If your container plants aren’t doing well, suspect the potting mix.

Potting mix

Make a fast-draining mix by combing coarse sand and a quality potting soil.

Photo Credit: Robert Smaus

Arboretums, botanic gardens and even gung-ho gardeners have different potting soils for just about every conceivable plant. What they use for azaleas is completely different from what they use when potting herbs, and a mix used for a cactus is quite unlike what water lilies get potted into. (I once bought a mix that actually contained colorful chunks of ground-up telephone wire – a creative reuse for this material, but of dubious value to a plant. … It looked neat, though.)

While there are a few extreme exceptions, most plants prefer soil that’s either leafy and very organic (azaleas and ferns), or sandy with lightning-fast drainage (herbs and succulents). Keeping this in mind, you can easily make one good potting mix act like many by simply adding leaf mold or sand.

You need to start with a good general potting mix. A gardener should hope for a mix that’s light and airy, but long-lasting (one that doesn’t break down and become compacted), and it should contain some fertilizer value.

Once you’ve found a good starting mix, get yourself some leaf mold (available in large garden centers) and coarse sand. To make a rich organic mix for those azaleas and ferns, create two piles: one of general potting mix and a smaller one of the leaf mold (2/3-potting soil, 1/3-leaf mold is a good starting point). Mix the two piles together and ta-da! You have your organic mix.

The coarse sand is used in making a fast-draining mix. Lots of plants need (or prefer) speedy drainage. Herbs, for example, are much tastier when grown in such a mix. To make one, again, make a pile of your general potting soil and a smaller pile of sand, then mix them together. A mix of 2/3-regular potting mix and 1/3-coarse sand makes a good fast-draining mix.

“Almost-homemade” potting mixes are very easy to put together. More importantly, you’ll always end up with a much better-quality plant.