landfill operation has made garden compost/mulch for years, which it sells by the cubic yard. It is pretty scrappy stuff, the components obviously varying widely depending on what folks throw in the trenches. It scares me a bit, so I don’t use it. I have heard of a few people having problems with major plant dieback after using it. I understand there are some really evil lawn chemicals that don’t break down in the composting process, and they can kill off garden plants. Also, it is pretty low in fertility and fairly coarse, so I wouldn’t use it for potting soil even if I was assured of its non-toxicity.

    It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? I hate buying potting soil in plastic bags, period. But I haven’t braved using just our nearly sterile, sandy, humusless (and possibly also humorless) native soil.

  22. My best recommendation for finding a good potting mix is to ask your local nursery what they grow in. A good grower will use different mixes depending on the crop and the size of the container that it’s growing in. For most potted material (flowering annuals) a loose, well-aerated mix is essential. While compost is fantastic in the ground it is often too dense to be used in container plantings by itself.
    A knowledgeable plant retailer should be able to suggest something appropriate. I think it is very telling that I know of no major (or minor) grower who uses Scott’s (Miracle-Gro) as a source of growing media. We all know that it is sawdust-filled junk. Don’t bother with anything that has fertilizer already added since the producers put in the bare minimum. Instead, add time release fertilizer and/or compost appropriate to the crop you’re growing eg. lots of fertilizer for petunias – not so much for succulents. It can be a little more costly to get good soil, but the results are worth it.

  23. This conversation was very helpful to me to appreciate from a retail point of view. I co-manage a very small IGC in CT. I sell Fafard because I like the product and it is regionally produced. Fafard is going the way of potting soil with slow release fertilizer. Trying to compete with Miracle Gro I guess and what they believe the public wants. Indeed, I have customers ask me, “Well, why wouldn’t you sell potting soil with fertilizer in it?”
    The public is bombarded with tempting low prices from Home Depot and Lowe’s. Hopefully, garden lovers recognize kindred spirits and maybe mentors when they visit and shop at their local IGC.

  24. I’m going to find the Fafard website and send them an e mail asking them to NOT put fertilizer in their growing mediums. Maybe if we all did this it might get their attention.
    Also, my city offers compost for free too. Unfortunately this compost is made with every and any ones yard waste. Including those that use lots of chemical fertilizers. I won’t use this stuff anywhere I am growing anything edible. It is also FULL of nasty weeds for at least a year. The last time I used it in an ornamental bed I ended up with weeds in my yard I had never had before.

  25. Using a good quality potting soil is important for a good quality plant. Unfortunately they don’t seem to find a good product that replaces peat – and of course is as cheap! I think asking for the best product for what you are doing in a good garden centre should get you the right potting soil. There are just too many brands out there, you can’t know them all.

  26. Wish I could get compost from my city. Oh, they’ll take our green waste. But they don’t give it back, won’t even sell it. Sure I can make my own, but even scavenging the neighbor’s leaves & yard debris does not keep up with the compost needs of my in-ground plants, never mind what I could use to make my own potting soil.

    So I do buy potting soil, with only a few rules in mind – NOT Miracle-Gro, must look like something more refined than chunky mulch, local when possible. I’d like to go no-peat and no-perlite/vermiculite, but can’t imagine the time it would take to track a product like that down here.

  27. Fafard and Jolly Gardener are my favorites. The Jolly Gardener line is relatively new and if you see it, try it. You won’t be sorry! Both are available only at independent garden centers, not big box stores. I only buy MG if there’s absolutely no alternative.

Comments are closed.