Woman and child in garden with plant in pot

Soil vs. dirt: What’s the difference and which types of soils are best to use?

Last Updated: June 18, 2021

Are you working on your green thumb? Well, with this guide you’ll at least understand the differences between gardening with soil vs. dirt. Read on!

Thinking about taking up gardening? You’re not alone! There are many that are rediscovering the joys and benefits of gardening. Though it can seem like a lost art in certain parts of the world, growing plants can actually offer many benefits to support both your physical health and your mental state.

Some of those benefits include increasing your levels of vitamin D and your immune system from being in the sun, potentially improving symptoms of dementia, elevating your mood, and decreasing stress to promote feelings of peace and relaxation. Okay, we might go start our gardening practice now after reading that!

Most people that are first diving into gardening have a few questions though. One of the biggest by far is understanding the differences between potting soil vs. dirt. Aren’t they the same thing? You’d think so, but not quite! Keep reading, friends.

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Differences between soil and dirt

Although visually similar, potting soil and dirt are actually two different things. Since the difference is not apparent to the naked eye, most people use the two terms interchangeably.

However, experienced gardeners know the difference.

What is dirt?

Dirt is made up of a mix of organic matter, although it is actually “dead.” That matter includes sand, clay, silt, rocks, pebbles, and more. However, what dirt does not contain is any of the minerals and nutrients from a garden soil mix, nor anything close to resembling a live and working ecosystem.

Dirt also does not have a set structure, which is why it doesn’t become compact when moisture is added. Due to the fact that it’s dead and devoid of nutrients, it can’t support or nurture the growth of life either, like plants. Moral of the story? You can’t plant a successful and thriving garden using dirt.

What is soil?

Comparatively, soil is “alive.” Where dirt is dead and devoid of a living ecosystem, garden soil is full of living organisms that help plants thrive. Soil is created when mountain stones and bedrock are broken down by wind and rain over centuries, with input from plants, animals, and bacteria.

In fact, soil is actually made up of multiple ecosystems of microorganisms and insects that create a food web transferring nutrients to and fro. These microorganisms generate things like fiber and water that help to support life aboveground. They also absorb carbon from the environment, detoxify pollutants, and recycle nutrients, all things which help create and support a stable ecosystem.

Types of soil and their benefits

For anyone with a serious interest in gardening, it is imperative to know which type of soil you should use. The quality of your gardening soil is instrumental in growing a healthy plant. Without good soil, your garden won’t be able to pull enough nutrients from its environment, no matter how much effort you put into cultivating it.

There are different types of soil that are all suitable for different types of crops. Once you know the type of soil you have in your garden, you can decide what trees and plants would be best for that environment.

Additionally, if you want to grow special plants that don’t suit the native soil mix in your garden, you can create artificial beds for your specialized crops, like planters or raised beds. These are good because it can be difficult to change the soil in your entire garden.

To get a look at these different soil types outlined below, take a look at this video. And then read on for each soil type and its uses.

Sand soil uses and benefits

As the name suggests, sandy soil is similar to sand, with a gritty texture. This type of soil is easy to cultivate. It drains fast and dries easily, which is a plus. However, this type of soil is not rich in nutrients, since most of the nutrients are drained during wet weather.

Because of this, it requires an external nutritional boost in the form of organic fertilizer blends of some kind. Some options include glacial rock dust, kelp meal, and greensand. Another benefit to sandy soil is that it warms up quickly in the spring, making it suitable for spring crops.

Sandy soil is ideal for cultivating:

  • Root vegetable crops like potatoes, parsnips, and carrots
  • Commercial crops like lettuce, peppers, squash, collard greens, strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, and corn
  • Flowering plants and shrubs, like hibiscus, tulips, sun roses, and tree mallow

  • Clay soil uses and benefits

    Clay soil contains higher concentrations of clay in its composition. Because of this, clay soil turns sticky and forms lumps when moisture is added. However, it turns rock hard when it’s dry, which makes it difficult to grow anything in it, even though the potting mixture is enriched with nutrients.

    This type of soil offers very few air spaces, and it’s also poor at draining. However, if the drainage issue is sorted out, your chances of a plant growing and developing properly increases significantly.

    Considering these qualities, clay soil is suitable for growing things like:

    • Summer vegetables, and it can result in a surprisingly high yield
    • Ornamental trees and shrubs
    • Perennials like bergamot, aster, flowering quince, and Helen’s flower

    However, it’s essentially useless in trying to grow early vegetable and soft berry crops in clay soil, because it warms up so slowly come spring.

    Silt soil uses and benefits

    Silty soil is very soft in texture, and it’s easy to compact when wet as it holds moisture well. This potting mix is rich in nutrients and organic material which makes it easy to cultivate a variety of crops. However, the drainage of the soil is an issue because of how well it hangs onto moisture.

    It can be an ideal type of soil for your garden if a proper drainage system is designed first. Additionally, due to the drainage problems, it may need to be enhanced with composted organic matter to help provide structure.

    Silty soil is a great potting mix to grow almost all vegetable and fruit crops, provided you have that handy drainage system.

    Due to the high moisture content, it is also ideal for trees that require moisture, like Cypress, Birch, Willow, and Dogwood. Mahonia, and New Zealand Flax.

    Chalk soil uses and benefits

    Chalky soil resembles, well –– chalk in texture. It features large grains and a stone-like formation and structure. The soil is named so because it usually overlays chalk or limestone bedrock. Chalky soil is draining, requiring humus to improve water retention. Moreover, the soil is alkaline in nature, which can sometimes result in yellow leaves and stunted growth.

    Chalky soil is ideal for growing vegetables like:

    • Beets
    • Spinach
    • Cabbage
    • Sweet corn

    And certain shrubs like:

    • Lilac
    • Pinks
    • Weigela

    Peat soil uses and benefits

    Peat soil feels damp and kind of spongy in texture due to the high peat content. It’s also darker in color and is acidic in nature, which leads to its low nutrient content. Peat soil can also retain a lot of water which requires drainage channels. This type of organic potting soil requires mixing it with compost, organic matter, and lime or glacial rock dust to reduce the acidity level so that life can grow.

    Peat soil is ideal for growing vegetable crops like:

    • Legumes
    • Salad crops
    • Root crops

    And it’s ideal for growing shrubs like:

    • Witch hazel
    • Heather
    • Camellia

    Loam soil uses and benefits

    Loamy soil is probably the most balanced of soil you'll find, with an almost even mix of clay, sand, and silt. It’s damp and has a fine texture, with adequate drainage, good structure ,and moisture retention, plus it’s enriched with nutrients.

    This type of soil does however, tend to be acidic. That means it requires a regular addition of organic matter to help combat the acid.

    Loamy soil is ideal for growing things like climbing plants, as well as bamboos, wisteria, and similar vegetation. This type of soil can produce high-yielding berry and vegetable crops as well, but it requires careful maintenance to prevent depletion of nutrients.

    Why should you care about the differences between soil and dirt?

    Image of herbs growing in white Grove Collaborative caddy with white pot of soil and shovel in background

    Unfortunately, it’s just kind of mandatory if you want to grow a successful garden. Remember that dirt is essentially dead matter. There’s nothing in it that supports life, no living organisms, no ecosystem, no nutrients and minerals. Nada.

    Planting a garden in a pile of dirt is probably equivalent to eating a piece of cardboard and expecting it to satisfy your hunger. Spoiler alert––it definitely will not!

    Soil, on the other hand, is full of life and therefore supports life. Sadly, because of pollution, deforestation, and subpar farming habits, good organic soil is becoming harder and harder to find.

    Read our interview with Good Dirt founders Al and Suzy Newsom to learn more about how they cultivated their own good organic dirt when they couldn’t find any soil options available.

    To build a mere 5 millimeters of soil, it takes a whopping 100 years, which is why there are now soil laws in place today in an effort to protect what good existing soil we have left. Without good soil, we can’t grow good food. It’s really that simple, and that’s why anyone with an interest in gardening should make it a point to learn the differences between dirt and the types of good potting soil used for growing plants and food. It matters.

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