What to do with old container soil?

freyja5(8a (Surrey, BC, Canada))February 22, 2010

I live in a very small suburban yard and must use containers for my vegetable "garden". What can I do with the old soil in my containers (from last year)? I see they have a lot of roots in them but are pretty compacted now after winter.

Can I revitalize it somehow? Should I get rid of it? If so, what is the best way to do this? Our community's yard waste pick up program specifically says "no soil/dirt" and my own yard is so small, I don't have a spot to dump or spread the extra soil.

Any suggestions?

Thanks in advance!

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I guess we can think you don't have a compost pile--that would be the logical place to put it.
Since that doesn't appear to be the case, getting rid of the old dirt is definitely the thing to do--its had its day--its not worth putting fresh plants into it. And no amount of fertilizing will make it come back to what it used to be. If used again, it will not give anything to the new plants.
What to do? Well, is your neighbors in the same fix, do any of them have a compost pile they might welcome your old stuff. Got any uneven places in your lawn--it could be used there to level out places. In the spring, lawns can usually do with some topping, especially if you intend to do any overseeding.
I know its cheating, but you could always place a little in your garbage and put it out with the refuse. Its not really doing anything against the rules....where your garbage goes, the old dirt can work there as well as anywhere.
Some might suggest you mix it with fresh potting soil but that is just half-wasting a good measure of fresh potting soil. Your plants deserve fresh.

Is this the first year of having to dump the old...what did you do other years? I'm mulling over and I cant come up with any other suggestions, sorry.

Good luck anyway.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2010 at 1:15PM
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david52 Zone 6

Are you talking about soil as in dirt, or potting soil, as in a mixture of peat, vermiculite, pearlite, sand, and minor bits of this and that?

We do a few dozen container plants here because they warm up so much faster than the regular garden soil. And every early spring, I put on a dust mask, dump them all out on a concrete slab, step on the big clumps, then shake out the roots and compost those. The loose stuff left, maybe a cubic yard and a half, now gets mixed with 4 or 5 wheelbarrows of sifted compost, a couple new bags of potting soil, and re-fill all the pots. I try to throw in each container a cup or so of a really rich, black soil I get from the bottom of my pond to make sure all the little micro whozzits are in there as well.

I just keep on doing this year after year. I've never noticed any problems, but should I have a sick plant or something where soil problems might be a suspect, I'd throw it out. If I had to replace all the potting soil we use every year, it would be a substantial expense.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2010 at 2:08PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

If you have even a small area of yard in which to spread the used container soil, you will find that it disappears quite rapidly, as long as you don't pile it into heaps. Such stuff can be a nice top dressing material for lawns, for example. That's what we do with our old potting material.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2010 at 3:51PM
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freyja5(8a (Surrey, BC, Canada))

Thank you so much for the input. To answer a few questions:

It is potting soil, rather than dirt from the ground. It was a bagged commercial brand (includes vermiculite I believe) which I mixed with compost.

You are right in assuming we don't yet have a composter (we'll be getting a small bin or tumbler soon as I only have one area where it will fit). I'm not sure it will be big enough to be efficient (but I'm eager to try and have been learning my C:N ratio rules), and given that I won't have a big pile, I'm reluctant to fill it with potting soil (since it might take up the entire bin, which I know won't be efficient!).

I like your idea of trying someone else's yard -- my parents have some areas I might be able to put it and level their yard out a bit.

Last year was the first year I've had more than one small hanging basket (which I have been able to dump under my porch the last couple years). The volume of soil I have now prohibits that, unfortunately.

If I can't get it to my parents' yard, I'll call around and try to find someone with a compost pile. Thanks again for the suggestions!

    Bookmark   February 22, 2010 at 4:24PM
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kentstar(5b, NE Ohio)

That's what I did last season rhizo_1. I had a low spot in my yard that I just spread out my used container soil over. Disappears quick and works great!

    Bookmark   February 22, 2010 at 7:45PM
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I mix mine with compost and reuse it.

2 Likes    Bookmark   February 22, 2010 at 11:13PM
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I think you could re-use the soil. Make sure to rotate plants in from a different family though (to reduce the possibility of disease).

If the soil is heavily compacted maybe you could mix in some fresh compost?

Otherwise I would find a spot in your yard to dump it. Maybe this is a good excuse to make a raised bed now?

    Bookmark   February 23, 2010 at 2:56AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

I'm going to assume that our original poster wants a container medium that is fast to drain and porous. Though compost is terrific in the ground, it doesn't behave very well in a container. (Unless you can get your hands on some gently composted conifer bark.) At least not for very long.

Reusing a commercial potting mix is not in the best interest of the plant. They break down quite quickly and lose their essential porosity. It sounds like freyja is aware of that and wishes to avoid the pitfalls.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2010 at 4:51AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)



    Bookmark   February 23, 2010 at 9:04AM
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I do defer to Al, and I generally don't grow vegetables in pots, but these, admittedly foolproof, annuals were grown in compost/dead fish/seaweed amended potting soil most of which I purchased 18 years ago. The growth is probably not optimal, but I can't afford to throw away $75 dollars annually. If the stakes aren't too high, if you have some plants that aren't too fussy, you might reserve some of that soil for them.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2010 at 9:46AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hi, AP. That's an attractive grouping. ;o)

Even though I don't reuse container soils, I always readily concede that there are lots of reasons why people might choose to reuse theirs, economic considerations chief among them. While it may not be the most beneficial practice from the perspective of optimum vitality, you can usually do ok if you pay attention to details; mainly because as particle size decreases, so does the margin for error - this, at the same time the frequency of issues that need attention or resolution increases.


    Bookmark   February 23, 2010 at 11:07AM
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toxcrusadr(Zone 6a - MO)

We reuse it at our house, usually what gets put in the new pots is some combination of last year's, plus sifted compost, plus some bagged potting mix, and a handfull of balanced fertilizer. It's getting too expensive to toss out. I did read with interest the comments above about particle size, porosity and all that, though.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2010 at 12:54PM
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While I typically endorse Al's excellent advice 100%, I am one of those that routinely re-uses potting soil :-) I am also budget conscious (OK - cheap!) and I have a LOT of containers. I do use a very high quality, long lasting mix to begin with and when it does come time for re-use or replacement, I mix it 50-50 old with new. Most of my containers are long term plantings anyway, although I do pot up some summer annuals and veggies as well, and if the mix is durable enough to stand up to longer than a single season of growth for these long term plants, it seems logical to me that it would be equally durable to be re-used. At least in part :-)

I have to say that based on my experience, I've not seen any detrimental effects from this practice. But I need to stress that it needs to be a very good quality and durable potting mix to begin with......something like Al's gritty mix.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2010 at 1:20PM
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If, after considering all the options for re-use, using some in your own yard, you still have some you need to dump...make gardening friends!

I add any container potting soil, that I might be dumping,(usually once the container has a lot of roots and need to start over) directly to my gardens, especially veggie garden at end of season, since the potting soil is mostly peat and helps to keep adding organic material to clay soils; I seldom "compost" it since hey, it's already dirt, but may add some to compost piles if it is really "rooty" and I think it needs to decompose more first.

So, if I had a friend who needed to dispose of a some pots-worth of potting soil, I'd say bring it on. Maybe I would swap them a new plant or division.

I suppose I could be concerned about plant diseases or pests so might pick a specific area, but hey, I expect I would get the same things from my own yard.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2010 at 11:14AM
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freyja5; Where abouts in BC are you. I live in Coquitlam and have the same problem about getting rid of soil/dirt. In Pitt Meadows - Meadows landscaping will dispose of it but it will cost you (very minimal). I would do as the other suggest and mix it with some new material.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2010 at 2:33PM
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freyja5(8a (Surrey, BC, Canada))

Herbgardener: we're in south Surrey, so it's a bit of a trip to head up to Pitt Meadows, but thanks for the tip!

Thanks to everyone else too for the input. This year I've decided to use it to level out some of my parents' yard -- they loved the idea, especially since I'll be doing the work! (:

    Bookmark   February 25, 2010 at 5:02PM
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This is an interesting question and I get varied answers when asked. Most I think tend to just add new stuff to the old . I have one thought though as I live in a cold area. I garage and overwinter potted plants. Any that dont survive that soil gets pitched as I wont know for sure if its freeze or some contamination. But those that do survive I mix the old with new. The stuff is too expensive to start over each year and I have a lot of plant to pot. If I only had 3 or 4 I would most likey start fresh.

    Bookmark   Yesterday at 12:03PM
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toxcrusadr(Zone 6a - MO)

I used to have a lot of tree sprouts I would grow in pots as a kind of nursery. In winter I'd put them in the garage. One would think the more moderate temps would help their survival, but some would always die. I realized it was very DRY in the garage and they weren't getting any water. Nowadays I would rather bury them in leaves and let them overwinter where they can get some moisture.

    Bookmark   Yesterday at 1:27PM
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I have enough heavy lifting to do in the spring without making a project out of potting mix. I've reused the same potting mix for the last 4-5 years. I just dig in some homemade compost before planting. I grew some patio vegetables last year. Geeze, was I ever overrun with bell and jalapeno peppers!

    Bookmark   Yesterday at 2:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Too expensive ........ heavy lifting ........ now let's look at things from the plant's perspective. Does anyone think the plant would prefer to cope with a soggy soil in an advanced state of decomposition, soil gases produced by anaerobic decomposition and poor gas exchange, poor drainage due to a soil with an organic fraction comprised of all fine material, compaction, poor aeration, an increased likelihood of disease/insect carryover and a probably a high level of dissolved solids because the soil couldn't be watered correctly in the growth cycle previous w/o concern for extended periods of saturation compromising root function and root health; or would it rather be in a well aerated medium that doesn't have any of the inherent issues mentioned?

No one should criticize someone's decision to reuse old soil if that's what a person wants to do. If it's ok by the grower, it's ok by me, but for growers looking to offer their plants the best opportunity to realize as much of the genetic potential Mother Nature provided them with, the idea isn't a good one, no matter who might have used what /soil for what length of time; and it's really difficult to disagree with the idea there are much better ways to bring out the best in the containerized plants we nurture.


    Bookmark   Yesterday at 2:48PM
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Depending on how much "soil" to root matter you have to deal with, can you create a berm with your leftover potting soil and plant into it. Whether you would be raising the center of your beds for a elevated effect or across the back of the yard for a separation etc...if your neighbors don't want it, you can't throw it away, then burn it in your backyard fire pit! :-(

    Bookmark   16 hours ago
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david52 Zone 6

The way they do it in those prison-break films, where they're digging a tunnel with a spoon? They fill their pockets with the dirt, and then there's a small hole in the pocket, and the dirt trickles down their trouser leg and out onto the ground and its so small an amount that the guards don't notice.

This might work. A bit here in the grocery store, a bit there at the bus stop, a bit on your neighbor's rug, etc.

    Bookmark   59 minutes ago
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