seed starting

Starting Seed – Seed Starting Mix

To a certain extent I saw the hand writing on the wall last year when readers wrote and asked me about which seed starting mix to buy.  From what I understand from readers, forums, and general reading — it’s become difficult to find small bags of soilless seed starting mix that don’t have Miracle Grow in them and other additives that are not good for those like us who want to garden organically.

Because of saturated marketing by Scotts, the masses have accepted Miracle Grow as a magic elixir guaranteed to make plants grow.  Of course, it takes a bit of searching to find the part of the story they don’t tell you.

In case you don’t already know about Scott’s Miracle Grow and their cohort, Monsanto, you might want to begin by reading two previous posts, A Readers Thoughts and Mine — Some Facts to Consider about Scotts and Vegetable Plants – What about Buying Them.

Soilless Grow Mix for Starting Seed

A soilless (no soil in it) grow mix is recommended for starting seed. The idea being that these mixes have no pathogens in them that could cause your plants to become diseased.  If you use soil or compost mixed in — you don’t know what pathogens they contain.  If you sterilize your compost you kill some of the good stuff in it.

I think there are probably many long-time gardeners who use their own compost (not sterilized) with much success.  But it’s generally agreed that soilless is the way to go for a seed starting mix.  And I especially recommend it for the relatively new gardener.

Inadvertently I Gave the Wrong Name

Here it is the winter solstice and readers are already asking about what I use for a grow mix.  I inadvertently replied that I used Pro-Mix —– so a correction is in order. Allow me to explain:

I used Premier Pro-Mix for years until last year.  I ran out before the season started last year.  A trip to The Great Big Green House in Richmond (2 or more hours from us) revealed that they no longer carried Premier Pro-Mix.

Instead they were carrying Sunshine Mix #1 Grow Mix by Sungro Horticulture.  I read the ingredient list, was satisfied, and bought it. (I bought two big 3.8 cu.ft. bales to make sure I could get through almost two years.)

For some reason — I guess just second nature – I’ve been referring to it as Pro-Mix— which of course, it is NOT. So I apologize if I have inconvenienced anyone with this subconscious slip.

Hopefully no one has purchased Pro-Mix. ——-“Why?” you ask.

I don’t frequent stores very often and thus, haven’t  seen what type of grow mix is being offered in small sizes in garden supply stores.So I wanted to do a little research to try to find something online that I could recommend for readers who are getting ready to start their seed via the winter-sown method.

I checked on Pro-Mix at Amazon first.  I was surprised that all the ingredients were not listed. And there seemed to be different Pro-Mixes although I didn’t spend a  lot of time trying to figure it out.  After a bit of searching I finally found the ingredients for Pro-Mix on another website.   The first few ingredients I expected:

  • peat moss
  • mycorise (fungi that benefit the roots of a plant)
  • perlite
  • vermiculite
  • dolomitic limestone (often added to grow mixes as a ph adjuster)

The last two I did not expect:

  • macronutrients and micronutrients  (Don’t know what form these take, but this is not needed in a grow mix.  I can take care of my seedlings needs without these.)
  • wetting agent — not approved for use by Organic Gardeners.  (Most are detergents and known to be carcinogenic.)

The Pro-Mix I used in 2010 and 2011 was purchased at the beginning of 2010.  Perhaps they’ve changed their recipe since then.  In any event, I have no recollection of those last ingredients being in the Pro-Mix I used.

Sunshine #1 Mix – Grow Mix

Discovery #1

The Sunshine #1 Mix – Grow Mix by Sungro Horticulture that thought I purchased at the end of 2011 is OMRI approved for use by organic growers has the following ingredients:

  • peat moss
  • coarse perlite
  • organic starter nutrient charge
  • Gypsum and dolomitic limestone.

I found those ingredients listed here. (Note how the package looks.) I did however notice the bag was different than mine.  When I checked the ingredients on my bag this afternoon the ingredients were the same.

Discovery #2

I then went to Amazon.  They show the bag of  Sunshine Mix (although a different number) that looks like mine EXCEPT in addition to the ingredients listed above they add: “a long-lasting wetting agent.” (Note how this package looks compared to the one previously linked to.)

Discovery #3

I also noticed there was an organic offering by Sunshine on Amazon with a so-called “organic wetting agent” and “nutrients”.  I did not see an OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute) approved seal on the bag. It could have been there, but after seeing the confusion that exists— I don’t think I’d buy it unless the OMRI seal was on the bag.

We can Still get What we Want — We just need to Change our Approach

All you need to start seed is a mix of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite. That’s it!

Some have gypsum and dolomitic limestone which is ok. The beneficial fungi mycorise is ok —- although not needed.

If you search and are unable to find a grow mix with just the ingredients you need for organic growing — it is very easy to make your own.

Making Your Own

I’ve seen numerous recipes online, but the one that appeals to me most is simple:

  • 3 parts peat moss (a substitute sometimes used is coir made from coconut husks)(addendum: be sure read the warning by Ernie Hodge in the comment area below this post.)
  • 1 part perlite
  • 1 part vermiculite

To make your own, buy the ingredients separately.  Use any container to measure your ingredients. ( I’d probably use the bottom half of a plastic jug.)  Get a large container to mix it all in.  (A small trash can might be good or a plastic tub.)

After you mix it, wet it. The mix should be thoroughly damp, but not soggy. I usually add the water and let it sit for a few minutes to soak in. It’s much easier to fill your flats or jugs with grow mix AFTER it’s already wet.

(Update note added  May 17, 2015 – I’m making my own grow mix this year, but still haven’t perfected the amount of perlite and vermiculite used in the peat moss.  I’ll just keep working on it until I have it right and then report back.  Might be another year. 🙂 )

Final Thoughts

With strong marketing pulling the wool over the eyes of most of the public, we organic gardeners have to stay a step ahead and be willing to change our approach when we have to in order to get what we want.  If you can find a mix you like, it is indeed easier to buy it pre-mixed.

But it’s pretty simple to make and if that’s what I have to do to get the grow mix I want — I’m willing.  How about you?

Related posts:

A Readers Thought and Mine – Some Facts to Consider About Scotts

Vegetable Plants – What About Buying Them


Organic Gardening is easy, effective, efficient — and it’s a lot healthier.


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  • A few yeas ago, I also had this dilemma. The store only carried Pro-mix with fertilizer added. The only available mix without Miracle-Gro was awful, like cement when it dried. Last year I found an organic seed starting mix, made with coir (coconut fiber), on sale in K-Mart of all places. It was great and I am hoping it will be on sale again this year.

  • Well done ferreting this information out for us, Theresa. I had a feeling that at some point, I would be mixing things together myself!!!! I guess that making (and growing) your own is becoming THE way to ensure some quality control. Winter sowing is here, so we need it.

  • You are most welcome Alyona. I hope it answered all your questions and will help you in your search for a grow mix. Keep me posted as I will be most interested in what you decide to get.

    Garden Dmpls, it was encouraging to hear that you found something at K-Mart. As you said — “of all places”!

    I know you know, Garden Dmpls, — but for the benefit of other readers — the wetting agents (detergents mostly – that we don’t want) are the reason for many mixes holding and absorbing water. That might be the most difficult part to deal with in making our own —- getting just the right balance of ingredients so that the mix won’t be like cement when dried. One way to deal with it — don’t let the mix dry out to that degree. Like anything — when we first start making our own it might take some adjusting to get it perfect.

    Sandra, yes, I feel you’re about right. Learning to do it ourselves is becoming the road that will be most often taken if we want to ensure that quality control. As with most things it’s not really hard — it’s just a question of getting use to doing it another way and tweaking our method until it gives us the results we want.

    Sure appreciate your comments!

  • Dear Theresa,

    I too am very alarmed about what the big companies are doing to us. Monsanto and Scotts seem to have bought out many small companies. When we go to a big box store to buy our soil, we still don’t know who owns the product because it doesn’t necessarily mean that bag with an unknown name is actually not M & S’s property.

    We went to buy organic manure last fall and all we could find was bags where the large writing on
    the bag said it was organic manure, but the finer print said, “contains organic manure”. How much manure was actually in the bag? It didn’t say.

    I feel that we are being taken in every way possible. We must make our own compost and use our fallen leaves.
    Are Monsanto and Scotts supplying the peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite also?

  • Thank you Mildred for your confirmation of what I was discussing in the post. As you have also shown — we have to be more and more careful about what we buy if we are to avoid —- as you said —“being taken in every way possible.”

    Your question about whether or not Monsanto or Scotts is supplying peat moss, vermiculite and perlite is a good one! Wish I knew the answer. I think we have to realize that it could happen —- but so far I don’t think it has. The minute I hear otherwise — I will post about it.
    Update: Just before publishing my Secrets to Seed Starting Success – I found out that Scotts Miracle Grow can be in vermiculite and/or perlite — so read the ingredients before purchasing.

    It is imperative that we obtain all the information we can to empower us to help ourselves so we won’t have to pay the price of having the wool pulled over our eyes by Monsanto and their cohorts.

    With informed people out there like you and many of my other readers — it gives me high hope that we can keep on top of things and help ourselves experience and have the best that’s available to us.

    Thanks so much for letting me know your experience and that you are reading.

    P.S. If you haven’t done so already — you might want to search “Monsanto” on my site and read the posts telling about how Monsanto (and other big chemical companies) are buying up as many seed companies as will sell out to them! An absolute reason to start saving seed!

  • Theresa, my first attempt at starting onions from seed, is not so good, but I will keep trying. Bought a bag of starter mix from the organic nursery, it was barely enough to fill 3 flats. So here I am looking for advice. Glad I did a search and found this page. I now will try my hand at mixing my own. I clicked on each of the 3 high lighted items, you recommend. As you know, each goes to amazon. I’m going to take a chance and order, the 3. Have any advice for a beginner seed starter?

  • Beverly — as I mentioned in the post — I have not yet had to mix my own. I still have the Sunshine Mix #1 that I purchased some time back. (I bought two large bags — I think they’re 55 cu.feet per bag).

    Hopefully when I visit the Big GreenHouse in Richmond this year, they will still carry it. If not, I guess I’ll have to mix my own.

    The key to mixing your own — is keep trying. When you’re experimenting with something and find you don’t like your first try — then you have to approach it a bit differently — and try again.

    Regarding your onions: You didn’t give me a lot of detail — so I can’t comment on that.
    I will offer a suggestion. Try plant the onion seed in containers (with drainage holes of course) that are about 3 inches deep. Keep the soil slightly moist — but NOT soggy. Onions can take a while to germinate depending on temperature. The best temperatures for onions to germinate if from about 60 to 70 degrees.

  • Hi Theresa,

    I just found your website as I was looking for a good seed starting mix. I would like to comment on the use of coconut coir. It will hold a lot of water longer and should be used with caution. It works great as a growing media in hydroponic towers but should be used with caution in growing containers like the Earthbox containers we use and seed starting trays. It can hold ‘to much’ water.

    I really like your article on onions and appreciate the link to finding what variety to grow where we live (Florida). And, the link to Dixondale Farms.

    Great website.

  • I don’t use peat due to the environmental impact of removing one of the earth’s major carbon sinks – peat bogs. They can’t be restored in a sustainable way – the process is too long. That leaves coir. I winter seed in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. – near the country’s only rainforest – and I haven’t had problems with mine remaining too wet. I do mix in perlite so there’s airspaces and – I know it’s heretical – soil and compost. I’m going to try to get away from the soil this year. What I have had tremendous trouble with is peat – it either stays too wet or dries out gets hydrophobic. I call it the adolescent of soil additives. 🙂 I discovered that there’s a huge difference between brands of coir. The one I’ve had good luck with is Plantronix Coco Bliss – especially the 1lb bricks. It isn’t salty, it fluffs up quickly and beautifully and doesn’t have dry, hard bits. I get if from Amazon.

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