Growing your own food is such a rewarding experience, it’s no wonder gardening has seen an upswing in popularity. Even for those who prefer flowers to edibles, spending time amongst plants is a great way to destress and connect with nature. And while growing your own fruits and vegetables can be a great way to save money at the grocery store, you may end up spending your funds on gardening soil instead. Unless you learn to make your own!
Aside from typically being less expensive than bagged gardening soil, creating your own mix means you can tailor your soil to your specific growing needs. Whether you have an in-ground garden, raised beds or containers, read on to find out which garden blend is best for you. Or skip ahead to learn about eighteen different soil ingredients and their uses.
- What is garden soil?
- How to make garden soil mix
- 11 ways to prep and mix soil for your garden
- What to use for garden soil: 18 common ingredients explained
- 6 garden soil FAQs
First up, what exactly does the term “garden soil” mean? Let’s find out!
What is garden soil?
Garden soil is a nutrient-dense, well-draining material used for in-ground gardens, raised garden beds and container gardening. Gardening soil can be bought in bags from gardening centers and greenhouses, in bulk, or homemade by mixing a variety of organic matter such as topsoil and compost.
Recommended ratios include a mixture of twenty-five percent garden soil to seventy-five percent compost, or a fifty-fifty mix of the two mediums. However, many other materials can go into a soil mix, with each having different benefits or drawbacks.
How to make garden soil mix
The best way to prepare for making your own garden mix is to test your native soil first. Understanding what nutrients your soil already contains will help you to determine whether you need to add materials to boost the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels, or balance the acidity in the soil.
As with pretty much everything in gardening, there are plenty of different ways to mix gardening soil - with no one way being the “right” way. However, with some knowhow and a little trial and error you should be able to figure out the best soil for your specific situation. Read on to learn eleven different methods to get you started!
11 ways to prep and mix soil for your garden
New to gardening? Or maybe you’ve been doing it for years, but want to change things up and try a new approach? Either way, these eleven different gardening soil recipes are sure to point you in the right direction.
1. Square foot gardening blend
What you need:
- 1/3 peat moss
- 1/3 vermiculite
- 1/3 compost
Square Foot Gardening is a concept first introduced by Mel Bartholomew in 1981. It is an extremely popular gardening method as it allows you to grow fruits, veggies and flowers much closer together than in a traditional garden - resulting in higher yields. The square foot gardening method is also very popular for those with small yards and is also frequently used in community gardens.
According to Bartholomew, the compost is the most important ingredient and you should try to use compost from as many sources as possible, such as backyard compost, worm castings and poultry manure. Those who have used only one compost source with this method have reportedly run into issues as plants that grow so close together inevitably need a very high nutrient content.
2. Lomi homemade dirt blend
What you need:
- fruit and veggie scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds
- potting soil or gardening soil
Want to make your own nutrient-rich dirt that you can combine with other soil to create a healthy growing medium for your plants? Lomi is a fantastic way to mix your own soil, with the best part being you get to take part in the creation process.
To make your nutrient-dense dirt, add fruit and veggie scraps, eggshells and coffee grounds to your Lomi and choose Grow mode. Once Lomi has finished running, which should take around 16-20 hours, remove the dirt, mix one part of it with ten parts potting or gardening soil and you’re good to go! Read more about what you can do with your Lomi dirt here.
3. Perfect soil blend
What you need:
- 50 percent topsoil
- 30 percent compost
- 20 percent other organic matter
The Perfect Soil Blend, created by former DIY Network star Joe Lamp’l, is best suited for raised bed gardening. To start, make sure you have high quality topsoil. If you need to buy topsoil, make sure to buy from a reputable brand or talk to the supplier about where their topsoil comes from.
As for the compost and other organic matter, use a combination of homemade compost, store bought compost as well as worm castings, mineralized soil blend, composted cow or chicken manure and shredded leaves. Avoid materials such as horse manure, artificial fillers and fill dirt - which is the dirt underneath the earth’s naturally occurring topsoil.
4. Bagged soil blend
What you need:
- 4 bags (8 cubic feet) of gardening soil
- 2 bags (2 cubic feet) of gardening soil plus fertilizer
- 2 forty pound bags of topsoil
- 3 cups of worm castings
If you’re creating a new, smaller garden, you may not need to invest in large quantities of compost, topsoil and other materials. Garden centers and plant nurseries sell all kinds of bagged soil, however instead of buying only one type, it’s still beneficial to buy a few different bags and blend them together.
This recipe from The Beginner’s Garden is perfect for experimentation. You may want to change the ratio between the regular gardening soil and the soil with the added fertilizer, but note that additives in bagged soil usually up the price. You may also want to play with the amount of topsoil and worm castings added, or replace the worm castings with another nutrient-rich amendment such as Lomi dirt.
5. Simple blend
What you need:
- 50 percent screened topsoil
- 50 percent screened compost
Different soil additives can be expensive and if you’re mixing a bunch of different types of soils and amendments together the cost can sometimes feel out of reach. But this basic mixture for planters and raised beds from Eartheasy is about as simple as it gets.
Half topsoil and half compost, you can either buy your ingredients in bags from the store or - for the ultra affordable option - make your own compost and screen it and the topsoil yourself. The reason the soil and compost need to be screened is to remove debris such as clumps, rocks and twigs, which will make your soil smooth and easy to work with.
6. Luxury blend
What you need:
- 1/3 coconut coir
- 1/3 vermiculite (or perlite)
- 1/3 varied composts
Another blend from Eartheasy, but this time no expense is spared. If you have the budget, or if you only have a small garden area, this mix will ensure your beds will start out weed free and filled with tons of nutrients. Similar to the square foot gardening blend, however this mixture uses coconut coir instead of peat moss due to coconut coir’s increased sustainability.
If you’re doing larger beds or planters and want to reduce the cost, adjust the recipe to 1/4 coconut coir, 1/4 vermiculite or perlite and for the remaining half use compost. And as with the square foot blend, try to add in several varieties of compost to ensure your plants are getting the nutrients they need.
7. Flower garden blend
What you need:
- 1/3 topsoil
- 1/3 compost
- 1/3 peat moss
Not everyone wants to grow veggies, and many who do still like to have dedicated flower beds to enjoy and to provide food for pollinators. This flower garden blend from Garden Squared will help your flowering plants flourish. Just make sure to remove any large clumps or rocks from the mix. Or, as with other blends on this list, buy screened topsoil.
If you’re planting flower bulbs, try a blend of one part sand and two parts loam. This mixture will drain quickly and thus help prevent your bulbs from becoming too moist and rotting.
8. Succulent blend
What you need:
- 40 percent coarse sand
- 40 percent gardening soil
- 20 percent pumice
In some cases you’ll want sandy soil, such as when growing succulents. Succulents naturally grow in dry regions and if your soil doesn’t drain quickly the roots of the plants can become waterlogged. You can buy succulent blends from most gardening centers, but if you want to save money you can make your own.
For this blend from Garden Easy, start by mixing equal parts coarse sand and gardening soil, then add in a smaller ratio of pumice, which will allow the soil to drain as well as provide air pockets for circulation and for beneficial microbes to flourish.
9. In-ground garden blend
What you need:
- Compost and topsoil (to amend sandy soil)
- Compost and sand (to amend clay-heavy soil)
If you want to create an in-ground garden, the native soil isn’t going to be sufficient to plant in as it likely will be too loose or too firm and not hold nearly enough nutrients. What exactly you add to it and in what quantities will depend on your existing soil, so first things first - start digging. If the area has a lot of sand or clay, you’ll need to amend it.
Sandy soil will feel gritty to the touch and is problematic as it doesn’t retain moisture. Work the compost and topsoil into the sandy soil until it begins to cling together when squeezed, though it should still remain crumbly. Soil that is clay-heavy will stick together in clumps and does not drain well. It will need sand and fine compost added to it to improve drainage and boost nutrients.
10. Container garden blend
What you need:
- 50 percent peat moss
- 50 percent vermiculite or perlite
You may think gardening in containers is the same as regular gardening, but it actually requires a different soil type. This is because containers are so much smaller than a large raised bed or in-ground garden and therefore need to be able to both hold and drain moisture to prevent plant roots from either drying out or becoming soggy.
This recipe from Gardener Thumb is super easy to follow, simply add equal parts peat moss and vermiculite (or perlite). Then add a fertilizer at regular intervals, making sure to follow the fertilizer’s label for exact frequency.
11. Lasagne method
What you need:
- shredded dry leaves
- shredded newspaper
- peat moss
- food scraps
- garden trimmings
- grass clippings
- other “brown” and “green” materials
The Lasagne Method isn’t actually a soil blend at all - it’s a way of transforming your existing soil into a nutrient-rich gardening medium without having to dig or till. The reason it’s called “lasagne” is because it involves building layers on top of your existing soil in order to create an inexpensive, low maintenance garden.
To start, cover your gardening area with “brown materials” such as shredded dry leaves, shredded newspaper and peat moss. Then add a layer of “green materials” such as food scraps, garden trimmings and grass clippings on top. The brown materials layer should be about twice as thick as the green. Then repeat the process, continuing to layer until your overall pile is about two feet tall. Once the layers have decomposed to create uniform, compost-like material you can plant in it.
What to use for garden soil: 18 common ingredients explained
There are a lot of different materials you can add to your gardening soil and the ingredients you choose will depend on the type of soil you’re starting with or whether you’re starting from scratch. Note that what works in one person’s garden might be completely different from what works in your’s. Read on to learn about eighteen common gardening soil ingredients and their benefits.
- Bagged gardening soil: Store-bought bagged gardening soil is a good start, but if you want soil tailored to your specific planting needs you’ll need to add a few of the other ingredients on this list.
- Bone meal: An organic garden additive that is chock full of nutrients such as phosphorus as well as calcium and nitrogen. Other types of meal – meaning a coarse, ground powder – often used in gardening include blood meal, cottonseed meal and kelp meal.
- Calcined clay: Calcined clay is the same thing as non-clumping kitty litter, which is a kiln-fired material that holds nutrients and moisture while also creating air pockets for plant roots.
- Coconut coir fiber: With a pH close to neutral, coconut coir fiber is simply ground up coconut husks. It’s considered to be a more sustainable soil material than other commonly used ingredients such as peat moss. But keep in mind that coir fiber tends to be more expensive.
- Compost: Compost plays a huge role in creating a healthy, thriving garden and is an excellent addition to any homemade soil mix. Compost contains billions of microbes that help plants thrive, but experts recommend saving it for more established seedlings as it’s too heavy for seed-starting.
- Composted chicken manure: Available at garden centers and feed stores, composted chicken manure has a very high nutrient content. Remember to never add raw chicken manure to your soil though, because it will burn your plant’s roots.
- Composted wood chips: A great way to lighten up soil, the porousness of wood allows air and water to easily make its way through the mix. Note that it may decrease the soil’s nitrogen so it should be counteracted with something like blood meal.
- Fertilizer: A peat moss based soil mix is going to need fertilizer added to it since it will be low in nutrients. Natural fertilizer is made from ingredients such as mined minerals, animal by-products and plant manures. You can buy organic fertilizer to add to your homemade garden mix or create your own.
- Limestone: Limestone is an inexpensive and beneficial ingredient in many homemade soil recipes. Pulverized limestone helps neutralize a peat moss based soil’s pH. It’s recommended to add one-quarter cup of limestone for every six gallons of peat moss.
- Loam: A soil mixture that is equal parts sand, silt and a smaller amount of clay. In general terms, loam describes the ideal combination of gardening soil as it holds nutrients and has a texture that both retains and properly drains water.
- Lomi dirt: One ingredient that is quickly becoming popular as more and more households adopt Lomi for their composting needs nutrient-rich dirt. Lomi is a great way to take food scraps and turn them into something useful as the product it produces is an excellent soil amendment.
- Perlite: Perlite can hold up to four times its weight in water, meaning it increases in size and improves drainage in your gardening soil. It has a neutral pH and is sold at most garden centers and tree nurseries.
- Pumice: A lightweight volcanic rock that is filled with tiny air pockets. It is ideal for cacti and succulents as it allows for excellent drainage and air circulation around the roots of the plants.
- Sand: In some cases sand needs to be added to soil to help improve drainage. Coarse river sand increases the soil surface area, allowing roots to cling to it. Meanwhile, playground sand ensures a loose mix.
- Sphagnum peat moss: A non-compacting material that adds bulk to gardens without making the soil too heavy, plus it holds water well. However, peat moss is low in nutrients and is quite acidic, which is why it needs to be balanced out with other ingredients such as limestone.
- Topsoil: When building your own gardening soil, topsoil is a common main ingredient, but it shouldn’t be the only material in your garden as it lacks sufficient nutrients and drainage. Note that good soil won’t be too sticky nor too sandy.
- Vermiculite: A material that is mined and then heated until it expands, creating lightweight particles. Vermiculite increases the calcium and magnesium content in gardening soil as well as the porosity, improving drainage.
- Worm castings: As worms eat their way through soil, they leave behind worm castings, which are extremely fertile and help increase soil acidity. You can buy it in a bag at garden centers, or make your own through vermicomposting.
6 garden soil FAQs
There are so many things to learn when it comes to gardening and garden soil. Here are six frequently asked soil-related questions and their answers.
1. How can you make garden soil more acidic?
If you’re wondering how to make garden soil more acidic, you can fix acidity by adding agricultural sulfur or iron sulfate. You can also up the acidity of soil with coffee grounds, but it’s better to mix the grounds with compost or other organic material first instead of spreading it directly around your plants.
Before deciding if you’re going to amend your soil, measure it with a soil meter. If it is indeed too alkaline and you want to add agricultural sulfur or iron sulfate, make sure you’re very careful. These substances can be dangerous to children and pets, as well as can harm your plants if used incorrectly.
2. What’s the difference between topsoil and garden soil?
Although garden soil often contains topsoil along with organic matter like peat moss and compost, they can’t be used interchangeably. Topsoil is a naturally occurring material and often contains things like rocks, twigs and soil clumps. Meanwhile, garden soil is carefully cultivated and has a smooth consistency.
Another difference between topsoil and gardening soil is that the latter is high in nutrients and attracts organisms such as beneficial microbes and earthworms, which in turn boosts the nutrition in the soil so plants can flourish. Topsoil has some nutrients and organic matter, but it is more often used as a base for grass lawns, because flowers and vegetables need an additional boost to grow healthy and strong.
3. Can you use garden soil for potting?
You can use garden soil for potting, however don’t expect the plants to fair as well as they would if they were in dedicated potting soil. The reason for this is that plants in pots need excellent drainage, since pots are self-contained and tend to hold moisture longer, which can lead to root rot.
It’s better to use a potting soil mix in your indoor and outdoor containers. However, if you’re trying to save money by using what you already have, make sure to sift and dry the gardening soil before placing it in a pot. As for the reverse question, which is “Can I use potting soil in my garden?” The answer is essentially the same. You can, but it isn’t ideal as it may drain too quickly in a larger area.
4. Can you use garden soil to start seeds?
Garden soil tends to be much heavier than the soil required for seed starting, plus it often lacks the high levels of nutrients tiny seedlings need. There’s also the risk of seedlings developing diseases from garden soil as it may contain harmful microbes, whereas most store bought seedling mix is sterilized.
If you don’t want to buy pre-made seedling mix from the store, you could try making your own by purchasing the main ingredients in bulk. You’ll need four parts screened compost, one part perlite, one part vermiculite and two parts peat moss.
5. How do you sterilize garden soil?
To sterilize garden soil, remove any infected plants or weeds and then use a till or shovel to break up clumps. Next, give your soil a soak before covering it with a clear plastic sheet and weighing it down with rocks. Leave the soil for 4-8 weeks, giving the sun sufficient time to kill off unwanted bacteria and weeds.
Note that sterilization will also kill off any beneficial organisms that live in your soil, so you’ll want to carefully consider the pros and cons before doing so. After the sterilization process is complete, you’ll need to add compost to your soil to help restore the nutrients.
6. How to get rid of ants and bugs in garden soil
While having some ants and bugs in your soil is a sign that you have a healthy, thriving ecosystem in your garden, too many or the wrong kinds can be destructive. One effective, natural remedy to try is to make a paste of boric acid, sugar and water and strategically place it in your garden.
Another natural method is to use white vinegar, which can kill entire colonies of ants if it’s poured directly on the nesting area. However, because vinegar is acidic it can alter the pH of your garden’s soil, so make sure to use vinegar with caution.
Now that you’ve learned all about gardening soil recipes and had a few of the most frequently asked gardening soil questions answered, you should definitely read what people are saying about Lomi. Lomi dirt is an excellent soil additive - plus it can also be used on your indoor plants.
And even though spring may just be starting, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year’s garden. Read all about how to prepare for the next season, as well as our tips for beginner indoor gardeners - because you’re going to want to keep cultivating that greenthumb year-round!
Written by: Larissa Swayze