The potting mix indoor gardeners use to sustain houseplants can help or hinder their plants. This is typically because what is contained within those potting mixes dramatically changes how quickly water passes through the potting medium. A dense potting medium will stay wet for longer periods of time than a well-draining mixture.

Understanding what a dense potting mix looks like or is typically composed of versus a well-draining mixture can empower you to make a decision about what kind of potting medium you want to pot your plants in.

Many of the houseplants we keep prefer well-draining mixes. Additionally, many of us are recovering overwaterers, which means that we can also benefit from well-draining mixes that help to minimize the effects of providing our plants with too much water,

This post will go through some of the ways we can identify what kind of potting mix we are looking at in the store AND what we can buy to add to those mixes to increase the drainage for the health of our plants.

Should you buy pre-made potting mixes?

If you are like me, you’ve bought the bags labeled, “Indoor Potting Mix” many times with the assumption that these mixes are perfectly designed to help your indoor plants thrive.

However, many of these potting mixes have components designed to retain water rather than drain water.

Some will contain moisture crystals that absorb water so you have to water your plants less. Avoid these mixtures! They increase the chances of you unintentionally overwatering your plants due to the potting medium staying wet for far too long.

Others may contain very few components designed to aerate the potting mix and, therefore, increase drainage (such as perlite, orchid bark, and others we will discuss later in the post).

Some pre-made mixes also contain chemical fertilizers. Depending on the strength of these fertilizers and what your normal fertilization practices are, this may work for you.

However, overfertilization can damage or kill plants, so just be aware if the mix you choose includes fertilizer. I specifically choose mixes that do not so I control the amount of fertilization my plants receive.

Can you still buy pre-made potting mixes?

Yes! My recommendation is to use a premade potting mix as a base and add additional ingredients to help provide more drainage.

Is there an option that can be bought as-is and not hand-mixed?

Yes! My recommendation for people who want well-draining mix without mixing their own is to buy a pre-made cactus potting mix.

Because these mixes are designed specifically for cacti and succulents that need very little water, these products will already have various substrates to increase aeration and drainage. This means that you could use cactus mix with many of your houseplants without needing to add anything else. 

This is the strategy I used for a while before I was ready to mix my own and it worked well. I now like to add more perlite and bark than would be in a pre-made mix, but I kept many plants alive and happy with cactus potting mixes!

What kind of potting mix should you start with?

I recommend any organic potting mix because they have natural fertilizer sources (such as worm castings) rather than chemical fertilizers. Some of the non-organic potting mixes have damaged my plants due to over-fertilization. I have never had this issue with organic potting mixes.

The organic potting mixes, in my experience, have never included moisture crystals or other unnatural/inorganic substances meant to retain water.

Here you can see that the pre-made mix does have a small amount of perlite (the puffed white balls) in it and possibly some other fiber source, but I like to see more than that!

What do you add to a potting mix to increase drainage?

Some examples of items that can increase drainage are perlite, vermiculite, orchid bark, and pumice.

I use a combination of potting mix, perlite, and orchid bark.  An approximation of what I use is 60% potting mix, 20% perlite, and 20% orchid bark. 

It is definitely not an exact measurement. I’m just pouring each ingredient into a bucket until I feel satisfied there is enough, mixing it up, and adding more of anything I want.

Perlite is puffed volcanic glass, which adds a light airy texture to the mix. It is very similar in texture to styrofoam balls.

Orchid bark is large and chunky bark pieces that provide spaces for air and root growth. It is particularly great for epiphytic plants (plants that grow and climb on trees/rocks/plants). I have a bunch of these like hoyas, pothos, and philodendrons.

Many people may choose to only add one of these ingredients. The most common is perlite.

Should you match the plant species with the potting mix?

What potting mix you use can be determined by what plant you have. I deliberately leave this section a bit open-ended, though, because there is a lot of personal preference involved in potting mix choice including whether you want to alter the ingredients of your potting mix based on the species of plant you are caring for.

For example, while most plants like well-draining mix, there are some that prefer to have some level of moisture at all times. For these plants, you could consider a denser potting medium.

Some examples of plants that like to have a level of moisture at all times are calatheas, marantas, and oxalis.

I personally choose to use an equally well-draining mix for the plants that like to maintain some level of moisture and water them more frequently. This is the choice I have made because, while these plants are more moisture friendly, they are capable of developing root rot and I don’t want to risk it.

I do alter my potting mix in one instance, however. I do not include orchid bark when I’m potting up my cacti, euphorbia, and succulents. They do not need the orchid bark as my epiphytic plants do. Instead, I add more perlite to increase drainage. The only exception I can think of is my Schlumbergera, or holiday cactus, that is an epiphytic cactus! That one did get some orchid bark!

The vast majority of plants will do great in well-draining potting mixes because they prefer to dry out completely between watering. Some common examples are pothos, zz plants, snake plants, dracaenas, hoyas, cacti, succulents, philodendrons, spider plants, and string of hearts.

It is easiest, if in doubt, to do a little research on the plant you are purchasing to have a better understanding of what the recommended substrate and care is.

Should you add charcoal to your potting mix?

Horticultural charcoal is definitely an item worth considering! When added to potting mix, it will guard against insects and mold, absorb odors and excess water, and help to control impurities in the potting mix!

This becomes especially important when setting up terrariums and vivariums (enclosures that often maintain high humidity for plants and sometimes inhabit reptiles or amphibians as well).

Enclosed systems mean less airflow and higher humidity which increases the potential for mold, fungus growth, and less-than-pleasant odors. The addition of charcoal can help to decrease this potential.

Should you top-dress your potting mixes?

Top-dressing your potting mixes can be helpful in maintaining moisture and pest control.

Pebbles can help to maintain moisture for plants who prefer some level of moisture most of the time. I use these on top of my calatheas and marantas, for example.

Pumice can be a great way to discourage fungus gnats from reproducing. Fungus gnats have to dig into the potting mix to lay eggs or dig out of the mix to fly around. With pumice stones on top of the potting mix, they would need to scrape their bodies against the stones to get into or out of the mix, which they do not like. It’s a win-win!

Another way to discourage fungus gnats is to add sand to the top of your potting mix, which can look quite nice but may need to be a bit groomed over time.

Click here to read about fungus gnat prevention, control, and eradication

Click here to read about repotting tips and tricks (coming soon)

Big Takeaways:

Potting mix should be something that works for you and your style of plant parenthood. Whether that means mixing your own, buying a pre-made mix, or doing something else entirely, my best recommendation is to do what feels comfortable for you and adjust as you go.

Well-draining mixes are best-practice from my experience and are most recommended by houseplant experts.

To make a mix more well-draining, you can add perlite, orchid bark, or other substrates to whatever degree seems sufficient for you.

To buy a pre-made mix that does not require adjustments, try a cactus mix.

Be wary of mixes that include chemical fertilizers or moisture crystals.

Most importantly, observe your plants and see how they respond to your potting mix choices. Then adjust if needed. Good luck and share any of your questions, tips, or tricks below!

Want to learn more about houseplant care? Check out these posts:

Lighting: How to Choose the Perfect Houseplant for the Lighting in Your Home!
Bright Indirect Light: Houseplant Care: What is Bright Indirect Light?
Watering: How to Water Your Houseplants Correctly Every Time
Passive Hydro: How to Propagate Houseplants Using Passive Hydro
Potting Mix: What Potting Mix Will Help Your Houseplant Grow and Thrive
Choosing a Pot: Pick the Right Pot For Your Houseplant
Exposing My Mistakes! Sharing My Biggest Houseplant Mistakes So You Can Avoid Them!
Propagation: How to Propagate a Hoya Lisa Cutting in Water
Fertilizer 101: Answers to the Most Common Questions About Fertilizer

Want to learn about botany for plant lovers? These posts are for you!

Why bother with Botanical Latin: Why You Need to Know Botanical Latin When Shopping for Houseplants
Botanical Latin 101: For People Who Want to Understand Botanical Latin
What Causes Leaf Variegation? What is the Cause and Controversy of Variegated Houseplants?
What is Tissue Culture?: Are Tissue-Cultured Houseplants of Poor Quality?

Want to learn about the benefits of nature-centered activities? Click on these posts:

Health Benefits: Why We Find Nature Therapeutic + Ways to Benefit Daily
Embracing Imperfection: Taking Care of Nature is NEVER Perfect + Why That’s Okay!
Growing Patience: When You Garden, You Grow Your Patience Alongside Your Plants
Building a Relationship with Nature: 6 Simple Reasons to Photograph Your Plants

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