Topsoil vs Garden Soil: What's the Difference? - Backyard Boss
We are reader supported. External links may earn us a commission.

Topsoil vs Garden Soil: What’s the Difference?

Many gardeners often get confused between topsoil and garden soil. After all, they look and feel the same. However, they differ in multiple ways, stemming from their composition to their usage and availability. We all know that the key to a flourishing garden lies in the soil, and there are many kinds of soils at a gardener’s disposal.

Clay, sand, and loam are the main kinds of soil, and in any yard, the soil will comprise a combination of the three. So where do topsoil and garden soil come in? To help you understand the difference between them, we put together this guide, so you know what you need to use for healthy plant growth.

Topsoil vs Garden Soil: How Are They Defined?

What is Topsoil?

topsoil from the ground
Image credits: Mikhail Nilov via Pexels

Topsoil is the uppermost layer of the earth’s surface about eight cm deep. In some places, however, it can be between 0.5 to 1 meter in depth! It is easily accessible and subsequently inexpensive, especially for bulk buying.

Topsoil is composed of clay, organic matter, sand, and silt, also called humus. Although this is its usual composition, it can vary across regions depending on where it was collected. That said, not all topsoil is productive for plant growth and health, as it can have a poor ratio of soils and organic matter in its composition.

Did you know? 

Many gardeners think topsoil is the same as black dirt, but in reality, they’re not the same! While topsoil is the upper layer of the soil structure, black dirt gets it color from iron and other chemicals that may be existent. In some cases, this black soil is  created after swamplands are drained. 

Although topsoil and black dirt are great for gardens, they’re not always interchangeable. So if you’re sure you need topsoil, you’ll need to ensure the product you’re picking is in fact topsoil. More often then none, black dirt can be passed off as topsoil.

What is Garden Soil?

earth for a plant in a black bag. the soil is black earth fertilizer for gardening
Image credits: Irzhanova Asel via Shutterstock

Garden soil is soil that has been replenished with organic materials, soil amendment products, and fertilizers for optimum plant growth. These amendment products include grass clippings, straw, biosolids, pea gravel, and perlite. 

Garden soil, on its own, is not a good growing medium because it lacks the nutrients plants need to thrive. Used on its own, garden soil provides poor water drainage and aeration, resulting in premature plant death. It’s recommended to till your garden soil into the natural ground.

You can also make your garden soil to meet your plant’s needs.

Did you know?

Garden soil is often confused with potting soil, but they’re not the same. Potting soil may or may not contain any soil at all! It typically contains perlite, peat moss, bark, etc. 

That said, potting soil and garden soil are both growing mediums for plants. While garden soil is ideal for outdoor planting, potting soil is best used for container plants. They’re not interchangeable.

Topsoil vs Garden Soil: What’s the Difference?

Given that one soil is borne of the other and both can be used in your garden, it may seem like they are one in the same, but the difference is in the details.


Garden Soil

Composition Collected from the uppermost layer of the earth’s surface, this layer of soil is a mixture of slowly weathered rock and organic matter that has broken down over a long period. This organic matter is known as hummus and is usually a nutrient-rich mix of dead plants, leaves, and insects. A mixture of topsoil with inorganic matter. It requires soil amendments and a boost of nutrients to make it a good growing medium for plants.


**Uses Can be used for large-scale industrial projects, layer turf, dress your lawn, or build garden beds and support plant growth. Useful for laying garden beds and ideal for raised garden beds.


There are three grades of topsoil; economy, general purpose, and premium.

Economy topsoil is cheaper and used for large-scale industrial projects.

General purpose topsoil is widely available in a variety of grades and sizes and is multi-purpose.

Premium grade topsoil is costly because it is less likely to harbor weed seeds. It is also a good quality loamy soil, perfect for building garden beds and supporting plant growth.

Ideal Uses for Garden Soil and Topsoil

1. Raised Garden Beds

Trough Raised Bed
Image credits: mikecogh via Creative Commons

Elevated garden beds are easier to plant, manage and harvest than in-ground beds. That said, you need a lot of soil for a raised bed!

A 3×6 bed would need at least nine cubic feet or 20-quart bags of soil. This is why topsoil is the ideal pick for filling up a raised bed because it is sold in bulk at a reasonable price. While the soil may lack nutrients, you can always supplement it with compost, rocks, or manure to make up for deficiencies in structure and nutrient value.

2. Container Gardening

Sweet Potato Vine in containers
Image credits: Kathryn Roach via Shutterstock

Amended garden soil should be used for container gardening, as it is usually small scale and meant for niche plant life. One of the most common container gardening mistakes is using garden soil on its own. Used on its own, garden soil can cause premature plant death as it provides poor aeration and water drainage. 

If you can’t find potting soil and must use garden soil, mix one part garden soil with one part peat and one part perlite. Use this amended garden soil mix in containers.

3. Landscaping

Beautiful garden with big trees and colourful flowers
Image credits: Jan Canty via Unsplash

Landscaping is mostly a large-scale undertaking and needs eye-for-detail to prevent common landscaping errors. Also, it requires a lot of soil. Garden soil may have a harder time mixing in with your existing soil because of greater structural and quantity differences.

However, topsoil, which is naturally occurring, can be mixed in larger quantities and can be amended with compost or manure at a later stage of the design process.

4. Hanging Baskets

Home grown flowers and herbs in the hanging pots at balcony.
Image credits: Trong Nguyen via Shutterstock

Plants in hanging baskets are more vulnerable to pests and infectious diseases because of poor drainage. Topsoil and garden soils are too heavy for these plants.

The best soil for hanging baskets is a lightweight potting mix made of peat moss, perlite, or coconut fiber.

5. Lawns

lawn with green grass and large tree
Image credits: Dakota Lim via Unsplash

Contrary to popular belief, grass can thrive in many types of soil. Grass grown in sandy soil has effective drainage, which allows water to reach the grassroots faster. The structure of clay soil allows them to retain moisture for long periods, and silty soil, which is finer than sandy soil, is also fast draining.

While a combination of these soils, known as loamy soil, is the best option for lawn, you can use topsoil so long as it has nutrients and is properly aerated.

6. Specialty Gardens

Backyard Garden Space With Large Tree and Pathway
Image Credits: JamesDeMers via Pixabay

Specialty or niche gardens are a creative way to customize your landscape and sometimes work with your climate to bring out the best of indigenous flora and fauna

Pollinator gardens, perennial or annual gardens, as well as international and local fruit, vegetable, and herb gardens, are among several categories to choose from. 

Where specialty comes into play, so do garden soils. They are premixed with all the nutrients and properties needed for a niche garden to thrive.

Which One To Choose?

Ultimately, topsoil and garden soil each have an important role to play in your garden. Topsoil leads the way in utility, it is plentiful, versatile, and can set up the foundations for a garden. Garden soil handles facets that give a garden character, from ensuring the health of blossoms and shrubs to the growth of succulent fruit, niche gardening is its specialty.

Hopefully, this article inspired you when it comes to knowing the difference between topsoil and garden soil. As always, let us know your questions in the comment section below, and don’t forget to share the article if you enjoyed it!