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Potting Soil vs. Potting Mix: What Growing Medium Should I use for my Container Garden?

Growing Medium is a term used to describe the substance that you use to grow plants in containers.  Before I started to educate myself on container gardening I was naive enough to think that all you needed was “dirt” from  a neighbors yard or a park to grow plants in containers.  I quickly found out that this was not the case.  Dirt is an elusive term, so what I am really talking about is Soil from the Ground and the Garden Soil, Top Soil and Potting Soil sold at garden centers and nurseries.  Although many gardeners continue to use Potting Soil for container gardens I am finding that most container gardeners who constitently experience success with their containers lean towards using a high quality Potting Mix.  So what is the difference?  It wasn’t until recently that I realized that there was such a vast difference between Potting Soil and Potting Mix.   I decided to ask the sales associate at the garden center which was little help.  He informed me that Potting Soil would be just as good as Potting Mix in my containers and could not explain to me the difference between the two.  So let’s get down to the bottom of this and try to make some sense out of this obviously confusing subject. 

Potting Soil: Contains Soil (Dirt).  Potting Soil will often not give optimal results because its thickness does not allow adequate water and airflow in containers. 
Best Uses:  Raised beds or to fill low or bald spots in your yard

Potting Mix:  Contains No Soil (Dirt), sterile mix which may contain a combination of sphagnum moss, perlite and vermiculite. Potting Mix has particles larger than soil to allow the flow of water and air in the container. Potting Mixes drain well while still retaining sufficient water for plants. 
Best Uses: Container Plants.  Can also be used to start seeds and for root cuttings. 

To add to the confusion some Potting Soils do have sphagnum moss, perlite and vermiculite added in.  These potting soils may be okay for containers, but I still believe that you will see better results with a Potting Mix.  I have used both Potting Soil and Potting Mix in my container garden and I have been more impressed with the results of the health and growth of my plants in Potting Mix.  My plants seem to thrive not just survive in this medium.   When you are in the garden center and a sales associate claims that it is the same thing remember to look a little deeper.  If it contains soil you may be compromising the performance of your containers.  Look for a good quality Potting Mix and you will be on your way to healthy, thriving plants.

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5 comments to Potting Soil vs. Potting Mix: What Growing Medium Should I use for my Container Garden?

  • This exact confusion has been a real barrier for me and container growing. I have some huge bags of potting soil (I think) that I have never used because as you say, it seemed to heavy for containers. If it’s better for raised beds and filling in spots in the garden, why do they call it potting soil!?! I need to get some good potting mix so I can finally have some good success with containers. Thanks for clearing this up!

  • You are very welcome Karen. This is a confusing subject and staff at garden centers and nurseries are just as confused about the difference and will happily sell you potting soil with the best of intentions. I think most people just do not know the difference because they are both marketed for use in containers. I purchased potting soil numerous times before reserching what medium was best for my containers. I am currently using Miracle Gro Potting Mix with a great deal of success, but any quality potting mix will do. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Container Gardening!

  • Thank you for clearing up the confusion regarding the difference between potting soil and potting mix. I am a 100% container gardener and never knew the difference! I have another question about this though. I have noticed that on the bags of potting soil and potting mix, the manufacturer has printed on the bag the recommendation that one should be used for containers 12″ deep or more and the other should be used for containers 12″ deep or less. What is the reasoning? Thank you!

  • Hi all,
    Here’s something that I’ve had to factor in when making a decision about soilless or soil in my containers. It’s the plants!

    For instance, I have great big elephant ear and coleus in a large pot. Both need lots of water. So for these guys, potting soil (which I mix with some compost and some perlite if it needs lightening up a bit), is better than the mix (soilless) because the soil retains water better.

    I still have to water them twice a day in the heat of summer, but they seem to thrive in this sort of potting mixture. So it is important to think about what the needs of the plants in the container as well as the other factors.

    Hope this helps!

    P.S. I did post this the other day, but since I don’t see it, I sent it in again–sorry to duplicate if I’ve missed the posting!

  • NP


    thank you so much…you saved me so much of time by posting this article. It was very helpful…also do you know any website where we can buy seeds for veggies?

    Thanks a lot again…you rock!!!

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