MyOwn State Park Miniature Garden
Use Potting Soil For Your Containers: start with organic potting soil with no added fertilizers or polymers (the moisture-retaining stuff.). The above garden was for a display for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in 2005 called ‘MyOwn State Park.’

Stumped about what soil to use and when to use it? We don’t blame you! The garden industry as certainly made it difficult for the beginner gardener to navigate. SO many different types of soil are out in the marketplace these days, cluttering up our ways of gardening and it’s just downright confusing. In the olden days of yore – okay, as little as only TEN years ago – garden soil was so not complicated. So, here’s some of your questions answered! If I missed addressing anything, please leave a comment and tell me about.

It’s the Beginning of our How to Make a Miniature Garden Series!

One of the challenges over the last 20 years with bringing the miniature garden hobby out in the open, and finding ways to share it with the rest of the world, is that it attracts a wide variety of people.

And why wouldn’t it?

It comes in many forms and is, quite possibly, the most accessible way to garden for just about anyone. Old or young, rural or urban, spatially challenged or not, experienced growers – AND those brand new to gardening – are finding out that miniature gardening is not tied to any financial, geographic or physical condition. Anyone that is willing, can find something to enjoy about miniature gardening in some form or another.

So, join us – this is the beginning of a series of blogs that will answer the frequently asked questions about the brand new hobby of true gardening in miniature:

Miniature Garden Center

What is the Difference BetweenSoil and Dirt?

Soil is alive. Dirt is dead. You can see the difference. Soil is dark, rich and full of organic matter. Dirt is the lifeless, gray, sandy powdery dirt like the stuff you see between the cracks in the sidewalk.

Can I Use the Soil From my Garden Bed for my Containers?

No. Only use potting soil for your containers and planters. Even if is a raised bed, it’s recommended to use potting soil. Soil from your garden bed will not work because potting soil is has everything that the plants need to keep the roots fed and happy in a contained environment – i.e. a pot. When planting in-ground, the plant’s roots will find the necessary nutrients in the soil to stay happy on its own.

Why Do Some Plants Need Special Soil?

Plants are just like you and me. What works for me grow and stay happy, may not work for you.

Different kinds of plants like certain types of potting soil mixes to keep them happy. Cactus, for example, likes its roots to stay dry and will need a different kind of sharper-draining potting soil than say, an African Violet.

The cactus soil will have more sand and drainage material (vermiculite or pearlite) to help keep the water flowing through the soil and will keep the roots on the dry-side which is just how cacti like it – if the cactus sits in water or soggy soil, it’ll rot and die.

Going back to our African Violet example, these plants need the soil to stay damp all the time. This type if plant needs the constant moisture around its roots to stay happy. So the soil combo it needs will have more peat in it, which naturally retains the moisture.

But most of our miniature plants and trees that we use for true gardening in miniature need a simple “regular” organic potting soil with no extra fertilizers or added polymers. This doesn’t mean the potting soil doesn’t have any nutrients, our miniature garden plants don’t need the extra fertilizers, because we don’t want them to grow faster than normal. And, those water-retaining polymers are not needed with ornamental plants either, use this type of fortified soil for your annuals and veggies instead.

Miniature Garden from the 2005 Northwest Flower and Garden Show
A Miniature Garden made from miniature and dwarf conifers, for the 2005 Northwest Flower and Garden Show. our first public display.

So What About the Soil in My Garden Bed?

In your in-ground garden bed, there are different types of garden soil: sandy, loamy or clay. The soil will depend upon where you live and whether your garden bed has been cultivated or not. I usually recommend compost to amend your in-ground garden beds, some use topsoil but it’s best to check with a professional first, especially if you’re new to gardening.

The only way to really get a good idea on wether you need to amend the soil in your garden bed before planting a miniature garden or fairy garden is to take a handful of soil from the garden bed in a clean plastic bag and head on over to your local independent garden store to find out what is best for your area. (The big-box garden centers won’t have the knowledgeable staff that the independent store have.)

Another way is to send a soil sample out for testing. Find soil test kits online for $30 to $40 and they’ll mail you a kit with instructions to collect your sample with. In a couple/few weeks, they’ll send you back the results. Just Google, “soil test kits” and you’ll find a bunch to chose from. You can find home-soil-test-kits to do yourself, but it’ll take some nerdy research to figure out the results in your into the geeky part of gardening.

It this works vice versa too, topsoil is meant for the garden bed and is not a substitute for potting soil.

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How Do I Know What Kind of Soil to Use for What Plant?

The quick answer is our recommended miniature plants and trees only need simple “regular” organic potting soil with no extra fertilizers nor any water-retaining polymers.

But you can usually find this kind of valuable information on the plant’s tag or, you can do quick search online from a trusted source using the botanical name of the plant. Trusted sources are someone you know like Yours Truly, a botanical garden website, or a university’s garden-extension website, for example. There are a lot of garden blogs spouting different things on the Internet so take a minute to look for a trusted site.

And I stress to use the botanical name of the plant for your search, the “regular” name – aka common name – can vary from region to region and are mainly used for marketing purposes. By using the latin/botanical name, you’ll get right to the info that you need faster.

Where Do I Find the “Right” Soil?

Your local independent garden center will have a variety of the right potting soils, soil amendments for the garden beds, and the knowledgeable staff to guide you on what you need for your project. (Big box stores tend to only hire “warm bodies” to work their garden centers because it is cheaper – instead of hiring professional gardener that have the gardening and plant knowledge and experience. )

What Soil Do I Use for My Miniature Gardening?

For Miniature Gardens in Containers: Use regular potting soil with no added fertilizers nor any water-retaining polymers. Any fortified soil like Miracle-Gro for example, will make the miniature garden plants grow way too fast AND that extra fertilizer may burn the roots on your conifers or baby trees. Any a high quality, organic potting soil will have enough nutrients in it to last about 3 years before needing anything else. After the 3 years, you can apply a mild organic fertilizer in the springtime and think about repotting or refreshing the soil after about 5 years or so.

For In-Ground Miniature Gardening: This is a book unto itself but the easiest thing to so is to take a sample of the soil from the garden or ground where you want to plant, and bring it into your local garden center. They will know exactly what to recommend – if anything! A lot of areas already have fantastic soil that doesn’t need any amendments at all.

Or, if you have an experience gardener in your neighborhood or family, ask them – gardeners LOVE to talk about anything garden-y!

Got the Right Potting Soil? Look closer. Soil is dark, rich and full of organic matter. You’ll see tiny bits of bark and compost. The white stuff is perlite, used to keep the soil from compacting over time.

Do I Need to Add Anything to my Potting Soil?

For the most-part: Nope.

But if you’re NOT seeing a good mix of organic matter with white perlite or vermiculite heavily peppered throughout the soil-mix, you can amend the soil by adding a couple of handfuls to the potting mix.

Why? The miniature garden trees and shrubs (and most plants for that matter,) need a bit of air around their roots. This is why you see the roots of big trees come up to the surface of your lawn or push their way through the sidewalks and driveways – they are looking for air. So for your pots and containers you can add some vermiculite or perlite to help the soil stay aerated. Without this kind of amendment, the soil would compact itself over time with the water and gravity.

So, if the regular potting mix does not contain enough drainage material, like vermiculite or perlite, you may need to add some. Look for a heavily peppered mix of perlite or vermiculite throughout the soil, like a peppered steak.

Providing a good mix of well-draining soil before you plant, will help keep your miniature garden happy for years.

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And When Do I Fertilize my Miniature Garden?

For Containers: Fresh, regular, organic potting soil has enough nutrients in it to keep your plants happy for up to 3 years. After that, you can apply a mild, general fertilizer in early spring and perhaps another light application in the early-mid summer. Remember, you don’t want your miniature garden to grow fast – you want it to stay cute and small for as long as you can. Some miniature gardens can stay in scale for up to 10 years.

For In-Ground: Conifers planted in the ground will not need any fertilizer, they have the ability to find their own nutrients if your garden soil has a good mix of compost. The “bedding plants” that we recommend can use a light fertilizer in early spring before they start growing for the season.

For any kind of fertilizing, follow the instructions on the box and also look for the temperatures that it works in too. If your area is having a cold spring, you might want to wait until the weather warms up more to fertilize your miniature garden.

Like this? Want a dose of miniature garden goodness delivered straight to your inbox every few days? Join us for your very own Mini Garden Gazette newsletter. It’s the only newsletter written for the hobby – for miniature gardeners by a miniature gardener! To see more or to join us, click in here to sign up, (it’ll open another page on this website.)

Check out our other blog in the same series: How to Make a Miniature Garden Series: About the Plants

Your Miniature Garden Center

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