Best Soil for Rosemary in Pots (Best Potting Mix)

Best soil for rosemary in pots

I love rosemary as it smells fabulous, tastes great, and is very easy to grow once we understand its preferred soil mix and water requirements.

I have grown rosemary in both hot and dry climates and milder and rainy climates, and I learned through first-hand experience that a different potting mix is better for different climates. I have also been fortunate enough to speak directly to growers in the Mediterranean, where rosemary is grown commercially, for their tips and secrets.

In this article, I share with you the results of my experiments to give you the best rosemary potting soil mix for your climate…

Whilst overwatering is the most common reason for potted rosemary plants dying, the correct potting soil is as important as an optimal water schedule because if the rosemary’s roots are sat in potting soil that retains lots of moisture, then causes root rot even if you are watering your rosemary the appropriate amount…

Rosemary needs potting soil that drains quickly, does not hold lots of moisture, and has relatively low fertility to grow well and produce the best aroma. Aim for two-thirds compost and one-third horticultural sand to create the best potting mix for rosemary.

Keep reading to learn how to create the best potting mix, why you should avoid peat moss, and how to avoid common mistakes when potting rosemary…

Criteria for Good Potting Soil for Rosemary Plants

  • Well-draining, porous soil that does not hold onto moisture for too long.
  • Aerated soil structure allows for efficient root respiration (rosemary does not like compacted soil).
  • Medium to low fertility soil.
  • Rosemary requires soil high in inorganic matter (similar to the sandy, gritty soils of its native environment).

I think it is best if we understand where rosemary grows naturally so we can understand its preferred soil type.

Rosemary is a herb that originates in the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe, where it grows naturally on hillsides in Spain, Portugal and France.

On its hillside habitat, rosemary thrives in sandy or gritty soils that are relatively low in nutrients and drain very quickly, holding little moisture.

Hillsides naturally offer good drainage, and the gritty, aerated, porous soils ensure that excess moisture does not sit in the soil around the roots, as this promotes the conditions for root rot, which is one of the most common problems that affect rosemary growers.

Therfore we have to avoid soils that retain lots of moisture such as amended compost with wetting agents or clay soils as these soils increase the chance of fungal disease affecting your rosemary which can turn the leaves yellow, brown, or black causing it to die back.

(Read my article, how to revive a dying rosemary plant).

If rosemary is planted in soil that is rich in nutrients such as loam soil, compost with added fertilizers, or soil that has been amended with manure (which is very high in nitrogen), then these soil conditions are contrary to the low fertility, gritty, sandy soil conditions that the rosemary has specifically adapted.

Horticultural sand and compost potting mix for rosemary and other Mediterranean herbs.
Horticultural sand and compost potting mix for rosemary and other Mediterranean herbs.

I spoke to someone who has used left over potting compost that had added nutrients and it turned the rosemary to grow droopy, and the excess nitrogen in the soil reduced the concentration of essential oils in the leaves which are responsible for rosemary’s distinctive aroma and flavor. Therefore if you plant rosemary in fertile soil it will not taste or smell anywhere near as good nor display as many flowers.

Rosemary actually grows very well in pots and containers as pots have favorable drainage conditions which mimics the well draining conditions that naturally occur on hillsides.

The key to keeping potted rosemary healthy in your garden is to replicate its well-draining Mediterranean soil conditions…

How I Create the Perfect Potting Soil for Rosemary

Whilst I can assure you that you do not need a Mediterranean climate to grow rosemary, you can easily recreate the soil conditions.

To create the best soil for rosemary in pots we need to emulate the sandy, gritty, medium to low fertility soil conditions in its native Mediterranean environment.

This can be achieved by amending ordinary multipurpose compost with coarse horticultural sand or grit.

Sandy potting soil for rosemary plants.
Here I am mixing some hortiucltral sand into some compost to a ratio of 70% compost to 30% sand.

The horticultural sand and grit effectively mimics the inorganic portion of rosemary’s natural soil which is very sandy and stony ensuring excellent drainage and a porous structure creating space for oxygen in the soil which is important for root respiration and preventing any soil compaction which can slow drainage.

To effectively replicate rosemary’s Mediterranean soil, mix at least 30% horticultural sand or grit with 70% compost.

Too much sand or grit is always better than not enough as the sand very effectively mitigates the risk of root rot which is the more common reason for a dying rosemary plant.

So, I know that sand and grit are the best soil amendments for rosemary in pots from my conversations with commercial growers in the Mediterranean. They carefully optimize every part of the growing process, so I can assure you that they have it down to a fine art.

My Rosemary Potting Soil Experiment!

I have personally grown rosemary in both dry climates and rainy climates, so I did a little experiment. I grew 5 rosemary plants in sand and 5 plants in grit. The reason for the experiment was to measure what is the most effective soil amendment for rosemary in different climates.

I found that it didn’t really matter whether you used sand or grit in hotter climates, and the rosemary showed good growth without any appreciable difference between the two different soil amendments. When I moved house to a more rainy climate (in the Pacific Northwest), I conducted the same experiment.

I can tell you from experience growing rosemary in a hot and dry climate was different from a rainy climate. The rosemary that grew in the gritty soil grew much better than the rosemary grown in the sandy soil.

The conclusion that I made was that grit has a larger particle size, which means that it drains that little bit better than the sand. One of my rosemary plants planted in the sand actually developed root rot and died, and 2 others were not in good condition as the rosemary planted in grit thrived! The superior drainage of the gritty soil was better for growing in the rainy climate!

Therefore, if you live in a climate of higher rainfall (such as the Pacific Northwest or Northern Europe), then I recommend using potting soil with grit to grow your rosemary rather than sand.

Rosemary has specifically adapted to tolerate drought conditions and dry soils, so it is important to emphasize how much rosemary requires the soil to be well draining.

Another way of tackling this problem is just to add a higher proportion of grit or sand. Adding more sand or grit to the mix helps to counter the effect of high rainfall climates, and your rosemary should grow very well once it is growing in its preferred well draining conditions.

I have spoken to commercial lavender, rosemary and Mediterranean herb growers in Washington and Oregon who recommend amending their potting soil with as much as 50% horticultural sand or grit to 50% multipurpose compost to provide the optimal balance of drainage to grow rosemary successfully despite a rainy climate and conditions.

The sand and grit also play another important role in that they help to create the right level of soil fertility for rosemary.

As surprising as it may sound rosemary thrives in lower fertility soils and produces the best aroma and flavor from the leaves as well as the most flowers.

Sand and grit do not contribute much nutrients to the soil which helps to balance out the fertility of the compost for your potting soil to mimic the same level of soil fertility as their Mediterranean range to ensure your rosemary has the best aroma and flavor.

The rosemary can attain all the nutrients they require from the gritty compost mix.

Avoid this mistake!

It is important to note that you cannot substitute horticultural sand with ordinary beach sand in your rosemary potting mix.

Horticultural sand is coarse and has a larger particle size than ordinary beach sand, which has much finer grains.

The horticultural sands’ larger size allows more air into the soil and allows water to drain more efficiently.

Beach sand particles can be very small and actually create a soil mix that drains too slowly as well as exclude oxygen with a less porous structure.

Horticultural sand, grit, or perlite is usually available for a good price in garden centers or on amazon.

(Read my article, choosing the best pots for rosemary).

Avoid Amending Rosemary Potting Soil with Peat Moss

The reason I avoid peat moss is because peat bakes hard in full sun (rosemary requires full sun) and becomes hydrophobic when it dries which means it repels water from the surface of the potting soil.

This can then cause water to run off the surface of the soil and down the side of the pot without actually infiltrating and reaching the roots.

Rosemary is a drought-resistant plant but if water is being deflected off the surface of the soil then the roots cannot draw up any moisture and the rosemary can die back.

Always prioritize a peat-free compost or potting soil when creating your potting mix for rosemary which should be labeled clearly on the packaging.

Aside from peat content, I should emphasize you should also not pot rosemary in any compost that has wetting agents or added fertilizer, as both of these characteristics are in contrast to rosemary’s preferred soil conditions.

Ordinary multi-purpose compost amended with sand or grit is the optimal potting mix for rosemary.

(It is important to know when to water potted rosemary to compliment well-draining soil to maintain the optimal balance for moisture for potted rosemary, so read my article, how to water rosemary for all the best practices of watering).

What is the Potting Soil pH for Rosemary

From my research, Rosemary is native to regions with calcareous soils which are typically alkaline in pH and the preferred pH range for rosemary is pH 6-7.5 (which is slightly acidic, neutral, and slightly alkaline) but some rosemary varieties are capable of tolerating pH 4.3-8.3.

I can assure you that all standard commercially available potting soils and compost fall within the ideal pH 6-7.5 range, with only soils that are labeled as ericaceous, should be avoided as this means it has been formulated for plants such as camellias, which prefer higher levels of acidity.

There is not need to amend the soil with lime or any other material that raises the pH to alkaline. Whilst it may not hurt the rosemary it could potentially harm it if you add too much.

(Read my article, how to care for rosemary in pots).

Key Takeaways:

  • Rosemary prefers poor, dry, sandy potting soil with relatively low fertility. Create the best potting soil for rosemary with two-thirds compost and one-third horticultural sand, which recreates the optimal soil conditions of rosemary’s native Mediterranean environment.
  • Avoid planting rosemary in potting soils with added fertilizers or in soils that retain too much moisture, as these conditions promote root rot.
  • Horticultural sand or grit has a larger particle size and helps to mimic the porous aerated soil structure to which rosemary is adapted, which promotes good drainage and reduces the risk of root rot.
  • Rosemary can grow in acidic, pH-neutral, and alkaline soils. Compost and sand potting mixes do not need to be amended with lime, as rosemary grows well in the typical soil pH range.

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