Seed starting instructions invariably say to use a good Soilless potting mix. What kind of potting mix doesn’t have soil and what’s wrong with soil anyway?
You certainly could use soil right from your garden, to start seedlings indoors. However garden soil comes with 2 major disadvantages.
Why Not Start Seeds in Soil from the Garden?
- You Don’t Know What’s Coming in With It - Disease spores, bacteria, plant eating insects, weed seeds and assorted other unwanteds can easily hitch a ride with your garden soil There are all kinds of natural predators and weather phenomenon outdoors that help keep these things in check. To use this soil indoors, you’d need to sterilize it first, with some sort of heat treatment.
- Lack of Drainage - Garden soil tends to be somewhat heavy and without tilling, either by you, earthworms or other insects, it begins to compact after several waterings. This compaction is especially hard on the tender roots of young seedlings just getting established.
A soilless mix gives you more control. Besides being free of disease and other contaminates, you can blend ingredients for preferred drainage, water retention and air space. It is also lighter in weight, which you’ll appreciate when you have to move the pots outdoors.
What’s so Great About a Soilless Mix?
Most soilless mixes are predominantly sphagnum peat moss. Sphagnum peat is lightweight, inexpensive and in certain areas, renewable. Just as importantly, it’s well draining yet water retentive. Granted, until you get the peat thoroughly moistened, the particles can be very unpleasant to work with. Peat is also on the acidic side and most seed starting mixes have a soil pH around 5.8, which is fine for starting most seeds.
What’s in a Soilless Potting Mix?
There are also amendments added to the peat, which can include:
- Bark: Bark is added to improve drainage and air space within the mix. This means it will also decrease the water retention slightly. Bark mixes are better for use with mature plants that need to dry between waterings than for starting seeds.
- Coir: Coir is a coconut fiber by-product and works similar to peat in providing good drainage while also retaining water. It’s often used as a substitute in areas where peat is hard to come by.
- Perlite: Perlite is that stuff that looks like pebbly Styrofoam. It’s a volcanic mineral, although it does not affect the nutrient quality or the pH of the mix. It does add in drainage and in air and water retention, that magical balance. In fact, it is sometimes used in outdoor gardens to prevent sandy soil from leaching nutrients.
- Vermiculite: Vermiculite is those silvery-gray flecks you see in potting soil. It’s a mica-type material that is heated up and expanded, to increase its water holding capacity. The particles soak up water and nutrients and hold them in the mix until the plants are ready to access them. Perlite is also good as a soil covering for seeds that need to remain consistently moist to germinate.
You may see vermiculite for sale at home improvement stores, for use in insulation or plaster. This grade vermiculite is not really suitable for potting mixes since it does not absorb water easily.
Some mixes will also include fertilizer and/or trace elements or a wetting agents.
- Seeds don’t require fertilizer for germination, so it is somewhat wasted if you are using it for seed starting. By the time the seedlings have grown true leaves and require supplemental food, what ever was in the mix has begun to dissipate.
- Wetting agents are becoming increasingly popular. That’s understandable, if you’ve ever worked with straight peat moss. Wetting agents are polymers added to the soil to greatly improve their water absorbing ability. I don’t know of any certified organic wetting agents, perhaps because by nature, a soil wetting can’t be quickly bio-degradable or they’d be useless. I’ve always had good luck without a wetting agent, but making sure my mix is well moistened before I put it into pots or cell packs and then, not letting it dry out. Watering containers from the bottom will help with this.
- You may also see pH adjusting amendments such as limestone or gypsum. Mixes will vary by manufacturer and region. Occasionally a particular plant will favor certain amendments over others, but for seed starting a basic mix is generally sufficient. These will be labeled for seed starting or as a starter or germination mix.
The best way to judge a potting mix is to see how well your seedling do. If you get good germination and the seedlings start off a healthy green, all is well. Otherwise adjust your mix, starting with the pH. Here are some recipes for creating your own soilless potting mix.