Is potting soil supposed to be so muddy?

Palm Bay, FL(Zone 9b)


Last Sunday, I planted three nasturtium seedlings in their sprouting pellets to a windowbox, filled with (OK, everyone shudder) some cheap potting soil from Country Farms. This morning I realized that I'd tamped down the soil too tight in the box, so I stirred it all up to loosen it, watered them, and tried to stir the soil a little more, 'cuz I'm a newbie and I just wanted to fuss with the dirt.

That's when I noticed how sticky and muddy the soil seems to be. It doesn't seem right. It isn't like Miracle Grow Potting Mix at all - not that I expected it to be... all the info I see on Nasturtiums says they like poor soil - so I thought the cheapo potting soil would be good. There isn't a whole lot of the mulch-y bits in it. Maybe I should get some mulch and mix it in? Or can anyone recommend another product for me to switch the plants into before they get too big, or I kill them or something. Some of the leaves were getting a little curly and yellow too - which got me worried on such small plants...

Here's what they look like... I put some 2" wide ceramic bisque tubes lengthwise in the bottom of the planter to take up space and help drain.

Any suggestions?

Thumbnail by Plants4myPots
Hornell, NY(Zone 5a)

Some of the cheapie "potting soils" are just awful stuff. I don't know what the retailers are thinking other than making a fast buck. They should never be muddy or sticky like garden or top soils. It might be easier to just dump it and start over with a better soil. Let your local store know your concerns and how you feel about this product.

There are lots of really good soils available that are not too expensive. Pro-Mix, Miracle-Gro, Jiffy, and others. WM sells an "Expert Perfect Mix" that I use a lot for less than $10 for huge 2 cf bag.

Almost any plant will grow better in a quality soil even if the package says they will survive in poor soil.


Whitsett, NC(Zone 8a)

You could also try and mix in some perlite to aerate the mix a bit. It would help improve drainage, too.

Boca Raton, FL(Zone 10a)

coconut coir

Johnson City, TN(Zone 6b)

What Bob said. But definately nothing that says "soil" on the bag. It is too heavy for containers.

Whitsett, NC(Zone 8a)

Yes, if you don't go for the coconut coir, get something that says planting "mix", not "soil".

Pembroke Pines, FL(Zone 10a)

Well! I'm happy to hear people have been reading my posts about potting SOIL being NG for anything but top dressing lawns. Always buy container mix or better yet coco coir from

Clinton, CT(Zone 6b)

lycodad....Lambert potting mix is another to look for. Agway here sells 3.8 cu ft compressed bales for $10.99. One bale fills 3 Earthboxes with some left over.

Lambert does not have the mycorrhizal fungi ProMixBX does but I've used both and haven't noticed a difference. At a third the price of ProMix, I now use nothing but Lambert.

Palm Bay, FL(Zone 9b)

Thanks folks! I'll have to find out about that coconut coir stuff... I'm guessing it's the stringy stuff on outside. I'm going to the instagarden site now... There's so much to learn about gardening! Plus, I've only got two windows and a couple of lightbulbs to play with.

Crestview, FL

Plants 4 my pots: I have a habit of planting flowers in containers myself and I used Jungle Grow usually; but this time I tried something a little different and was really thrilled with the results. I planted some Summer Cheer Daffodil bulbs in containers using the bulb food from Brecks; but, instead of potting mix decided to use coconut coir. They have sprung up already looking fabulous. Another thing I'm thinking about possibly trying as I have some Gardeners Supply Self watering container mix which is like the Jungle Grow only with dolomite lime in it, I had used it tonight to plant my revolutionary planters (like topsy turvy's); but, started to think, what if I put some coconut coir in the two topsy turvys I have left right close to where the root of the tomato will be and then fill the rest up with the Gardener's Supply Self watering mix, my thoughts are that since the coir absorbs water and releases it when needed and it being right where the plant roots are BINGO, healthy plants.

Never use potting soil, it is way too heavy and always cakes up and it doesn't matter if you use perlite with it either, believe me, I've tried that.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I agree that if you buy a bag of anything for growing in containers, it must be a "mix" and not a "soil".

Especially if the containers will be rained on, or abused by gardeners like me who can't break the habit of over-watering, they must drain well. If they don't let excess water out, they won't let sufficient air in. Roots are just like humans: they need to breath, and they can not breath underwater!

Probably many container plants are only alive today because they can drink the excess water out of their soil before their roots die.

I find that even commercial "mixes" are too fine, hold too much water, and don't let enough air in. So I always loosen them with "coarse stuff" that doesn't hold much water.

At first I used coarse Perlite like everyone else, but I'm cheap, and that bone-white popcorn looked ugly to me.

So I found crushed granite grit. The only way I could find it without a lots of granite dust was to buy #2 chicken grit (granite, not calcium carbonate seashell grit). But that was a little finer than I wanted, and I never did find turkey grit. I never found a cheap source of double-screened, washed, crushed stone.

Now I'm a big fan of pine bark. I can screen "medium bark mulch" if I find a source that isn't full of dust, dirt, fines, sticks and stone. But it is usually dirty lumberyard trash stored wet and fermenting - not good.

Then I found "fine bark nuggets" at Lowe's and was very happy with it. I screen out anything held back by 1/2" hardware cloth and some of what is held back by 1/4" hardware cloth. Then, depending on how much bark dust and fines was in the nuggets, I try to get rid of some of what passes too easily through 1/4" mesh. If I had 1/8" mesh, I would use that to get rid of too-fine bark.

Now, instead of adding as much Perlite as I could afford to a commercial peaty mix, I add just a little commercial mix to what is mostly screened bark nuggets and fines.

Probably, if you start with b ark mulch and mostly have fibers, you will still need some grit or Perlite to "open up" the fibers a bit.

Pembroke Pines, FL(Zone 10a)

One important thing is to make sure you have drain holes so excess water will drain out. You can easily drown your plants or get root rot from to much water. Invest in Miracle-Gro container mix. I'm an old pro in this matter and it works with no muss or fuss.

Palm Bay, FL(Zone 9b)

Boy, is this an old thread... I've learned a lot more in the past 3+ years since I posted this! I never used potting soil for anything again. I use all sorts of different stuff for the different types of plants now, but my favorite stuff to use is either Miracle Gro or Jungle Growth potting mixes, and then I mix in varying amounts of sand, perlite, vermiculite, peat and bark. I don't have set ratios, I just estimate depending on where the container is going to live and what's going to be in it!

Pembroke Pines, FL(Zone 10a)


Westbrook, CT(Zone 6a)

A local wholesale nursery sells potting mix and sterilized seed-starting mix through an outlet store. I used to favor them because garden stores had a poor selection in early spring. But this year both of their mixes are sandier, have more stones, and look "muddier" when wet (as the OP complained) so I'm looking for alternatives. None of the local stores carry coir, even though I asked them to, so it looks like I'll have to drive 17 miles to an Agway (thanks for the tip, David!).

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

If the Agway mix is more expensive in Westbrook than Clinton, or too fine, too water-retentive or muddy, you can make one 3.8 cu ft bale go twice as far by also buying two, 2-cubic-foot bags of fine bark mulch. Those two bags should cost no more than $7-8 combined.

You'll have to screen out some large chunks, and remove some of the finest fibers and powder, but most of it should be coarser and more open than any commercial mix. Faster drainage, less water-retaining, and better "ventilated". Like coarse Perlite but cheaper.

But I wouldn't use pure bark for starting seeds.

Westbrook, CT(Zone 6a)

I visited an Agway, and they never heard of Lambert's mix. Unfortunately David_Paul is no longer active on DG so I can't ask him where he got it. I got hits for Lowe's or Home Depots when I searched for Lambert's potting mix, but no stores I tried carried it. Anyone ever see this in south CT? The canadian supplier doesn't furnish a list of outlets.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Don, can you find a Steuber's Distributing anywhere in your area?

The one near me makes "their own" mix, cheaper than Pro-Mix or Sunshine. And they make it similar to Pro-Mix "high porosity" (meaning more open to air and faster draining than most).

Here, if I recall, Pro-Mix bales were around $37 and "Steubers' Own" around $30.

Do you have friends in "the Valley" or tobacco country? Someone who would hunt around for a bargain, then you would enjoy driving out to visit? Prices might vary by a lot!

Or there is a Northeast regional DG forum:

Last, I'll repeat my favorite way to be cheap: no matter what you find, pine bark shreds and nuggets will be cheaper and give better drainage. Mix 30-70% screened bark with more expensive peat-based commercial mixes.

If you don't remove dust and powder from the bark, you might not need any peat mix at all ... but you're experimenting. And bark provides no more nutrients than peat does, so you will need to fertilize.

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