Topsoil and garden soil are essential components in urban gardening and agriculture. They play a vital role in supporting the growth and development of plants, but they are different in their composition and uses. Learn how to choose the best soil for your needs.
What is Topsoil?
Topsoil is the top layer of soil on Earth that contains a mixture of organic matter, minerals, and other essential elements that plants need to grow. Topsoil is the main source of nutrients for plants, and it is crucial for their survival. Without topsoil, plants would struggle to absorb the necessary nutrients and water to grow and thrive.
Topsoil is usually sold to home gardeners in bags at hardware stores, nurseries or garden centers. It can also be purchased in bulk totes by the cubic yard. There is some controversy with topsoil. These products are not the most sustainable because they are mined or scraped from various locations, bagged, and resold to consumers.
Top soil can also be included in specialized blends like garden soil (see below). Different brands will have different formulations and naming conventions so you should definitely check out the ingredient list or talk to a garden center expert before buying.
When Should You Use Topsoil?
Topsoil on its own is not a great growing medium. It can be quite compacted and hinder root development. However, there are some instances where using topsoil makes sense:
- Creating new garden beds: Topsoil is often used to create new planting areas or to expand existing ones. It provides a nutrient-rich base for plants to grow in. On its own, topsoil is not a great growing medium and I would recommend mixing in compost.
- Bulk Filling raised beds: Because it is often more cost-effective to purchase topsoil than garden or raised bed soil, bulk-filling new raised beds with a mixture that includes topsoil is a great way to get them started.
- Leveling and grading: Topsoil can be used to level and grade uneven terrain, making it suitable for planting, landscaping, or other outdoor activities.
- Sodding and seeding a new lawn: Topsoil can be used as a base layer for sod or seed installation. It provides a stable foundation for the new grass or plants to grow in.
What is Garden Soil?
Garden soil is a mixture of various types of soil, organic matter, and other materials that provide the ideal conditions for plant growth. Garden soil should have a balanced pH level, good drainage, and be rich in nutrients that are essential for plant growth. It may also be enriched with fertilizers or other additives to improve its quality.
The composition of garden soil may vary depending on the type of plants being grown and the climate of the region. There is no set definition or composition for the term garden soil. It will vary depending on the supplier.
Some suppliers will have several garden soil types that are marketed for various needs like vegetable garden, flower beds, herb gardens, etc. But for the most part, garden soil products are considered general purpose. My advice is to research the supplier and ask about the composition of garden soil before purchasing to make sure it will be suitable for your needs and space.
When Should You Use Garden Soil?
Here are some of the common uses of garden soil:
- Planting beds: Garden soil is used to create planting beds for vegetables, flowers, and other plants. The nutrient-rich soil provides an optimal growing environment for the plants.
- Raised beds: Garden soil can be used to fill raised garden beds, which are elevated garden areas that allow for better drainage and root growth. This is especially important if your existing soil (native soil) is of poor quality or difficult to work with (for example clay soils or sandy soil).
- Lawn repair: Garden soil can be used to repair bare patches in the lawn. The soil is mixed with grass seed and spread over the bare areas to encourage grass growth.
- Miscellaneous Landscape projects: Garden soil can be used in a variety of landscaping projects, such as building retaining walls, creating walkways, or filling in low spots in the yard.
A note on container gardens (pots, window boxes, planters, grow bags, etc.). Garden soil can be used in containers, pots, and other planters for growing plants as long as you mix in additional sphagnum moss (peat moss) and/or coconut coir and/or perlite and/or vermiculite. These additions help with water retention and drainage. They also lighten up the mix making it less dense and heavy.
It is often cheaper to purchase garden soil and amend it as needed for containers than to buy commercially marketed potting mixes.
What is Compost?
Because garden soil formulas often include compost, I wanted to include some additional context. Compost is a type of organic matter that is produced by decomposing food scraps, yard waste, and other organic materials. The decomposing process occurs naturally over time, but can also be accelerated with the help of composting systems, bins or piles.
Compost is rich in nutrients and serves as a natural fertilizer for plants. It improves the structure and fertility of soil, making it easier for plant roots to grow and absorb water and nutrients.
Composting is a simple and sustainable way to reduce waste, conserve resources, and promote plant growth. By composting food scraps, yard waste, and other organic materials, you can create a nutrient-rich soil amendment that is free from harmful chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. Composting is also an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint, as the decomposing process captures carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
I recommend reading my topsoil vs compost post to get a better understanding of the differences and why compost is so important to gardening and growing food. This post will also cover composting methods which include vermicomposting, bokashi, tumblers and more.
Topsoil is the uppermost layer of soil on Earth. You will often find bags labeled topsoil in garden centers. These products can be used to create new garden beds when mixed with other organic materials like compost and/or composted animal manure. The challenge with these products is that they are not the most sustainable because they are mined or scraped from various locations, bagged, and resold to consumers
No, topsoil on its own does not provide an adequate environment for plants to thrive. For best results, in addition to topsoil, other organic matter and soil amendments should be added such as compost and/or composted manure.
No, the term garden soil is a catch-all term. The composition of these products will vary from vendor to vendor. There are also some formulations made specifically for vegetable gardens, flower gardens, raised beds, etc. Always select the right type of soil for your specific needs and what you plan to grow.