Demystifying potting mix; stay away from potting soil!

potting mix

Now is the time to stock up on potting mix.

Most gardeners are finalizing their seed orders now, and if you haven’t, time is ‘a wasting.

It is not quite the COVID years when many gardeners who ordered late found their favorite seeds already sold out. But I have to admit, I had to do some searching to find my favorite annual poppy, Amazing Grey, in stock. Fortunately, I still found one source that had them.

But besides seeds and plant orders, is there anything else for gardeners to stock up on now, even before the garden center is open at your local big box, grocery store or local nursery opens?

Yes. Potting mix. Besides seeds, if you use plant containers, now is the time to stock up on potting mix.

Last year, several of even the biggest big box stores were out of stock of this critical planting material right when every gardener thought it was time to buy it. Mid-April, I had many calls about “where can I find potting soil, everyone is out?”
First, stop right there! You do not want potting soil. You want potting mix.

Potting soil is a heavy, black product called muck. It is incredibly small particles that allow little air in the soil. It also dries out and gets hard as a rock, and then when you go to water, it comes right out the bottom of the pot without hydrating throughout.

OK, I will get off my soapbox, or should I say, soil box, now.

Potting MIX is available right now (I have already stocked up) at local and big box stores. Brand preference is up to the gardener, but I have used them all. Here are a couple tips though: Bigger is usually better. I know it is so much easier to carry a pillow-sized bag than a giant bale, but if you do several containers, the savings on the larger size is significant.
I have a small yard, and I have lots of containers. Heck, if you are at my house in the spring and stand still too long, you might find yourself being potted up. I am a container maniac. So, I buy the super large, compressed bale of potting mix. It is tightly packed, and you would be surprised how much it contains once you start loosening the contents with your trowel.

There are also different types of potting mix. For those who prefer organic, there are several potting mixes that are. For those who want to do less watering, there are potting mixes that have water absorbing crystals already mixed in the mix.
I have done comparison between using this product (which is a pricier than potting mixes without) and my home-grown water saving method, which involves putting a thin layer of newspaper on the top of my pots covered over with mulch and in this non-scientific study, the results are about the same.

If you do choose to purchase the “less watering needed” potting mix, realize that you won’t want to use this with succulents and other xeric (dry loving) plants, or you could end up rotting the roots.

There are also many potting mixes, sometimes it is the only kind you can find, that have fertilizer already added. These are also fine choices. Just remember that is not season-long fertilizer. You will usually see little tan globe-shaped orbs in the mix.

Many a homeowner has called me about this thinking they have found an “egg-infested” bag of mix. Nope, those are little fertilizer balls that work like a jawbreaker candy. If you are old enough to remember that hard candy ball, that you could suck on forever and still have lots of flavor. These fertilizer balls give off a little bit of their food every time you water, like a little snack. Most of the bags indicate this fertilizer “can last six to eight weeks,” which gets you to the end of July.

Before I talk about the specialty potting mixes, let me address the “make your own” option. There are many “recipes” on social media and in gardening books and magazines, and I, too, was tempted to “make” my own mix. This is what I personally learned. It is more expensive and not as consistent as buying the pre-made.

Pre-made potting mix is mostly peat, with added vermiculite, perlite, compost and small sticks and other additives. Many of the recommended recipes use all sorts of additives like green sand, kelp, bat guano, lime, etc., and that gets expensive.

Although I don’t make my own basic mix, I do what the bakers call “semi-homemade” recipes for cactus and succulent mix. You can buy this pre-made, but a more economical way is to use regular potting mix and cut it in a 1:1 ratio with sand. Mix and presto! Succulent mix.

There are also other specialty mixes for orchids, African violets, and other specific plants. I have done side-by-side unscientific homemade tests, and it does seem that the specialty mixes do a better job with these plants.

So, stock up on that mix now; before you know it, it will be planting season.

 

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