Jill enjoys cooking, abstract painting, stewardship, & learning about gardening through the MD Native Plant Society.
How to Recycle Potting Soil
That unwieldy cart of potting soil seems like enough when you're at the garden center. (In fact, it often seems like more than enough when you're at the register.) But once you start filling pots, it's often frustratingly inadequate. “Did I really use an entire bag for one container?” you think. Then it’s back to the store and the checkout line—and back to shelling out more money on gardening supplies.
This year, it doesn't have to be that way. You can lower the cost of filling seasonal containers by reusing last year’s potting soil. But you need to be sure to do it right, or you may put your plants at risk. In this article, you will learn how to safely recycle last year's potting soil.
Ways to Reuse Potting Soil
The easiest way to reuse old potting mix? Simply remove old plants from their containers, fluff up the soil and replant. If you've reused the same soil for several years or it's developed a white surface crust, you may have to cut it with 50 percent new potting soil and/or apply fertilizer. (See "How to Reduce Risks" below.)
Of course, you don’t have to reuse potting soil solely in your flowerpots. You can also benefit from using them in the following spots.
Where to Reuse Potting Soil
- Flower beds
- Vegetable gardens
- Holes in your yard
- Compost piles
- Compost holes
The Risks of Soil Recycling
There are two main reasons reusing potting soil can put plants at risk.
- Used soil sometimes contains pathogens—viruses, fungi, bacteria, nematodes and other organisms that carry disease. These pathogens can cause container plants to sicken and die.
- Used soil may also be deficient in the minerals that plants require. This, too, can cause plants to become diseased and die.
Reducing the Risks
How can you reuse potting soil without killing your plants? Try these simple strategies.
1. Never reuse soil from a pot in which a diseased plant has grown.
The plant may be dead and gone, but the pathogens and other problems in the soil remain, making it likely that the next occupant will also sicken and die.
2. Pasteurize old potting soil before using it.
Soil that remains in pots exposed to the elements often harbors weed seeds, pathogens and/or insects, none of which are desirable in a growing medium. To kill off these harmful elements, bake the soil in the sun. First, empty the used soil into black plastic bags. Then place the bags in a sunny location.
The same pasteurization process that occurs during regular composting will occur inside the bags as temperatures within the mix rise, rendering the pathogens, weed seeds and other unwelcome elements in the soil harmless.
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Although you can also put old soil in garbage cans or sealable five-gallon buckets, garbage bags are particularly easy to drag around, and the black plastic ones hold heat well.
3. Fertilize your containers after planting.
Exposure to the elements weathers the soil, leaching out nutrients. To counter this, apply fertilizer to assure that your container plants get the nutrients they need. This is particularly important if you're using recycled potting soil, as many of its essential minerals may have been taken up by plants the previous year or leached out.
Use a slow-release fertilizer that lasts all growing season. Or, apply a liquid fertilizer (such as pee tea) every two weeks.
4. Mix some compost and/or new potting mix into the old, especially if you've used the same soil for several years.
Exposure to the elements also makes soil more compact. Adding new potting mix to the old will not only increase its fertility, but it will also make it more friable and improve its ability to retain moisture.
If you’ve used the same soil for several years, it’s probably wise to create a 50-50 mix of half old and half new potting soil.
5. Water with rainwater to reduce salt buildup.
Does the soil in your planters have white crusting on the surface? Then it may be suffering from salt buildup, which can slow plant development.
To prevent this problem in the future, water your container plants with rainwater. Rainwater usually has a lower salt content than tap or well water. As for reusing salty soil in containers as is? Don't. Add it to your compost pile. Or, if you really want to use it in containers, cut it with 50 percent new potting mix.
6. Use less soil by adding old nursery pots into the mix.
See the photo below for an illustration of this strategy. The old nursery pot takes up some space, meaning less soil is needed to fill the larger pot.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: What exactly is pee tea?
Answer: Pee tea is diluted human urine that is used as fertilizer.
Question: Are coffee grounds good for plants?
Answer: Coffee grounds can be used as a fertilizer for acid-loving plants like azaleas. They are also a good addition to your compost pile. I would not, however, pile up lots of coffee grounds on top of the soil unless you want maggots, which you might if you have chickens.
Question: How long do I need to bake old soil in plastic bags in the sun for?
Answer: Solarize the soil during the hottest time of year for four to six weeks.
Question: How long does it take to kill harmful elements when baking soil outside in the sun?
Answer: Bake the soil in plastic bags four to six weeks outside during the hottest time of your year.
Question: Before I read this article, I baked used potting soil at 425 degrees F. Can I still use it?
Answer: Yes, you can. (Wow, at that temp, I bet the process really stunk! lol)
Question: What if my basil died, got gray fuzz, and wilted, but my parsley in the same pot is fine and survived the winter in zone 5? Is it okay to reuse the soil?
Answer: Basil is susceptible to downy mildew when the weather is hot and humid, and it sounds like your basil was infected with it. If you removed the infected basil and scraped up the top soil where it grew, you may have also removed the spores that cause downy mildew. If you didn't get all of it, the mildew will reappear when the weather turns. I would bake the soil before reusing it.
Question: I'm using Foxfarm Happy Frog, can I add super soil amendments to the soil and use it again?
Answer: So long as the soil hasn't been contaminated by a diseased plant, you can add amendments or cut the old soil with new soil and reuse.
Question: Is it okay to use soil from a petunia plant to plant herbs?
Answer: The soil should be fine from an edible aspect; however, it may not be the best for your purposes as petunias and some herbs, such as tarragon, rosemary, and lavender, have different soil and drainage requirements than petunias do.
Question: Can I put used potting soil around mature trees?
Answer: Yes, you can. You could spread composted matter, too.
Question: Do you prepare the used potting garden soil by Schultz in the fall or early spring?
Answer: I am not familiar with used potting soil by Schultz. Perhaps the company could answer your question.
Question: Can you reuse soil to plant vegetables in a container?
Answer: Yes, you can reuse soil for a container vegetable garden. As with reusing soil for any plant, amend the soil as needed (see article) and don't use soil that has been home to a diseased plant. Also, select vegetables that grow well in pots, like lettuce and Swiss chard, and generally avoid vegetables that have long taproots.
© 2012 Jill Spencer
Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 31, 2020:
Hi, Terri. Soon I'm going to be faced with that same issue. Yes, you can move and reuse your soil so long as it was not home to diseased plants. Also, you may want to skim off and discard or compost the first inch or two of soil in the bed as they probably contain weed seeds, spores, and other things you might not want to take with you. Good luck to you! Jill