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What’s The Difference Between Garden Soil And Potting Soil?

garden soil on marble slab

What is the difference between Garden Soil and Potting Soil? If you are reading this blog post, odds are you’ve found yourself asking this at one time or another. Are they basically the same? Are they completely different? What are they composed of? These are some of the questions you may have, and I decided to write about the differences after a very disheartening incident at a local big box garden store recently.

The Incident

I was taking advantage of some Labor Day sales and wanted to get several projects wrapped up. When checking out I told the cashier in the Garden Department that I wanted to get eight bags of the garden soil and she informed me that they were all sold out of the particular brand that was on sale.Β  It wasn’t a big deal, and I asked about what other brands and sizes they had when another worker piped in that I could “just get the potting soil that’s on sale” because “it was the same thing.” In hearing that from a sales associate that gives daily advice to people on how to plant and care for their plants, I wanted to die. Not literally, but I wanted to laugh, cry, and I was kind of angry. Why in the world would someone who works in the garden center not know the differences in garden and potting soil? I’ll tell you why… lack of training. Instead of losing my mind in the middle of a busy holiday shopping day, I calmly told her that they were, in fact, not the same and potting soil would not work in my garden beds. I don’t expect every person to know the difference, but it never really struck me just how many people may not realize that there is a difference, so that inspired me to write this post and share the differences with you.

Garden Soil

Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between garden soil and potting soil is price. Garden soil is significantly more costly than potting soil. This may be why when someone doesn’t know the difference between the two will automatically opt for the cheaper option, not knowing that in the long run it can cost them much more, like the life of their costly tree, shrub, or flowers.

Using the wrong soil mixture can cause dire circumstances for your plants. This is where it becomes important to understand the components of each. Garden soil is composed of top soil and nutrients such as compost and fertilizer. It is much more bulky which makes it hold onto moisture. This is fine if your plants are planted in the ground, but if you were to use garden soil in a pot it can cause soil compaction or the water to not drain properly causing your plant to eventually drown. If you were to use potting soil in the ground, your soil would easily float and wash away when watered and not retain enough moisture for your plant to actually uptake.

Potting Soil

As mentioned previously, potting soil is much lighter as well as less expensive than garden soil. Potting soil is made for use in container gardening and actually contains no soil at all. It is usually a mix that contains ingredients such as composted peat moss, perlite, pine bark, vermiculite, or sawdust. The exact ingredients will vary from company to company, but the general idea is a mix that is light and fluffy to retain moisture, but allow adequate drainage while preventing compaction.

At the end of the day, the general rule is potting soil for containers and garden soil for use in your flower beds and landscape. You also want to re-pot your container plants every year or two. Plants in containers as well as flower beds will need fresh soil amendments and fertilizers periodically, so it helpful to know that soil doesn’t contain everything your plants need forever.

Happy Gardening!

difference between garden soil and potting soil


  • Ruth Wilding
    October 5, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    I have been using excellent potting soil. My Christmas Cactus has been awful. I have fertilized when it was time. They seem to be limp. I even purchased a water soil thermometer and that has made no difference. I have repotted to clean new pots and soil. Of the three pots only one is outstanding. I have never had this problem why now. Thank you for your help

    Ruth Wilding

    • Whitney Shaffer
      October 5, 2019 at 9:14 pm


      Thank you for your questions. Have you read this other post about care of Easter Cacti? I will link it here. The care for holiday cacti are almost identical, so this should be helpful. Also, I would be sure that your soil is well draining. A good mix of potting mixture with perlite will ensure good drainage. Also, many people tend to treat their holiday cacti as they would traditional cacti and limit their amount of water. This does not help with the limpness, because holiday cacti are epiphytic and are found natively in a rain forest like environment. Be sure to water them well when you do water every few days.

      Good Luck!


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