Before doing this experiment, if you had asked me which mix to buy for starting vegetable seeds I would have recommended the most expensive you could find. You generally get what you pay for with potting and seed-starting mixes, was my view.

My view has changed.

The design of the experiment

On March 1, I sowed these vegetable seeds: tomato (Mountain Fresh Plus and Big Beef), cauliflower (Flame Star), broccoli (Imperial), lettuce (Magenta and Coastal Star), cabbage (Tendersweet and Storage No.4), cucumber (Summer Dance), zucchini (Desert), and kale (Winterbor).

I sowed them in these four mixes: Edna’s Best (by E.B. Stone), Recipe 420 (by E.B. Stone), Ocean Forest (by Fox Farms), and my homemade compost.

A pile of my compost.

While my compost was “free,” the others cost as follows: Edna’s Best, $9; Recipe 420, $17; Ocean Forest, $20. Each bag was 1.5 cubic feet and bought at my local nursery.

I sowed the same number of seeds in each mix, and I attempted to care for the seeds in each mix to the best of my ability.

The aim of the experiment

The overarching question that I hoped the experiment would answer was whether more expensive mixes grew better seedlings. In other words, were they worth the extra money?

Here they grow

Here is how the seedlings germinated and grew. In each photo, the location of the mixes is the same.

March 6.
March 11.
March 14.

After taking this photo on March 14 I thinned seedlings in the lower right mix because they were large and crowded.

March 19.
March 21.

On March 21 I declared the experiment over since some of the plants in some of the mixes were big enough to need transplanting. The results were also clear to me at this point.

Before I tell you which mix is which, would you like to guess?

The answer is: top left, Recipe 420; top right, Edna’s Best; bottom left, Ocean Forest; bottom right, my compost.

How would you rank their performances based on the photos?

To me, there appeared two levels, with two mixes in each level. The level of better performers included Recipe 420 and my compost whereas the level of worse performers included Edna’s Best and Ocean Forest.

Ingredients and impressions

Why? It would be helpful to suss out why the mixes performed the way they did. Let’s look at ingredients first.

Edna’s Best ingredients.
Recipe 420 ingredients.
Ocean Forest ingredients.

I see only slight differences in the listed ingredients, but the actual products don’t look as similar.

Edna’s Best.
Recipe 420.
Ocean Forest.

Edna’s Best reminds me a bit of a municipal greenwaste compost that has been cooked at high temperatures. I found that such a mix (Miramar Greenery compost) did not work well in a previous experiment. (See my post, “Experiment: Comparing composts for vegetable seed starting.”)

Recipe 420 appears to have a slightly larger array of constituents compared to the others.

Ocean Forest looks like it is made of mostly peat moss and perlite. I can also tell you that it feels extremely lightweight when you hold it.

My compost? It’s just made of food scraps from our kitchen, garden scraps, wood chips, chicken manure, and a bit of dirt. It’s just stuff from our kitchen and yard, thrown into our chicken pen and scratched together and pooped on by the chickens over the course of a handful of months.

In the end, I don’t feel I can grasp good reasons for the disparity in performances between the mixes. But some previously sown tomatoes might give more of a clue.

The tale of the tomatoes

Back in January, before doing the above vegetable seed experiment, I sowed a few trays of tomato seeds in Recipe 420 and Ocean Forest. Here were the two sets of plants after about a month since sowing.

Recipe 420 plants in back, Ocean Forest plants in front.

I hadn’t sown these tomatoes as an experiment. I didn’t sow the same exact varieties in each mix, for example. It nevertheless became clear that all the tomatoes growing in Ocean Forest were struggling. They looked like they were either missing a nutrient (deficiency) or had too much of a nutrient (toxicity). They were purple and yellow and stunted compared to the vibrant green of the tomato plants grown in Recipe 420.

On March 21, I decided to try to rescue some of the plants growing in Ocean Forest by transplanting them into bigger containers that I filled with Recipe 420 rather than more Ocean Forest. Here they were on the day of potting up.

Ocean Forest plants on March 21, just put into Recipe 420 mix.

Would the Recipe 420 mix somehow rejuvenate the plants?

Here they are this morning, 11 days later, on April 1:

Take aways

Recipe 420 is a good mix, folks. It’s the one I will buy if I’m running low of my own compost. It’s also the one I will recommend to others, as I feel it has proven itself.

In my previous experiment with it (“Comparing my compost and Recipe 420 for starting vegetable seeds”), I found that it worked better than my compost and I guessed that the results were partly due to my packing down the compost in the cells. It seems that may have been correct, as I didn’t pack the compost into the cells in today’s experiment and my compost worked just as well as Recipe 420.

But my main take-away from this experiment is that no, you don’t always get what you pay for with potting soil and seed-starting mixes. The cheapest mix (Edna’s Best) and the most expensive mix (Ocean Forest) achieved equal results, both of which were inferior to the nearly most expensive mix (Recipe 420) and my homemade compost.

Finally, I feel bad about the results of Fox Farm’s Ocean Forest mix. I don’t mean to badmouth Ocean Forest (or Edna’s Best), a product that I imagine some good people have put their hearts and sweat into making. I’m open to the possibility that my experiment design was flawed or that I just got a bad batch of Ocean Forest. But until someone shows me so, there are my conclusions.

I publish this post in order to share with you the experiences I’ve had so that you can spend your money wisely and grow better vegetables.

A couple related posts

“Can you start vegetable seeds in compost?”

“Starting vegetable seeds: six keys to success”

All of my Yard Posts are listed HERE

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