In recent times, keeping trees and large plants in pots has been becoming more and more popular. On top of being decorative, they can make large plants more manageable, mobile, or even easier to water and fertilizer. With this comes the question, “what soils are best to use with my potted pine trees?”
In truth, pine trees prefer more well-draining and loose soils, meaning that they prefer more sandy soils with lots of large organic matter. Terra cotta (or wood/concrete) pots are best if you are in an area that doesn’t freeze to ensure your pine is as healthy as possible.
Read on to learn more about how pine trees grow, what soils they prefer, what containers they prefer, and how to use all of them to keep your pine tree happy and healthy!
What Are Pine Trees?
Pine trees are clarified as evergreen coniferous trees, meaning they have needle-like leaves, create cones for reproduction, and are supposed to stay green all year round (if they are properly healthy).
In order to understand what soil we need for our pine trees, it is first important to understand the basics: how they grow, what they want, what they need, what hurts them, etc.
How Do Pine Trees Grow?
One of the most important aspects of keeping plants in pots is knowing how fast they grow. This has an effect because plants could easily outgrow the container or even become root bound in worse situations.
This is especially important with trees, as they can tend to have sensitive taproots and can grow much faster than regular plants.
With this, pines are fairly quick growing, and each species will have its own growing schedule/speed. As for the needles/sticks of the plant, the average pine can grow 1-2 feet (or more) per year in optimal conditions. This growth is in the vertical direction mainly, but as time progresses, pines also increase in width as well.
As for the roots, most pines will have a larger central tap root, surrounded by a very shallow regular root system. This is good to keep in mind when picking a pot or when watering/fertilizing your pine.
Best Growing Conditions For Pine Trees in Containers
Like most other plants, pines simply require light, water, carbon dioxide, and nutrients in order to survive. In addition to this, they have other preferences such as well-draining, slightly acidic soil.
As for their basic needs, most pines will have no issues in containers with light, carbon dioxide or water, light, as they are all alterable in pots. On the other hand, some pine can experience nutrient issues in pots, meaning that you will have to hand fertilize/compost them regularly to ensure their health.
As for soil needs, pines do prefer more well-draining, loose soils. When looking for a soil type to purchase, you want to look for something with more sand, large particulates, and organic matter. Going along with this, pines can also handle a little more dry soil, as they are used to being well-drained.
Additionally, pines can manage most neutral soil types; however, they do tend to thrive in soils that are lower (more acidic) in pH. This can be accomplished by finding acidic soil amendments or by letting the needles drop and self-mulch their own tree.
As for pots, many people claim that terra cotta is the best type. This is true for most plants, as it is sturdy, allows roots to grab on, and has amazing water capabilities (being able to suck in water if needed or evaporate it out if needed).
Terra cotta can be dangerous if you are in colder climates, as freezing temperatures can cause it to crack, chip, or break, which all pose threats to the gentle root system of your pine tree.
On the other hand, if terra cotta isn’t in your budget/style, pine containers are pretty adaptable, and that you can use other pots such as concrete or wood.
What Growing Conditions Do Pine Trees Hate?
Now that we know the things that pines like and thrive on, it is important to know what they do not like so that you can avoid them.
To begin, pines prefer lots of sunlight, so shady conditions can stress them out. If you are growing in a pot (and your tree is a relatively small or medium size), it should be fairly easy to alter your setup to meet its requirements. Too little light can cause things such as droopy/yellow needles or even needles falling off as a whole (not to mention slow growth as well).
Most pines also do not like being in very wet/soggy conditions for a long period of time. This can be a problem in many pots, which can often have problems with holding on to too much water for too long.
5 Best Soils/Amendments for Pine Trees in Containers
With all of this information, now we can discuss the specifics of soil types that your pine needs and the different “soil” options for you.
To preface, it’s quite common and sometimes even recommended not to use traditional soil, as it can cause issues in pots.
Instead, a blend of soils specifically formulated for pine trees often does the trick!
Soilless Mixes for Pine Trees in Containers
Soilless mixes are premade mixes that contain components such as barks, mosses, or sands. These are usually used for things like succulents due to their great water management ability.
Most of the components of soilless mixes are very large in size and put together; they create large air pockets that roots can grab onto. This is very important with things like pines that need organic matter for their roots to hang off of.
In addition, the soilless mix is great because it lets water go very easily, which is especially critical with potted plants.
With soilless mixes, however, you normally will have to regularly fertilize and add things like compost in order to give your pine tree nutrients, vitality, and a small bit of water retention.
One great example of the soilless mix is the Noot organic indoor soilless potting mix, which is a great component to add to your pine tree container that contains coconut husk, chips, coco coir blended with coarse perlite.
Remember, airflow is key to not allowing the soil to pack too tightly.
Peat Moss for Pine Trees in Containers
Peat moss is one component of the premade soilless mixes that is so beneficial that it must be named on its own.
Peat moss is a heavily absorbent moss that grows in many historical sites around the world. It has great water properties and can be used in many different types of plantings, most notably being container plantings.
Peat moss can be used on its own or added to a multitude of other things in order to make personalized mixes for your specific plants.
For pine trees, they prefer lots of well-draining, well-aerated soils, so you can’t really go wrong with peat moss. Similar to the soilless mix (as it is a part of the soilless mix), you will have to add fertilizers such as compost in order to keep your pine healthy and vital.
One great example of quality peat moss is the Miracle-Grow Sphagnum Peat Moss, which can be used for container or in-ground plantings.
Coconut Coir for Pine Trees in Containers
Many people also suggest using coconut coir for container plants that require lots of aeration and water control. Coconut coir is a natural fiber/substrate made from coconuts that can be used in a variety of places, such as pet terrariums or potted plants.
Coconut coir is an innate mediate, meaning it has no organic life/nutrients for plants and also requires additional fertility from things like compost and fertilizer.
One great example that you can use with your pine trees is the Fjiro Coco Peat Brick.
When shopping for coconut coir, it can be easy to buy too much, as it heavily expands when you “activate” it, so it is really good to keep in mind how much you need in general.
In order to use coconut coir for pine trees, you have to “activate it.” When you first purchase it, the coir will come in a large compressed brick. To activate, you normally have to submerge it in water and hand separate the fibers until they are the right consistency.
Although this is a lot of work, in the end, using coconut coir can be very rewarding, especially for trees that can be very particular with soils, such as pine trees.
Compost for Pine Trees in Containers
Compost is an age-old “soil” that can be used in many settings, including container pine trees.
Compost is technically the decomposed matter from organic substances such as leaves, old fruits/veggies, and natural fibers such as paper. In nature, “compost” is naturally created through all of the dying things falling on the forest floor and naturally decomposing.
As for home use, you can easily create or find compost for yourself.
As for store-bought compost, you can often find many great options from your local hardware, garden, or outdoor stores. This can be expensive, however, so you may want to create and use your homemade compost instead. For pine trees, this helps to mimic a bit what they may get out in the wild.
While certain premade soils will give you exact specific formulas, composting will be difficult to get the exact mixture right, but that’s OK.
To create homemade compost, you can make a pile of old food scraps, leaves, paper, etc., and let it naturally decompose. To help the process, you can also aerate the pile by turning it over to incorporate air.
Compost is a great substrate/soil to use for all plants (especially pine trees) as it has lots of concentrated nutrients. In fact, if any of your container/garden plants start to look droopy or deficient in nutrients, you can simply put compost on them to give them some vitality.
With pine trees, you can do this by incorporating compost in your initial container or periodically adding new compost on top to maintain proper nutrient levels.
Acid Lovers Mix for Pine Trees in Containers
Another soil you can use is an acid lovers mix. “Acid lover’s” mixes are specially blended mixes meant to be used for plants that thrive in more acidic soils.
In most cases, you can simply use premade acid lovers mix on its own; however, you can also add other things to it if you want, such as compost or mulch. Pine trees thrive in acidic to mildly acidic soil at about 5.5pH. So, acidic mixes help meet their natural soil condition.
One great example of an acid lovers soil mix is the Dr. Earth Acid Fertilizer, which can act both as a nutrient and acid boost for your growing pine tree.
Using These Soil Mixes for Pine Trees
Although it was lightly touched upon, it is important to know how to use these soil options for your pine tree in order to start off on the right foot.
For your initial planting, you should most likely use a high-quality store-bought acid/soilless mix or a home blended mix of your choosing. In addition to this, you can opt to add things like compost in order to increase the initial fertility of your tree.
In order to maintain the health of your pine tree, it is important to make sure that it always has ample access to nutrients. You can do this by adding things such as compost/acid fertilizer, which are both loved by pine trees.
In the event that your pine tree is evaporating water too quickly with the soilless mixes, you can also add mulch to the top of the container. Adding mulch can both increase fertility/soil life in your container and increase the amount of water retention (while decreasing the amount of water evaporation).
Troubleshooting Pine Tree Issues In Containers
In the event that your pine tree is already in a container and having issues, it is important to know how to identify them.
First of all, if your soil is too compacted and tight, this can cause issues for pines, leading to many things such as water retention, nutrient loss, etc. All of these problems lead to a few main common issues such as drooping needles, yellowing needles, slow growth, and dropping needles.
In the end, if your pine is experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be time to look at some of the factors such as pot type, soil type, water, pH, light, etc., as they could be playing a major role in the health of your pine.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out our guide to why your pine tree isn’t growing here.
That’s a Wrap!
In the end, pine trees can be very difficult to care for in pots. They are fast-growing, they have specific container needs, and most of all, they have very specific soil needs. Some of these soil needs include having well-drained soil, fertile soil, and slightly acidic soil.
There are a few main store-bought/homemade soil options that you can use, such as compost, acid lovers mix, or coconut coir. While many of these work great on their own, adding and mixing them together can boost soil life, which can benefit the overall health of your pine.
To sum up, there are a few main steps you can take when initially planting to start off your tree right, and there are a few things that you can monitor and change along with its life in order to keep your tree happy and healthy. In the end, each tree will be different, so remember to go with the flow and have fun along the way!
Gruda, N., Rau, B. J., & Wright, R. D. (2009). Laboratory bioassay and greenhouse evaluation of a pine tree substrate used as a container substrate. European Journal of Horticultural Science, 74(2), 73.
Jackson, B. E., Wright, R. D., & Gruda, N. (2009). Container medium pH in a pine tree substrate amended with peatmoss and dolomitic limestone affects plant growth. HortScience, 44(7), 1983-1987.
Sucoff, E. (1972). Water potential in red pine: soil moisture, evapotranspiration, crown position. Ecology, 53(4), 681-686.