A green space for urban gardeners

The good earth: last season’s soil may be right for reuse

Someone forgot to tell these sprouts that they shouldn't survive outdoors in containers over the Chicago winter.

Even though this soil has been subjected to the elements, healthy sprouts are popping up.

I love getting my hands dirty. In fact when I open those big bags of rich, fluffy potting soil mix I don’t even bother to wear gloves — despite my manicured fingernails. It is one of those joyful rituals that mark the start of what will hopefully be another rewarding season of container gardening.

But hold on, what about the soil left in the pots from last year? Isn’t it wasteful to just dump all that dirt? Is there any way to recycle it for this season’s planters? These are questions a curious city gardener posed to me recently. And Earth Day seems like the perfect time to address them.

Well, I’m happy to share my collected wisdom on the subject, which basically is a result of experimentation and what I’ve learned over the years from OPP (Other People’s Planters). What I can tell you from my own experience is that yes, soil from last year can be reused.

The first thing you should do is take stock of your soil. In the photo above, my flower container from last year, with dried stems and decayed foliage on top, may at first glance appear to be a lost cause. But take a closer look… The soil is apparently healthy enough that some seeds have defied the Chicago climate and conventional container wisdom to take root and produce sprouts. So in my book it’s definitely a candidate for recycling.

What I’ll do first is pull out the dead roots (after carefully removing the mystery sprouts for reintroduction into my planters later); and, being as thorough as possible, I’ll even get rid of as many of the fine fibrous roots as I can.

If your space has nothing overhead like mine, it’s likely that the soil is still wet from winter’s snow and ice. Once it dries out to the approximate moistness level of potting mix, add in a little dry plant food for nourishment and some fresh potting mix to restore the soil lost because it couldn’t be shaken free of discarded roots. (The decaying leaves left on top from last year can be mixed into the soil to provide an extra organic boost.)

Remember, always trust your own instincts. If soil seems so  burned out or stressed that your ministrations have no impact, it’s probably time to start fresh.

[Thanks for visiting City Diggity, please check out my archives for previous posts that you can take into your garden. And don’t forget to leave a comment; I want to know how your garden grows.]


  elizabethm wrote @

I am so glad to see you are a reuser of compost, being a fervent recycler of garden materials myself! What a lovely blog you have. thank you for your comment on mine. It would be hard to find a greater contrast between your Chicago containers and my couple of acres on a Welsh hillside! Just goes to show how many different ways there are to garden.

  Nicola wrote @

Thanks for the comment on my lottington blog, have moved sites now to the above given address.
As to what to do with last years soil left in the pots, we put ours on the compost. Hope that’s some help.

  Anna wrote @

Thank you for visiting my blog Avis and for your comment. I don’t grow much in containers these days but those that I have usually have the top couple of inches removed each year and fresh stuff added. The old compost is recycled as mulch round plants in the garden once I have removed any debris:) Your blog header is most attractive – a fine looking cat 🙂

  Mark wrote @

You’ve made me think now! I normally just throw my left over compost onto the compost heap which then later gets dug into the veg plot. I wonder if I could be using it more efficiently.

  Stephanie wrote @

Hi Avis, how are you? I am not a glove person too. Hmm… I am thinking about my soil now. All my plants in my garden are in containers. When I re-pot a plant, I would add a lot of fresh soil and discard most of the old soil. Usually the old soil will seem burned out. Btw, thank you for dropping by my blog even when you are tired. Hope you will have a deep and restful sleep tonight 🙂

  Lynne wrote @

Excellent post!! I have always just started with new soil but it makes total sense to reuse soil… hmmm

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