Why Does Potting Soil Get So hard? What Can We Do?


plastic scoop and compost on a table

Every home gardener’s nightmare is hard, dry potting soil. As a home gardener, you may have faced many unprecedented issues that stand in the way of effective gardening. But for every problem, there actually is a solution.

Potting soil getting tough is an often occurrence. You can improve this by providing ample water supply timely, changing the potting soil frequently, and refraining from packing the soil too tightly. The weather also plays a role in dictating the texture of your potting soil. 

It is surprising that even experienced home gardeners fall victim to this horticultural problem. The underlying problem can be anything as simple as purchasing low-quality soil to your potting soil suffering from hydrophobia! Yes, that’s a thing!  

What is potting soil?

Potting soil is often interchanged with other soil types such as garden soil, top soil and even potting mixes.

Potting soil is a soil variant best for container and potted plants.

They are often acquired by gardeners due to their great ability to retain moisture. A common ingredient for them is peat which is known to be great for nourishing plants. To aid you more about soil differences as compared to potting soil. check my recent article on the differences between potting soil, topsoil and garden soil. It recounts the uses, advantages of each as well as the main ingredients for these soils.

4 Major Reasons Why Potting Soil Gets Hard

Let’s dive deeper into the root of the problem.

Using soil of the wrong texture makes potting soil hard

soil in buckets with a green trowel

A common gardening mistake is to think using soil that has a more clay-like consistency will keep the soil more moistened. However, this is totally wrong.

Using this type of soil makes the top layer dry out faster than the bottom and middle layers, thus creating a cracked surface atop. This leaves the plants deprived of necessary nutrition.

Potting soil is infested by fungi

While you may be feeling optimistic with your newly purchased bag of potting soil, don’t expect it to not disappoint. The premade potting soil mix that are sold in nurseries are usually prepared months in advance and they go through a rigorous process of treatment before being packed.

These soil mix packs are composed, sterilized, and treated under heat at the bare minimum to prevent them from spoiling or decaying before being sold.

However, once the seal is broken and the soil is used, they are vulnerable to being infested by a lot of fungi living in your own garden. Fungi grow fast in the sterile soil and under optimum gardening conditions that you provide but are also short-lived in the same conditions, thus drying out the soil.  

Using hydrophobic soil for potting soil

It may sound amusing to you that how can soil possibly be “scared” of water when they need this very thing to survive? As unusual as it may sound, a special type of soil does have this characteristic.

When peat moss, an essential element of every potting soil dries out, the soil is termed as hydrophobic soil.

This means it becomes difficult to rewet the soil because it will constantly repel water rather than absorbing it. When you put water, the liquid runs between the sides of the plant, and most of the water is draining out leaving the soil parched and arid.

Weight does not define potting soil quality

watering a house plant with a sprayer

Many home gardening practitioners believe that heavier soil equals better quality. This is completely wrong and a common gardening mistake. Soil can weigh more for either of the two reasons:

  • Pre Soaking the soil
  • If there was an addition of a good amount of sand

Soaking potting soil beforehand exposes it to several problems such as breaking down, becoming compact, and makes it a potential carrier of root diseases. While a wet sandy texture is good for potting soils, an extra addition of actual sand is not. This will only deteriorate the quality of soil because often people use it as a cheap filler.

What to do when the potting soil is extremely hard

On other occasions, when the soil becomes extremely hard and dry with a cement-like texture that seems impermeable, take the gradual route of sprinkling as opposed to absorbing.

This type of dried soil will be less likely to absorb water and will cause water run-off.

Sprinkle water on the potting soil

In order to tackle this problem, sprinkle the surface of the soil lightly and repeatedly using a water sprinkler. Ensuring that the water is running off the sides. Eventually, the tough surface will give in and start to absorb the water.

If sprinkling initially does not provide any benefit, try breaking up the surface with a fork by making indents.

This is a lengthy process but a very effective one.

Consider moving the potted plant

small seedling in a small pot held by a hand

What to do when it’s mother nature herself, drying out your potting soil? Do you need to pack up your garden and move? Well, partially yes.

If you think the weather or surrounding environment is the culprit for degrading the quality of your potting soil, try moving the pot (not the whole garden!) to a more appropriate place.

What Type Of Potting Soil Should You Purchase?

Opt for something that has a wet sand-like texture. It should not have a liquid consistency like clay but should not be too coarse either.

But, it should be like sand with which you can form shapes with your palm.

Also, assess the weight of the soil before buying and avoid packs that are unusually heavy. Do not go for sellers who are overly flamboyant about using organic materials as too much organic content can also ruin the quality.   

What Factors Should You Assess Before Purchasing Potting Soil?

While the texture and weight of soil are two important factors, the place of purchase is a crucial one too. Buy potting soil from reliable brands and sources whether it is a physical outlet or online store.

Ask for recommendations from other gardeners who have purchased potting soil without facing the problem of drying out.

Gardening requires effort and doing some proper background research will keep your effort from going down the drain. 

Does The Weather And External Conditions Play A Role In Making The Soil Dry?

Yes, the weather definitely plays a role in making the soil dry and so does the season. While spring sounds like the best time to ramp up your gardening efforts, this optimum season also brings with it an influx of fungi.

Outdoor and indoor plants have varying requirements as the surrounding outdoor can get too dry and indoor plants often lack receiving sunlight.

You should also note that plants have varying needs too, as growing cacti highly differs from growing herbs.

FAQs

Conclusion on why does potting soil get so hard

Hopefully all that is stated above will help you solution your potting soil. Remember, before doing anything, try to look into the ingredients of the potting soil, especially when it is storebought and try to fix it from there.

Just like all the things ion your garden and even in life, it takes a little bit of trial and error to get things perfect for your garden. Hopefully, the tips above will help you with this and save your money from buying new potting soil.

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Tony O'Neill

I am Tony O'Neill, A full-time firefighter, and professional gardener. I have spent most of my life gardening. From the age of 7 until the present day at 46. My goal is to use my love and knowledge of gardening to support you and to simplify the gardening process so you are more productive

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