10 Tips For Buying Great Potting Soil

Many people are confused about what is the best potting soil when buying garden soil for their gardens, outdoors or indoors. I know when I’ve been at the store I can find myself in a conundrum about what bag of soil to buy when faced with a multitude of brands and often several types within a single brand. And every store seems to have different brands that they stock, and new ones pop up all the time. Should I choose a type first and then consider the brand or the brand first and then consider the type? Should I buy based on the store or price level?  How do I know?

Here are 10 ideas to consider when choosing planting soils:

  1. First of all, remember why your are gardening – for the joy of it!  So relax and don’t get too stressed about it all.  Most of what you plant will be a great success.  A few things won’t make it and that can be for a variety of reasons.  Gardening, including soils, is a continuous learning process. So remember, it’s all part of the fun of gardening. 
  2. Buy at a store(s) you trust.  This might be your favorite hardware store or long-time local nursery that your grandmother bought all her plants and garden supplies at.  Make sure you enjoy shopping there.)
  3. Choose above average quality planting or potting soils. Price can be one indication. I’d recommend not buying the least expensive but caution that price alone won’t necessarily get you the best planting medium.  Become familiar with soil ingredients by reading the labels. Soil packaging is quite expensive so don‘t completely “judge a book by its cover”.  What matters is what’s inside. Are there any nutrients added the soil such as mychorrizae, bone meal, fish meal, worm castings? You may prefer these to come with the soil or want a more basic soil you can add your own favorite nutrients or fertilizers to.  For example, Green Planet Natural‘s Premium Potting Soil, is the same as our Potting Mix but with mychorrizae, feather meal, bat guano, and worm castings added.  Our “regular” Indoor/Outdoor Potting Mix is still our #1 seller and a great soil.  
  4. Talk to people you know that are good gardeners, to nursery store or department employees, and to people at your local extension office.  Find out what brands and types of soils they use and recommend.  Ask if they use different brands or types for different things.  If you are filling raised beds or doing a bigger project, ask about local bulk soil manufacturers in your area.  References are one of the best sources.  However, you are likely to hear many different opinions and choices.
  5. Research brands, which can be done from the Internet and again, by asking knowledgeable sources. Some brands are only carried in private nurseries or farm and garden stores and rarely seen at “big box” stores.  That doesn’t mean the big box stores don’t carry good quality soils. However, some brands in chain stores may be private label. This is very common and depending on the state they are manufactured and sold in, the labels may state who actually is manufacturing them, but according to the stores specifications.  
  6. Research the plant, shrub, or tree you are planning to plant in your garden.  Does it have special soil needs such as it needs to dry out thoroughly before watering, which means it may need superb drainage. What is the preferred soil pH?  This is often overlooked and can prevent plants from getting very stressed or dying. If a soil is too alkaline (high pH), it can be like swimming in a pool with too much chlorine.  For pH sensitive plants, also be carefulamendments and fertilizers are used.
  7. Make sure the potting soil has adequate drainage. I’ve lost many a plant for this reason as any other.  I’ve seen evidence most obviously when I do side by side tests of the same plant in different soils. Most soils include pumice, vermiculite, or perlite to help with soil drainage. These amendments also assist in aerating the soil and retaining moisture.  Green Planet Naturals uses pumice in all of our mixes because it is locally available from nearby volcanic mountain areas, but is also heavier and won’t blow away, wash away, or degrade over time. 
  8. Experiment.  I greatly recommend trying a few seemingly equal quality bags of soil and getting a feel for them. I’ve found playing with soils like this can be very fun.  But remember, if you use more than one soil with different plants in different locations with different conditions, you won’t know what factor influenced the results, only that you had different results.  For example, I have five identical blueberry bushes bought at the same time from the same nursery growing in five different low pH soils, which I planted last fall in identical pots, all sitting next to each other over the winter so they are getting the same lighting and moisture conditions.  When I do these “experiments”I test the various new soil formulas along with other quality brands I buy at the store and try not to vary anything but the soil. I do not fertilize when I do this because some brands already have fertilizers and that would be changing a variable. 
  9. Start small and then buy bigger.  Try one bag if you can afford the time and see how it performs for you. Do you like the feel of it, it’s texture.  The amount and type of forest products used can influence the feel of soils.  While we use forest products in only one of our planting mixes, most soils will have a high portion of forest products. Sometimes, bagged soils can feel “woody”.  Forest products tend to have a lower Ph and we use bark fines in our Acidic Planting MixSome brands add sand mostly as ainexpensive filler and sand can increase the saline levels of soil; this is extremely important to be careful of when starting seeds. 
  10. Consider soil friability in choosing favorite soils.  I thought I’d offer some new terminology for many of you. Friable soil means is crumbles easily, and is often a preferred soil conditionallowing better root growth of plants.  When talking about friable soil, it usually means a loamy soil or a soil of equal parts sand, silt, and clay particles. Clay contains nutrients but dries hard and wets sticky and dries hard. Sand offers drainage but cannot hold nutrients. Silt is similar to clay but finer and made by erosion. It means this soil is easy to work with.  If a soil drys hard after being watered, it is not a good, friable soil.  

Gardening is part art and part science.  Soil is a complex science. There are people with PhD’s in Soil Science as well as in plant botany, trees, and garden pests to name a few.  I go back to two basic principles of 1) finding and doing what you thoroughly enjoy and 2) continuously learning about best gardening practices.  

Linda Brown, General Manager, Green Planet Naturals

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