What you put in the container matters

What you put in the container matters...

Plants just can’t be the best they can be in a container if they don’t have the right stuff for their roots to grow in. I’m not talking about dirt; that’s the stuff you sweep up from the floor. And it’s not soil; that is the mineral-based stuff that you have in your garden. What I’m talking about is the good, fluffy, well-draining stuff – the soil-less growing mix stuff, if you want to be specific.

There are many things that we do here in Yew Dell’s nursery that one can learn from and use to their advantage at home. What we grow our plants in is one of the best examples. We pot up thousands of diverse plants in different size containers each year. For the most part, we only use two types of soil-less media:

  • Large containers: A heavy pine bark based mix
  • Small containers: A peat based mix

Pine Bark Mix

The pine bark mix is what we use for all of our perennials, trees, and shrubs in containers larger than a half gallon. We bring it in on a semi from Tennessee and store it in a pile alongside our mulches for the gardens. No pallets, bags, or shrink wrap to end up in the landfill- but the sustainable aspect doesn’t end there! 80% of the mix is aged pine bark fines that were a by-product of the timber industry in the southeastern United States. Only 20% of it comes from the peat bogs in Canada. With a little sand added and some lime to adjust the pH, this mix is quick and easy for us to use. With so much being made up of the pine bark, it is very forgiving to overwatering and allows us greater ease of watering with the 100’s of types of perennials that we grow. The peat is added to allow for more water retention. We love this mix!


When we grow things in smaller containers the heavy bark mix just doesn’t work well. We tried it. Poor results. A finer mix with better water holding capacity is needed. This is when we bring in a peat based mix, similar to the quality mixes you find on the garden center shelf. These mixes are around 80% peat with the rest of the mix made up of perlite and vermiculite. Those last two ingredients serve the same purpose as the pine bark in the other mix: porosity. They allow more space for air pockets in the soil that the roots need to be healthy. The porosity is the most important part in a potting mix and the reason mineral based garden soil doesn’t work well. Mineral soils have such fine particles they pack together, limit air space, and slowly suffocate the roots.

All Purpose Mix

So, that’s the dirt on not the soil but the soil-less growing mixes that we use to grow the plants we put out in the garden and that you take home from our plant market. It’s pretty simple, but it sure is an important first step in growing a quality plant in a container. 

You might be wondering if we use one of these mixes for seed germination. Nope, sure don’t. But that’s a conversation for another day. Probably a cold, winter day.

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