Congratulations! You just picked up a new potted plant that caught your eye and left you with no choice but to buy it. You check the plant’s tag it came with - you know the white one stuck in the soil with a picture of the plant on it and it tells you about the plant’s care requirements - and you see it requires well-draining soil. You wonder how exactly do you accomplish that; can’t you just buy a bag of “potting” soil, add to a planter, add the plant, and done? Well, kind of, but let’s see how there’s more to it than this and how we can make our own DIY potting soil for healthy, potted plants. It’s time to talk dirty.
When it comes to our plant family, our number one goal is their health. Achieving healthy plants starts with three (3) basics of care which are soil, water, and light. In this post, we’ll be discussing the basics and importance of the soil used in your planters.
Lay a Foundation of Soil Knowledge
Before we talk too dirty, we need to lay a foundation of soil knowledge. It’s important to understand what the purpose of the soil is and what role it plays in your plant’s health. Instead of thinking of soil as “dirt”, think of it the stuff in which the roots will grow. These roots then provide the plant with its water and nutrients. The soil also provides the roots with protection and the air they need (no, not air pockets) for good health. And lastly, the soil provides the plant the medium to which it can anchor itself with its roots; this is especially important as the plant begins growing.
Characteristics of Good Soil
Adding to our foundation of soil knowledge, it’s important to also have an understanding of the general characteristics of good potting soil. First, the soil should be loose and not compact (think thick, like mud). Not loose enough that it creates air pockets and has no stability in the planter when watering, but loose enough it allows water to easily flow through the soil. This well-draining quality is also what allows good airflow through the soil to the roots.
Another characteristic of good soil is moisture retention. Moisture retention doesn’t mean keeping your planter’s soil soggy and your plant’s feet wet, rather it means when watering, your potting soil retains moisture long enough to keep the plant hydrated while still drying out. This characteristic can be altered based on the individual plant’s needs. For example, most cacti and succulents tend to prefer a drier soil. Which, leads us right into the actual ingredients of your potting soil; what are they?
What’s in the Soil? Anything you want!
What should your potting soil consist of? This is where it gets really fun and creative; your potting soil can be nearly anything you want. Remember what we said earlier? Think of soil as the stuff in which your plant grows its roots. This stuff simply needs to meet the needs of the roots, which are the ability to draw in water and nutrients, provide air, and the ability to anchor the plant.
To illustrate this point, you could mix up a batch of small, brightly colored aquarium gravel, add it to your planter, add your plant, care for it based on its requirements, and watch it grow. At some point in this scenario, however, you would need to ensure you are providing fertilizer to keep your plant fed since you are not using any biological matter (the stuff that feeds your plant). Again, the point is, your potting soil can be made of nearly anything you want, so long it provides the roots of their basic needs.
DIY Soil Recipe
While the aquarium gravel illustrates that the potting “soil” can be nearly anything, I do have a DIY recipe of three (3) ingredients I use for all of my potted plants. The ingredients are Nature’s Care - Organic & Natural Potting Mix by Miracle-Gro, Sakrete All-Natural Play Sand, and Exo Terra Plantation Soil, which is mulched coconut husk.
You might be wondering why I use a “potting mix”...can’t you just use it for your potted plants? In short, the answer is “yes”; however, I hope this post will illustrate how you can do more than just use a bag of potting mix for good plant health. Some reasons why I use the potting mix as a part of my DIY recipe. First, the potting mix contains the biological matter that will feed the plant. Another reason is this potting mix does not have large biological chunks in it (i.e. wood pieces) that the raised-bed and garden soil mixes contain. You can pick up potting mixes from your local garden store (I typically just get mine at the Home Depot).
Next in the recipe is the play sand. Sand is a great soil loosening agent. Biological material, like the potting mix, can begin to compact as it breaks down. Compacted soil clogs water drainage and airflow to the roots. Adding sand in the mix adds the well-draining quality of the soil we want. Second, play sand is cheap! You could really use anything similar to the sand for the loosening agent (i.e. unscented kitty litter, gravel, pumice, etc.); I use the sand as you can get a 50lb bag for around $5 - and it goes a long way.
Last, in the recipe, I use mulched coconut husk. Like the sand, this material can also act as a loosening agent in the soil; however, this isn’t why I use it. Unlike other biological materials, coconut husk does not break down very quickly (it takes a LONG time for that to happen). Additionally, the mulched coconut husk is incredibly absorbent, which means it does a good job of retaining moisture and if you recall, moisture retention is one of the characteristics of good potting soil. You can purchase this online or in your local pet store’s reptile section. I use the dehydrated bricks. Just add water and puff! Good, quality planting material.
Now you have the ingredients, let’s get to the measurements. It’s pretty simple, I try to keep it around a 1:1:1 ratio (download this step-by-step guide). This can easily be manipulated based on your preferences and/or the plant’s specific needs. Think succulents; they prefer less biological matter. Again, you can use nearly anything you want so long it provides the basic root needs; the ability to draw in water and nutrients, provide air, and allow the plant to anchor itself.
Your newly made DIY potting soil is the foundation of a healthy potted plant family. It sets up your plant for the next two (2) basics of plant care, which are water and light. Proper potting soil allows the plant to stay properly hydrated when watered and thus able to properly absorb light. Stay tuned, we’ll be posting about these two basics soon.
I hope this post has persuaded you that soil is more than just “dirt”; rather it is more of a gateway to your plant family’s health. We love talking dirty! Have a question or a comment? Leave it below.