How to Choose The Best Garden Soil to Create A Healthy Garden

Garden soil is an essential component of any successful garden. While it may be tempting to focus solely on purchasing plants and seeds, the soil provides the foundation for a healthy and thriving garden.  Good quality soil contains vital nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial microorganisms that help support plant growth and overall garden health. Poor-quality soil, on the other hand, can lead to plant failure, disease, and low yields.

Garden soil also plays a crucial role in managing water retention and drainage in your garden, allowing plants to absorb water and essential nutrients without drowning or becoming waterlogged.

While it’s possible to improve the soil in an existing garden through amendments and fertilizers, starting with high-quality garden soil is always the best approach. By investing in quality soil from the beginning, you can set your garden up for success and enjoy a more bountiful harvest. In this article, we are discussing all the key factors to choosing the best garden soil.

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What to Consider When Choosing Garden Soil?

Bagged Garden Soil Types

There are several types of bagged garden soils available on the market. Here are some of the most common types:

  • All-purpose garden soil

Bagged garden soil provides a balanced blend of the three basic soil components of sand, clay, and silt, along with nutrient-rich compost and other supplements to increase soil richness. It is ideal for improving the quality of existing garden soil, rather than for filling raised beds or containers.

Garden soil is useful for amending clay or sandy soil, improving drainage, and providing essential vitamins and nutrients that support healthy plant growth. It is typically used as a top layer of soil in garden beds, and it can also be used to add depth and richness to planting areas.
This type is suitable for use in all kinds of plantings, including flowers, vegetables, and herbs.

  • Potting soil

Potting soil is a specialized type of soil that is specifically formulated for use in containers. It is designed to provide excellent drainage while still retaining enough moisture to support healthy root growth in potted plants.

Potting soil typically contains a blend of materials, including peat moss, vermiculite or perlite, and compost. These materials help to create lightweight, porous soil that allows roots to grow freely and access sufficient oxygen and nutrients.

In addition to its excellent drainage properties, potting soil also contains essential nutrients for plants, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Some potting soils may also contain other organic materials, such as worm castings, bat guano, or kelp meal, which provide additional nutrients and support healthy microbial activity in the soil.

This type of soil is specially formulated for container plants and is typically lighter in weight than traditional garden soil.

  • Topsoil

While it is true that topsoil is not typically formulated specifically for planting, it is still an essential component of many gardening projects. Topsoil is rich in organic matter and nutrients, making it an excellent choice for filling in holes or leveling depressions in the ground.

Topsoil is the uppermost layer of soil, typically between 2 and 8 inches deep, and contains a high percentage of organic matter and microorganisms. When used in gardening projects, topsoil provides a nutrient-rich foundation for plant growth and can improve soil quality over time.

In addition to filling in holes or leveling depressions, topsoil can also be used for creating new garden beds, improving the soil in existing garden beds, and constructing hardscaping elements such as patios or retaining walls.

This type of soil is ideal for building up the top layer of soil in a garden bed or other planting area. It can be mixed with other types of soil to improve overall soil quality.

  • Raised bed soil

Raised bed mix is a specially formulated soil blend designed for use in raised garden beds that sit on top of the existing soil. This type of soil blend typically combines the best features of bagged potting mix and garden soil in terms of its composition.

Raised bed mix is formulated for optimal drainage and aeration, which is essential for healthy root growth in plants. It typically contains a blend of organic materials, such as compost and aged manure, along with other mineral supplements.

A well-formulated raised bed mix provides balanced nutrition to plants, allowing them to thrive in a raised bed gardening environment. It also helps to improve soil quality, particularly in areas where the existing soil has poor drainage or lacks essential nutrients.

This type of soil is specially designed for use in raised garden beds, typically consisting of compost, topsoil, and other organic matter.

  • Organic soil

Organic garden soil is a great choice, especially if you plan on using the soil to grow edible crops such as vegetables, herbs, or fruits. Organic soil is free from harmful chemicals, including synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which can have negative impacts on both human health and the environment.

Organic soil is typically made from composted plant material, peat moss, animal manure, and other natural ingredients that are rich in nutrients and beneficial microorganisms, making it an excellent choice for promoting healthy plant growth.

Organic soil also helps to support the health of the soil ecosystem, as it provides nutrition for beneficial soil organisms such as earthworms and microbes. These organisms help to break down organic matter, cycle nutrients, and promote overall soil health.

While organic soil may be slightly more expensive than traditional soil, the benefits of using organic soil, including improved soil health and reduced environmental impact, make it a worthwhile investment, particularly if you are growing edible crops.

Organic soil is often used in vegetable gardens and other food-producing plants.

  • Cactus or succulent soil

Cactus or succulent soil is designed to provide excellent drainage for plants that are adapted to dry conditions, such as cacti and succulents. These plants have evolved to survive in environments where water is scarce and the soil is well-draining, so they require a soil mix that is porous and does not hold moisture for long periods.

Cactus or succulent soil is usually made up of a combination of materials that are gritty, porous, and well-draining, such as sand, perlite, and peat moss. The soil mix is typically free of heavy, organic materials such as bark or compost, which can hold onto moisture and cause the soil to become waterlogged.

Using cactus or succulent soil for these plants helps prevent root rot and fungal diseases caused by overly wet soil conditions. It can also help promote healthy growth and flowering by providing a stable and nutrient-rich growing environment.

This type of soil is specially formulated for plants that require well-draining soil conditions, such as cacti and succulents.

  • Mulch

Mulch refers to any material that is placed on top of the soil, either for aesthetic or functional purposes. Mulch can be made from organic materials, such as wood chips, straw, or leaves, or non-organic materials, such as rocks, gravel, or fabric.

One of the primary functions of mulch is to help retain soil moisture and regulate soil temperature. By covering the soil with a layer of mulch, you can help reduce evaporation and keep the soil cool in hot weather or warm in cold weather, which can help plants thrive.

Mulch can also help to suppress weed growth, as it blocks sunlight from reaching weed seeds and prevents them from germinating. This reduces the amount of time and effort necessary for weed control.

In addition to these benefits, organic mulches also decay over time, adding nutrients to the soil and improving overall soil health. As the mulch decomposes, it releases nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that can be taken up by plant roots.

When selecting mulch, it’s important to consider the specific needs of your plants and garden. Factors to consider include moisture retention, temperature regulation, weed suppression, and nutrient content. By choosing the right mulch for your garden, you can improve plant health and the overall appearance of your garden.

Take into consideration the specific needs of your plants when selecting bagged garden soil. Make sure to read the product labels carefully to determine whether the soil is appropriate for your particular planting needs.

Consider factors such as soil pH, nutrient levels, and drainage when selecting the optimal soil for your gardening needs. It’s essential to choose high-quality soil that is free from contaminants or pollutants.

Water Storing

Water-storing soil is a type of soil that contains a material, typically made from polymers, that has the ability to absorb and retain water. This material can be added to potting soil or garden soil to help the soil stay moist for longer periods, which is particularly beneficial for plants in arid climates or for those who want to conserve water.

When water-storing soil is exposed to water, the polymer crystals absorb the water and swell up, creating a gel-like substance. As the soil dries out, the water is slowly released from the polymer crystals, keeping the soil moist and the plant roots hydrated.

This feature is particularly useful for container gardening, as pots and planters can often dry out quickly due to their limited soil volume. However, water-storing soil can also be used in garden beds to help retain moisture and reduce the need for frequent watering.


Garden soils formulated for enhanced drainage are designed to allow water to drain more quickly than typical soils. This is helpful for gardeners who have soil with a high percentage of clay, which tends to drain slowly and can become water-logged.

Enhanced drainage soil typically contains a combination of sand, perlite, or other additives that promote increased drainage. This allows excess water to escape from the soil more quickly, which can help prevent issues such as root rot and waterlogging.

Enhanced drainage soil is also beneficial for plants that don’t tolerate wet soil well, such as cacti and succulents. These plants prefer soil that dries out quickly and doesn’t remain saturated for long periods.


Many garden soils available in the market come with slow-release granular fertilizers that are designed to provide a steady supply of nutrients to plants over an extended period. These slow-release fertilizers are typically composed of plant-based or synthetic materials that release nutrients as they slowly dissolve in the soil.

The slow-release characteristic of these fertilizers helps to minimize the risk of over-fertilization, which can have negative effects on plant growth and can even harm the environment. Slow-release fertilizers are also convenient for gardeners, as they reduce the need to apply additional fertilizers frequently.

Slow-release fertilizers can be particularly helpful for plants that have specific nutrient needs, such as fruit trees and vegetable plants. They can help to promote healthy growth and increase yields, resulting in healthy and productive plants.

Vegetable Garden Soil

Garden soil that is formulated specifically for use in vegetable gardens typically contains additional compost to provide the nutrients that vegetables need to grow well and produce healthy crops.

Compost is an ideal ingredient for vegetable garden soil, as it is rich in nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that can help to support healthy plant growth. Compost is typically made from a combination of organic materials, such as food scraps, yard waste, and manure, which compost into a rich, nutrient-dense soil amendment.

Adding compost to vegetable garden soil can help to improve soil health, increase water retention, provide essential nutrients to plants, and help to protect against plant diseases and pests. It can also help to promote healthy soil structure and drainage, which can provide a better environment for root development.

Determine Your Soil Type

By identifying the type of soil in your garden, you can make informed decisions about selecting plants and amending the soil to improve its structure, nutrient content, and moisture retention. There are a few ways to determine the type of soil you have in your garden:

Grab and feel

One of the easiest ways to determine your garden soil type is to observe its texture and color. Different soil types have distinct characteristics, such as colour, texture, and drainage. For instance, sandy soil has larger grains and feels gritty, while clay soil is dense and sticky when wet.

The texture of the soil can give you a good idea of its type. As you mentioned, a simple test is to take a handful of damp soil, squeeze it together, and determine what it feels like.

  • Clay soil: If the soil feels sticky and clumps together easily, it is clay soil. Clay soil is generally dense and heavy, which can make it challenging for plants to grow and for water to penetrate.
  • Sandy soil: If the soil feels gritty and doesn’t stick together well, it is sandy soil. Sandy soil tends to be well-draining but may not hold moisture or nutrients as effectively as other soil types.
  • Loamy soil: Loamy soil is a mixture of sand, silt, and clay, and is often considered the ideal soil type for gardening. It feels crumbly and has a good balance of drainage and water retention.
  • Silt soil: Silt soil is somewhere between sandy and clay soil in terms of texture. It has a soft, smooth texture and often feels slightly soapy.

Soil Test Kit

You can also use a soil test kit to determine the type of soil you have in your garden. These kits are available at most gardening centres and hardware stores and typically provide information about soil pH, nutrient levels, and soil type.

Professional Testing

If you want a more detailed analysis of your garden soil type, you can hire a professional to conduct a soil test. A professional soil test will provide a comprehensive analysis of your soil, including nutrient levels, pH, and soil type. You can find soil testing services through your local county extension office or a private laboratory.

Knowing your garden soil type is important as it will help you understand what type of plants are best suited for your garden, how often to water your plants, and what type of soil amendments to add to improve plant growth.

How Can I Calculate The Amount of Garden Soil I Need?

To determine how much garden soil you need, you will first need to measure the length, width, and depth of the area where you plan to use the soil. Here are the steps you can follow:

  1. Measure the length and width of the area: Use a tape measure to determine the length and width of the area where you want to use the soil. Measure in feet and round up to the nearest half-foot if necessary.
  2. Determine the depth of the soil needed: The depth of the soil you need will depend on what you plan to plant. Different plants require different soil depths, so make sure to research the ideal depth for the plants you plan to use. Once you have determined the ideal depth, measure the depth of the area you want to fill with soil.
  3. Calculate the volume of soil needed: To calculate the volume of soil required, multiply the length, width, and depth measurements together. This will give you the total cubic feet of soil needed. For example, if your measurement is 5 feet by 10 feet by 0.5 feet, the volume of soil needed would be 5 x 10 x 0.5 = 25 cubic feet.
  4. Determine the weight of the soil: The weight of a cubic foot of garden soil can vary, but most bags of soil will specify the weight per cubic foot. Multiply the weight per cubic foot by the total cubic feet of soil needed to determine how much the soil will weigh.

By following these steps, you can determine how much garden soil you need for your project. Make sure to purchase slightly more soil than your calculation since during the leveling process some particles are lost, and you might need to have extra.

How Can I Turn Bad Garden Soil Into Good Soil?

There are several things you can do to turn bad garden soil into good soil:

1. Test the Soil

Before you begin, you should test the soil to determine what is causing the problem. Soil tests can reveal nutrient deficiencies or soil pH problems, which can provide valuable information about what amendments need to be added.

2. Add Organic Matter

Adding organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, can help improve the soil structure, increase microbial activity, and provide the necessary nutrients that plants need. Spread a layer of organic matter over the soil, and mix it in well using a garden fork or tiller.

3. Mulch

Mulching can help improve soil fertility and texture over time. A layer of organic mulch, such as straw or shredded leaves, can help to conserve moisture, suppress weed growth, and add nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.

4. Use Cover Crops

Planting cover crops such as clover, alfalfa or beans, can help to improve soil quality by adding nutrients, improving soil structure, and suppressing weeds.

5. Adjust pH Levels

pH levels can have a significant impact on soil fertility. Acidic soil can be improved by adding calcium or lime, while alkaline soil may need sulfur or peat moss.

6. Practice Crop Rotation

Crop rotation can be an effective way to improve soil quality and reduce the risk of disease and pests. Rotate crops seasonally and plant different types of plants to reduce the stress on the soil and nutrient depletion.

Overall, the key to improving bad garden soil is to provide a healthy balance of nutrients, water, and microbial activity. Regularly adding organic matter, providing soil cover, and rotating crops can help to improve soil fertility and create a healthy, vibrant garden ecosystem.

Can I Put Rocks Under My Raised Garden Soil Bed?

It is generally not recommended to put flat rocks or other materials in the bottom of a raised garden bed. This is because the soil in raised beds needs to be well-drained, and placing rocks at the bottom can interfere with drainage.

Instead of using rocks, it is better to use other materials that allow for proper drainage. For example, some gardeners use a layer of gravel or coarse sand at the base of the raised bed. This can promote drainage without creating an artificial water table.

Another option is to use a high-quality, well-draining soil mix that is specifically designed for raised bed gardening. These soil mixes typically consists of a blend of compost, peat moss, and other organic materials that promote drainage while also providing nutrients for plants.

Ultimately, the key to good drainage in a raised garden bed is to ensure that there are no obstructions at the bottom that could interfere with water flow. This will help keep plants healthy and allow them to thrive in the ideal growing environment.

Do I Need To Change Soil In Raised Beds?

Over time, the soil in raised beds can become compacted, depleted of nutrients, and prone to disease and pest issues. As a result, it is generally recommended to change the soil in raised beds every 2-3 years, depending on the condition of the soil and the types of plants being grown.

Changing the soil in a raised garden bed involves removing the old soil and replacing it with fresh, nutrient-rich soil. Here are some steps you can follow to change the soil in your raised bed:

  • Remove Plants and Debris: Start by removing any plants or debris from the raised bed. You can either compost the plant material or dispose of it.
  • Scoop Out the Old Soil: Use a shovel or trowel to scoop out the old soil from the raised bed. You can either dispose of the old soil or use it as a soil amendment in other parts of your garden.
  • Refill with Fresh Soil: Once the old soil is removed, refill the bed with fresh soil mix, preferably with compost or organic matter. You can also add slow-release fertilizers or minerals, such as rock phosphate or kelp.
  • Water Thoroughly: Water the bed thoroughly to settle the soil and help establish a healthy growing environment.
  • Add Mulch: Add a layer of organic mulch, such as straw or shredded leaves, on top of the soil. This can help to conserve moisture, suppress weed growth, and add nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.

By changing the soil in your raised bed every few years, you can help ensure that your plants have access to the nutrients and growing conditions they need to thrive.

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