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I wonder who it was that decided that people could make soil better than Mother Nature, who has been at it for thousands of years by Creationist reckoning, and millions of years by Evolutionist reckoning.
Someone invented a "soil-less" mix for growing where they did not want weeds or bacteria or fungus - at least, this is what the stated reasons were. And for the manufacturers, this is a goldmine, because they could take all the elements of the original potting mix, and substitute various forms of industrial waste and cheap fillers. The only thing left to do was persuade the buying public that it could do the job better than what Mother Nature designed for plants to be grown in!
It is sort of like processed foods. All the good stuff is stripped out, and a few essential (though undigestible) nutrients are added back in, and a nice looking but nutritionally deficient and often outright harmful product is released to the public in the name of "good food", and the manufacturer persuades millions that it is better than what they could cook themselves, mostly because it is convenient.
With potting mix though, it isn't necessarily any more convenient than the alternative! And it is several times the cost! It is made from various forms of industrial waste, and a few synthetic manufactured items (made in China, principally from petroleum). Oh, and some of the "better" stuff has chemical fertilizers thrown in. A few "organic" types have a wee bit of sterilized manure or fish emulsion (ground up fish guts) thrown in. No wonder it is so difficult to get things to grow in it, and no wonder it is impossible to re-wet if it ever dries out completely!
No more convenient, WORSE performance, and MORE expensive. MORE harmful to the environment, and a pain in the neck to work with under less than ideal conditions. Wow... they've really managed to snooker the buying public! And with the popularity of Raised Beds, they are now selling "garden soil" and "raised bed mix" that is just as bad, but targeted to persuade the public that it is superior to Mother Nature's own.
The best thing to grow plants in is...
Drumroll, please, this is a major revelation...
Rich, nutrient filled, bacteria and fungus laden, water holding, DIRT!
Topsoil, to be exact.
With some compost on top.
Even in pots indoors, DIRT is the best thing to grow plants in. Seriously, folks, how hard a concept is this? The substance that plants EVOLVED to grow in (if you subscribe to that theory), or the substance that GOD PROVIDED for plants to grow in (if this is your belief) is the BEST thing for plants to grow in! (I am still astonished that I have to actually EXPLAIN this to people, and even more shocked that most will hear my instructions and promptly go out and buy another bag of potting mix because someone else told them to or because the picture on the bag was prettier, or worse, because the sales person told them it was better.)
You either have dirt where you want to grow things or you don't.
If you don't have dirt, why buy a mixture of industrial waste and manufactured synthetics to plant your plants in?
What you SHOULD buy, if you HAVE to buy some kind of potting medium or soil for your garden, is....
Topsoil to be exact.
Just buy a bag of topsoil instead. It is less than $2 for a bag of topsoil. Compare that to $5 for a comparable size bag of potting mix. You just made out like a bandit! Less than half the price and BETTER!
Buy a bag of compost also. That will cost you another $2 if you live in an area where things cost a lot.
Fill your pots with topsoil, or spread the topsoil over your garden. Then top it with about a 3" layer of compost.
If you need it to hold water really well, DON'T get anything with those nasty silica beads in it! Avoid those! They cause the soil to LOSE water (they absorb the water, and then the water evaporates directly from them, the plants never get it from the silica, it will cause your soil to dry out FASTER - we've done side by side tests with this, it FAILS every time).
We've done side-by-side comparisons on those silica beads in two separate situations:
- First, with pots which we added the silica gel. Every pot WITH the gel dried out faster than those without, and the plants had more trouble staying hydrated (they wilted sooner).
- Second, topsoil with silica gel beads, and topsoil without, applied with approximately the same moisture on the same day (both felt damp, not wet, and clumped when squeezed, but did not weep water when squeezed). Two days later, in fairly moderate spring temperatures during the intervening time, and no additional watering, the topsoil WITHOUT was dried out ½ inch deep. The topsoil WITH the beads was dried out FOUR inches deep.
They don't work. They do the opposite of what they claim to do. Much like potting mix!
The key to getting your soil to hold water is MULCH. Try one of the following:
- Grass Clippings
- Leaf Litter
- Wood Shavings
- Straw (you will get some wheat grass sprouts)
You can purchase Aspen shavings, or even use Pine Bedding or Cypress Mulch from the pet section of your local store. Just don't use Cedar.
A good layer of mulch on top will reduce the amount of water you need by 70%.
If you have BAD soil, then it is actually VERY easy to improve, using compost, and mulch. Compost on top of the soil, mulch on top of the compost, which then breaks down into more compost. You can grow things in it right after you apply about a 1" layer of compost, and a 3" layer of mulch. And every year, it will just get better AS LONG AS YOU DO NOT TILL IT!
And it is EXACTLY how nature does it in the wild. She leaves the last year's plant debris on the top of the soil to compost down and give you a layer of compost on top of your soil, and then a layer of coarse debris on top of that to protect the compost from washing off, and to keep the moisture in the soil.
You can do this in a container garden, with houseplants, and in the garden, in your landscaping, etc. Wherever you GROW things, you can create this three layer miracle of growth and productivity.
It is that simple.
If you need fertilizer, use organics - composted manure is the best.
Potting mix does not come into it ANYWHERE. Mother Nature didn't invent potting mix. She doesn't like it! Plants don't like it!
Get the good stuff. The REAL stuff.
It will save you money, and your plants will grow better.