Whether it is a lack of outdoor space or a disagreeable climate, some of us have a hard time growing tasty vegetables in traditional gardens. The great news is that you can grow a large variety of vegetables successfully in containers! Successful container gardens relies heavily on starting right with a good potting mix.
Because containers offer limited growing space, regular potting soil is often not sufficient. Potting mix is looser to promote good drainage and healthy root growth. The best potting soil mix also needs added nutrients because plants in containers will not have access to what is naturally found in the soil.
Vegetables grown in a garden soil and those grown in a container have different types of needs! Keep reading through this buying guide to find out everything a gardener need to know about how to pick the best potting soil mix that will give his container garden the best chance for a healthy and fruitful life.
What Is A Potting Mix?
Potting mix may look like soil in a bag, but it is actually quite distinct from what you will find in garden soils. Potting mix is typically made of materials such as peat moss, compost, bark, and perlite that helps plants, vegetables and herbs grow in durable containers.
These materials combine to make a lightweight mix that promotes both drainage and air circulation. You may be surprised to realize that none of these common potting mix materials are soil! In truth, most potting mixes are soilless.
Is There A Difference Between Potting Soil and Potting Mix?
Thus, potting soil and potting mix are two different things, though they are commonly confused and treated as synonymous. Potting soil is a mixture designed for containers that contain soil, while the potting mix is also designed for containers but is soilless.
Not all potting soil brands labels these things consistently, so it is best to check ingredient labels or look for the word soilless to be sure of what you are getting. Potting mixture (without soil) are much lighter and better for large containers you may need to move around.
In most cases, a good potting mix is a preferred choice over potting soils for containers and garden beds. Potting mix is made out of substances with larger particles , meaning it does not compact as easily as potting soils. This allows water and air to flow better to prevent drowning your growing plants.
What Is a Good Potting Soil Mix Made Of?
If you want to know how to find the best ones or thinking of making your own potting mix, there are three main ingredients a gardener should look for: peat moss, pine bark, and perlite or vermiculite.
- Peat Moss: Peat moss is used in potting mixture because its nutrients and moisture retention works well while also providing a lot of room for air circulation for the plant roots. Peat moss is typically only part of a mix because when used by itself, it tends to be too acidic and retains too much moisture. Coconut coir is an alternative to peat moss that is more sustainable.
- Pine Bark: Pine bark by itself does not do much. Its primary purpose in potting mixture is to improve the mix’s ability to hold onto things like moisture and added nutrients from fertilizer. It also helps create air space to prevent compacting.
- Perlite and Vermiculite: These two substances are volcanic in nature. They are incredibly light and are used to make potting mixture denser without adding a lot of weight. These are the particles that adds the most space to potting mix, which lessens compaction for a better container environment.
Besides the basic three ingredients that make up most of the potting mix, many potting mixes also add nutrients. Potted plants do not have access to many of the nutrients typically found in the soil. In fact, most potting mixes are sterilized to eliminate any harmful microbes.
This means that something needs to be added to the mix to encourage plant growth. Some potting mixes add something already, but many simply require the planter to add some sort of fertilizer. If you want your houseplants to grow successfully in containers, you must add nutrients in some form.
Added nutrients are especially important when trying to grow vegetables. For a plant to produce large and healthy plants, it needs enough nutrients to keep the plant alive and devote extra energy to growing fruit. If you want to easily grow vegetables, you must pick a potting mix with added nutrients.
Some potting mixes are designed for specific uses and include ingredients beneficial to particular plant types. If you want to grow tomatoes or carrots it is a good idea to check for potting mixes that say they are suited for such plants.
6 Top Potting Mix Reviewed
Now that you understand the basics of what exactly potting mix is and what it does for your plants, here are some of the best potting mixes gardeners can buy in 2021.
1. FoxFarm FX14054 Happy Frog
If you are not sure what your houseplants need, FoxFarm’s Happy Frog Potting Soil is a great safe option. This particular mix is a potting soil rather than a potting mix. It is packed with many nutrients and beneficial soil microbes to feed hungry plants and remain a ph balance.
Because FoxFarm’s mix is soil, it may require a little added material to keep it better aerated. Many reviewers say that a bit of sand or perlite particles will increase this potting soil’s drainage and air space.
FoxFarm is all about providing a ton of nutrients in clean soil, like sphagnum peat moss and perlite among others. It will not attract bugs or microorganisms, but it will give plenty of food for plants that actually need to produce fruit like vegetables. If you are worried about adequately fertilizing your growing plants, then starting with a rich option like FoxFarm’s Happy Frog comes with a great fertilizer ration and could be the way to go.
The downside to this option for many is the price. From Amazon, a 12-quart bag costs $20.99, which is undoubtedly a good deal more than the potting soil you can get from your local store. If you can find it in stores FoxFarm sells for much cheaper, but many people buy it online because it can be hard to find.
2. Miracle-Gro Expand 'n Gro
If you have some large pots to fill, then buying enough potting mix can become expensive, and if you want to grow vegetables, then you typically need bigger pots. This Expand’n Gro Concentrated Planting Mix is a great planting mix ideal for filling up large spaces.
This expandable planting mix uses soil and coir, a substance like peat, which generally sources from peat bogs. The coir is compressed extensively and expands 3 times when you add water. It also comes packed with nutrients to feed your plants. Although for vegetables, you may need to add some form of additional plant food for maximum growth.
This is one mix that requires a little more work than simply pouring it into a growing medium. Its expansion abilities are trigger by water, so you must expand it before planting. If you don’t the first time you water your plants, your soil will expand and probably come out of the pot!
This potting bag comes with clear instructions, and expanding this mix simply requires some water and a little stirring. It is a bit more work, but it certainly is not complicated. Its lightweight makes this mix cheaper to ship and easier to handle. At only $13.49 on Amazon, you can get a great value for money if you need quite a quality potting filler for their pots. It also works in garden beds!
This product has overall extremely positive reviews on Amazon, but there were some complaints of mold growth. Also, because this is more like a soil than some other potting mixes, be careful when using patio containers that you do not overwater and cause the soil to compact.
3. Burpee Organic Potting Mix
The Burpee Organic Potting Soil is a potting mix that contains compost and coir. It also contains Burpee’s slow release fertilizer or starter charge, which will feed your plants both at initial planting and for around 3 months afterward.
The coconut coir in this organic potting soil also helps its moisture retention, which can be very helpful for those who occasionally forget to water our plants. This mix comes in different types of potting soil bag sizes for a variety of needs.
The Burpee Potting Mix is great for your plants, but there have been customers who have complained about gnat infestations with this product. If you are concerned about gnats,
Do not let the gnats scare you! Most reviewers absolutely love Burpee’s Best Potting Mix! The majority of customers do not suffer from gnats. The slow release fertilizer is a significant bonus when trying to grow vegetables.
Vegetables need a lot of extra nutrients not only at the start of life but especially when it is time for them to make fruit. Burpee’s slow-release or starter charge plant food can thus be an ideal solution to give your plants a great start and help them produce bigger and better veggies.
4. Miracle-Gro Performance Organics
For the budget-conscious, Miracle-Gro potting products are affordable. They can be easily found at local nurseries and gardening centers. The Performance Organics Container Mix is an organic potting soil from one of the most well-known potting soil brands.
The Organics Container Mix is made with the products we expect to find in a good potting mix: sphagnum peat moss, perlite, and instead of bark yucca is used to improve the water retention of the mix. Importantly the mixture also contains compost to give the mix nutrients, which is essential for growing vegetables.
At $11.97 for a bag of 1 cubic foot of mix (1 cubic foot is equal to around 25 quarts), it cannot be denied that Miracle-Gro’s organic product is cheaper than Burpee’s, FoxFarm’s, or Epsoma’s, and as far as promoting healthy plant growth, the Organic Container Mix appears to work well.
There are two possible drawbacks to this mix. Some customers have complained of gnats, and others have received bags with too many large soil particle size, including wood chips and stones. Gnats are a potential problem with many organic mixes. We can't stress enough the importance of baking your soil before use to drastically reduce the likelihood of this problem.
Despite these negative reviews, the majority of customers appear satisfied with this organic product. At 1 cubic foot for a $12 bag, this mix may be an ideal option for vegetable growing. Vegetables usually require more space, and this mix may be the best way to affordably plant your veggies in an organic mix.
5. Espoma AP8 8-Quart Organic Potting Mix
Espoma’s Organic Mix is a top-line mix that sells for around $20 per 8-quart bag. Their organic mix includes earthworm castings, sphagnum peat moss, peat humus, perlite and Epsoma’s own Myco-tone blend to adjust the ph level.
The Myco-tone blend is particular to Epsoma and works as a water saving formula to increase your plant’s roots’ water retention. This means you have to water them less often, which can help prevent soil compaction.
In terms of reviews, there were some complaints about that this mix water holding capacity works too well, which caused waterlogged roots and dead plants. Remember that thanks to the Myco-tone, this soil does hold water well, so you may need to adjust your normal watering routine.
Like almost all soil mixes on our list, there were complaints of gnats. The gnat problem does not appear to be specific to any brand but is rather a risk when buying potting mix in general. Buying your mixes from your local garden centers instead of online can greatly reduce the risk of a gnat problem.
The overall reviews for Epsoma’s organic mix were great! Many people saw their plants sprout faster and grow bigger with this mix. The only downside is that its top quality is reflected in the price. If you intend to plant only one or two veggies, this is a wonderful option, but for those who have big plans buying enough of this mix may end up hurting your wallet.
6. Organic Potting Mix by Perfect Plants
Perfect Plants’ Potting Mix is a textbook case of all the organic potting soil ingredients that make a great potting mix. Their mix contains mycorrhizae, worm castings, coco coir, pine bark, sphagnum peat moss, and perlite. If you want a mix that has simple but great components and is open about what they put in Perfect Plants may be for you.
Because this mix is all about keeping things simple, you may need to add some additional fertilizer to keep your vegetables growing big. However, this does give you much more control over your plant, which can allow you to specifically tailor your fertilizing to what specific vegetables need.
Another bonus to this mix is that it comes in a heavy-duty resealable bag. This means you can protect the mix you do not use immediately from pests, which can be a big problem even with the best potting soil mix in general.
As with all potting mixes, there were some complaints of gnats, but those reviews also contained praise of the brand which helped them with an exchange. Perfect Plants is a much smaller brand than the others on our list, so if you do have problems you are much more likely to get timely assistance.
At around $15 for an 8-quart bag, this is neither the most expensive nor cheapest option on the list. They do not sell a larger bag, so this mix would be ideal for someone with a few plants rather than a large project.
What types of potting mixer are there?
Potting mixes generally come in one of two kinds: ready to use and expandable.
Ready to Use
When using a ready-to-use potting mix there are two different types of planting you may be doing: seedlings and transplanting. When seed starting, you should fill your container until the potting soil level is about an inch from the top. Then place your seeds and cover with mix according to the instructions on the seed packet. You should always water well immediately after planting.
When transplanting with specialty potting mix, like cactus mix, or orchid mix, you will fill your container about 1/3 of the way with potting soil. Then you will take your transplant after loosening the root ball and place it gently in the container. You then fill in around the plant with potting mix and water well.
While this general procedure works for most ready-to-use potting mixes, it is always advisable to read the instructions that come with your bag.
Expandable mixes are tightly compressed and expand with water. Before planting anything with these types of potting soil mixes, you need to ensure they are fully expanded before planting. For containers, this usually means placing your expandable mix in the container and then adding water and stirring. After they are expanded, you plant in the same way you would with ready-to-use mixes.
To know how much water to use and how much expansion to expect, always carefully read the instructions that come with expandable mixes.
How to Stretch Your Mix?
When planting vegetables, you generally need larger and deeper pots, but buying enough potting mix to fill those can be a problem. For large pots, you can use potting soil fillers on the bottom of the container to cut down on the amount of soil you need to use.
When using fillers, ensure that your plant’s root system will still have plenty of room. Common fillers are small pieces of foam, plastic water bottles, plastic milk jugs, crushed cans, and even natural materials like leaves and sticks (though these are only for seasonal use). If for some reason you need heavier materials, you can use large particles, pieces of wood products, or bricks.
After adding your potting soil filler to a pot, place a piece of landscaping fabric on top before adding your mix surface. This will keep everything steady and prevent soil from slipping down into the potting soil filler. By using fillers in your large pots you can make one bag of potting mix go a long way!
How Do You Make a Potting Mix for Your Container Gardening Needs?
Whether you want to save money or want complete control over what your plants are growing in, you can go with making your own potting mix. Homemade potting mix often includes similar ingredients to the store-bought kind. Here are some things you might include in your DIY potting mix.
- Peat Moss: For most homemade mixture, peat moss is the largest quantity ingredient. It has great moisture retention and leaves air space.
- Coir: Coir is harvested from coconuts and is a more sustainable alternative to peat moss.
- Limestone: Peat moss is naturally acidic so limestone is often added to peat moss mixtures to get the ph levels back to a neutral level.
- Sand: Sand has two benefits. It helps keep your mix loose so that the plant root systems can easily grow, and it improves drainage so that your plants do not become waterlogged.
- Perlite or Vermiculite: You should always include at least one of these two volcanic ingredients in your mix. They improve the air flow which is vital for healthy plants in containers.
- Wood Chips/Bark: Adding wood chips to your mix allows for better water retention capacity and nutrients.
- Compost: All of the above ingredients are sterile, which is both a good and a bad thing. They will not expose your potted plants to plant diseases, but they also will not bring nutrients. Adding quality compost is important to give your plants organic matter from which to feed.
- Fertilizer: Even if you add compost, most homemade potting mixes, especially when you are trying to grow vegetables, are going to need an added boost. You can use various fertilizers, from banana peels and coffee grounds to pre-made plant food. You can pick a fertilizer option with a homemade mix that will work for your specific plant’s needs.
With this long list of ingredients, making your own mix may seem like a lot of work, but for people who need large quantities of mix or who prefer total control over their gardening, making your own mix is often more cost-effective and allows for finer adjustments.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How Long Does a Potting Mix Last?
You will not find an expiration date on some of the best potting mix products, but does that mean it works just as well from when you bought it to three or four years later? No. Potting mix does go bad. This is because several potting mix ingredients, such as organic matter and peat moss, will break down over time. This leaves the mix without as many nutrients and finer.
After you open a potting mix bag, it stays at its original quality for around six months. It is recommended to wrap the product in a plastic bag. An unopened bag will last much longer, approximately 2 to 3 years. If you have bags that are past these periods, it may be best to toss them. They will not provide your plants with ideal growing conditions.
Used potting mixes is another matter. If you have soil particles that you used last growing season that is currently empty, it is almost always a good idea to toss it. Used soil has gathered lots of potential diseases such as mold and fungus. It has been contaminated through use, so the best course is to use fresh potting mix for new plants.
2. Can You Use Outdoor Potting Soil for Indoor Plants?
In most cases, potting mixes are suitable for indoor and outdoor plants. What matters more than whether it is indoor and outdoor is if the mix is designed specifically for containers. If you try to use outdoor gardening soil in an indoor pot, you will likely run into issues because it will greatly compact.
As long as the potting soils are fluffy with plenty of air space for root growth and good drainage, it should work for indoor and outdoor container plants.
3. What Can I Use Instead of a Potting Mix?
If you do not want to use a premade potting mix, you will need to make a mix of your own. Do not simply take garden soil for your backyard and use it in your flower pots! Normal garden soil is not suitable for containers because it is far too dense. It will compact and kill your plants with too much water and too little airflow.
You can also choose to buy potting soils rather than a potting mix (which is soilless). Potting soils tend to be heavier and also a bit cheaper. However, potting mixes tend to work better than the best potting soil for most container plantings.
To grow big and healthy vegetables is way simpler than you think with the best potting mix! Your potting mix should be light and fluffy for good drainage and air space. Choose the right potting mix with lots of added nutrients to help your veggies grow and produce, and soon you will be enjoying tasty homegrown vegetables!