The Real Differences Between Potting Soil And Garden Soil

After what felt like a never-ending winter, there's finally a light at the end of the tunnel — spring is upon us. With warm temperatures, fresh air, and the satisfaction of some dirt under your fingernails, the garden is beckoning. Whether gardening is already an established, favorite hobby of yours, or this is your first attempt at a green thumb, you may feel a little lost as you gaze upon the rows of colorful soil bags in your local garden center. Should you get potting soil for everything, or is there a benefit to garden soil instead? Are the names really as black and white as they sound? 

Start with this gardening commandment: All soil is not created equal. Picking the right dirt is like laying a solid foundation for a house. Choose the right one and you'll enjoy healthier plants and plentiful blooms that last through the last days of summer. Your garden's future will be looking lush, so long as you know the difference between potting soil and garden soil.

Potting soil's ingredients may surprise you

Spoiler alert — potting soil doesn't actually contain any dirt. According to HGTV, it's actually a mix of earthy materials such as vermiculite, peat moss, and ground pine bark. Each ingredient reportedly serves a specific purpose that's geared towards the common issues that can arise when growing plants in containers. 

For example, you don't want the soil to be too compact because that negatively affects drainage. The roots need to be able to breathe and stretch their legs. Vermiculite ensures the soil remains loose so it doesn't trap water and drown the roots. The National Gardening Association recommends ground pine bark as another ingredient to help with aeration. Most potting soil also contains either peat moss or compost to provide constant nutrition to the plant. Various mixes contain small crystals for water retention, while others include fertilizers specifically geared towards one type of plant or flower, from roses to cacti to hydrangeas. Just make sure you don't buy the cacti mix and plan to use it for all of your plant varieties, HGTV warns. Specialty mixes are formulated to provide the proper PH for that exact plant.

Now that you're a potting soil pro, grab those garden tools and dig into the details of garden soil.

Is garden soil just a fancy word for dirt?

Garden soil is truer to its name, as it actually contains dirt. According to the experts at Bob Vila, garden soil is essentially topsoil beefed up with organic materials, such as composted bark and composted animal manure, for added nutrition. Since it's intended for in-ground use, it has a denser texture that holds water longer. 

Flower beds aren't meant to be watered nearly as frequently as potted plants. In fact, some people rely on Mother Nature's rain schedule to take care of the hydration and don't water their beds, so that's why longer water retention is important. 

Garden soil is a great tool when the existing dirt in your garden beds is lacking for whatever reason, whether its texture is too heavy on the clay side or extra dry and sandy. Adding bagged garden soil to what you've already got in the ground will solve many of your textural woes, while also giving the plants more nutrients.

When to use potting soil versus garden soil

Since all soil is not created equally, potting soil and garden soil are not meant to be used interchangeably. Potting soil should go in your flower pots, windowboxes, and other plant containers, reports HGTV. It has all the nutrients your plants will need for the growing season, so it's great for annuals but doesn't have the longevity to nourish perennials. On the flip side: Garden soil does have the capability for longterm nutrition, so that's why it should be used in your garden beds or raised beds. 

When it comes to cost, potting soil is typically more expensive than garden soil, according to Gardening Know How. You'd break the bank if you filled an entire flower bed with potting soil. Garden soil allows you to enhance what you've already got in the ground, so you don't need to buy as much. If you're in an absolute pinch, it won't hurt to mix some garden soil in with your potting soil to stretch it to the level that your container requires, but only do so sparingly. 

According to Bob Vila, try not to be swayed by more expensive name brands. Compare the labels to see how the ingredients stack up, and you might be surprised to see that you're paying extra for colorful packaging and little else. 

By making a few simple decisions and choosing the right soil, you're well on your way to a green thumb.