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How to Select Potting Soil for Your Container Garden

Someone potting plants on a table with fresh soil.
IgorAleks/Shutterstock

Ever wander through the gardening section at your local home improvement store and notice the vast piles of soil? There are so many to choose from, but how do you know which one is best?

Good soil is essential for your plants to thrive in containers because they can’t pull natural nutrients from the earth. So, the cheapest bag of dirt won’t help these plants—you have to provide the nutrients for them with some quality soil.

Garden vs. Potting Soil

Let’s start with the basics. Garden and potting soils are formulated for different purposes, so you shouldn’t use them interchangeably.

Garden soil is made of natural topsoil and bulky organic material. This coarse, organic matter helps improve water retention and root development.

Potting soil, on the other hand, uses no natural soil and is specially formulated. It’s acidic with some added limestone to balance out the PH levels. Potting soil also includes wetting agents to keep the mix from drying out too quickly.

Selecting a Quality Potting Soil

Soil is the foundation of healthy, growing plants, so don’t just buy cheapest bag you can find. Make sure the bag says “potting mix” or “potting soil,” as these are specifically formulated for container plants.

Also, check the ingredients and make sure the mix includes peat moss, coco coir, or PittMoss. Potting mix or soil containing perlite, compost, or vermiculite are also reliable choices.

For outdoor plants, choose a high-quality, all-purpose soil mix.

How to Physically Check Soil

Someone checking the quality of some potting soil.
Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

If the store allows it, open the bag of soil and check its quality. You want it to be light, fluffy, and to look and feel porous.

Make sure there aren’t any weeds growing inside it or bugs flying around it. If there are large amounts of bark or sand, you’ll want to pass and move on to the next brand or bag.

Finally, you want your soil to feel moist, but not to be fully saturated or soggy. If it smells pleasant and earthy, and everything else checks out, you’ve got a quality mix. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions while shopping around, especially at a garden supply store.

The Best Soil for Specific Planters

You also have to choose the right soil for the type of container you plan to use. Some mixes weigh more (or less), depending on what’s in them.

Here’s what to look for:

  • For large planters: Before you fill a large container, make sure it’s in its permanent location. Once you add the soil, large pots can get incredibly heavy. Choose a general-purpose soil mix that contains compost.
  • Planter boxes and hanging baskets: You don’t want to fill these with heavy soil, so be sure to use a soilless potting mix. These mixtures use peat moss or coco coir as their base ingredients. They also weigh less and work wonders for hanging plants.

How to Fill Containers with Soil

Before you fill your planters, be sure to rinse and remove all old dirt residue as reused planters might harbor disease or carry pests.

Add a bit of the mix to the bottom of your container and lightly pack it down. Add just enough soil to fill the pot to the correct depth for the plant you’re adding.

After setting the root ball at the correct depth, add more soil and leave about an inch of space between the top of the container and soil.

Are Fertilizers Necessary?

Because you’re restricting potted plants to a container, the soil will lose nutrients more quickly than it would in the ground, especially as the plant grows. This is why feeding your outdoor potted plants is essential, especially if you’re growing veggies.

If you want nutritious cucumbers and tomatoes, that soil needs those nutrients too. Steer clear of chemical fertilizers, though—always use organic instead.


In addition to watering, the type of soil you choose is critical when you start container gardening. If you want a high-yield vegetable garden or vibrant, flourishing flowers, the soil you choose is an investment.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

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