Cheap Vs. Expensive Potting Mix: Which should you buy?

Potting mix is the first building block for a great garden, and your seedlings will depend on a good-quality potting mix to support their growth. Choosing the kind of potting mix to use may come down to ingredients and quality, but it is also likely to come down to price. There are often endless varieties of potting mixes and other soil varieties at any garden store, and it can feel overwhelming to pick which will work best for your garden.

So what is the difference between cheap and expensive potting mix? Expensive potting mix often contains greater quantities of perlite, vermiculite, and other materials that help your plant grow. That means that your plants are likely to grow quicker and stronger, but it will also save you time and effort, adding additional fertilizers and other extras.

Another benefit of higher-quality potting mixes is that they retain water better, which will bring down the time and the cost of watering your plants.

All of these factors mean that there is a correlation between a good-quality potting mix and less plant loss. For many gardeners, plant loss is an expected part of planting each year, but with better quality potting mix, plant loss tends to be lower, and the germination rate tends to higher.

With all that said, we understand that the potting mix is a big investment, and some of the higher-end mixes may just not be in your budget. A lower-quality potting mix can still be a great option if you know how to work with it.


What makes potting mix?

There are several different types of soils and mixes that you can buy from garden stores. When shopping, there are a few important distinctions to be aware of.

Potting mix and potting soil are two phrases you may see a lot, and you might wonder what the difference is. They are usually the same thing, but sometimes potting soil is just soil and not a mix with the necessary nutrients for your plants.

Another planting mix you may encounter is a seed starting mix. This type of soil often is very low in nutrients or has nutrients that are controlled for specific plants. The seed mix is also sterilized and has a fine substrate. If you are a beginning gardener and want to make sure everything is correct when planting seeds, then a seed mix is a smarter option.

The regular potting mix is incredibly versatile and can be used at various stages in the planting process. You can use it to plant and sprout seeds, plant pruned offshoots or transfer seedlings, fertilize existing plants, or transfer mature plants.

Because potting mix has a stable and normally (depending on the quality) neutral pH level, making it an ideal growing condition for plants. That said, there are some significant differences in the quality of different potting mix types, which contribute to how well a plant will grow.


Advantages of cheap potting mix

The most obvious and probably most significant advantage of a cheap potting mix is its price point. It is cost-effective and makes gardening accessible to many more people.

There is a difference in quality between price points, but there are also some tried and true potting mix options at the lower price point. The best option is to buy a range of potting mixes and test yourself which ones you believe to be worth it at their price point.

The lower quality potting mix also usually comes without any pre-mixed fertilizers, allowing you to use the fertilizers you like best, rather than relying on what comes in the bag.

If you have access to free fertilizers like coffee grounds, compost, or wood ash from a fireplace, then you can make your own simple fertilizer for less, putting to use things that would otherwise go to waste.


Disadvantages of cheap potting mix

The main disadvantage of the cheap potting mix comes down to what it is made of. Lower-cost potting mix is often made from components like uncomposted wood shavings or sawdust, and sand, which are lower-quality materials that are not optimal for plant growth. 

The lower-quality potting mix also often has very little texture and structure and often will ‘slump’ in the pot after just a few months. It also won’t provide your plant with many nutrients and may also have a low pH level, making it completely unsuitable for some types of plants. 

One of the most significant long-term impacts of planting in a poor-quality potting mix is that it is badly aerated. It will often contain very few essential ingredients, such as perlite, which keeps air throughout the soil. Without these ingredients, your plant’s roots will be starved of oxygen. 


Why is there such a big price difference in potting soil?

When shopping for a potting mix, you will often notice that there can be a huge discrepancy in prices, from about $2 up to over $50. Potting mix can be specialized so that you will see different varieties for indoor and outdoor growing, varieties for specific types of plants, and stages of plant growth.

When looking for a potting mix that is good quality and good value, bells and whistles do a grower no good. The thing to look for is good quality ingredients and very little filler. Fertilizer within the potting mix is not essential, but it does remove a step for gardeners and means one less thing to buy potentially.


How to get the best of both worlds  

If you want a good quality potting mix, but you don’t want to pay the high prices you see in gardening stores, then a great alternative is making your own potting mix. The components on their own are relatively cheap and make up a high-quality potting mix when put together.

Follow our recipe for a great low-cost potting mix:

  • 50% coconut coir or peat moss
  • 0-20% clean topsoil
  • 30-50% compost
  • Sprinkling of perlite

To give your homemade potting mix an extra kick of nutrients and goodness, add the following ingredients:

  • Alfalfa or canola meal for nitrogen
  • Rock dust for added minerals
  • Gypsum for calcium
  • Rock phosphate for organic Phosphorus
  • Epson salt for Magnesium
  • Lime or sulfur for pH control

The proportions that you should add these extra ingredients into your potting mix will depend on what you’re growing. Research the fruits, vegetables, and other plants that you want to grow, and add the vitamins and minerals that these plants most need.

The quality of your potting mix may make a significant impact on the health of your plant as it grows. It is possible to grow great plants with a lower-quality potting mix, but you will need to work harder and add more additional ingredients.

A good-quality potting mix, by contrast, requires far less effort on the part of the grower. A better-quality potting mix promotes better air and water retention and a more nutrient-rich and stable environment for roots to grow.

Depending on your budget, it may be best to try various potting mix options and find your preference. It may also be beneficial to match your potting mix to the type of plant you want to grow because different plants require different nutrients.