Garden Soil vs Potting Soil: Why It Matters

Garden Soil Vs Potting Soil: Why It Matters

The soil you choose for your plants should be viewed as its foundation, so getting the right one is crucial. Two of the most common soil types, garden and potting, are often confused for one another, but as it turns out, offer unique benefits and purposes from the other.

Is garden soil or potting soil better? Garden soil and potting soil are different products, with potting soil used for general potted plants and garden soil as an amendment to improve soil conditions.

Depending on the purpose you need them for, one is likely to offer more benefits than the other.

In the garden soil vs potting soil debate, it’s best to look at what each of them offers in pros and cons to determine which would suit your gardening needs.

This guide does just that, as well as a detailed comparison, so you can be sure your plants are getting the greatest foundation possible.

What is Garden Soil?

What is Garden Soil?

Garden soil is a term used for a product that’s a combination of bulky organic materials and regular natural topsoil or sand. The most common ingredients you’ll find in this type of soil are composted bark, composted animal manure, and other forms of compost.

The chunky texture of garden soil means it’s adept at improving the existing texture of your earth at home. If the ground is too heavy and tight, it will loosen it up, and if it’s sandy and dry it’ll help retain moisture.

Overall, it should be viewed as an easy way to improve the quality of the native soil in your garden without having to do too much.

Garden soils are better left to outdoor gardens and should not be added to potted plants, whether inside or out.

You can purchase large quantities easily and it’s affordable, but you may need to make adjustments to pH levels or nutritional content depending on its current state.

The Pros

  • Garden soil can assist with compacted soil that’s having drainage issues, thanks to its bulky contents.
  • If you have sandy soil, the addition of garden soil can improve its moisture-retaining abilities.
  • The price for garden soil is relatively cheap and it’s available in large quantities for an even cheaper price.

The Cons

  • The nutrient content of garden soil isn’t always the best so it may need additional products to assist.
  • There may be insect eggs in these types of soil so they shouldn’t be added to any indoor plants or they can spread inside.

How to Use It

Garden soil is the only way to go if you’re starting a garden bed outside or adding soil to an existing setup.

If you are planning a new garden bed, you should mix three inches of garden soil into the top three inches of the existing soil, using a tiller to make the job easier, and then place the plant where it’s going to grow.

Those wanting to plant a tree or shrub can simply dig a hole in the existing soil, then use the dug-up earth to mix with garden soil, at a 1:1 ratio.

Once planted, use this new mixture you’ve created to backfill the plant and then firm the soil so it secures it.

What is Potting Soil

What is Potting Soil

Potting soil or potting mix is a general use soil that’s better suited to plants that are grown in pots, as its name implies. Within the realm of potting soil, there are many different kinds, usually marketed towards the plant varieties that they work with.

A traditional potting soil mixture will contain ingredients like compost, bark, peat, vermiculite, and perlite.

The only way to tell if a potting mix is suitable for your garden is to check the ingredients and what plants they’re recommended for, as they can vary drastically.

When you choose a quality potting soil, it will be lightweight so that the container’s soil doesn’t get compacted, but still provide high levels of nutrients, moisture retention, and drainage, giving your potted plant everything it needs to thrive.

The Pros

  • The feel of potting soil is light and airy, so the plants won’t be smothered with compacted soil, which is helpful when they live in a container.
  • These soils provide adequate drainage on their own and can retain moisture quite effectively.
  • There are lots of varieties of potting soils with different nutrients and purposes, so you have plenty to choose from.
  • These soils are rich in nutrients thanks to the organic materials within and are usually pH balanced, which means there’s no need to add a soil amendment.
  • Sterile potting mix products are free from a disease that gives your plants and seeds the healthiest start possible.

The Cons

  • The price for a bag of quality potting mix can be quite high, depending on which one you buy.
  • The lightness of the soil means they’re not ideal for larger garden beds or outdoor plants.
  • Using the wrong type of potting soil on your plants can harm them, so it can be tricky to find the right fit.

How to Use It

The most obvious use for potting soil is in potted plants, and this includes indoor and outdoor varieties.

Before putting the soil into a pot, make sure there are drainage holes at the bottom, and if using it indoors, a saucer to prevent water from leaking out of the bottom.

Place a few larger rocks at the bottom of the container so that the soil doesn’t fall out and then fill it around three-quarters of the way before adding the plant. Top off with some more potting soil so that it feels firm but not too tight, and then water as required.

Garden Soil vs Potting Soil Comparisons

Garden Soil vs Potting Soil Comparisons

A gardener should be sure they’re using the right soil for their plants, otherwise, issues like soil compaction and moisture buildup can occur.

To determine whether potting soil or garden soil is best for you, have a look at their key differences and similarities.

Their Similarities

  • They’re versatile: Both soil types come in many different varieties intended to suit specific plants and types of gardens, so you can choose a perfect match.
  • They include nutrients: There are included nutrients in both soil types, with varying amounts depending on what they need.
  • They’re easy to find: You can easily purchase garden soil and potting soil from your local gardening supply store.

Their Differences

  • Potting soil can be added as it is to your pots, whereas garden soil might need some adjustments before you can use it.
  • Garden soil should only ever be used in outdoor gardens and potting soil should only ever be used in containers and pots. The texture of each of these soils means they will likely destroy the plants they’re housing if used incorrectly.
  • The price of garden soil is a lot cheaper because it’s not as rich in organic materials, so you can buy it for at least one-third of the cost usually.
  • There’s a wetting agent included in potting soil that’s not found in garden soil, as more watering is required for outdoor gardens.
  • Garden soil is minimally processed and contains live microbes that provide benefits for your plants, whereas potting soils have been sterilized and do not.

Questions to Ask to Get the Right Soil

Whatever type of soil you’re buying, you want to make sure it’s the right fit for your garden and gardening goals.

Here are a few questions you can ask your local gardening supply store before choosing the soil that will guarantee you’re getting the best.

Does the soil have nutrients?

Does the soil have nutrients?

Some soils are sold as-is and others have nutrients added to them with ingredients like organic material and fertilizers.

The number of nutrients present in the soil will determine how much is required of the gardener to add later, so it’s worth asking about if you’re unsure.

Has it been sterilized?

Many garden supplies like compost, manure, and soil have been sterilized to prevent the spread of disease and pests. However, this means they’re also usually free from minerals and microbes, so you have to weigh up the pros and cons.

What is its pH level?

The pH level of soil determines how healthily a plant can grow within it, and whether you’re growing flowers, vegetables, or something else, you’ll need to get it right.

If you can’t find out the pH level by asking, there are soil tests available that can tell you the reading so you can make adjustments as needed.

What plant varieties is it for?

What plant varieties is it for?

Think about what plants you’re growing and what they might require from a soil. Some plants need clay soil to thrive, some need sandy soil, and others something else altogether.

There are general-purpose soils that work for most plant varieties too, so it all depends.

What growth stage are my plants at?

If you’re starting from seeds, growing them in a container with a potting mix is recommended. Established plants will work with either potting soil or garden soil, depending on where they live.

Where are my plants growing?

Indoor plants always do better with an indoor-specific potting mix, but outdoor plants are a lot easier to appease. If you are growing outdoors, garden soil or a similar product is best as it gets the texture just right.

When to Use a Soil Improver

When to Use a Soil Improver

Another product that might come up on your hunt for the right soil is whether or not you need to use an improver.

For potting soil, there’s usually no need to add anything else as it contains all of the nutrients and texture required for container plant growth, but garden soil might require it.

Soil improver is usually added to a garden soil product that needs to improve its quality, and as a cheaper product, this might be often.

Depending on what you’re growing and what the conditions of the soil are, the best improvers and amendments include things like mulch, manure, compost, lime, sulfur, or gypsum.

The Final Say

Comparing garden soil to potting soil would be like comparing apples to oranges, as they’re each unique and intended for different purposes.

Assess what your plants require from soil and then decide if a healthy potting mixture is sufficient, or if your outdoor plants need the benefits that garden soil delivers.

Related Questions

Choosing the right soil is crucial whether planning a full-scale garden or potting a new houseplant, as it forms the foundation they need to thrive.

If you still have questions about the possibilities of soil, we’ve answered some common ones that can give you a push in the right direction.

What is Organic Soil?

Organic soil is made with natural ingredients, and usually includes plant and animal residues.

The most common components of organic soil are weathered rock, plant matter, moisture, and soil microbes, but there are many different varieties depending on the goal of the gardener using them.

When Should I Change the Soil In My Pots?

When Should I Change the Soil In My Pots?

Most potted plants will benefit from having their soil changed every 12 to 18 months, but it depends on the type and circumstances.

If you’re moving the pot to a new plant or have noticed that the soil’s health is deteriorating and it’s becoming hardened, you can change the soil even sooner than this.

What is Soil Improver?

A soil improver does as its name suggests and improves the soil’s nutrient count.

The most common ingredients in these products are peat, including frozen black peat and black peat, as they feature large amounts of organic matter that can be hugely beneficial when added to the existing soil.


About The Author

Gina Harper grew up dreaming about farms and growing her own food. She began an urban garden to feed herself and turned it into an incredible hobby. Gina is here to teach you everything from raised beds to container gardening, how to keep plants alive and well in a smoggy city, and the works. It’s time that we carve our own piece of green earth and reap what we sow—she’s here to help you with that.