Can You Use Garden Soil for Potted Plants?

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If you drive past our house during any growing season, you will most likely see plants in pots. We have a few reasons for this. Sometimes my wife wants to show off pretty flowers on the porch. Other times I want to plant certain cool weather crops like lettuce or kale in a pot so I can move them out of the summer heat when necessary. It can be quite tempting to dig up some soil from your garden and use it to plant things in pots because it is easily accessible-and free! However, this may not give plants the best chance for success.

So can you use garden soil for your potted plants?  In most scenarios, using garden soil in your containers is not recommended. Garden soil is heavy, compacts easily, and can cause the roots of your plant to choke or drown if you aren’t careful.

If garden soil shouldn’t be used in pots or containers, as tempting as it might be, what should be used instead?  First, we will explain what makes good quality potting soil and why garden soil doesn’t fit the bill.  Then, we’ll look at the potting mix that I have been using successfully for my own plants!

What Soil Qualities are Necessary for Plants to Thrive in a Pot?

Certain soil qualities are important for plants to have the best chance for success in a pot.

Good drainage.  The soil must allow for water to flow easily. If your soil is soaking wet or pooling with water, the roots of your plants will drown and die!

Good moisture control. At the same time, your soil needs to retain moisture so it doesn’t dry out. I know, this seems contradictory! Think of how a wrung out sponge feels. That is about how wet your soil needs to be.

Oxygen! The roots of your plants need air to breathe. When in a container, soil has a greater chance of settling and compacting because it doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

Proper nutrients. Your soil needs the right amount of nutrients for your plant to be able to grow and thrive! You know those N-P-K numbers you always see on bags at the store? Those letters stand for Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. These are three of the most important nutrients that plants need.

You may be wondering “Well my plants do fine in my garden soil, I still don’t understand why I can’t use that in a pot?!”  Keep reading to find out!

What’s Wrong With Garden Soil?

I’m all about promoting the use of free and available resources for your gardening needs, but please try to refrain from using garden soil in your containers!

If you go dig up some soil from your garden or lawn, you should notice pretty quickly that it is either very muddy and soaking wet or it is so dry you can’t even break the ground with a shovel. This is already failing my first two qualities above! Soil tends to be much more dense than a good potting mix. If you put some soil in a bucket or pot, you will probably notice that it is very heavy. Due to it being so dense, it doesn’t allow enough oxygen to flow through it. When restrained to a pot, oxygen has no way of getting to the roots from the sides.

Garden soil may also contain a good number of weed seeds. When you disturb the soil, you bring all those weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate and become a nuisance to the plants you are trying to grow.

Finally, garden soil can also contain fungus spores and bugs that can thrive in your container. This can not only hurt your plant, but if you are considering bringing your pot indoors at any time, you do not want to bring that kind of life into your house!

If you are convinced that using garden soil in containers or pots isn’t a good idea, let’s take a look at what I recommend instead!

What Should I Use in My Pots Instead of Garden Soil?

I’ve done quite a bit of research on this in the past. The options available are plentiful! I can tell you what has worked for me but it’s up to you to find out what works best for you, based on your area and available resources.

When I first started planting in pots, I used bags of potting mix from the store. Nothing is wrong with using potting mix! If you do go this route, I recommend trying to get an organic potting mix.

Over the years, I have taken a more DIY approach to gardening, so I started making my own potting mix. Here is an article I wrote explaining the full process in detail: DIY Potting Soil and Seed Starting Mix to Save Money. This is very easy to do, it can save some money, and it also provides the peace of mind knowing exactly what ingredients are going into the soil. Here are the ingredients I use:

Peat moss. Peat moss is an organic material that holds water very well, similar to a sponge. It also improves soil structure and holds nutrients in the soil instead of letting them leak out.

Vermiculite.  This is a group of minerals that also increases water and nutrient retention. It is very light and helps your plants absorb nutrients such as ammonium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

Perlite.  This is actually volcanic glass that is heated up and popped like popcorn!  It results in a very lightweight material whose main purpose is for great soil aeration.  

Check out our Best Soil Amendments products page to help you get started on finding the products mentioned above!

Here’s what I do. I grab a mixing bowl from our kitchen as a measuring tool (sorry honey!). I mix 4 parts (bowls) of peat moss with 1 part of vermiculite and 1 part perlite. You’ll quickly notice that the mix is quite dry. It is very, very important to thoroughly wet your mix down in the wheelbarrow. The mix should not have any puddles of water, but it should be visibly wet, dark, and a few drops of water should drip out if you squeeze a handful of it.

Before I put my mix into a pot, I first consider the crop I’m planting. If I’m planting lettuce, flowers, or anything else that has shallow roots, but I happen to have a large pot, I don’t want to waste a lot of my precious homemade potting mix!  So what you can do is fill the bottom 1/3 or so of the pot with something light that will allow for good drainage. I use wood chips because they are free and easily available to me. Gravel, leaves or something similar are other good filler options.

Another trick for large pots is to put a small pot upside down in the large pot to take up space. Fill in the sides with whatever filler material you decided to use. Always make sure the pots have drainage holes in the bottom and you can see water flowing out of the bottom after watering.

That is the mix that I’ve been using lately and it has been working great.  However, this mix doesn’t really have any nutrients yet!

What Kind of Fertilizer Can I Use for My Potted Plants?

For fertilizer, I like to follow nature because that is God’s perfect design.  Please do not buy synthetic fertilizer! This is the worst thing you can do. If you really have to buy something, try a granular or water soluble organic fertilizer.

In order to gross out my wife…I mean…….In order to obtain great fertilizer, I make my own worm castings at home. Worm castings are basically worm poop and it’s one of the best fertilizers for gardening. It is commonly known as “black gold” for gardeners. I add about a cup or so to the top of the pot and mix it with the potting mix.

Another thing I do is mix in some of my homemade compost to my potting mix. One to two inches of compost will feed your plants for an entire season so a little goes a long way!

Using worm castings and/or compost makes your container gardening easy because you don’t need to worry about how much or when to fertilize your plants! Just mix it in and forget about it!

We have now written a full article on fertilizer in containers that you can find here: Does Potting Soil Need Fertilizer?

Check out Our Favorite Products page to find everything you might need to help make your garden a success!

“But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Matthew 13:23

Related Questions

Can you use garden soil for indoor plants?  No, you should not use garden soil indoors. Natural soil can potentially bring fungus, disease, and pest problems into your home. A potting mix, as described above, should be used instead.

Can you mix potting soil with garden soil?  Yes, if you feel you don’t have enough potting mix, it would be acceptable (but not preferable) to mix some garden soil into your potting mix if it will be used outdoors. Garden soil will make your container heavier and harder to move around. A better solution for a filler is to use wood chips, gravel or leaves.

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Corey Leichty

Hi, I’m Corey and I love using gardening as a way to provide food for my family, learn life lessons alongside my wife, Andrea, and teach life lessons to my two sons. Do you have gardening questions? Not finding what you are looking for? Please feel free to Ask a Question (Click Here!) and I will get back with you as soon as I can!

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