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When I repot plants (or plant them into the ground) my reaction is to ensure they are reasonably firmly covered and anchored in potting/garden mix, but I don't push it down very much. (It doesn't matter to much the plant, and I'm looking for general advice - but some plants that spring to mind include curcubits like cucumber and squash, nightshades like tomatoes - but even things like herbs and Jerusalem artichokes.

Someone way more experienced then I recommends compacting the potting mix quite heavily around the plant to support it. This "feels" wrong to me (maybe just because I've been doing it wrong?) because in my [probably naive] thinking the whole point of potting mix is that it is light, drains easily and allows air into the soil.

What is the accepted best practice here (and why?)

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Go with your instinct. Plants want fluffy loam, not density.

Plants do not want large pockets of air, but do want small ones. "Muddying them in" (one good watering) is the way to settle the soil. Tie them to a twig gently for a month or a season of support, but do not crush the soil to do that work.

My father had some farming experience and taught me what your friend believes. Took me years of stomping that soil down hard to get away from that cowboy technique. Treat your newborns like newborns.

No Potting Mix

Potting mix, though, is for pots, not the ground. Your soil already has clay, say, and needs peat and sand but not a whole mix. For trees, a pampered mix is actually a bad idea - spoiling the plant to expect greenhouse luxury.

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It's difficult to communicate via adjectives like compact it "hard" or "very much". I'll try being more precise. My amateur observation over potting anything in commercial soil mix are:

  1. undercompacted - the first watering(which needs to be large in amount) makes 1/4 of the soil to just disappear(of course this is the soil compacting but I find it spooky) and most of the water drain away within seconds, the plant might uproot itself by it's own weight

  2. overcompacted - the water forms tiny "lakes" which persist for more than a minute; the water seeps in any cracks or the gap from the soil to the pot

  3. perfect - water does tend to run down "hills" and into cracks but it is getting absorbed even onto the "hills", soil level might drop very slightly after the first watering


Treatments to those conditions I've found useful include

  1. Is easily solved by supporting the plant mechanically during the first watering and the adding more soil and lightly compact it.
  2. Get kitchen or field forks and stab the ground.
  3. To get here it's not only important to compact the soil the right amount but also in small enough steps. Say you get a large pot, fill it with potting soil, plant something, compact it, add more soil and compact that as well. Now you have a whole pot of uncompacted soil with a topping of probably overcompacted soil stopping water and air intake. So: compact as you go.

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