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Last Update 06/03/08

Mix Your Own Potting Soil

Because most houseplants tend to outgrow their pots and must be moved to larger ones, or their soil becomes worn out, indoor gardeners regularly need new potting soil. The temptation is to step outdoors and dig some topsoil from the garden, but thatís a bad idea. Soil from the garden may be infested with weed seeds,  disease spores, insects, as well as other unwanted substances, and sterilizing it is a nasty chore. More important, in the constricted environment of a pot, ordinary garden soil is likely to become compacted, preventing sufficient air from reaching the plantís roots. Although you can compensate for these problems, the easiest approach is to buy packaged potting soil (which will have been pasteurized) and amend it to your particular needs.

Good potting soil must be absorbent enough to retain moisture but loose enough to allow for good drainage and air circulation; its physical composition is actually far more important than its chemical content. In practical terms, potting soil should contain (1) loam, the equivalent of purified topsoil; (2) peat moss or leaf mold, for roughage and water retention; and (3) sharp sand or perlite (a substance made from volcanic rock), for drainage. Sand from the seashore is no good; not only is it likely to be salty, which is harmful to plants, but each grain is roundedónot "sharp"ófrom all that tumbling in the water and thus will pack too tightly and hinder good drainage.

In theory, packaged potting soil contains all the necessary elements in proper proportions. Many gardeners have found, however, that it tends to be too finely textured and not gritty enough, so they like to add more peat moss and perlite. A good formula for general purposes, in fact, is one-third packaged soil, one-third peat, and one-third perlite. The formula, sometimes referred to as "houseplant thirds," can be adjusted for special situations.

Certain plants demand an entirely different mix. Orchids, for example, require a mix that contains tree bark or some similar porous substance, while cacti thrive on very sandy soil. But the houseplant thirds will do for most other indoor plants, from ficuses to geraniums.

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