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Gardening Soil vs. Potting Soil: What’s Best for Plants?

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When you’re shopping at the nursery, the available types of soil can seem a little overwhelming at first. If you aren’t familiar with the differences and usage scenarios for gardening soil vs. potting soil, then today we hope to help! In this article we’re going to clear the fog on what each is made up of, the main differences between them, and also their key features so that by the time we’re done, you’ll know exactly which ones you need for a wide range of scenarios. 

If you’re ready, then let’s get this match started with Gardening soil vs. Potting soil – ding ding!

Bottom Line Up Front

In a nutshell, gardening soil is just topsoil that has had some organic amendments to it, such as worm casings, compost, manure, and other organic additions to make the topsoil more fertile. This is meant to be used outside by adding to your garden soil to improve the overall quality.

By contrast, potting soil is a self-contained growing medium that sometimes doesn’t contain soil at all – with those types of potting soils being referred to as ‘soilless mixes’. While some blends DO have a garden soil component, a traditional topsoil example would be vermiculite, bark, peat, and perlite mixed together -kind of like ‘a complete diet you house in a pot, with good drainage’ or put another way, a potting soil is just a ‘complete’ growing medium that contains everything a pot-bound plant needs.

Gardening Soil and Potting soil – A closer look

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In this section, we’re going to take a closer look at each medium to better explain them before we start contrasting the differences and the key points. We’ll create a basic foundation here by explaining each medium and then we can build on it through the rest of the article by expanding on key points and differences. 

What is gardening soil?

When you see ‘gardening soil’ marketed at your nursery, what you are purchasing is basically topsoil and sand that has some chunky and not-so-chunky organic bits in it. Some examples of organic additions that commercial garden soil might have include the following:

  • Worm casings
  • Sawdust and composted bark from mills
  • Chicken or cow manure
  • Standard Compost
  • Mushroom compost

While there are certainly other organics that various brands will boast, you get the idea – if you collected a few inches of topsoil from your own garden and mixed in the right percentages of sand and organic matter, you’d have basically the same thing. So just remember, garden soil is regular soil and sand that’s been ‘souped up’ with organic matter so that you can improve your current soil to be better suited for the plants it will be hosting. 

So, why do you need potting soil, can’t you just use garden soil? Inside a pot, garden soil is a bad fit. That’s because it’s being contained in one spot, so it’s going to aerate poorly and because it’s compacted, water drainage will also not be very efficient. 

In your garden, however, the garden soil is spread over a larger area and will also see watering from you and from the rain, and proper aeration ensures that the organics decompose and further enrich the soil you’ve mixed it with.  

Since it has some regular soil in it, you’re more likely to see true ‘garden soil’ being marketed mostly at your local nurseries, since soil blends are heavier and that can tack on shipping costs that make online marketing difficult. There are online garden soils however, which simply include an assortment of amendments, usually marketed as ‘All Purpose Gardening Soil’– This Espoma Organic Vegetable & Flower Garden Soil for In-Ground use is a good example – it contains some potting soil type ingredients, but it’s not a stand=alone medium that would work in a pot. 

It’s got a little sphagnum peat moss, coco coir, compost, as well as wetting agents and fertilizer. Spread on top or mixed in with your garden soil, it basically helps to feed your plants for about 3 months by enriching the soil where you’ve placed it.  Now, let’s look at regular potting soil with some examples to help you to understand the differences.

What is potting soil?

When you see potting soil, what you are basically looking at is a medium that contains everything you need to grow specific types of plants in pots. A lot of them are soilless, but basically, they consist of components that provide ideal nutrition for the plant types they are designed for, as well as drainage. 

Here are some examples of 3 popular potting soil types with some of their ingredients to give you a better picture of their purposes. Note – you’ll find quite a LOT of potting soil types, these are just a few examples to give you a good idea of how they work and what they are made of:

  • Cactus, palm and citrus potting soils – You’ll sometimes see these marketed as ‘Succulent soils’, but what they usually include nutrient materials such as peat and a little sand or perlite to make the pot heavier and to improve drainage – a must for succulents, palms, and citrus as they may easily be overwatered.
  • Orchid potting soils – Orchids love rich soils in the wild, so an orchid potting soil includes ingredients such as shredded bark, sphagnum, and vermiculite, with a bit of perlite thrown in to help ensure water drains properly.
  • Moisture control potting soils – Moisture control potting soils are designed for potted plants that are at the most in danger of over or underwatering. They’re basically made up of nutritious ingredients like sphagnum peat moss and coco coir, also with a wetting agent and moisture control pellets. This helps to control the levels of water absorbed while keeping the medium fertile for your plant. Gardenera Organic Moisture Control Potting Mix is a great example if you’d like to see a commercial moisture-control mix.

If you would like to learn about different types of potting soil, check out this article entitled 10 Different Types Of Potting Soil (Ingredients, Properties) from Rosy Soil – it’s quite informative and covers a good range of popular potting soil types.

Now that we’ve established the general differences between garden soil and potting soil, we can break them down a little more with some contrast. We’ll start with the chief differences and then we’ll take a look at the key features and the pros and cons of each!

Main Differences Between Gardening soil and Potting soil

A good contrast is one of the best ways to learn, so we’ve made a list of comparisons to help further define the differences between Gardening soil and Potting soil. Let’s take a look!

  • Potting soil is everything you need for growing in a container, while gardening soil is meant to improve your outside soil.
  • Potting soil has been sterilized, but garden soil is going to contain live microbes as a part of its makeup to help break down and distribute nutrients. 
  • Gardening soil would get clumped and compacted in a pot, and also drain poorly, unless you did a lot of extra work to balance it out. By contrast, potting soil is basically a nutrition matrix for specific plant types with sand or perlite for superior drainage – perfect for a pot and plants with demands that are harder to meet with your local soil.
  • As Gardening soil is a mix of topsoil, sand, and organics, while potting soil is almost completely organic with a bit of drainage materials, gardening soil is about 1/3 of the price when you buy it at the nursery.
  • Potting soils generally contain wetting agents to help ensure a certain amount of water is retained, but gardening soil will not have this – it’s the reason why you water your potted plants less than you do with the ones in your garden (unless you live in an area with fairly regular rain, of course!)  

Key Features of Gardening soil

With gardening soil, a breakdown of the key features is useful to paint a better mental image. With that in mind, a good Gardening soil looks something like this:

  • Contains enriched soil – Gardening soil usually contains actual topsoil and sometimes sand is added for a little improved drainage. 
  • Added organic matter – Organic matter such as shredded bark, sawdust, cow or chicken manure, or proprietary compost blends are added to enrich the contained topsoil and to enrich your garden soil.
  • Good and bad microbes are present – Gardening soil has a mix of microbes in it – since it’s not sterilized like potting soil, you get the good with the bad. The nursery will provide quality soil, of course, but bad microbes may still be present. 
  • Mineral content – Minerals are part of the mix, usually in the form of decayed plant matter and weathered stone bits.
  • Weight – Gardening soil is heavy, as it contains actual topsoil, weathered rocks, and the organic materials meant to feed your garden soil – it has a noticeable heft to it. 
  • Storage considerations – Gardening soil won’t have much of a shelf life – you’ve got living microbes in it and organic matter, and Nature is going to ‘do it’s thing’ and break that down. Your supplier will be able to give you a realistic shelf-life if it’s not marked on the package.

Pros/Cons of Gardening soil

Before we start on potting soil, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Gardening soil so that you can understand when it’s best to use this medium. We’ll cover some quick points in both the pros and cons for clarity.

The Pros

  • Gardening soil is basically a ‘soil upgrade kit’ – if your soil is a bit on the sandy side, for instance, mixing in some gardening soil can help to balance it and the decaying organics will make the soil richer for a few months. 
  • Gardening soil is chunky stuff and so you can use it to improve the texture of your garden’s soil and it will also help with water retention – a definite perk, since you have to water your outdoor plants quite often.
  • Gardening soil is about 1/3 of the price of potting soil, so you can get a lot of it and improve a wide swath of your garden in preparation for planting. 
  • Additional fertilizers are sometimes added to help improve the quality of your garden soil. 

The Cons

  • While gardening soil boosts nutrients, the nutrition profile is going to be generalized – some of the plants you intend to host may need additional additives if they are to thrive.
  • Gardening soil should not be used indoors – sometimes eggs or unwanted microbes may be present which could spread to your other indoor plants.
  • Gardening soil tends to clump up in containers without a lot of special preparation and also drain poorly on their own if potted. 

Key Features of Potting soil 

The best way to envision potting soil in your mind is to break it down into its key features. When you do that, aside from the specialized nutrition that the potting soil is designed to provide to specific plant types, a good potting soil looks a little something like this:

  • Wetting agents – Wetting agents help to make it easier to ‘re-wet’ your plants, by ensuring an ideal water retention level in the potting soil medium for the plants it is designed for.
  • Drainage materials – Perlite, sand, gravels – The ingredients vary, but essentially the function is the same – they’re usually targeting a porosity of around 15% so that water doesn’t ‘pocket’ and produce a potential ‘root rot’ scenario.
  • Optimal weight – A good potting soil won’t be so dense and heavy that you can’t easily move your pot. Some soils will be a LITTLE weighty, but only enough to keep the pot from easily getting knocked or blown over if it’s hosted outside.
  • Doesn’t easily compact or clump – A good potting soil won’t clump up or shrink away from the sides of the pot. 
  • Specialized pH –Potting soils are designed with specific plant types in mind and will often have a specialized pH – for instance, you might see one that boasts a pH range of 5.0 to 5.5, which Azaleas and Blueberries like!  
  • Storable – Potting soil should be storable for long periods of time without undergoing physical or dramatic chemical changes. 
  • Sterilized – Potting soil is sterilized, so it should be free of baneful microbes and pests – although beneficial microbes are often introduced by the manufacturer.

The Pros

  • Potting soils are specialized – they have everything you need for specific plant types to grow in a pot, so you can plant with confidence.
  • Potting soils are sterilized, although sometimes beneficial microbes are added. That means you’ve got a pest and disease-free medium to give your potted plant the best chances of thriving.
  • Lightweight and aerated, potting soils won’t clump up or shrink from the sides of pots, and they don’t compact the way that regular soil does.
  • Superior drainage is also a perk of potting soil – vermiculite, perlite, gravel, or sand is added so that a preset drainage percentage that fits your plant’s needs is achieved.
  • Wetting agents in potting soil help to ensure that the enhanced drainage doesn’t leave your plants wanting water.
  • Potting soils are pH balanced for their target plant species.

The Cons

  • As potting soil is fairly lightweight and specialized, it won’t really work well for a large garden patch outside unless it’s specifically designed for indoor and outdoor use.
  • Another problem with specialization is that you have to be very careful what potting soil you use to host your plants – if the soil is not compatible, they’ll do poorly or even die.
  • Potting soil is more expensive than gardening soil, as it has higher-end organic components combined in a proprietary blend.

Other Alternatives to Consider

Of course you don’t have to rely on commercial gardening soil or potting soil – you do have alternatives – so let’s take a look at those so that you can see what each entails. 

Garden soil alternatives

With your outdoor garden, you’ve got a lot of tried and true ways to improve the soil and to prepare it for hosting particular types of plants. Compost is one of the best approaches and some of the ingredients may be added on their own to achieve particular effects. Here are some examples:

  • Banana peels – Potassium is good for your plants and if you need more of it, chopped up banana peels are a great way to add potassium to the soil or your favorite compost.
  • Coffee grounds – Coffee grounds help to acidify the soil. You can even soak them to make ‘garden coffee’ for your plants that like their soil a little spicy.
  • Eggshells – Want to add some calcium to your soil? Well, eggshells are approximately 93% calcium carbonate, so whenever you make a scramble, save those shells!
  • Grass clippings – Grass clippings can give your plants a nitrogen boost and they also are a great way to keep out weeds, if placed in a .5 to 1 inch layer around your plants.
  • Leftovers from meals – Leftovers that you couldn’t’ get to in time shouldn’t be tossed out – they’re a primary ingredient for making compost! 
  • Tree leaves – Tree leaves are super useful – you can aerate soil with them, they help with moisture retention, they can add mineral content to soil when they break down, and they attract hungry earthworms! 

If you would like some more examples, check out this link to visit the Farmer’s Almanac and they’ve got a fantastic list of household items you can add to your garden or compost to really soup things up!

Potting soil alternatives

With potting soil, you’re creating a medium for specific plant types, and so your alternative to commercial potting soils is going to be to obtain the required ingredients and to follow (and tweak) recipes on your own.

Common ingredients for potting soils include (but are not limited to):

  • Coco coir – Similar in effect to peat moss, this is a by-product from coconuts that has a neutral pH and is useful in some potting soil blends. It’s a little more expensive, but it has more nutrients than sphagnum, lasts longer, and it’s considered the more sustainable option. 
  • Sphagnum peat moss – Sphagnum peat moss decays slowly and it’s well-draining and well-aerated. It’s a little acidic, with a 3.5 – 4.5 pH, although lime is usually added to a potting soil mix to balance this out.
  • Wood chips – Wood chips that have been composted are often added to potting soil mixes, although they can lower nitrogen levels if they are not balanced out with a little blood meal. 
  • Perlite – Perlite are little, rounded volcanic rocks that are lightweight and help to provide excellent drainage. This will usually make up 15% of your potting soil mixture.
  • Vermiculite – Another drainage option, vermiculite is a mineral that has been heat treated to make it lighter. This makes it great for drainage, but it also has some light water retention qualities so that there’s always a good amount of moisture for your plants. Vermiculite also adds magnesium and calcium and adds a little water retention 

As far as recipes, there are lots that you can find on the net – here’s an example with 7 DIY recipes from the folks at Get Busy Gardening. 


That’s just about all of the time that we have slotted for today, but before we check out, we’ve got some frequently asked questions on the subjects of potting soils and garden soils to help fill in any blanks that we might have missed along the way. Let’s take a look and then we’ll get to wrapping things up!

Is potting soil good for all plants?

Potting soil is specialized for particular types of plants, so they will only be good for the plant types that are listed on the packaging or otherwise provided by the vendor. Planting different types of plants in potting soil might kill them or severely affect their growth, so make sure to stick to the types listed on the packaging.

What is another name for gardening soil?

Usually gardening soil will be referred to as garden soil or topsoil, and sometimes it may be listed as ‘indoor outdoor all-purpose soil’, although the last type will generally not contain actual soil – only nutrients meant to improve overall soil quality. 

What types of soil are in a garden?

Depending on where you live, the soil can vary quite dramatically, but you’ll find sandy soils, clay soils, loams, chalky, peat, and silt soils. A quick rundown of each might look like this:

  • Chalky – Chalky soil tends to be more alkaline, although it can be light or heavy, depending on where you live.
  • Clay – Dense and rich with nutrients, clay soils can be a bit on the wet side in winter and they tend to bake in the summer. 
  • Loams – Loams are a nice, fertile mixture of silt, clay, and sand that many plants do very well in. 
  • Peat – Peat soils have a lot of moisture retention, as well as organic matter, and a little acidity.
  • Sandy – Sandy soil tends to be acidic, warm, and fairly low in nutrients. 
  • Silt – Fertile but easily compacted, silt soil is fairly light but also quite moisture-retentive.

Some final words on Gardening soil vs. Potting soil

Today we’ve cleared the fog on the subject of Gardening soil vs. Potting soil and as you can see, the differences are not so complicated after all! Gardening soil is meant to be added to your outdoor garden’s soil and consists of topsoil with organic amendments such as compost, worm casings, and manures to make the target soil richer. 

Potting soil, on the other hand, is specially tailored for specific plant types and often doesn’t contain soil at all. It’s usually ingredients such as bark, sphagnum moss, Coco coir, and a drainage material such as vermiculite or perlite making up at least 15% of its recipe. 

As far as when to use them, it’s pretty easy – Gardening soil is for the garden, potting soil is for the pots, and the only exceptions should be when the manufacturer has specifically told you otherwise!

We’d like to thank you for your visit and until next time, we wish you happy gardening!

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