Soil vs Potting Mix | GroveGypsy

If you are into gardening, you are probably either using soil or potting mix to grow your plants, but what’s the difference between the two?

Soil is a nutrient-dense organic compound that is filled with various living and nonliving organisms, minerals, and gases, which are necessary for growing plants. Potting mix contains various materials such as bark, moss, and compost, which are better suited for indoor potted plants.

Gardening is an incredibly therapeutic and rewarding hobby that has a tendency to bring a harmonious rhythm into our lives. It presents us with the opportunity to care for and nurture living plants and through this process, we are rewarded with a beautiful garden and perhaps even some homegrown food. Regardless of what you grow in your garden, you want to make sure that you are using the right materials, which implies knowing the difference between soil and potting mix - and knowing when to use each one. Both of these compounds are full of nutrients that are great for growing plants, but you will find that they are much more effective when used in the appropriate setting. To help you understand these two compounds better, we are going to break down each one so that you can properly implement each one in your garden.

After decades of competitive gardening and working at a nursery, I have had an enormous amount of experience dealing with both soil and potting mix. Based on my in-depth knowledge of both compounds, I have concluded that each material can benefit your plants when used appropriately.

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Soil

If there is one natural resource that we take for granted it’s our soil. This natural compound is absolutely vital for our food production and our survival, which is why it is of the utmost importance that we take care of it.

We have experienced the risks that come with abusing our soil and have paid the price for it. After years of practicing unsustainable farming techniques perpetuated by Big Agro, we created catastrophic damage to our topsoil. This sort of environmental disaster is not something that can be easily remediated and will take hundreds if not thousands of years to regenerate.

As we realized the harm that we were causing to our soil, environmentalists, farmers, and the United States Government realized that we were putting this precious resource at great risk, which led to a huge shift in how we view our soil. Given that the majority of our food still comes from soil, action was taken to ensure that directly combat the harmful effects of industrial farming - we began practicing more sustainable farming techniques and enforce them to this day with government regulation.

While we seem to have preserved so much of our vital soil, we must not forget the mistakes of the past and continue to push for sustainable farming. This is being challenged in today’s farming industry with the mainstream use of pesticides, which seem to be getting stronger by the year. While the United States Government does allow the use of approved pesticides, there is still an undeniable negative effect that it has on our soil. Let’s dive right into soil, how we use it, and how we can preserve it.

What Is Soil?

While it is easy to confuse soil with just regular plain old dirt, you may be surprised to find out that the two are very different from one another. The reason that these two materials may be hard to differentiate is that most of the qualities that define them are microscopic.

Dirt is essentially a lifeless material that is not capable of producing food. Whereas soil is a nutrient-dense compound that is filled with millions of microscopic organisms, organic materials, as well as minerals and gases. All of these incredible materials work together to create the material necessary for growing food and plants. Dirt may be present within soil but merely as a filler for all of the other materials that exist within it.

With that being said, a great way to look at soil is as an ecosystem for microscopic organisms. This ecosystem is home to so much life which we depend on for our food, which is why taking care of our soil is absolutely vital for our survival. This ecosystem, much like all ecosystems, is actually very fragile and can be jeopardized if not handled properly.

When using soil in your garden, you should understand the importance of maintaining it. While this compound has a lot of regenerative properties, it does wonders to give it the extra care that it needs to fully thrive. We can achieve this by implementing some very strategic and highly effective gardening techniques that have been proven to be highly beneficial to the health and fertility of soil.

How To Use Soil

With gardening being as popular as it ever has been, finding soil is extremely easy. The best way to get your hands on some is to simply head to your local nursery - where you will find a wide variety of options that will get the job done.

When you are at the nursery, there will likely be some soils that are specified for certain types of plants or crops. If you already know what you plan on growing in your garden, you may benefit more from picking a soil mixture that has been designed for your plants. The reason for this is that since each plant has its own nutrient preferences, soil manufacturers create mixtures that have been proven to benefit some plants more than others.

Another great thing about soil is that it is cheap! You shouldn’t have a hard time finding a huge sack of soil for just $5 - $7. Before you buy your soil, you should reflect on the size of your garden so that you know exactly how much to get. If you have a small to medium size patch that you want to plant in, you probably just need one large 40lb sack of soil. However, if you have a relatively large garden, you should consider getting at least a few sacks.

While becoming a competitive gardener can be quite technical, having a humble home garden is not rocket science. Once you are ready to start planting, you should find an ideal patch that is suitable. Try to have a look at the environment of your yard and make sure that you are planting somewhere that gets adequate sunlight. Next, you should make sure that the patch is cleared off of any debris such as tanbark, rocks, or other unwanted materials.

Begin by pouring your bag of soil out onto your patch and then evenly displace it throughout. It does not have to be perfect but try to get a relatively flat surface of soil that is about 3 inches thick. Then, grab a shovel and dig roughly 6 inches into the soil and break ground into the dirt. You want to have a nice balanced mixture of the soil you just laid out and the dirt that you have dug up.

If you are planting seeds, you can start evenly placing them in sections throughout your garden - just under the surface of the soil so that they can properly germinate. However, if you are working with potted plants that you plan on putting in your garden, simply dig some holes that are evenly separated from one another and place your plants into each hole. Once your plants are all in there, just give them a bit of water to help them feel right at home.

Maintaining Soil

As we mentioned above, soil is a fragile resource that can easily be degraded when not nourished.

Luckily, there are so many useful strategies that you can implement into your home garden to ensure that your soil stays fertile and healthy. Let’s explore some of the best ways that you can maintain your soil.

Crop Rotation

One of the most traditional and effective ways of taking care of your soil is by implementing crop rotation into your garden. This gardening technique has been around for thousands of years and is still widely used today.

During the rise of industrial farming, many agricultural operations abandoned this sustainable practice and began growing single crops on their farms. This was initially done to maximize profits and encourage efficiency but we ended up discovering that, over time, the results were catastrophic. This approach to farming led to massive amounts of land degradation and soil infertility which is still being felt to this day.

To prevent this from occurring, we re-introduced crop rotation as a standard practice, which is utilized by most farmers these days. This simple yet effective farming technique involves simply rotating the location that your crops are planted. That means that in a home garden, all you need to do is change where you plant one type of plant and move it to another part of your garden. You can implement this tactic annually, after each harvest, or you can do it every couple of years - you will still get great results.

The reason that crop rotation is such an effective farming technique is that it takes a balanced amount of nutrients from your soil over time. Each plant or crop generally prefers to utilize a specific type of nutrient in the soil, which if not rotated, can lead to that nutrient being exhausted and drained. If this occurs, you jeopardize the fertility of all of your soil, which will result in land degradation. Utilizing crop rotation in your garden is one of the best ways to encourage healthy soil and through that a healthy garden.

Mulch

Whether you are a farmer dealing with a massive food growing operation or a humble home gardener, the use of mulch can be highly effective - and perhaps even necessary.

Mulch is essentially a material that is added to soil to facilitate the conditions of the compound. You can find mulch in either an organic form or non-organic form. While both can technically perform almost identical functions, we have found that organic mulch tends to do the job a bit better and has added benefits to your soil. Here are some examples of common organic and non-organic mulch materials:

  • Tanbark
  • Dried Leaves
  • Straw
  • Saw Dust
  • Gravel
  • Landscape Fabric

The most vital function of mulch is that it helps your garden retain moisture. These materials are placed on top of your soil and keep a balanced amount of moisture constantly in action. This makes your watering much more efficient and it also means that you do not need to water as frequently.

In addition, mulch also facilitates the temperature of your soil. Depending on the climate conditions of your garden, you may be growing in cooler temperatures. When outside temperatures drop significantly (especially below freezing), it could have some adverse effects on the fertility of your soil. Mulch helps your soil retain a balanced temperature and keeps the cold from causing harm to your soil’s nutrients.

With that being said, organic mulch can often have added benefits that actually encourage soil nutrients to thrive. Given that soil relies on nutrients that come from organic materials, mulch can add to this by slowly breaking down and decaying into your soil. This natural process will benefit your soil by enriching it further with more nutrient density, which is why you should opt for organic mulch if you have the option.

Potting Mix

Many people make the common mistake of associating potting mix as being identical to soil, but the reality is that they are quite different from one another.

Unlike soil, potting mix has been specifically designed for plants that are going to be grown in pots - not in a garden. The reason for this is that potted plants have a very different type of environment than the ones that you plant in your garden, which requires a different type of compound to deliver ideal results.

With that being said, you will find that potting mix will contain a lot of the same materials and properties as garden soil. The primary difference is that potting mix has been handled in a very specific way to ensure that plants that are growing in pots will be able to survive. To help you understand this further, we are going to go into potting mix with more detail.

What Is Potting Mix?

Much like soil, potting mix is a compound of various organic and inorganic materials. What you will find with potting mix is that there is a focus on the types of materials that it contains such as bark, compost, moss, vermiculite, and other materials that have been proven to be effective for potted plants.

These materials help create an environment for potted plants that soil simply cannot. Given that potted plants have a much more constrained environment, their growth and survival can be more challenging than the plants that grow in gardens.

Potted plants do not have nearly as much room for their roots and their resources may be limited to the size of their pot, which is why potting mix caters to these conditions specifically.

This type of mixture has also been designed to help facilitate water drainage for the pot and plant and it may even contain some kind of chemical fertilizer to help encourage plant growth. Using potting mix in your potted plants is essential - especially if you are growing plants indoors.

How To Use Potting Mix

Before you buy any potting mix for your plants, you should first consider what kind of plants you want to grow. Just like with soil, you are going to want to choose a potting mix that is better suited for your specific plants.

Your local nursery should have plenty of options for you to choose from and you will find that most potting mixes have labels that show what type of plants they are designed for. In addition, you want to consider the pot itself when selecting a potting mix for your plants.

Given that your plants will be much more limited with space, you want to be sure that you are choosing a container that is adequate for what you want to grow. If you are an inexperienced gardener, you may want to ask for some advice from someone at your local nursery to help you make the best choice possible.

Next, you may want to consider whether you want your potting mix to contain artificial fertilizer or not. If you want to keep your plants as organic as possible, you want to choose a potting mix that skips the artificial fertilizer. However, if you are growing indoors, this could potentially be more challenging for some of your plants.

Once you have got your potting mix, your pots, and your plants/seeds, you are ready to start planting. Simply add a generous amount of potting mix into each pot and place a seed just beneath the surface of the mixture. If you are using pre-grown plants, you will need to dig a hole to place your plant into, which you will then lightly compact with potting mix. To finish things off, add a moderate amount of water to your pot.

About THE AUTHOR

Elsie Moore

Elsie Moore

As an experienced gardener & landscaper on my own property over the last 20 years, I'm excited to share the things I've learned along the way, as I continue to learn.

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