Miniature Gardening 101: The Dirt on the Soil

MyOwn State Park Miniature Garden
For containers: start with organic potting soil with no added fertilizers or polymers (moisture-retaining stuff) – we haven’t had good feedback at all from using it for our miniature gardens. The above garden was for a display for the Northwest Flower and Garden Show in 2004 called ‘Myown State Park.’

Miniature Gardening 101: The Dirt

~ 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 or 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.

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So, this is the beginning of a series of blogs that will answer the questions that are asked frequently and will answer questions that you don’t even know to ask yet! ;o)

Let’s get started:

What is the difference between soil 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 in my container?

No. Use potting soil for your containers. Soil from your garden bed will not work. Potting soil is engineered to have everything that a plant needs to keep the plant healthy.

Why do some plants need special soil?

Different kinds of plants like particular types of potting soil mixes. A cactus, for example, likes its roots dry and will need a different kind of sharper-draining potting soil than say, an African Violet. A well-draining potting soil will have more sand and vermiculite in it.

Plants like African Violet will need constant moisture around its roots, so the soil combo it needs will have more peat in it, which naturally retains the moisture.

So just think if you used cactus soil for your water-loving-plants – the roots couldn’t stay wet and they would dry out quickly. And vice versa, the cactus would rot and die if the roots didn’t get a chance to dry out completely in between watering sessions.

For most of our miniature plants and trees, a simple “regular” organic potting soil is perfect.

And what about my garden bed soil?

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. Head on over to your local independent garden store to find out what is best for your area.

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

Look closer. Soil is dark, rich and full of organic matter. You’ll see tiny bits of bark and compost.

How do I know what kind of soil to use for what I plant?

You can usually find this kind of valuable information usually noted within the plant’s care instructions on the tag, or from a simple search online from a trusted source. (Trusted source: someone you know like Yours Truly, a botanical garden or a university’s website, for example.) Your local independent garden center will have a variety of the right potting soils, soil amendments and compost and the knowledgeable staff to guide you on what you need for your project.

For our miniature plants and trees, a simple “regular” organic potting soil is perfect.

What soil do I need for my miniature gardening?

For Containers: Use regular potting soil with no added fertilizers nor any water-retaining polymers, like Miracle-Gro. Any fortified soil 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. After that, you can apply a mild organic fertilizer in the springtime.

For In-Ground: This depends upon many things – too many to go into detail here. 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.

Do I need to add anything to the potting soil?

Not usually but it depends. :o)

The miniature and dwarf conifers that we enjoy using, and our other miniature garden trees and shrubs for that matter, like a bit of air around their roots. It will depend upon the potting soil brand. A lot of the generic brands might need a bit of vermiculite because the soil manufacturers have “cheaped-out” on the soil-blend to save on costs to make it a generic brand/price point.

But 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 together for years.

Note that 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.

Stay Tuned for what’s up next: Miniature Gardening 102: Indoor vs. Outdoor

Why Conifers Make Great Miniature Garden Trees
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15 thoughts on “Miniature Gardening 101: The Dirt on the Soil

  1. Natalie Hermann 14/03/2018 — 10:30 am

    is potting soil supposed to be fluffy? it’s hard to pack down and shape? I am trying to plant grass seed for a resurrection garden

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    1. Hi Natalie, I know what you mean by fluffy – that is the peat moss that is the fluffy part. Try soaking the soil so you can shape it, then sow the grass seed on top. I think I would try putting a plastic bag over it until the grass germinates, to help keep the soil damp. Keep the soil damp with a gentle mist and check it daily. When you start to see growth, uncover it and give it some bright, indirect light or some cool sunshine. Still mist it to water it until the grass’ roots can help keep the soil in place. Otherwise, you can try another brand of potting soil that has less peat in it. – J.

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