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How to Sterilize Soil

Sean has been in the industry of gardening and landscaping since 2006. He is also a certified arborist that specializes in plant health.

Why Sterilize Potting Soil?

Sterilizing potting soil is very important when sowing seeds, seedlings, and cuttings. Soil naturally contains pathogens, harmful bacteria, and fungi that can harm or kill susceptible plants. Insects and larvae may also be present, which can harm plants and become a nuisance. Store bought soil that claims to be sterile may be contaminated via bag punctures, old shelf life, mishandling, and other numerous reasons. Sterilizing potting soil is easy and very beneficial to plant health. Only a few household items are needed, and about 45 minutes of time to prepare and sterilize the soil.

Materials Needed

  • Oven
  • Large Roasting Pan/ Baking Sheet
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Meat Thermometer
  • Fertile Soil
  • Water
  • Mixing Spoon

Preparing Soil for Sterilization

Soil Consistency

The soil needs to be moist enough to compact into a ball, but should crumble when pressure is removed. This can be done by simply packing a ball of soil between the hands. Add a little water and mix until the consistency is met.

Placing Soil into Pan
Place the soil into a roasting pan or baking sheet. Evenly distribute the soil in the pan and break up any clumps. Do not fill to the edge of the pan, and keep depth under 4 inches deep. Cover the pan or sheet tightly with aluminum foil. The foil needs to be tight and secure to prevent moisture loss and burning of the soil. Poke a hole in the center of the foil that is large enough for a meat thermometer to fit through.

Sterilizing Soil

Beginning Sterilization
Place the tray into an oven and set the oven to a low temperature. The ideal temperature for sterilization is 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures over 180 degrees Fahrenheit may cause burning. Burning the soil will chemically change the composition of the soil. Soil that is burned or overheated will harm plants.

Baking Duration
The soil needs to remain in the oven for 30 minutes, while the temperature needs to remain closely around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Monitor the thermometer and adjust the oven temperature as needed. Paying close attention to temperature fluctuation is a must.

Cooling & Using Soil

Cool Down
After baking for 30 minutes, remove soil from the oven and let stand until the soil reaches room temperature. Carefully lift a corner of foil to allow heat to escape. The escaping steam will be very hot and can burn skin.

Usage
The soil can be removed from the pan and used once it has reached room temperature. Sow seeds no deeper than 4 times the diameter of the seed. Water the sterilized soil with a mister to avoid flooding the soil. Seeds sown into a container should be covered with plastic wrap and placed in a cool room. Avoid direct sunlight until germination. Gradually introduce light over a several day period and remove the plastic wrap once germination begins.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Can I sterilize the soil for my houseplants in the same way you describe in your article?

Answer: Yes, you can, but it may be easier to purchase a bag of sterilized soil if your plant's pot isn't too big.

Comments

Pete on July 05, 2020:

Can steaming the soil work?

david on October 28, 2019:

There's a simpler way to sterilize soil. There's an old boy scout gag played on younger scouts that illustrates a principle of physics. Place a paper cup of water or coffee directly in the camp fire and ask the novitiate how long before the cup burns. The correct answer of course is that the cup will not burn until the liquid is all evaporated. The liquid keeps the cup from exceeding 212 degrees. This principle is applicable to sterilizing soil in the oven. First, you don't need oven safe containers. I sterilize soil right in the plastic flower pots I get from the nursery. Second, it can't be too hot in the oven because the moist soil can't get over 212. I can sterilize eight one gallon pots in 45 minutes at 400 degrees. Take them out at 180 to 185 degrees. It takes over thirty minutes for them to cool to 160. Just like your turkey at tgiving. No need for foil wrap either. The top soil can dry out and thus get too hot. So put a wet paper towel or a bit of a rag on top of each pot to keep the surface hydrated.

Richard Michael Bobick on April 16, 2019:

ALWAYS sterize soil regardless of what you are using it for. I have yet to open a bag of potting mix, planter soil, etc. regardless of brand that did not have gnats or other insects alive and well within.

Sophie on May 01, 2012:

I have never heard about soil sterilization. Now that I know.. I will be trying this. I am glad you added those words of caution. Useful information. have a great day!

Denise Mai from Idaho on May 01, 2012:

Oh, dear. I'm afraid I have two black thumbs. I also never knew about sterilizing soil. My lack of knowledge is most likely what's causing my plant growing to fail. Great, informative hub!

Brainy Bunny from Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania on May 01, 2012:

I don't know the first thing about gardening, so it never occurred to me that you would have to (or even could!) sterilize dirt. Very interesting!

chrissieklinger from Pennsylvania on May 01, 2012:

I started growing vegetables a few years ago and this is very helpful information that I never knew about. Thanks for an easy to follow guide. I can't wait to try this!

Sean Hemmer (author) from Wisconsin, USA on May 01, 2012:

Janis - Honestly, I usually don't sterilize bagged potting soil, but I know some who have gone through the work to make sure it is sterile (usually for specialty plants/crops). I generally sterilize when I don't know the source of the soil, such as a municipal mulch/dirt pile. Anything and everything gets dumped into municipal soil piles.

Janis Goad on May 01, 2012:

When do you start potting in Tuscany, Good Lady? We are just getting started in Kamloops, and the soil won't be warm enough to plant out until the end of May. There is still snow in the high areas.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on May 01, 2012:

Looks good and we will try it next year! Too late for now. All our potting has been done for the next season. Oh, except for an area we call the hospital where plants that look as though thy are on their last legs get put....and they grow. Perhaps we need to sterilize that soil to make sure they really will be OK now.

Thanks.

Janis Goad on May 01, 2012:

Do you sterilize potting soil even when you buy "sterile mix" from the garden store? I never worried about it before.

Sage in a Cage on May 01, 2012:

Interesting hub. I'm just starting to put some seeds down this week so it was really helpful.

Angela Michelle Schultz from United States on May 01, 2012:

I actually had never heard of steralizing potting soil. It makes sense, but it had never occurred to me. Thanks for the great information.