All About Garden Soils And Potting Mixes

Garden soil is a very important topic for gardeners to talk about, even if it is kind of a dirty topic.

So, what is garden soil? And what’s the difference between topsoil, garden soil, soil mixes, and soilless mix?

What’s the difference? Let’s find out!

About That Soil

Soil anchors a plant’s roots. It feeds the plant needed nutrients, supplies water, helps it breathe, and supports its growth.

Using the right soil can make all the difference to your plants.

To start with, all soils are a mix of materials.

There are three components of soil: sand, clay, and silt.

sand in soil mix on white background

  • Sand is the largest size material
    • Is nutrient-poor
    • Dries out quickly
    • Requires more water and fertilizer
    • But provides excellent drainage

  • Clay is the smallest size material
    • Is sticky when wet
    • Drains slowly
    • But holds a lot of water and nutrients

  • Silt
    • Is between Clay and Sand in size

The ideal soil will include all three components. This will help to provide the beneficial properties of each.

Soil Texture

Soil is rated by its texture.

The soil’s texture is determined by the proportions of the components in the soil.

  • Fine-textured soil has a lot of clay.
    • Clay soil is sticky when wet and drains slowly
    • It can become hard and compacted when dry
    • Benefit: clay soil holds a lot of water and nutrients
  • Course textured soil is sandy.
    • Sandy soil is nutrient-poor and dries out quickly
    • It will require more water and fertilizer
    • Benefit: sandy soil provides excellent drainage
  • Silt is between fine and coarse-textured soil.
    • Its particles pack together tightly
    • Silt can inhibit drainage and air circulation

loam soil in two hands
Loam Soil

  • Loam is the ideal soil. You can see how rich it is in the picture above.
    • Loam will include a balance of all three or the soil components
    • Is rich in humus
    • Combines the beneficial properties of the three separate materials (sand, clay, and silt)

You can purchase loam from the nursery.

What is Topsoil?

Let’s start at the beginning: topsoil!

What is it? Topsoil is dirt that is scraped from the top 1-2 feet of the earth. It also might be called “native soil.”

Depending on where it originated, it can contain sand, clay, silt, and other materials from the area. The various combinations affect how well topsoil drains water.

You’ll find different grades of topsoil, each of them are used for different applications.

  • Lower-grade topsoils are used to fill and level holes.
  • Higher-grade topsoils are used to condition and add amendments to your existing soil.
  • Neither grade should be used solely for planting.

Commercial topsoil is processed to remove large particles like rocks. It will end up with a fine, loose consistency.

Even after processing, topsoil can be dense and heavy, and might not have enough nutrients to successfully grow new plants in.

Tip: Use topsoil to add to your existing soil, not for planting in.

What is Garden Soil?

You can make garden soil by mixing topsoil with other ingredients and nutrients. Consequently, it is not as heavy as topsoil and can be used in different applications.

Garden soil at the nursery is similar to the dirt that exists in your garden. It has a texture composition of sand, silt, and clay mixed into it.

Garden soil is too dense by itself to provide adequate aeration and drainage. It’s intended to be tilled with existing soil in garden beds.

You can also mix it with compost, peat moss, or soilless potting mixes to add nutrients to the garden bed.

Tip: Use garden soil to mix with your existing soil to provide additional nutrients or texture for your plants. For in-ground use only.

What Is Soil Mix?

Cultivation of land with garden tool
Garden Soil Mix

Soil mix is a mixture of ingredients that is designed to help add nutrients and fluffiness to your existing gardens.

Soil mixes are available in plant-specific formulations. For instance, there are tree and shrub mixes, vegetable mixes, rose mixes, raised bed mix, and even more!

The ideal garden mix should have a pH of 6 or 7 to keep the soil from becoming too alkaline or acidic. Test your soils to determine the current pH levels. You might need to add amendments to reach the ideal pH levels.

When you buy a soil mix, you know garden soil has added amendments like fertilizer or compost.

Some recommended mix ratios for your garden beds:

  • 25% garden soil to 75% compost
  • 50% garden soil to 50% compost
  • 25% soilless potting medium to 25% garden soil to 50% compost
  • Add compost to prevent soil compaction.

Tip: We recommend that you test your soil to determine its pH level. When you get your test results, you’ll then know what amendments the soil needs. Then, you’ll know what soil mix you can use.

Vegetable Soil Mix

John Deere tractor with garden soil

I use veggie soil mix in my raised beds and vegetable gardens. This is me getting ready to fill the raised beds using the John Deere tractor.

It might be different depending on where you purchase the vegetable soil mix.

The product I just had delivered is 50% moodoo compost and 50% sand. It is light and fluffy, and so rich with nutrients for all my plants. It is a bit stinky, though!

I will even use it to start new grass for the lawn.

What is Potting Mix?

potting soil and trowel
Potting Soil

Potting mixes are formulated specifically for use in pots and containers. The mix creates adequate drainage and provides space for the plant’s roots to grow in.

Even with amendments, garden soil is still too heavy and dense to use in pots and containers.

  • It contains some topsoil and doesn’t allow oxygen exchange which plants need
  • Similarly, garden soil also holds too much water and can suffocate the plants in the pots
  • Finally, soil can harbor harmful bacteria and fungi, certainly not good for containers

Tip: We recommend that you use a soilless garden mix for your containers and pots. We find the plants grow stronger and produce more flowers or fruit.

Why Use Soilless Potting Mix?

The soilless potting mix is cleaner and sterile. It contains a variety of organic and inorganic materials. The mix will be light and fluffy as it contains no topsoil.

Growing plants in soilless mixes produces plants that tend to be healthier, without the threat of soil-borne disease or pests.

Some types of a soilless garden mix that you will see are mixtures that contain peat moss, perlite, vermiculite, and coarse sand.

TIP: Use soilless garden mix only in containers, not in-ground. Change the soilless mix in your containers every year.

All About Garden Soils And Potting Mixes

blue shovel with topsoil
Dirt in Shovel

Now you know the differences between topsoil, garden soil, garden soil mixes, and soilless garden mix. Try to use them for the correct applications, and your plants will be so happy!

Topsoil: native soil removed from the top 1-2 feet of the earth. It comes in lower and higher grades, each used for different purposes. Only for in-ground use.

Garden soil: mix topsoil and other materials together to offer nutrients. Mix it with your existing soil for additional nutrients and texture. For in-ground use only.

Garden soil mix: use for plant-specific applications, adds nutrients and fluffiness to existing gardens. For in-ground use only.

Potting mix: formulated specifically for use in containers and pots. It provides adequate drainage and room to grow.

Soil-less garden mix: For container planting purposes, more sterile and clean. It contains no topsoil.

Let us know if this information is helpful.

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