Potting soil is of the utmost importance when it comes to gardening and planting, especially if you’re creating a container garden or using raised beds. Whether indoors or outdoors, you need excellent quality potting soil to ensure your plants get the best nurturing possible.
Plants are like babies. They require quality care, proper nutrients, and an appropriate environment to grow in. Potting soil makes sure that the plants get what they need to live a healthy life with proper growth. The right potting soil doesn’t just ensure your plant has healthy roots – it feeds and nurtures the entire plant. An important question that people ask is does potting soil go bad?
When it comes to potting soil, a lot of people get more than they need to use immediately. This results in the remaining soil being stored for a while. Now you might come across the soil in your garage or your storeroom and wonder, “Can I still use this?”. Well, I am here to answer your potting soil questions!
Please note that the information in this post deals with old, but unused potting soil. Please visit this post for information about how to reuse potting soil.
Does potting soil go bad?
Yes and no. Potting soil can go bad but normally it doesn’t if it’s unused and if you’re willing to do a little potting soil rejuvenation. Even after several years of sitting around, old potting soil can be salvaged and used.
Some websites will tell you that potting soil goes bad and give you and laundry list of reasons to toss your old potting soil. I believe in gardening in an eco-friendly manner that’s as easy on your bank account as possible. That’s why I recommend hanging on to your old potting soil.
In short, potting soil mostly doesn’t go bad unless it fulfills any of the following criteria:
- It has a bad smell
- It has any insects around it continuously
- It is infected through some disease
- It is dense and compacted
Luckily, most of these issues are fairly easy to fix at home.
(I know the title says three signs of bad potting soil, but you get a free bonus! Free is awesome.)
Potting soil is perfectly fine to use as long as it doesn’t show any of these signs of bad potting soil. If you’re new to gardening, it may be hard for you to judge whether or not your potting soil is healthy and safe to use. Let’s look at the issue in more depth.
Can I use old potting soil?
You may see differences in the growth of your plants if you use old potting soil. Even if you stored the soil properly, you may see changes in the following features of the soil:
- Nutrient levels (affecting plant growth)
Nutrient levels will gradually decrease over time when potting soil is stored.
That still doesn’t mean that the potting soil is unusable, it just means that it will affect the plants just a little differently than perfectly new potting soil would. You can correct this by adding nutrients to your old potting soil. We’ll talk about this more later in a minute.
If you have bagged potting soils stored on your shelves, you can count on the opened bagged soil preserving itself for about 6 months before it starts degrading while unopened bags can last one or two years. Check your bag for specifics – it may have a best by date.
How can I tell if my potting soil is bad?
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Here are three ways you can check if your potting soil has gone bad. If your soil fulfills any or all of the following conditions, it has gone bad. If it has gone bad, you should see how to make it usable again. Fortunately for you, we already cover that here.
- Bad smell
The easiest way to check if your soil has gone bad is to smell it. The smell often reeks of rotten eggs when your soil has been damped in water for a long time. Bacteria in water immediately spoils and puts off a really bad smell which is a quick indicator of the soil gone bad.
You can, however, still use it. Spread the soil out on a plastic tarp in the sun on a dry, sunny day. The sunshine will kill the bacteria and you can easily use it once it is all dry.
- Infected by Insects
If you see lots of small flying insects in your soil you may have a fungus gnat infestation. Fungus gnats don’t bite and are generally seen as harmless to people. Unfortunately, they lay their eggs in soil and large numbers of fungus gnat larvae may damage your plant’s roots.
Fungus gnats live in moist soil and the larvae are usually only present in the top 1-2 inches. Allowing your potting soil to dry completely, and remain dry for several days, should kill off the gnat infestation.
I put out yellow sticky traps to help with a bug problem and there were fungus gnats stuck to the paper before I even got the trap staked into the ground! They’re somewhat unsightly and definitely low-tech, but sticky traps can work.
- Infected by diseases or mold
Potting soil can become moldy. Mold can grow if your soil has too much moisture. This tends to happen if your soil is in a bag for a long time, especially in warm weather. I’ve left a bag of potting soil in the car for a few days and opened it to find a whole bunch of mold!
Kill off the mold by allowing the soil to dry. Spread it out in the sun and let it dry completely.
New, bagged potting soil shouldn’t have harmful plant pathogens.
You can also bake your soil to kill mold, but this isn’t practical for large quantities of soil
Important: Never use moldy potting soil when you are growing plants from seeds. This can lead to an issues, including one called “damping off” that is cause by a soil-borne fungus of the Pythium species, that can kill seedlings.
4. Compacted and dense potting soil
One popular component of commercial potting soils, peat moss, decomposes quickly. This makes the soil dense and difficult for roots to penetrate, and affects its ability to drain and hold water. If your old potting soil looks and feels dense and compacted, it may be suffering from decomposed peat moss.
Please see the section below about rejuvenating old potting soil to learn what to do if your soil is heavy and compacted.
How to store potting soil
Winter is particularly tricky so you must take care of the soil to keep it safe from mold, fungi, diseases, and pest problems. Here are the things you should do.
* Please note that these suggestions are mostly for unused potting soil. *
- If you are storing unopened and unused potting soil, you can just place the bags in the can or bag you are using. If you’ve already opened the soil bags, you can pour in the soil in a container. A large, opaque plastic bin works well, or you can use an unscented trash bag. After filling it with soil, close it and store it in a dry place.
- If your bags are open, make sure the soil is dry. Spread it out on a tarp or cardboard in the sun to dry it before storage.
- Before storing the soil, make sure the soil is completely free of any old plants, rotes, sticks and leaves. It should just be the soil you are storing. If you had a half used bag of soil sitting open, it may have gathered some detritus over the summer.
How to rejuvenate old potting soil in the spring
When winter ends and spring comes, it’s time to rejoice and restart your planting activities again!
Don’t just dump last season’s potting soil into your containers and get planting. The soil needs some boosting before you can use it.
If your soil is heavy and compacted, add coconut coir instead of peat moss. Coconut coir is a renewable resource and is widely considered more eco-friendly than peat moss. It also lasts longer so you won’t need to replace it each year.
Combine potting soil and hydrated coconut coir in a 1:1 ratio. Your coconut coir should have specific rehydrating instructions, so read and follow the directions.
Even if your potting soil was never used, it may need additional organic matter and nutrients. Compost, worm castings, and organic fertilizer are all good choices.
Specific nutrient requirements vary depending on what you intend to grow in the soil. For absolute best results, use a soil test kit and amend the soil based on your plants’ specific requirements.
If that sounds like too much work, I hear you! For general use in pots and containers, try a 20%-50% compost: soil mix. Compost holds moisture, so use a higher percentage if you have clay pots that dry out quickly (source).
I hope this resource has helped you save money, use your old potting soil successfully, and enjoy gardening!
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Natasha Garcia-Lopez is an avoid home-gardener and proud owner of 88 acres of farmland. She was a member of the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums for many years and is currently enrolled in the Oregon State University Master Gardner Short Course program so she can better assist you with your gardening questions.She holds a certificate in natural skincare from the School of Natural Skincare.