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Potting Soil vs Ground Soil: The Best for Your Garden

Scooping up ground soil with two hands. Is it better than potting soil for the garden?

Choosing the best soil for your growing plants is the key to their success. Soil type can affect how much nutrition your plants receive, how thirsty they are and even their root growth.

The plants you’re looking to grow – and how and where they’ll be planted – will dictate the soil they’ll need to stay healthy.

Garden plants, indoor plants, container plants and raised beds are all different growing conditions. What type of soil should you use?

  • Potting soil vs ground soil – which is best for your garden?
  • Can you use potting soil in the ground?
  • What’s the difference between potting soil and garden soil, anyway?

Getting this right makes all the difference in the health and happiness of your plants.

In this article, we’ll explain the difference between potting soil and ground soil, why they’re unique, and how to choose between them for your perfect garden.

What is Potting Soil Made Of?

Potting soil – also called potting mix – is the perfect choice for container plants or pots. This is true for both indoor and outdoor plants. Potting soil is a specially balanced combination of organic and inorganic materials made specifically for the special needs of container gardening.

Good potting soil is lighter than natural soil, and potting mix often contains no real soil at all! It’s designed to stay loose and give good drainage, so plant roots don’t become compacted in their containers. And because pots can quickly become dry – especially clay and terra cotta pots – some potting mixes are also made with special “beads” that help with water retention.

With its balanced properties, potting mix makes sure that your potted plants stay healthy in their contained space. It’s a great way to make sure container plants receive enough nutrients, while also providing moisture control.

The composition of potting soil can vary between manufacturers, but for the most part, it includes a mix of primary ingredients such as:

  • Vermiculite: a light, natural mica-like mineral that helps retain moisture and deliver nutrients
  • Peat moss: a partially decomposed organic material that retains moisture and provides aeration
  • Perlite: lightweight, porous volcanic rock that looks like Styrofoam beads; improves drainage and aeration
  • Compost: a mix of decomposed organic matter that provides nutrients and improves soil structure
  • Sand: adds weight and improves drainage
  • Fertilizers: provide essential nutrients for plant growth
  • Other: pine bark, coconut coir, sphagnum moss, etc.

When potting a new plant, first line the bottom of the container with a coffee filter, cheese cloth or landscape filter to prevent the soil from leaching out through the drainage holes. Then, make sure to add some stones, twigs or other loose material to help with drainage. (Use stones in lightweight, outdoor planters, as it gives them some extra weight to withstand high winds. Use twigs for heavier planters or those you’ll need to move.)

Always use a sterile potting mix. Plant the roots deeply and tamp down firmly. Finally, water thoroughly and then cover with a layer of coco coir or sphagnum peat moss to help moisture retention. It also looks nice!

What is Ground Soil Made of?

Ground soil composition varies depending on region, but generally ground soil includes a mixture of sand, silt, clay and organic matter from whatever is living and growing in that area.

“Top soil” is the upper few inches of ground soil and naturally has more nutrients, due to its high concentration of organic matter. Topsoil is perfect for growing many types of plants, including gardens, lawns and others with a more shallow root system.

Looking at the makeup of native soil can be extremely helpful in land management, as it gives priceless insight into our natural environment.

Using ground soil in your new garden helps create the right growing conditions for outdoor plants. Depending on the soil’s condition, it can be exactly what your plants need. And if it’s not (yet), the soil can be amended.

When to Use Potting Soil

To ensure healthy plant growth, it is important to use the right type of soil for the job. Different planting conditions have different needs.

Potting soil mixes are specifically designed for potted plants. They’re usually lighter and airier than regular dirt, which helps to encourage drainage and prevent roots from becoming waterlogged.

Putting potting soil in the ground.

Potting soil is a good choice for window boxes, container gardens, and indoor plants. If you are looking to create a healthy and thriving environment for your contained plants, potting soil is the way to go.

Seedlings and new plants also do great in a light, soilless mix. The soilless media encourages their fine roots. Start them indoors before the growing season, and they’ll be ready for your new beds at planting time.

Finally, you could use a good potting soil in a raised bed garden. For best results, cover with a couple inches of topsoil to retain moisture and add outdoor weather stability.

Always make sure to use fresh potting soil, as old potting soil can contain fungus, decay and even disease from previous plantings.

When to Use Ground Soil

This one is easy to remember: if your plants will be going into the ground, use actual soil from the ground.

That doesn’t mean you can’t amend the soil – and you very possibly should. Good soil makes a happy garden. A test kit (found online or from your local garden center or extension office) can measure your soil’s ph level (acidity or alkalinity), nutrient content and amount of organic matter.

Soil Moisture Meter,4-in-1 Soil Ph Meter, Soil Tester for Moisture, Light,Nutrients, pH,Soil Ph Test Kit, Great for Garden, Lawn, Farm, Indoor & Outdoor Use (No Battery Required)
  • 🌳4-in-1 Multi-Function: This hygrometer can meet your needs to measure soil moisture, Ph, nutrients, and light conditions at the same time. Cost-effective, compared with the traditional single-function soil tester, you only need to buy one, and you can enjoy four services. It can help you gain a complete understanding of your plants.
  • 🌺Patented Design US No.D968976: The patented design of the 90°C rotating head allows you to read the dial without bending down and looking down. You can bend the head 1°-90° at will. Adjust to the angle that best suits your reading.
  • 🌻Fast Response: You only need to insert the probe deeper than 2.5 inches into the soil and get test results in seconds. (must be greater than 2.5 inches deep)
  • 🌱Single-probe Design: The single-probe with upgraded material is more durable. Compared to traditional dual probes, a single probe can reduce damage to plant roots when inserted into the soil and is a reliable Plant Care Tool.

If your plants will be going into the ground, use actual soil from the ground.

Why shouldn’t you use potting mix? Because potting mix is too fluffy, too airy and too fast-draining. Even the best potting soil just isn’t substantial enough for plants that live in the ground.

If you use potting soil for your outdoor garden, your plants will likely become thirsty, and you’ll need to water more often.

Potting soil also won’t pack down enough to anchor outdoor plants firmly into the ground, the way outside plants require to handle wind and rain.

And beyond that, potting soil is an expensive choice for vegetable and flower beds! You’d be much better off getting a load of top soil or bulk garden soil from a local nursery. Make sure to order clean soil that’s been pulverized and has no weed seeds.

One way you could use potting soil in the ground is by adding it as soil amendment. If the native soil is heavy (like clay) or nutrient poor (like sand), mixing in some good potting soil could help make it better.

Use garden soil to encourage deep, strong root systems that will make your outdoor plants hardy enough to withstand anything Mother Nature throws at them.

How to Choose the Right Soil for Your Garden

Pinterest Graphic: Potting Soil vs Garden Soil - When and Where?

Consider your gardening goals

The first step in choosing the right soil for your garden is to consider your gardening goals. What are you hoping to grow in your garden? Different plants have different soil needs, so it’s important to think about what you want to grow before you choose your soil. It’s likely that – even within your own yard – you have soil with different compositions that would suit specific purposes.

Evaluate your soil type and needs

No matter what type of plants you hope to grow, it is important to first evaluate your existing soil conditions. Different types of soil affect the plants you can grow, the nutrients they need, and how well they will drain.

First, it’s important to understand the three basic types of soil: sandy, clay, and loam. Each has its own unique characteristics and benefits.

Sandy soil

Sandy soils tend to drain quickly and are less nutrient-rich. It’s best suited for plants that prefer drier conditions, such as succulents, cacti, and other drought-tolerant species. Adding a little plant matter, clay or other soil amendments could be a good idea.

Clay soil

Clay soil, on the other hand, is dense and has poor drainage. It’s highly fertile but can easily become compacted and retain too much water. This can lead to root rot and prevent nutrient uptake. Plants that prefer moist conditions, such as ferns and hostas, can thrive in this soil type, but it may require additional amendments for better drainage. Soil compaction can be a real challenge with this type of soil. Consider mixing in a generous scoop from the compost pile, some sand or a layer of top soil.

Loamy soil

Finally, loam is often considered the ideal soil type, as it is a blend of sand, clay, and organic matter. It has the perfect balance of drainage and nutrition, making it great for all types of plants except those with specific needs.

Amend and prepare as needed

Once you know your soil type, you can begin to amend it to create the perfect growing conditions for your plants. This may involve adding a mixture of organic materials (like bone meal, worm castings or plant material), fertilizers, or other amendments to improve drainage, aeration, and fertility. With the right preparation, you can create a healthy and thriving garden that will produce beautiful flowers, tasty fruits, and delicious vegetables.

Miracle-Gro Water Soluble All Purpose Plant Food, 3 lb
  • Full of essential nutrients, it instantly feeds to grow bigger, more beautiful plants versus unfed plants
  • Feed every 1-2 weeks
  • Use with the Miracle-Gro Garden Feeder or any watering can
  • For all flowers, vegetables, trees, shrubs and houseplants

Conclusion: The Importance of Soil for the Success of Your Garden

When selecting soil, consider the requirements of your specific plants, as well as your gardening goals.

  • For container-grown plants, a high-quality potting mix may be the best option for providing good drainage and nutrients.
  • In garden beds, a loamy soil with added organic matter can create a rich, healthy environment for plants to grow.

Regardless of your soil selection, regular maintenance and amendments are key to keeping plants healthy and grown. Test your soil periodically for nutrient levels and adjust as needed. Add compost, fertilizer, and other organic matter to boost soil health and stimulate growth.

By choosing the right soil and regularly caring for it, you can enjoy beautiful, healthy plants for years to come.

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