What’s the Difference Between Garden Soil and Topsoil

Using the correct type of soil is important to help your plants thrive. What is the difference between garden soil and topsoil?

Although the terms may be confusing, topsoil and garden soil are NOT the same. Knowing when to apply these terms could mean the difference between achieving your landscaping goals and wasting your time and energy. 

Each soil type has a particular use, such as filling raised beds, creating container gardens, topdressing your lawn, or other uses. Before starting your gardening project, you must know which soil you need.

What is Topsoil?

Topsoil is simply the top layer of soil in any field, yard, or garden. It generally refers to the top 2 to 8 inches of earth and is the most productive and essential part of any soil. It is where plants obtain nutrients, absorb water, and interact with animals and microbes in various ways. Simply put, this is where the magic happens. 

Topsoil contains naturally occurring organic material such as tree bark, grasses, weeds, and leaves. Topsoil should not be confused with fill dirt, which can contain subsoil, rock, clay, and sand, and has few nutrients.

a thin layer of topsoil

What is Garden Soil?

Garden soil is made of natural topsoil mixed with inexpensive, bulky organic material. Garden soil mixtures frequently include cow or chicken manure, mushroom compost, and composted bark.

Garden soil with coarse organic matter improves the water-holding capacity of sandy soils. It loosens the texture of clay soils to promote root growth.

some gardening tools on top of soil

When to Use Topsoil vs. Garden Soil

First and foremost, there is a significant price difference. Garden soils, with significantly larger volumes, can be expensive depending on the specific type you want. Topsoil is considered a bulk alternative for more extensive projects due to cost considerations and is likely the better choice.

Topsoil is a general-purpose landscape material. For example, after a construction project is completed and the garden area has been compacted or degraded by large equipment, you may need to apply topsoil. You could also use it to level low areas before sodding.

Gardening soils are fantastic when you need soil for plants in a small space. They can be used as the top layer of a raised bed or in containers (although a potting mix is often the better choice for pots).

You can add topsoil if your raised beds are too large and garden soil is too expensive. For example, you could fill the bottom portion of the raised bed planters with topsoil and then top off with a layer of garden soil.

Leila Haynes
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