Rethink Before Buying! This Happens When You Skip on Potting Soil For Your Plants

TL;DR: The reason why you should be using potting soil is that it’s made to provide a suitable growing environment for your plants. Other kinds of soils fall short of the needs of potted plants and can suffocate your plant. 

Okay, so you’re at the plant store. You just got another plant on impulse, and you need to repot it immediately.

As you get to the soil section, you’re fit with a conflicting choice. Get the potting soil or the garden soil for a few bucks cheaper? What about topsoil? It’s basically like potting soil right? It probably doesn’t make that much of a difference anyway.

Hey, you saw the title. Even if it costs a few more dollars, getting a bag of potting soil is worth it. The consequences of skimping on using potting soil can be the difference between a healthy thriving plant, and a sick, depressed one. 

So I’ll explain to you the different soils, tell you why you should be using potting soil, and help you if you accidentally used garden soil with your plants. Plus I’ll also bust a common gardening myth with compost. Just make sure you read the whole thing, deal?

Alright, let’s get started.

Above view of multiple bowls on a white background containing rocks, perlite, sandy soil, potting soil, and moss

What Are The Different Types of Soil?

Not all soil is the same. Different types of soil fit the specific needs of various kinds of gardeners, from your balcony grower to an urban homesteader. While there is some overlap in characteristics, it’s vital to understand the difference between each to make the best choice of soil.

Picture of bag of garden soil on a cream watercolor background. Title text says "Garden Soil", Bulleted Body text reads " topsoil mixed with compost and other organic material, made to be used in ground"

1. Gardening Soil

You know it. You love it. Gardening soil is the general soil made to be mixed with outside soil to make it suitable to grow plants. It has a woodchippy look and includes compost, organic material, and topsoil. It’s usually the cheapest because of its wide use.

picture of a bag of topsoil and shovel full of topsoil against a cream watercolor paper texture background. The title text is "topsoil". The bulleted list below says" soil taken from top few inches of earth, rick in nutrient rich humus, made to be used in-ground"

2. Top Soil

Topsoil reflects its name. It’s soil taken from the top inches of the ground. It’s full of sand, silt, clay, and a broken-down organic matter called humus. It also has a woodchippy texture and is one of the ingredients of garden soil.

Picture of pile of soil on cream white background. Title text says "Outdoor soil" Bulleted body text says "Can vary between being sandy and clay, needs to be amended for plant growth"

3. Outside Soil

Outside, or in-ground soil, is the soil you can go outdoors and scoop up. The mucky stuff. Depending on location, it can vary from being clay to sandy. It usually needs amendments to be suitable for plant growth.

Picture of Miracle gro potting mix  with pot of spilled potting soil on cream watercolor texture background. title text says "potting soil", Bulleted Body text says "A blend of peat moss, perlite, and compost, made to be used in pots"

4. Potting Soil

Potting soil is soil made with container gardeners in mind. It’s mostly a blend of compost, peat moss, and perlite. It has a nice fluffy texture and feels very soft, and holds a lot of moisture.

At least once, I recommend you run your hands through some nice [dry] potting soil. Heaven on earth, I tell you.

Picture of seed starter mix against cream watercolor texture background. Title text says "seed starting mix", Bulleted body text says "Soilless, sterlized mix for germinated seedlings, made to be used in pots"

5. Seed Starting Mix

Seed starting mix is a medium with no actual soil in it. It’s sterilized and feels softer/finer to allow young roots to grow without much resistance and give your plant the best shot. I imagine it as the baby food for a plant as it’s germinating and getting its first few leaves.

set of hands pouring potting soil into pot with houseplant

Why Should You Start Using Potting Soil For Potted Plants?

Okay. Since the beginning, I’ve been all about “Don’t use garden soil!!”. And as a fellow curious person, I’m sure you’d like to know why. I mean, it’d be a waste of your time to lead you on like this and not give you the info you need.

There are 3 big reasons why exactly you should use potting soil for your potted plants. And also why you shouldn’t use another soil. Let’s go!

1. It Gives Your Plant’s Roots Room To Breathe

That white stuff that you can find in your potting soil? That’s perlite, and it helps aerate the soil. That means it adds air to the dirt and avoids compaction. So it gives the roots space to “breathe” and doesn’t suffocate the roots.

People create garden soil with the expectation of aerating organisms like worms already existing on the earth. There’s no need to care about aeration because worms will do it for them. But since there are no worms in potted plants, usually what occurs is that the soil compacts and chokes out the roots.

2. It holds the right amount of water for drainage

Potting soil is so fluffy and soft because of the peat moss in it. Peat moss is perfect for potting soil because it retains the ideal amount of moisture in the pot. Other soils either drain too quickly or hold on to too much water. And that causes root rot!

And think of it. Would you rather have your darling potted plant grow in fluffy paradise or woodchips?

3. It Doesn’t Have The Unwanted Things Other Soils Might Have

Different environments need different soils. Garden soil usually includes bugs, weed seeds, and other things that can disease your plant. Potting soil doesn’t include pests and other unwelcome things in your home. 

Depending on the brand, companies sterilize the potting soil to make sure no germs infect your plant. So avoid those nasties, and get a bag of potting soil!

Gardening Tip: To sterilize potting soil, place a container [around 4 inches deep] of potting soil covered in foil in the oven. Bake until the center is 180-200 degrees [about 30 minutes]. Any higher temperature may produce toxins, so set it low!

Hand packing potting soil around base of houseplant

I Accidentally Used Garden Soil In Pots, What Do I do?

If you have some plants with gardening soil in their pots, no need to despair! However, you do need to repot your potted plant the right way as soon as you can.

If the soil is of good quality and has no disease, then you can revamp that soil into some DIY potting soil! All you need to do is amend it with a bit of perlite and peat moss. Mix one part gardening soil, one part perlite, and one part peat moss. 

And there you go! No need to throw bags of gardening soil and money in the trash!

If you want to learn about more ways to recycle and save the earth. Check out “5 Ways to Save The Bees” on the blog!

Aerial view of empty seed cells filled with potting soil overlooking a window

Can I Grow Plants In Pots With Only Compost?

A common myth I see around the gardening world is that you can grow plants in pots with only compost. And for the good of your time and wellbeing, don’t do it.

For starters, compost isn’t soil. It’s decayed aged organic matter that’s rich in nutrients. Perfect for mixing in to give your plants a boost, but terrible on its own. It’s like adding sprinkles to ice cream, perfect as a topping. But by itself, it’s a chalky, sweet disappointment.

Compost also lacks materials for water retention and stability. If you were to grow your plant only in compost, you would find that your plants would fall over all the time and dry out faster than you can say, “fertilizer”.

Another thing about compost is its nutrient content. Compost is rich in macronutrients, or the big building blocks of plant nutrition, like nitrogen. But it can lack many of the tinier but still essential micronutrients, like sulfur.
And even worse, if your compost is unfinished, it can attract pests and burn the roots off!

In Conclusion…

And that’s why you should use potting soil for your potted plants! I know lots of people do things for the sake of doing it, but I needed to tell you. I’ve never been a fan of just following a rule without knowing why.

Before you go, don’t forget to snag your gardening dictionary! I collected and defined more the 100 of the most common gardening terms you’ll come across. So that next time you encounter a gardening word, you’re not scratching your head and saying, “Huh?”.

If you’d like to learn more about plants to grow in pots, subscribe to my Plant of the month! I share my gardening experiences and teach you about a new plant to grow every month! You can always unsubscribe!

And that’s all for now. Happy Gardening, till we meet again.

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