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Garden Soil in Your Backyard

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Soil is one of the most important elements of a successful vegetable garden. And be sure not to call it dirt! Master gardeners (at least where I live) get sensitive about that. Dirt is what you track inside the house on the bottom of your shoes. Soil is the living matter that supports the growth of grass, trees, bushes, and other tiny organisms you can’t see outside.

garden soil with green seedling

What is soil?

Soil is a living, breathing thing that has many important jobs:

  • Filters water (yep!)
  • Habitat for living organisms (think earthworms, but there are thousands more!)
  • Environment for plant growth
  • Recycles waste products

And as you probably know, many different types of soil are out there. Some areas may have loamy or sandy soil, while others are plagued with clay-heavy soils. Gardeners across the country (and the world) must first determine what they’re working with to know how best to plan their gardens.

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soil in a person's hand

Most undisturbed soil is primarily made up of three layers:

  • Topsoil– The topmost layer, and what you’re probably most familiar with.
  • Subsoil– This layer usually has a bit more clay and less organic matter than topsoil
  • Parent Material– This varies greatly based on where you live and even in your state, different regions will have different parent materials. Bedrock is an example of a parent material.

What makes good soil?

Good soil isn’t necessarily what comes in a bag from the hardware store. You may actually have some good soil in your own backyard, but before I tell you how to test your soil, let’s talk about what soil is made of. I mentioned earlier what soil does, but did you know that soil (much like a fancy cake) is made in layers? Yep, it’s true!

The most popular soil types found in backyards are:

  • Sandy or Coarse Soil– This soil doesn’t hold water well, which also means that nutrients are flushed out of it easily. This type of soil means fertilizers will be a must.
  • Clay or Finely Textured Soil– This soil does hold water and nutrients well, but it’s difficult to work with since it’s hard when dry and sticky when wet.
  • Loamy or Medium Textured Soil– Typically this soil will have more organic matter in it and holds moisture relatively well. And since they also hold nutrients, this type of soil is fertile for growing.

Which of these sounds like what you have in your backyard? The next step to learning more about the garden soil in your backyard is to have it tested.

Garden Soil vs. Top Soil

When it comes to gardening and taking care of plants, there’s a big discussion about using garden soil versus topsoil. These two types of soil are really important for helping plants grow well. But they have some differences and are used in different ways. 

If you want your garden to look great and your plants to be healthy, it’s important to understand these differences. Keep reading to find out what makes garden soil and topsoil unique, why they’re useful, and how to use them correctly. This will help you make smart choices when you’re working on your garden or landscape.

What’s the difference between garden soil and topsoil?

Well, let me tell you. Garden soil and topsoil are not actually the same thing. Garden soil contains more organic material, which allows it to drain better than clay in wet weather. It’s like a superpower for your garden!

On the other hand, topsoil refers to the top 5–10 inches of soil on the earth’s surface and is made up of twigs, vegetation, tree bark, dead bugs, and other organic matter. This makes topsoil a little less magical for your plants, but it’s still essential for plant growth. 

When it comes to gardening, I always prefer using garden soil, especially when I need to add nutrients to the existing soil. Garden soil is designed to support plant growth, and it’s usually mixed with organic materials for that very reason. This kind of soil is excellent for container gardens, raised beds, and adding nutrients to nutrient-poor areas of your garden.

Garden Soil Composition

To understand what sets garden soil apart, let’s take a look at its composition. Garden soil is essentially a mixture of topsoil and organic matter, which gives it a rich nutrient content that is perfect for plants to thrive in. Some common organic materials used in garden soil include compost, plant residue, and aged manure. These components not only add nutrients but also help with moisture retention and aerate the soil, creating the best-growing conditions for plants.

Traits of Top Soil

Topsoil is the uppermost layer of the earth and is usually full of organic materials. It’s the most biologically active layer of soil, being home to various organisms like bacteria, fungi, and insects, which all contribute to the soil’s overall health. One thing to note is that topsoil can vary in quality based on factors like the region it’s from and the type of native soil.

Ideal Applications of Top Soil

While both garden and topsoil share similarities, they have different applications. Topsoil is versatile and can be used for general purposes like filling low spots or leveling uneven areas in your garden. Since it’s the native soil, I often use it as the base layer when creating a new garden bed or lawn. Topsoil can also be mixed with other amendments, depending on the specific needs of your plants.

Top Soil Composition

By examining the composition of topsoil, we can better understand its characteristics. The main differences in topsoil come from its varying proportions of sand, silt, and clay. High-quality topsoil will have a good balance of these components, providing the right soil structure for plant growth. 

Topsoil also contains some organic materials but might not have enough nutrients to support the growth of plants, which is where garden soil becomes beneficial.

Overall, recognizing the differences between garden soil and topsoil will help you to choose the right soil for your gardening projects, ensuring the best possible growing conditions for your plants.

Comparing Garden Soil and Top Soil for Different Uses

As a gardening enthusiast, I often get asked about the best type of soil to use for different scenarios. Here, I’m going to cover the main differences between garden soil and topsoil and how they’re best utilized for various purposes like home gardening, container gardens, flower beds, lawn care, and indoor plants.

Home Gardening

For home gardening, where you grow a variety of plants, vegetables, and fruits, garden soil is a better option. This is because it has added nutrients that support the growth of various plants. Topsoil is just the upper layer of the earth’s surface and might not have enough nutrients for your plants to thrive. When amending the soil in your garden bed, you could blend your own compost or even buy bags of garden soil from garden centers.

Container Gardens

Container gardening requires a specific type of soil that offers good drainage and enough nutrients for your plants. Using a mixture of garden soil, organic compost, and sphagnum moss creates the perfect environment for container plants to thrive. Topsoil alone won’t provide the best results since it’s too dense and doesn’t have the necessary nutrients or drainage for container gardening.

Flower Beds

For flower gardens, a mixture of garden soil, animal manure, and your homemade compost can create the perfect environment for the flowers to bloom. To create beautiful flower beds, flowers need good root growth and adequate nutrients, which topsoil alone might not provide. Garden soil offers better results as it has the necessary nutrients to support flower growth.

Lawn Care

When it comes to lawn care, adding a few inches of topsoil can improve the soil structure and provide a base for grass seed germination. Topsoil allows for better water retention, and blending it with organic compost can provide enough nutrients for the grass to establish itself. Keep in mind that you might need a significant amount of topsoil, depending on the size of your lawn, which is usually measured in cubic yards.

Indoor Plants

Indoor plants have different needs than outdoor plants, and container gardening principles are essential in this case. A good potting mix with garden soil, added nutrients, and additional elements like peat moss, perlite, or vermiculite will help indoor plants thrive. Topsoil may not be the best choice for indoor plants, as it’s too dense and lacks the proper drainage needed for container plant growth.

Remember to explore different products available at your local garden center, and always consider your plants’ specific needs when choosing between garden soil and topsoil.

How to Test Garden Soil

Having garden soil tested is much more complicated than it sounds. It definitely doesn’t involve you buying a microscope and wearing a lab coat, though you certainly could if you wanted. My recommendation for soil testing is to use the resources of your state’s soil testing lab.

Get in touch with your local Cooperative Extension office and stop by for a soil testing box. Once you have the box, here’s what to do:

  • Wait to take a sample when your soil is fairly dry. (i.e. not after a day of rain.)
  • Dig down into your soil six inches and scoop out some soil.
  • Then find another spot and repeat the scooping process.
  • Fill your sample box with soil from around your garden for the best mix.
  • Close up the box and fill out the paperwork that accompanies it, so you can give the lab the best information possible.

Can you submit more than one sample? Absolutely! I usually do at least two. One for my raised beds, and one for the area where my blueberries and figs grow.

How long until results I see my results? That depends. Most labs are busy in the late winter/early spring, so be prepared to wait several weeks during that time of year. The fall is a slower time, so if possible, send your sample in the fall for a quick turn around.

How to read a soil test report

If you want to skip the explanation below, you can always check out my Youtube video on How to Read a Soil Test Report.

  1. Note that my test was listed as a “vegetable garden” which is important, since soil test reports can give recommendations based on what you’re growing in that area.
  2. Ph– The Ph of the soil tells you how acidic or alkaline your soil is, and plants are sensitive to this in soil. As you can see on my sample, my soil Ph is a little higher than optimum. Since it wasn’t too alkaline, and I wasn’t planning to grow acidic soil-loving plants in this area, I just left it alone. But if you soil does need to have it’s Ph raised or lowered, check out this great article from Clemson University on “How to Change the Ph of your Soil.” Lime is typically used to increase the Ph of garden soil, and you’ll see on my report that they recommend no lime since my soil is alkaline.
  3. Nutrient Levels– The phosphorus and potassium index for my soil is on the right side of the report, and they were off the charts. I remember being very surprised by these results, but you just have to roll with it. Because there’s nothing I can do to really lower these numbers, you’ll notice that they recommend the only fertilizer I use be a 21-0-0. This means the fertilizer has no phosphorus or potassium added, since my soil needs none.
soil test report

Soil testing at home

There are home methods of testing soil, though I haven’t used them myself. I prefer to let someone else do that for me, but if you’re interested in trying it out, there’s some great information and products out there. Here are some ideas:

If you try any of these out and love them (or not!) let us know below! I may need to just branch out and try them myself. Whichever method you choose, definitely learn more about your soil, so you know what you’re working with.

FAQs about soil

Can you submit more than one soil sample for testing?

Absolutely! I usually do at least two—one for my raised garden beds and one for the area where my blueberries and figs grow.

How long until I see my results from a soil sample test?

That depends. Most labs are busy in the late winter or early spring, so be prepared to wait several weeks during that time of year. The fall is a slower time, so if possible, send your sample in the fall for a quick turnaround.

Which is better for garden beds: topsoil or garden soil?

When it comes to garden beds, I’d say garden soil is better. It has more organic material, better drainage, and can attract beneficial organisms such as earthworms and bacteria, which help to loosen the soil and add air and nutrients to it. However, you can also try combining both garden soil and topsoil to strike a balance.

Is it better to use topsoil or garden soil for grass seed?

In my experience, topsoil is usually the better choice for grass seed. Since it’s more consistent and provides a stable base for the grass to establish its roots, it can help improve germination rates. With its higher organic content, garden soil might be too rich in certain nutrients for some grass types. But remember, every lawn is different, so you might want to experiment with both options in small areas before committing to a larger area. 

Have a great day and happy gardening!