Whether you’re getting ready to start your own vegetable garden or you just got succulents to add to cute hanging baskets, you’re going to need soil.
But not just any soil — high-quality, organic potting soil.
Even though shopping for potting soil might sound like the most boring part of your gardening adventures, it is undoubtedly one of the most critical elements of growing healthy plants.
In fact, you might be surprised to learn that those big, bulky bags of potting mix you find in your local garden center don’t actually contain soil (aka dirt). Instead, they are a combination of natural (and sometimes, synthetic) ingredients. Although they’re mainly made with natural materials, not all potting soils are created equal.
In this article, we’ll show you the crucial role that potting soil plays when creating your garden, why organic planting mix is best, and the things to look for before getting your hands dirty.
What Is Potting Soil?
If you thought that potting soil was nothing more than dirt, think again.
Most basic potting soil — also called potting mix or planting mix — is a combination of hand-picked materials (dirt not included) to create an optimal environment for your plants to develop. This is the number one reason why potting soil is a better growing medium than simple garden soil, which is the dirt you can find in your backyard.
Potting soil is just as great for seed starting as it is for growing flowers or veggies in outside containers.
Generally speaking, most potting soil formulas contain nothing more than three substances:
- Composted tree bark: This rich source of organic matter gives structure to the plant, improves drainage, and helps with nutrient absorption.
- Sphagnum peat moss: These decomposed remains of moss are highly absorbent but aren’t easily compressed, allowing the plant to breathe and drain optimally. Keep in mind that peat moss is not a sustainable option, as it’s uncontrollably harvested due to high-demand. If possible, find out how the brand sources this substance or simply make an effort to avoid it.
- Vermiculite or perlite: These naturally-occurring minerals expand when exposed to heat. They are added to potting soil to improve breathability and water drainage. Some less expensive formulas even use styrofoam beads as cheap replacements for these natural substances. (Yikes!)
Some brands also include other ingredients in their mixes, such as nutrients that are vital for plant growth.
Why Organic Potting Soil Mix Is Better
Even though non-organic potting soil looks relatively harmless (apart from the potential styrofoam bead situation), there is one big reason why you don’t want to mix your beloved seeds — especially if they’re organic — inside this type of soil.
It’s counterproductive to spend extra money on organic seeds — like those from Back to the Roots, the only 100% organic, USA-grown retail seed brand — and place them in a growing environment that’s potentially contaminated with synthetic fertilizers and other toxic chemicals.
When you go organic, you won’t have to think twice about pesticides or genetically-engineered substances, which are commonly found in conventional soil mixes.
While superior gardening brands display the ingredients on their planting mix packaging, others aren’t so transparent. If you’re not sure what you’re buying, it’s best to keep researching — especially if you’re planning to grow plants that will end up on your plate at some point.
If you’re taking the time and energy to grow your own herbs and veggies, make sure you choose chemical-free soil to avoid ingesting potentially harmful substances.
A good organic potting mix will include cool and unique organic substances such as:
- Bat guano: In other words, bat poop. Rich in nitrogen, it works as an organic fertilizer that supports the rapid growth of your green babies.
- Humus: An organic material that forms when animal and plant matter decays. It’s made of 60% carbon, an essential compound for healthy and fertile soil.
- Mulch: A mix of organic residues made from materials that range from tree leaves to shredded newspapers. Mulch supports drainage, suppresses weeds, and keeps the soil cool during the hot summer months.
- Alfalfa meal: Dried and shredded alfalfa is like a multivitamin for your container gardens. It helps to restore the soil to its full potential.
- Kelp meal: Made from dried ocean seaweed, kelp is rich in potassium and makes your plants more resilient to pests and diseases.
- Beneficial bacteria: An example is mycorrhizae, which makes your plant’s roots more efficient by increasing their capacity to absorb nutrients and water.
- Coconut coir: A substitute for peat moss, it has more nutrients, lasts longer, and is more sustainable (it’s a by-product of the coconut industry).
- Earthworm castings: Yes, it’s worm poo. Plants absorb it almost instantly, which increases water retention, helps the roots to breathe better, and anchors plant nutrients that might otherwise end up being flushed by water.
If worm castings don’t convert you to organic gardening, then we don’t know what will!
How To Pick a Good Organic Potting Soil
The best potting soil really depends on what and where you’re planning to grow. If you have your mind set on an organic garden, then organic potting soil formulated specifically for growing veggies is the way to go.
Throw some organic seeds and pots made of natural materials (like terracotta pots or coconut fiber pods) into the equation, and you’re setting yourself up for some very successful, eco-friendly container gardening.
If you’re more into houseplants, you’ll probably need to look for a specific mix that will give them the best possible support to grow and thrive indoors.
The good news is that there are a ton of different options for your gardening goals. You can also go for a more well-rounded formula that you can use for any plant in any condition. (It’ll just cost you more.)
The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is the organization that sets the organic production standards for these items, so keep an eye out for this certification. Back to the Roots is proudly launching organic potting soil in Spring ‘21 to offer you a sustainable, eco-minded option. In the meantime, you can check out other brands such as Black Gold, Dr. Earth, and FoxFarm, which are all companies certified by the OMRI.
Give Your Plants Room To Breathe
In the soil world, heavy does not always mean better.
Keep in mind that just like you, your plants need oxygen and air to grow and thrive. When you’re selecting potting soil mix, check for lightness and fluffiness. The lighter, the better.
However, you want to make sure it still has enough structure to keep your plants upright and firmly rooted. This will prevent them from falling over, breaking, or being torn on windy days.
Proper aeration gives your container plants the ability to draw the optimal amount of air and oxygen so that they can develop and turn into strong flowers, flavorful herbs, and juicy vegetables.
Hydrate Your Plants
A good organic potting soil will be formulated to achieve well-balanced water retention — in other words, how well the soil holds on to water. This involves a delicate balance as you want it to become moist but not completely soaked after watering your plants.
Appropriate drainage is crucial to avoid mold and rotting issues, and at the same time, keep enough moisture in the soil so the plants can drink.
When you decide what types of plants to grow, this factor is hugely important because water retention needs vary depending on what you choose.
For example, succulents need soil with good drainage efficiency since they thrive in dry, warmer conditions. On the other hand, coriander loves water and needs a humid environment to grow and produce delicious leaves, so a soil with a higher water-retention capacity works best in this case.
Ask the staff at your local garden center for advice when shopping.
Feed Your Plants
Just like your human body, plants need nutrients and minerals to grow and become strong.
To create the best growing environment, the soil needs six essential nutrients:
These nutrients promote rapid growth, assist root health, encourage flowering, and even help develop strong stems.
Picking a soil rich in organic plant food — that is, nature-made fertilizers like bat and worm poo — ensures a nutrient-rich environment that will encourage your plants to quickly grow from tiny seeds to robust and vibrant plants.
Established gardening companies will display this information on their potting soil packages or websites. Investing a little more in a high-quality planting mix can make a massive difference between dreamy indoor or outdoor plants and containers filled with dead herbs.
Choose Organic Potting Soil and Grow the Garden Of Your Dreams
Along with selecting seeds, choosing potting soil is something you want to approach thoughtfully.
No matter what type of seeds you pick, organic potting soil is your best option to grow clean, tasty, and healthy veggies and herbs. It’s also great for any other types of plants you decide to add to your garden.
Picking the correct variety with the appropriate natural fertilizers, proper aeration, and good drainage will make for the perfect and inviting environment for strong and healthy plants. And when you have happy plants, you’ll have a happy you.