South Florida soil consists of rock, sand, marl and muck.  The rock is soft, oolitic limestone, which is an alkaline calcium carbonate.  Our particular type of limestone is very young geologically and is found in only one other place in the world (Bahamas).   Limestone is found on the eastern edge of South Florida in what is known as the Miami Rock Ridge.  This ridge varies from four to twelve feet in elevation and extends from the city of Miami, south to the Deering Estate, where it curves westward towards the Everglades.  The ridge comes to an end in the Everglades at Long Pine Key.  The ridge’s high elevation caused early settlers to build their homes upon this ridge; consequently, at present time the ridge is densely covered in homes and urban sprawl.  The natural vegetation that was found on the ridge was hardwood hammocks and pinelands. Pockets of sand are sometimes found on the ridge.  Oolitic limestone is high in pH (7.8-8.1) and does not retain water or nutrients well which contributes to the poor soil condition found in South Florida.

To the west of the Miami Rock Ridge, there is a slight drop in elevation which historically caused shifts in plant habitats.  The soil found in this area is a combination of sand, muck and marl.  Sand is found in large quantities around the Redlands as well as other areas in South Florida.  Muck is half-decomposed organic matter and is often sold as potting-soil or top-soil.  Its use as a potting soil is not recommended.  Muck has very poor aeration and drainage.  It is very hard to get it dry once it is wet and very hard to get it wet once it is dry.  Marl is weathered limestone so it is high in pH.  It has the consistency of clay and has good water holding capability.  Marl appears grey and will dry to a chalky substance.  Also found in the west is builder’s fill.  This is mostly crushed limestone and therefore has all the qualities of limestone such as a high pH, good drainage, and poor nutrient holding capacity.

Rock, sand, muck, marl and builder’s fill are not a recipe for good soil and yet looking around South Florida one sees a lush tropical paradise.  Has the soil been amended by better components?  No, the key to growing plants in South Florida is the right plant in the right location:  one must choose plants that are adapted to growing in our soil.  It is not recommended to add superior media components to South Florida soil.  Media components are best used in container growing.


A good media mix will have four major functions:  it will hold nutrients; it will hold water; it will provide oxygen to the roots (drainage); and it will support the plant.  No single component has all four of these qualities; therefore, a combination of different components is necessary to obtain a useful mix.

Here are some of the components that are available:

Non-augmented Potting Soil has poor drainage and aeration but does hold on to nutrients well.  This is marketed muck.

Perlite is heat expanded volcanic rock.  Excellent in providing drainage and aeration, but it does not hold nutrients or support the plant.  Perlite is a must in any media mix due to its drainage and aerationqualities.  Vermiculite is similar to perlite but tends to compact and should be avoided.

Peat is partly decomposed organic matter.  This has very good nutrient and water holding capacity and is slightly acidic.  Its nutrient holding ability makes it a desirable component of most mixes.

Coir is shredded coconut fiber which has very similar qualities to peat and can replace peat in a prepared mix.  Coir should be soaked in water overnight before use.

Sand is good for adding weight to a mix.  Particle size is crucial.  Builder’s sand has large grains that will not compact and will provide adequate drainage and should be considered in most mixes.

Pumice, Chicken Grit and Aliflor are all used to add aeration and drainage to a mix.  These components do not hold water or nutrients well and are usually used in combination with peat.  These components may be more expensive than the others mentioned.

A good potting soil combines several of the components listed above to achieve the four major functions of a proper soil mix.

A good general mix would combine the water and nutrient hold capacity of peat (45%) with the weight of sand (30%) and the aeration and drainage of perlite (25%).  Your mix can be tailored to meet your needs.  An acid loving plant may need more peat while a plant that needs excellent drainage might require adding some pumice or chicken grit.