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How to Use Potting Mix to Keep your Indoor Jungle Thriving

Posted on February 14 2021

How to Use Potting Mix to Keep your Indoor Jungle Thriving

You did it. You purchased your rare, exotic dream plant! After it settles in, you go to repot it, and it dawns on you: “Wow. I’m placing this really expensive plant in five dollars worth of generic potting mix.” It seems a little odd, doesn’t it? Is run-of-the-mill potting mix really enough? If so, how do you use potting mix to keep your plants flourishing?

What’s the Best Way to Soil Your Plants?

Potting Mix 101

Potting mix entered the world in the 1960s, as an artificial soil solution for container gardening. That’s right: the artificial solution. There is no real dirt in Potting Mix (or Potting Soil, which is another name for the exact same product). Why did backyard garden dirt get outmoded?

Outdoor soil consists of mostly silt, sand, and clay. What’s the problem with that? Over time, it compacts and hardens, suffocating the delicate roots of your tropical plant. Another issue? Soil from the “great outdoors” contains pests, mold, and disease. All of these are detrimental to your plant’s health. In contrast, Potting mix is sterile and can be comprised of many different components; the main four are:

  • Peat: it’s spongy and holds the water.
  • Perlite: they’re the little white pebbles in your mix. They help keep the soil aerated and assist with moisture control.
  • Bark “Fines:” these are essentially chips and sawdust that help with drainage and water retention. There are also some nutrient benefits.
  • Commercial Compost: this is nutrient and microbe-rich. 

  • If you are looking to improve the quality of your purchased potting mix, select one with ingredient transparency. Meaning, the manufacturer tells you exactly what is in it. 

    While this child of science was designed to be fluffier than Mother Nature’s soil, it does come with its own list of issues. Keep reading to find out more.

    Determine How to Use Potting Mix to Suit Your Plant’s Needs

    We constantly hear about light, water, humidity, and soil. But your plant has another vital need: oxygen in the soil. The soil must remain aerated and provide your root zone with 10-20% air. Otherwise, your plant will suffocate. 

    Additionally, the composition of the soil is critical. For instance, some plants need coarse, well-draining soil. Others require moisture-retaining soil. And, even still, we have the conundrum of “well-draining, evenly moist soil,” which might seem like an impossible combination of the two. How can you use potting mix to care for your whole plant collection? 

    Improve the health of your plants by creating your own blend or by making improvements to pre-made mixes. Boosting the levels of peat in the soil, helps your plant stay more uniformly moist. Raising the amount of perlite increases drainage and lowers water retention. Small tweaks can make a big difference in your plant’s wellness.

    Understand How Not to Use Potting Mix

    Soil that is not really soil sounds too good to be true. And, it is! To the naked eye, your potting mix will look like it is settling, but it is actually breaking down into smaller and smaller particles. Why? Peat (the main ingredient) decomposes quickly. 

    What’s the danger? These broken down soil particles will collect and tightly pack around your roots, suffocating them. The smallest roots are the first to be affected.

    That’s not the only challenge, however. As the soil particles get smaller, it is harder for water to drain out. This contributes to overwatering and root rot. Low drainage poses yet another threat: salt molecules are not being washed out. Excessive amounts of salt will scorch your plant’s root system.

    After all, this does make sense. In nature, the soil is continuously aerated by worms, miscellaneous creepy-crawlies, and the weather. Indoors, your plant experiences none of that. (Thank goodness!) Coupled with routine over-head watering, it is easy to understand why the root zone becomes compacted.

    Commit to a Yearly Soil Refresh

    Due to the short life expectancy of peat, your Potting Mix must be replaced yearly to avoid the above issues. If you add additional perlite to the mix, you will increase the aeration and will be able to delay repotting for an extra few months. By opting to create your own potting soil from scratch, you’ll be able to wait up to two years.

    Keep in mind, refreshing the soil does not mean you need to relocate your plant to a larger pot if it is still well-suited to its container. How do you do a ‘soil refresh’ using potting mix?

    • Water your plant thoroughly the day before. (Do not skip this step: it will loosen the soil without damaging your roots.)
    • If your plant is in a nursery pot, gently squeeze the sides of the container. 
    • Put your planter on its side, and remove your plant. 
    • Take notice of the roots. If the root system has grown, upgrade to a 1-2 inch larger pot for small plants (3-4 inches larger for extra-large plants). If your roots show no sign of outgrowing the current pot, replant it in its container.
    • Lightly pat the root ball against your hand. This should remove about ⅓ of the old soil.
    • Place fresh soil in the bottom of your container, put your plant in the center, and fill in the sides of the pot. Do not reuse exhausted soil. 
    • Gently pat the top of the soil.
    • Water your plant thoroughly.

    Do I have to repot my huge plant every year?

    If you have a massive plant that is a slow grower, the thought of tackling this project on a yearly basis is absolutely daunting. How do you squeeze as much use as you can out of your potting mix? Aerate the soil yourself. How?

    • Gently poke holes in your plant’s soil with a clean chopstick. If you meet with some resistance, do not be afraid to break through a root or two. Remember, the effects of that will be less damaging to your plant than compacted soil. 
    • Place 1-2 inches of fresh topsoil on the surface.
    • Water your plant thoroughly. 

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