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Gardening 101: How To Make Your Own Potting Soil (Without Peat Moss)

Tomato In Potting Soil

When growing plants in containers, it’s important to use a good potting soil.  It must have good water retention but also drain well, so that the roots can breathe and you don’t end up with root rot.  And it must have a balance of good plant nutrition so that your plants thrive.

Why Make Your Own Potting Soil?

Making your own seed starting medium will generally save a great deal of money.  Fortunately we can get truckloads of potting soil from our municipal compost system for less than $20 (photo here).  But if you can’t obtain cheap potting soil this way, or if you need smaller quantities, you can easily make our own.


When you make your own, you also know what is in it.  You can make sure you have the correct proportions of ingredients for the individual needs of your plants.  And you can save energy and CO2 output by using locally-sourced or homegrown compost.

Why Make It Peat Free?

I have had debates with other gardeners about this – it is certainly a point of contention for many gardeners. Essentially, from what I have read, peat gathering destroys the wetlands and forests where peat moss grows.   This is a problem for several reasons.  Wetlands, as we all know, are teaming with life and are essential hosts to a great number of plants, mammals, birds, and microbes.  Peat is also a carbon sink, meaning that it soaks up carbon, a major greenhouse gas.  When peat is harvested, that carbon is released into the atmosphere.

To me, the arguments for using peat sound an awful lot like the arguments people use for cutting down forests in the Pacific Northwest.  People say it is renewable if we plant tree farms, or we are only using a small portion of what is annually harvested – construction and large corporations use so much more.  And there are many other rationalizations.  But as soon as one sees a clearcut forest or a “sustainably planted” tree farm, it becomes clear that these are not good things for a number of reasons: biodiversity and whole ecosystem depletion, loss of important carbon sinks that now contribute to global warming, whole beautiful forests gone forever.

Some gardeners argue that we only use a small portion of the total peat that is depleted each year.  Most of it is depleted for cooking fuel (peat is an early form of coal), farmland, or deforestation.  Even if this is so, why would we  – as gardeners and cultivators of the earth – contribute to this ecosystem depletion in any way, if we don’t have to?

Gardeners argue that peat is renewable.  But first off, it is not renewable at the rate we use it. Second, while peat may be regrown and reharvested, just like a tree farm, it has lost its biodiversity.  It is no longer a healthy ecosystem, no longer host to the millions of creatures that need it to survive.  And third, it is no longer a carbon sink.


Please take a couple of minutes to watch this video:

If we don’t have to deplete a forest – eg, by using recycled or hemp fiber – why should we?  If we don’t have to deplete a peat bog – eg, by using coco coir, which is a byproduct waste that is in great surplus – why should we?


The Royal Botanical Gardens has a quick article about peat here, Friends of the Earth has some great articles (and a deeper PDF article), and Wikipedia is a great source for learning more.  In my personal belief, the only thing that is better than coco coir is to grow your own peat moss, if you have the space.  Since I don’t have the space, I use coco coir.  Coconut coir is made from the discarded hulls of coconuts – it’s a byproduct of the coconut industry, which produces large surpluses of it.

Potato In Potting Soil

Recipe I Use For Making Potting Soil

Ingredients

  • 1 Part Aged Compost (locally sourced or homemade)* or 1/2 Aged Compost, 1/2 Aged Manure
  • 1 Part Coconut Coir
  • 1 Part Pumice (a volcanic rock) or Perlite (a volcanic glass)
  • 1 Part Sand

*Aging of compost and manure does two things:  it breaks down the nutrients for the plants to then take in, and it cooks out the bad microorganisms and seeds that you don’t want.  Without aging manure, the high nitrogen content may burn plants.

Coco Coir 1 Coco Coir 2

Coco Coir 3 Coco Coir 4

Directions

  1. Coco coir (aka coco peat) comes in several forms.  You can buy it as a brick or bale that you’ll need to hydrate before using, or you can buy it already hydrated. Most garden supply stores carry one or both versions, or you can find them online.  Hydrate the coir bricks and bales by sub merging them in water until they are fully saturated (usually the packages have clear instructions for how much water to use, but always err on the side of less – you can always add more!).  They will grow to at least 5 times their size.  Then fluff it with your hands, to make sure the fibers are separated from one another.
  2. Then mix all the ingredients together well.  That’s it!

Other Recipes

  1. If you don’t want to use coconut brick, you can try using leaf mold or humus, as laid out in the recipes found here. Many gardeners do this.  There are several other recipes you can try there as well.
  • Rob‘s Recipe: Mix two parts compost to one part vermiculite or perlite. Fluff up well. Makes the compost lighter for pots.
  1. If you have a different recipe, please write it in the comments and I will add it here!

Beautiful Potato Plants

Similar Posts:

35 comments to Gardening 101: How To Make Your Own Potting Soil (Without Peat Moss)

  • Rob

    I read of the peat problem awhile ago, interesting to note they actually have a peat moss shortage in the UK and Europe. My version of soil mix only has compost and vermiculite in it, but is very simular to yours. Mel’s Mix uses equal amounts of peat, vermicultie and compost, I left out the peat and follow this recipe:
    Mix two parts compost to one part vermiculite or perlite. Fluff up well. Makes the compost lighter for pots.

  • Its amazing peat is still being harvested – unbelievable!

    Instead of perlite I have recently been using shaved styrofoam from old styrofoam boxes in my home made potting and seed raising mix. Its a great use for somethig that would otherwise be destined for the tip.

  • Your coconut potting soil recipe looks good. It is very similar to what I use. The only downfall is that coco tends to bind calcium and magnesium. You can get calcium in your compost, but you might have to add a bit of epsom salt if your garden gets interveinal chlorosis.

  • Great information. I don’t purchase municipal compost because I know what some people put in their green waste cans. Gross. There’s no chance of me using peat in Bakersfield, California. It’s very dry here.

    Have you had any success using cow/horse tea? I would like to make my own horse tea and use the “tea leaves” in my composter.

  • Maybelline, I haven’t used manure tea. My best guess would be that you’ll need to make sure the manure is well-aged, just as you would compost. And use a fairly dilute mixture, as it is very high in nitrogen. You might want to mix the two – household compost and manure compost – together. Your plants will probably love it!

    Let us know what you end up doing – I’d love to know how it turns out.

  • Okay, this IS cool!! I’d never thought about making my own soil before but how much peat AND plastic that would save. I’m bookmarking this. Thanks Melinda.

  • Lacy

    Pretty good post. I just came by your site and wanted to say
    that I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts. In any case
    I’ll be subscribing to your blog and I hope you write again soon!

  • cdk

    great site and info, however, i am surprised given your keen environmental concerns that you would use vermiculite. this is also a natural resource billions of years old that is being depleted and cannot be replaced, also creating devastating consequences on the planet.
    i hear you can replace it with sand…

  • Hi cdk, I actually don’t use vermiculite – I use Pumice (a volcanic rock) or Perlite (a volcanic glass). I understand they aren’t perfect – nothing is, we can only do the best we can. Unfortunately sand isn’t a good alternative – pumice helps a great deal by leaving large pockets for air and drainage, where sand has nearly the opposite affect. I’m not sure what would work in its place – let me know if you come across something!

  • Pete

    I get it. Only leave up the people’s comments who agree with every word you say.

    Pretty pathetic.

    • Hi Pete, I didn’t leave your comment up because I didn’t feel it was constructive. Instead, it sounded like you were trying to get a rise out of people, and I believe there is enough negativity in the world.

  • Kelly V.

    Peat loss is causing or helping “Global Warming” or ” Climate Change”? You do know that the data for Global Warming is skewed to show warming. The fact that the Earth is warming is not in doubt, human effect on that warming is. We are still coming out of an ice age if you had not heard.
    Will we go back to the global cooling scare next? Peat moss loss and carbon sinks? God you make me just shake my head and cry at night. We are screwed as a country.

    • Kelly and Pete, it is a shame that it matters to you two so much that instead of just moving on to a website that did speak to your values, you stopped to leave a negative comment here. Whether you believe in it or not, making potting soil without peat is not hurting anything – there certainly must be more important things to worry and spend your time about.

  • jacksson

    A good mix is 70% Coco peat (coir) and 30% Perlite. An interesting site that many of you might like is: http://www.globalbucket.com. The young boys who have developed this bucket method of growing gives one some hope for the younger generation (I can say this, being 72). lol

  • Jon

    Good information. This is one of the sites I found when I was trying to research the difference between coco coir and peat. However, I’m ultimately unconvinced of the environmental argument in either direction. Peat is renewable because it can be regrown. Canada appears to be harvesting it in a sustainable fashion. As for loss of biodiversity in the habitat, that’s a good point. But there are built-in limits to how much habitat is subjected to the reduced biodiversity caused by peat harvesting. The Canadian National parks own so much more peat bogs than private industry, that there is no overall loss of habitat.

    It is true that peat is a carbon sink, but that is because plants absorb carbon. As it is harvested and decays, it re-releases its carbon. Isn’t that also true for coconut trees? Coir just takes longer to decay.

    The environmental argument against coconut coir is that it requires lots of fresh water to process (shells have to be soaked to loosen the fibers.) The third world countries that produce it don’t have a lot of clean fresh water to spare (India and Sri Lanka). Finally, it has to be shipped from Sri Lanka and India, and burning fossil fuels for the ships more than offsets the carbon footprint of using peat.

    So I reached the conclusion that they both have some negative environmental impacts.

    It then comes down to the performance and cost of the products themselves. For seedstarting, coir beats peat hands down. As a general garden additive, I like that it’s easier to store coir (in compressed bricks) and when initially wetting it down, coir is much easier to handle. (Peat sheds water when dry, and is difficult to wet at first.) Coir also has form memory. When you wet it, it springs back into shape, like a sponge. This provides natural air pockets and is much better than peat, which mats down over time. I can’t say how coir performs in the garden beds long term — this is my first season giving it a try.

    Coir appears to cost slightly more at first, but I’m not convinced of that. Coir takes longer to degrade, which means I buy less over time. It’s hard to compare price because you have to compare it by hydrated volumes. I also tend to use homemade inputs instead of purchased ones where I can. Composting local wastes are better than anything else — but there’s only so much compost I can make, and certain applications require more than compost only.

    I’m only going to use peat (for acidity) on blueberry bushes, but I’m now using coir in pots (mixed with homemade compost and other ingredients, of course).

  • Susan

    Coconut coir mulch is extremely toxic to about 50% of dogs (it’s a genetic thing) and if you use coir in your soil mixes, you may be at risk for causing this unfortunate problem. Many dogs love the smell of the coir which smells a little like chocolate (which is also somewhat toxic to dogs). Coir can cause sudden and usually irreversible kidney failure, with seizures and rapid death about 2 days after ingestion by the dog. So, this is a consideration in using coir outside, or inside if you have dogs. Another problem to add to the mix!

    • Darren

      Cocoa Hulls

      Many people favor cocoa hulls for its delicious aroma, deep brown color and relative permanency. A by-product of the chocolate industry, cocoa hulls are safe to use as mulch for plants. However, cocoa hulls contain two compounds that are toxic to dogs, even in small amounts. To protect your pets and pets of others, it would be better to forgo this delightfully fragrant mulch and choose some other material. For chocoholics, it is better to grow chocolate flower, Berlandiera lyrata, (not on the list of plants toxic to animals, http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/plants/ and breathe in its tantalizing scent on summer mornings.

      Coconut coir is safe for dogs. However Cocoa (Different plant) mulch is toxic.

  • cassie

    Hi,
    I am a very new gardener and I have been researching all kinds of potting mixes to find the right one. I have some suggestions that I have not tried yet but I was just brainstorming:

    Compost/coco coir mix (either 50/50 or 75/25) – Fertilizing with Seaweed emulsion and possibly nitrogen only along growing cycle

    Coco coir/perlite mix (either 50/50 or 75/25) – Fertilizing with Seaweed emulsion and calcium/magnesium only along growing cycle

    Compost/coco coir/perlite mix – Fertilizing with Seaweed emulsion and only along growing cycle

    Please tell me what do you think of these mixes. I am planning on growing Kale and Rainbow Chard. This will help me make a decision on what to buy to get started.

    Thanks,

    Cassie

  • Tom

    I grow heliconias and a lot of other things and lack or air is usually the biggest problems the roots have.

    Coir seems to stay a lot cleaner than peat, and does not turn to mush. I have noticed that mixes with too much coir dry out really fast.

    My favorite amendments for soil are pumice, perlite, porous red lava rock, coco coir, decomposed granite, aged pine bark, silica rocks, charcoal, and compost.

  • [...] must have a balance of good plant nutrition so that your plants thrive. For full blog entry, go to: http://1greengeneration.elementsintime.com/?p=1136 This entry was posted in gardening, plants, wetlands and tagged gardening, plants, wetland, [...]

  • This is a wonderful website. I am a trader of Compost – both coco peat and peat moss worldwide.
    My peat comes from countries in Europe such as Latvia and Lithuania. Peat is depleting very fast (the rates are increasing annually just like oil), and in less than 50 years from now, all the peat will be gone, even in countries as big as Canada; If usage continues at the same rate.
    Cocopeat is a good alternative, but the problem is finding a good supplier – try to buy cocopeat that has a ‘RHP’ mark. This is treated cocopeat and does not cause harm to animals. Also the harvesting methods are proper which does not cause any water pollution. Countries such as India and Sri Lanka have abundance source of fresh water, and due to the monsoon (Annual wet weather season) coconuts trees are found in abundance, so there is no over harvesting. You find it expensive because the people in Sri Lanka and India sell it to agents in your country who charge you crazy amount of money. The problem one of you raised was about shipping and transportation causes a lot of greenhouse damage, trust me the carbon footprint is much less when you are harvesting peat moss. Countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine (Baltic Regions of Europe) are also third world countries, what makes you think they are harvesting it properly. The South East Asian countries don’t export them, rather they use it for their own use. You won’t find peat moss from South East countries because of the simple reason, they don’t have too much to export, because most of it used to grow Palm Oil. But the Baltic Region countries are very depended on it for export. Best alternative like she is suggesting is use cocopeat, but find a cheaper source. Its simple, there are only four companies that have the ‘RHP’ mark, and they can provide you substrates that are pre mixed for all kind of purpose. You can alternatively contact me to provide you with more details: info@theflorahome.com.
    But I suggest you google them out, and ask for quotations. You would be surprised how economical they are.

  • Ethan

    I am enrolled in a project based capstone course at my high school. My project goal is to develop a lighter alternative to today’s green roof systems. I am doing research to find a light alternative to the soil they use nowadays. I know that coco coir in itself is lightweight, but I was hoping someone could give me a ballpark figure of the density of the soil combo proposed here. Thanks!

  • daisy

    in Brasil. we use molched coffe leaves. added to our compost or strait into the pot. adds nitrogen. we also use coconut husks as well. here at the house in Kentuckey its hard to find ither!

  • Darren

    [quote] Coconut coir mulch is extremely toxic to about 50% of dogs (it’s a genetic thing) and if you use coir in your soil mixes, you may be at risk for causing this unfortunate problem. Many dogs love the smell of the coir which smells a little like chocolate (which is also somewhat toxic to dogs). Coir can cause sudden and usually irreversible kidney failure, with seizures and rapid death about 2 days after ingestion by the dog. So, this is a consideration in using coir outside, or inside if you have dogs. Another problem to add to the mix! [/quote]

    Cocoa Hulls

    Many people favor cocoa hulls for its delicious aroma, deep brown color and relative permanency. A by-product of the chocolate industry, cocoa hulls are safe to use as mulch for plants. However, cocoa hulls contain two compounds that are toxic to dogs, even in small amounts. To protect your pets and pets of others, it would be better to forgo this delightfully fragrant mulch and choose some other material. For chocoholics, it is better to grow chocolate flower, Berlandiera lyrata, (not on the list of plants toxic to animals, http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/poison-control/plants/ and breathe in its tantalizing scent on summer mornings.

    Coconut coir is safe for dogs. However Cocoa (Different plant) mulch is toxic.

  • Billie Carver

    THANK YOU!

  • [...] I also found this great article about the benefits of making your own soil instead of using peat moss (Coconut Coir is an abundant resource!) http://1greengeneration.elementsintime.com/?p=1136 [...]

  • Mycoman

    Below is a link to the best coconut coir source I can find. I have shopped around and these guys bring the best quality and prices by far.

    http://www.floweroflifecoco.com

    Bless!

  • Joshua

    What a great dense source of information here on this page. Thank you Melinda for sharing your knowledge. It is always nice to hear both sides of the peat vs. coco thing. I have been passionate about growing food for most my life. Growth in general really. I have come to understand what it takes for life to continue on to it’s fullest. Your soil recipe is a great start to creating that life.

    Bacteria and Fungi are the real engine of this life. They are the ones doing all the dirty work. The relationship between these two convert proteins into nutrients for plant roots to uptake, which brings growth. The more biodiversity you have in your soil the healthier your plants will be. Check out wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity (The more biodiversity we have on our planet the healthier our planet will be. So there are NO “built-in limits to how much habitat is subjected to the reduced biodiversity caused by peat harvesting” as someone stated earlier). So, with the bacteria digesting food and providing it to the fungi which create a bond with your roots, your plant is able to get what it needs to thrive. This all said… Melinda’s soil mix creates the perfect home for these organisms to live to their fullest potential and allowing your plant to reach to it’s fullest potential.

    I would say the sand portion of the recipe would be optional depending on the type of plant you are growing. The sand will provide you with abundant drainage, but your coconut coir and pumice/perite will already provide plenty. One third of each compost, coco coir, and perlite/pumice would be an ideal environment for most plant species. One thing I would add to this mix is a small portion of worm casting. These will provide an abundance of micro-life to inoculate into your soil mix. When buying worm casting make sure they are from a good source. Local is best! The should have a very consistent texture of little round pebbles, not dusty or chunky. Knowing what your worms are being fed is important. The castings are only as quality as the worms diet.

    Also, when you go to buy coco coir you should know what your getting. Coco comes in three forms. The fiber, the pith, and the dust. Most coco coir suppliers mix all three while some take the care to screen and provide just the pith. Which is what we are after. Your coir should have minimal fiber and minimal dust. There is also the salt content that comes into play. Coconuts contain salts which cause nutrient lockup and stop your plant’s growth. High quality coco coir is rinsed free of all this excess sodium and screened to produce a material that looks much like soil.

    Below are some benefits of coir I got from floweroflifecoco.com/benifits-of-coconut-coir.html

    What are the benefits of our coconut coir?
    • 100% Certified Organic
    • OMRi Listed
    • Super washed with freshwater to remove Sodium (EC), tannin, phenolic, chloride, etc.
    • Complete freshwater processing
    • No steaming or harsh chemical washes to ensure a healthy microbial population
    • Naturally contains trichoderma a natural rooting/ growth agent
    • High lignin / cellulose content
    • Ideal environment for microbial life to flourish
    • Studies show coir inhibits pythium and phytothora growth
    • Faster growth with more abundant fruit/bloom setting
    • Easy to dispose / recycle compared to other growing mediums
    • Plants root faster compared to other mediums, great for seeds and cuttings
    • Preferable natural PH compared to peat moss: (Coir: 5.7-6.2) (Peat: 2.3-3.3)
    • Weed and pathogen free
    • Mold and fungal resistant
    • Lasts many times longer than peat moss
    • High water and air holding capacity
    • Coco coir holds water and air like a sponge
    • Excellent drainage, High Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC)
    • Cuts down on fertilizer up to 30%
    • Prevents stress after transplanting
    • 100% Natural and renewable resource
    • Coco never compacts, easily re-wets unlike peat moss which is known to form a crust on top of the medium which causes the water to run-off. Coir always absorbs evenly through the medium.

    This should be a good addition to an already great page!

    • Penny in CO

      Thanks for that useful additional info, Josh. I like the balance in your potting soil recipe too, tho’ we in CO generally have to forgo lime since our soil is most often alkaline. Do you have a suggestion instead of the dolomite?

  • Joshua

    Your can call this Joshua’s completely soil-less backyard recipe:

    Makes 1 yard:

    60% Coconut Coir
    30% Pumice
    10% Worm Castings

    Mix together along with:

    2 lbs of dolomite lime (supplies coir with needed calcium/magnesium)
    2 lbs of glacial rock or azomite (supplies trace minerals)

    This mix will give you a great home for roots to thrive.

    Tip: Add some bird/bat guano once a month to feed plants (high in Nitrogen and Phosphorus)

    Enjoy!

  • Carl

    Hi Melinda, I thought your recipe was very helpful!
    I do not know why most people on the internet have to insult how helpful you are?
    I thank you, and I do not thank the others who are insulting you with no alternatives to provide.

  • Tom

    Has anyone stopped and thought about how much fuel it takes to import the coconut coir to the States? Also what the effects of the burning of that fuel does to the enviroment?

  • Richard

    The problem I have with Coconut coir… it is farmed through monoculture, or one crop on a large plot of land. In order to do this, vast acreage of habitat is cleared in order to plant the coconut trees for their oil and water. These habitats are the only place where some very specialized species live, such as orangutans and howler monkeys – not to mention the farmers treat our hominid cousins as pests when they attempt to return home. There is also huge energy costs to process the large coconut shells into compact bricks, as well as use of fresh water to leach the coconut coir of naturally occurring salts. Anyone that states clean, fresh water is in surplus in India, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka is in denial (not a River in India) about infrastructure in third world countries, sewage and fresh water oftentimes commingle. There are wars being waged between these two countries over fresh water, as India has already diverted the Ganges at the Bangladeshi border, rerouting the river into India and bypassing Bangladesh… Bangladesh is essentially the mouth or delta of this river. China has also realized that the Himalaya’s is the source of this fresh water and have developed plans to route the Himalayan water into China, bypassing both India and Bangladesh altogether (FREE TIBET). Without population regulation, in the most populated place on earth, fresh water is a serious consideration. Just sayin’…
    I find both peat and coir have transportation costs. Both have environmental costs… but peat releases it’s trapped carbon and cannot continue to trap carbon, whereas coir does neither.
    Pumice, pearlite, vermiculite, glacial rock dust, sand, etc… are all unsustainable. The more people understand the consequences of their actions, the brighter our future will be, which is still looking pretty dim.

    Here are some of my suggestions… rice hulls (great for aeration), alfalfa meal or pellets (very similar to vermiculite), soybean meal (not found a pellet source)…

    I have considered corn kernels and even popped corn (a use for Monsanto’s GMO crap) but not yet conducted any research as of yet (working on it now), as well as wheat husks (the rich fiber part thrown away when processed here in the US). If anybody tries the latter and has success, please let me know.

    And for the idiots attempting to debunk the human effects (and their own responsibility) on global warming… don’t you have a tea party to attend? The last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago (before the earth was created), when the earth was at the farthest point (about halfway) from the galaxy’s equatorial plane – also the time humans began farming. And yes we are in the warm spot since we just crossed the plane on 12.21.12, and somehow I doubt you will be around when it cools off in another 13,000 years when the planet is next farthest away from the plane, but denying evidence of current climate science is like saying the Big Bang is just a theory. In science, theories are no longer debated, they are proven facts. The Big Bang Theory, proven fact. Theory of Evolution, proven fact. Theory of Gravity, proven fact. Theory of Relativity, proven fact. Theories are accepted by the scientific community until replaced with an alternate theory. Please back up your torts with credentials.

    From wikipedia:
    In modern science, the term “theory” refers to scientific theories, a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science. Such theories are described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support (“verify”) or empirically contradict (“falsify”) it. Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge,[2] in contrast to more common uses of the word “theory” that imply that something is unproven or speculative (which is better defined by the word ‘hypothesis’).[3] Scientific theories are also distinguished from hypotheses, which are individual empirically testable conjectures, and scientific laws, which are descriptive accounts of how nature will behave under certain conditions.[4]

    Rant apologies to the rest of you earth lovers with a conscience.

  • Penny in CO

    Thanks for your suggestions, Richard. I share your concerns about these amendments we urban farmers need for our little plots. I’ll try googling local CO sources for some of those alternatives you mention.
    Also, did you really mean to say “The last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago (before the earth was created). . . “?
    Once again thanks to all the contributors here for their thoughtful comments.

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