Vermiculite: What It Is and How to Use It

And How It Differs From Perlite

vermiculite closeup

vandervelden / Getty Images

Vermiculite is a mica-like mineral that serves as a soil amendment. It is mined out of the ground and, when heated, curls up. The resulting worm-like, curly appearance is responsible for its name, which comes from the Latin vermiculus, meaning "insect larva" (ultimately from the Latin vermis, meaning "worm").

After being heated, not only does it curl, but it also expands and comes away sterilized. Both of these traits are important to gardeners.

Due to its expansion, vermiculites capacity to retain water is increased. Plus, the fact that it is sterile means that gardeners do not have to worry that the vermiculite is harboring pathogens that could kill their plants.

Vermiculite is silvery-gray and flaky. In fact, it is so light that you can move the little particles by blowing on them. The product does not contain any fertilizer so you would have to mix it with something offering nutrients (such as compost) if you will not be applying fertilizer periodically.

Why Vermiculite Is Used in Soilless Potting Mixes

Vermiculite boasts several characteristics that make it useful to gardeners. The product is:

  • Lightweight
  • Highly absorbent. Its particles absorb water and nutrients (which must still be supplied) and retain them in a soilless potting mix. Whenever the plants' roots are ready to use the water and nutrients, they are able to, thanks to the vermiculite.
  • Neutral in terms of soil pH, so that you do not have to worry about compensating for pH alterations due to the presence of the soil amendment.

How to Use Vermiculite in a Soilless Potting Mix

You can buy soilless potting mixes that already contain vermiculite. But you may find that you can save money by buying the vermiculite separately and mixing it yourself. In that case, here is a general-purpose formula to go by:

4 to 6 parts sphagnum peat moss
1 part perlite
1 part vermiculite

How Vermiculite Differs From Perlite

Perlite is that white material in soilless potting mixes that looks like little chunks of styrofoam. In its natural state, it has a pearl-like shine to it that accounts for the name, "perlite." While vermiculite and perlite are two completely different substances, they do have some things in common; both are:

  • mined out of the ground (perlite is a volcanic mineral)
  • later heated, causing them to expand
  • used as soil amendments, both in soilless potting mixes indoors and to improve garden soil outdoors
  • lightweight
  • sterile
  • have a neutral pH
  • contain no nutrients

But whereas vermiculite is especially valued for its capacity to retain water, the value of perlite lies much more in its ability to provide aeration.

When to Use Vermiculite vs. Perlite

Because it retains water so well, add more vermiculite than perlite to your mix when you are creating a growing medium for plants that dry out easily. But vermiculite is useful to gardeners beyond functioning as one component in a mixed growing medium. It is also the preferred material for covering seeds when you are starting seeds indoors.

There are two main reasons why vermiculite serves this function so well (better than perlite, peat moss, regular soil, etc.):

  • When you are starting seeds indoors, they need to be kept consistently moist. If they are allowed to dry out, they will not germinate. The capacity that vermiculite has to retain water is greater than that possessed by perlite, making the former an ideal medium for keeping seeds moist.
  • Not all seeds should be covered, but those that do need to be covered by a medium consisting of very small particles. This allows the young plants to easily push up through after sprouting. Vermiculite fits the bill perfectly, being finer than perlite. There are different grades of vermiculite, so choose the finest grade for covering seeds.

Straight vermiculite can also be an excellent choice for a growing medium in which to root cuttings. Select a medium grade vermiculite for this purpose.

Because it does such a good job at aeration, perlite is the go-to product in mixes for plants that do not mind drying out and crave outstanding drainage. So add more perlite than vermiculite (or exclusively perlite) to your mix when you are creating a growing medium for plants such as cacti.