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The Best Soil for Every Type of Garden

Not all soils are created equal.

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Photography by: Bryan Gardner

The success of any garden comes down to the quality and health of your soil. Like your plants, soil is in fact a living thing that gets hungry, tired, and sick and needs to be nurtured in order to function properly. But what exactly is soil? Basically, it's a mixture of water, rocks, and organic matter such as decaying leaves and insects. Some native, in-ground soil that you may find naturally occurring includes sandy (made up of large rock bits), clayish (made up of small rock bits), or silty (made up of intermediate size between sand and clay). The soil that's considered the Holy Grail, however, is a mix of different sized soil particles with loam, a nutrient-dense humus, added in. Loamy soil opens up heavy clay soil and allows oxygen, nutrients, and water to flow and bulks up light sandy soils while also adding fertility.

 

Not sure what kind of soil you have? A simple "feel test" will give you a general idea. To do this, take a tablespoon of soil, lightly wet it, then roll it into a ball. If the ball molds together you have clay. If you can mold it but then it crumbles, then you may have a combo of sand and clay. If you try to make a ball and no matter how much water you add it won't form a ball, then you have sandy soil. 
The beauty is that once you know what you have, then you can amend it. A key factor in successful gardening is also knowing that different plants thrive with different types of soil. Also, different means of growing plants—say in raised beds or pots—also dictates the type of soil you'll need.

 

Premixed and ready-to-use soils can take some of the guesswork out of what to purchase. Here's a look at some of the most popular varieties.

 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Potting Soil for Indoor Plants

 

Potting Soil

This light, airy soil mix is specifically formulated for container gardening to provide adequate drainage and space for roots to grow. Just add it to pots and plant directly into it. You'll want to replace potting soil annually. 

 

Soilless Mix

Soilless blends are perfect for starting delicate seeds. These super light mixes are usually made of peat moss, perlite, and vermiculite and like the name implies, does not contain organic matter that could harm or kill tender seedlings. 

 

Raised Bed Mixes

Raised bed soil is used when filling a raised bed that exists on top of native soil. If your native soil is extra challenging, planting above ground can be the quickest and easiest path to success.

 

Cactus, Palm, and Citrus Mixes

Certain types of plants such as succulents, palms, and citrus trees need fast draining soil, so these mixes ensure good drainage and prevent soil compaction.

 

Topsoil

Low-grade topsoil is good for filling and leveling holes but not formulated for planting. Higher-grade topsoil can be used to supplement less than ideal native soil.

 

Lawn Mix

This mix is primarily used for over-seeding and lawn repair. Most bagged lawn soil contains additives to increase water retention plus a starter fertilizer.

 

Compost/Manure

Organic matter is superb for adding to any soil type because it enriches and boosts fertility while releasing nutrients over an extended period of time, giving it a much longer-lasting impact than fast-acting chemical fertilizers. You can use compost as a mulch, then let the earthworms do the hard work of dragging it underground.