Garden soil in pots?? Bad idea!

naikii(9a / 8b)February 3, 2013

Hey guys, this forum really doesnt need any more information about not putting soil in pots, however I thought I would post this story and picture anyway, showing why it�s a really, really bad idea to use garden soil as a potting mix.

As background information, about a month ago I had a truck deliver some soil from a soil company labeled �composting soil� for a raised vegie garden bed. It is a mix of manure, sand and other unknown ingredients. The plants in my raised bed seem to enjoy it. I had some left over and mixed it throughout other vegie patches I was building, they all loved it too!

I still had some left over, and before reading this forum I decided I would use it to pot up some of my plants! I used a small amount in a curry leaf tree (which seems to be doing alright, as I left the bulk of the potting mix attached in a fairly small pot� whew!) and then after reading this forum thought to myself.. How bad could it REALLY be!?

So I filled half a pot with the mix and then filled it with some water, and sat down to see how quick it drained. After sitting for about 10 minutes with NOTHING coming out the bottom, I thought the holes in the bottom must have been clogged or something, so I got a big sticked and stirred it all about making sure the soil was totally saturated. I waited a bit more and obserbed a very small trickle coming out the bottom.

Anyway 4 days later, there was still a layer of water on top of the soil, despite having several days between 30-34o in a row (86-93F). Then it rained for a day and got filled some more, and then rained again a few days later. Finally this weekend after repotting a bunch of plants into Al�s 5-1-1 mix I went and looked closely at the pot which STILL had water in it, except now it was full of little mosquito wrigglers! Needless to say I then dumped the whole foul mess. The pic is taken right before I dumped it.

Moral of the story, don�t put soil for your garden into pots!!

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Here is some cayenne I grew in 100% garden soil. They made some really good cayenne powder....

A few notes I thought I should add:

-You cant really use to large of a container when using topsoil. That is why your pots wont drain.

-When using topsoil it is good to let the soil dry all the way before watering the plant.

-I gave these a few application of miracle gro all purpose fertilizer through out the season.

-The only reason to use topsoil in containers is becauseit is free and most of time has a good ph depending on your native soil. My soil is rich and clay like, but a dark color so there is not much clay and a good amount of organic matter. If you have a 'red' colored type clay soil then you cant use it.

So I would say you can use topsoil in a container. Its not "the best" choice, but that all depends if your after "the best". ;)

This post was edited by TheMasterGardener1 on Mon, Feb 4, 13 at 12:02

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 11:08AM
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nil13(z21 L.A., CA (Mt. Washington))

It would be interesting to see what sort of composition people's soil has with this sort of thing. Have either of you run a soil composition test?

soil composition test

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 6:08PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Naikii, good observations :-)

As I've said about boggy soils in the past.... "The proof is in the pudding."
That soupy mess is a perfect example of what can happen in a container
when the soil particulate is so fine that it immediately compacts.


    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 7:38PM
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I purposely did the test with garden soil in a container for all those that say you cant use garden soil in pots..... ;)

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 8:41PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

No one says "you can't use garden soil in pots."

That would be like saying you can't grow in coir. Clearly, folks do it all the time.
As you know, it's a balance of grower convenience versus plant vitality. If "free" is one of
your primary concerns, don't let me discourage you from digging up the backyard.

I used to grow outdoor and indoor plants in garden soil, leaf litter, decomposing sticks,
et cetera. I never killed a plant...but my plants didn't thrive or live up to their genetic
potential (or as close to it) as they should.

You can even grow in a jar of glass-shards, provided you water and fertilize frequently enough.


    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 9:12PM
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naikii(9a / 8b)

The problem with you (or me actually) making a generalised statement like you can or can't grow with just your garden soil is that your soil is not the same as my soil and is not the same as Bob down the streets soil.

If we were to sample all the soils in the world from everyone's backyard I can guarantee that as with most statistical distributions; a small number of soils would be unable to support any growth, a small number of soils will form the very perfect media for growth, and the majority will fall somewhere between.

Not only this, (if somewhat normally distributed) a full 50% of peoples soils will tend to be more unsuitable than suitable. The other half would have soils that are suitable, but only about the top 15% (or realistically 97%) of them would have soil that is would be considered anything special to grow in.

Even in the half that has unsuitable soil, this doesn't mean nothing will grow, because similarly only the bottom 15% will have really bad, tending toward impossible soil.

The end effect of this is, yes you are right, probably up to 85% of people will be able to grow with soil from their backyard, however only the people in the top 15% and above will have soil that performs anywhere near as well as even a store bought potting mix, and will likely be left in the dust by a properly designed potting mix.

This post was edited by naikii on Mon, Feb 4, 13 at 21:29

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 9:25PM
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Yes not all soil is the same,that is why I said-"The only reason to use topsoil in containers is becauseit is free and most of time has a good ph depending on your native soil. My soil is rich and clay like, but a dark color so there is not much clay and a good amount of organic matter. If you have a 'red' colored type clay soil then you cant use it. "

Another point I made was that you must use a smaller container when using topsoil. Those large containers wont work with top soil and will not drain. The heavy garden soil is an advantage growing a large plant in a small container holding the plant up and not allowing it to fall over.

"If "free" is one of
your primary concerns, don't let me discourage you from digging up the backyard."


Yes, i just did this to see how it would work and it worked ok. I was a bit surprised at just how well it worked, thats all.

With all that said, it may be free, but not the best choice, like greenman said. I wont use it again for any real production or savings. I can get a great bagged potting soil for 8 bucks and change for a 2 cuft bag. being I use #1 containers for most of my garden that means I can fill 20 containers for only 8-9 bucks. So that is saving in it self to know I will get way better results than top soil.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2013 at 9:56PM
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My own observation has been that my local soil won't support optimum growth in a container environment. But that's beside the point... the point being that science and physics tells me that growing in containers is hell and gone from growing in the ground. The two environments are not the same and it's difficult, at best, to maintain the same balance in both environments using the same methods. The two environments do not contain the same living army, the same drainage, or anything else. It's nigh impossible to duplicate what Mother Nature does in the garden within the confines of a pot.

I have found that organic practices are best saved for the garden, while a more inorganic approach works better for the confined space of containers... for optimum growth.

Regardless which concepts we use for growing in a chosen space, we still have to contend with the many variables that constitute the individual environment. There will be methods that work for me which won't work for someone in another area, and we each have to adjust our methods... even if we use the same basic concepts.

Would I use topsoil or garden soil in a pot? No. It belongs in the garden. The environments are vastly different, therefore the methodology must be different.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 12:37PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Well said, Jodi.


    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 7:58PM
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Yes, so using top soil in a container is not "the best" choice. Good thing I am not after "the best"....

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 9:03AM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Yep. Good thing.


    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 9:54AM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

There is a lot I can not afford, being retired on a very small income. Yesterday I bought a yard of potting mix from a landscape supply for $50. It will last me for the whole season. I could have gone out to a restaurant for dinner for the same amount. Somehow I think the potting mix was a better value. I think it is a matter of priorities. Al

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 1:06PM
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Loveplants2 8b Virginia Beach, Virginia

Hey Calistoga (Al),

I agree with you... Choosing "the best" will bring you the best in the long run.

Many can grow plants in garden soil, but for how long and how well will they continue to grow to their best potential? A few weeks? A few months? If I use the best for my plants, I know they will last longer then a temporary fix. So, I would rather use my money wisely and choose what is best for my plants.

In the long run using a quality mix will save you and the plants ..

I think you choose wisely and I'm sure your plants appreciate you choosing them over a dinner without dessert! ;-)

Wise man!

Take care,


    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 3:49PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I agree. If you look at the number of growers who come here looking for help confronting issues related to compaction, lack of aeration/too much water retention ........ essentially a poor root environment, it isn't difficult to draw the conclusion that soils with these issues inherent because of their small particle size would best be avoided - if your focus is the well-being of the plant.


    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 4:35PM
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"Yesterday I bought a yard of potting mix from a landscape supply for $50."

I would say you got a really good deal!

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 10:14PM
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prestons_garden(9B SZ 22 HZ 6 SoCal)


I will pay you to take my garden soil away. I will even let you dig down 3 feet for free.

Hurry on over before the deal is gone. lol :-)

Free, free, free.............

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 9:36PM
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Here's an example of how, by accident and ignorance, some topsoil actually saved me. Before I came to this group and learned about containers, I started hundreds of pawpaw seeds in containers. I began by filling some with a commercial mix, but I ran out and filled the remainder with topsoil and some sand. They all started out about the same, but by the second season the trees in the soil were looking a lot better--still not as good as they could have been. Why? Because I was so ignorant about irrigation water and fertilizer that I didn't realize that salts from the fertilizer and alkaline water were building up in the containers. The topsoil actually buffered the salts better than the light commercial mix. For my next generation I will be using 5-1-1, and fertilize and irrigate properly (including acid).

Thanks to all you experienced growers for sharing!

    Bookmark   February 9, 2013 at 11:26PM
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Thanks, Josh.

I've always operated on the premise that anything worth doing is worth doing well... which is why I try for optimum growth, as opposed to mediocre, when it comes to both containerized and garden grown plants.

The idea of trying for no more than mediocre results doesn't make much sense. If I have the power to change any limiting factor for the better of a plant, why wouldn't I? And if the science exists to allow for more optimum growth, I'd be foolish not to take advantage of such knowledge.

I suppose the need for convenience, or indolence on my part, might contribute to plants that aren't growing to their full potential, but that's not what I want. It doesn't make much sense to me to only put half the effort or half the knowledge into a project.

But all that aside, trial and error and experience have taught me that a good portion of the general gardening information floating about is not conducive to the optimum growth I'm looking for. Turning to science and physics has made a huge difference in how I grow, and the results I see.

If I didn't care about the health, vitality, or beauty of my plants, I wouldn't have gone through the effort of learning the science, the physics, and I wouldn't have spent time sorting through the fallacies, the old wive's tales, the handed down misinformation with no basis in science or physics... I wouldn't have bothered to learn the differences between growing in the garden and growing in a pot, etc.

But I like gardening, and I like my plants... enough to make the effort it takes to achieve optimum results. Unlike some folks, I don't consider my potted plants disposable, so whether they cost me a quarter from a clearance table, or I save what I consider to be a lot of money to obtain them, I treat them all the same... I make that effort, using what I've learned, and I'm constantly making small adjustments for changes in weather, season, growth, etc... and I'm constantly learning about each plant, its needs, how I can adjust for those needs, etc.

But the bottom line is... what I've learned, and what I see with my own eyes, tells me that a medium with a fine particulate is not even close to the best choice for growing potted plants. Top soil is for lawns... garden soil is for gardens.

Each grower is free to use the medium of his or her choice... it all depends on the results one expects, and the effort and knowledge one puts in.

    Bookmark   February 12, 2013 at 12:34PM
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