Demystifying Dirt: Choosing & Preparing Soil for Your Garden

Have you ever wandered among stacked bags of dirt at the garden store, wondering how there could possibly be that many types of dirt?

If you’re wondering if you need to use special soil at all, the answer is YES.   As an old gardening saying goes, “If you have a dollar and a garden, spend ten cents on plants and 90 cents preparing soil!”  What you put into your soil will determine what you get out of your garden. 

Most of the bags of dirt you will find in the store are just variations on a few same themes and ingredients.  For our purposes I will stick to what is typically used for vegetable gardens.  Read on to find out how to choose the best options for preparing soil, whether you’re growing veggies in pots or containers, raised beds (my personal favorite), or in the ground.

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Pots & Container Gardening–Can you use potting mix for vegetables?

Using garden soil in pots is generally NOT a good idea. For any container that is not wide open to the ground for drainage, you definitely want “potting mix“–even for vegetables.  It is specially formulated to improve air flow and drainage for roots as well as keep plants from burning (as they can with richer garden soil or with too much fertilizer). Do not skimp on potting mix if you’re planting in pots–use something good quality.  I like the kind that have less wood-chip texture and more soft peat-mossy texture for good, even moisture. 

Do keep in mind though that not all potting mix contains fertilizer If it doesn’t, you absolutely need to add some. But how do you know? Check the bags of dirt for ingredient list or for a chart like this.

how to choose garden soil potting mix fertilizer

I usually find it simpler to choose a potting mix that has fertilizer included.  But if you’d prefer to add your own, you can find some tips on choosing fertilizer here.  Always follow the directions on the fertilizer to keep from over-fertilizing and burning your plants (a higher risk in pots).

To learn more about the essentials for a successful container garden, check out this post!

Raised Beds

You may hear that raised beds also require potting mix, but the truth is that a mix of potting mix and “garden soil” or “compost” (or all three) is best. (You will see these terms on the label).  Potting mix helps regulate moisture, but garden soil and compost are more specifically designed for veggies and will provide better nutrients and soil texture.  You can add extra fertilizer if you wish, but usually garden soil or compost is enough to start out.

Find out exactly how I set up my foolproof, time-saving “garden for dummies” here, or the ten reasons I love raised bed gardening here. Get all my beginner garden tips from start to finish in my eBook below!
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If you have not found a favorite brand of garden soil, or even if you have, it may be a good idea to mix a few different brands and products for good balance.  I have generally been very happy with Miracle Gro brand soils (and they do have organic options) but have not had good results with Kellogg (at least their potting soil). To save money, you can also call around to local nurseries or landscaping companies to see if they sell bulk compost by the truckload.

Azomite rock dust is a good soil additive because it replaces trace minerals that are often lacking in soil. This makes your plants stronger and healthier, and presumably could increase the nutrition value of your veggies as well!

I like to use a hand tiller like the first three below to help mix my raised bed soil, but you don’t have to.

In-ground Gardens

The truth is, using native soil just makes things more complicated!  Realistically, I can’t give you perfect advice here, because I don’t know what type of soil you have in your backyard. But I can tell you the best shot of what works well for most gardens with minimal effort and know-how.

Several Questions…

Most garden experts would recommend you have your soil tested so that you know its particular texture, pH, and nutrient values.  Testing, combined with some knowledge of (or nursery worker advice on) how to correct and amend soils would probably be the smartest way to go. If you want to go that route, this page is helpful.

But we’re all about keeping things simple here, so my advice will tell you how to get good results with the least amount of time and effort spent. (Well, honestly, my first my advice would be to consider raised beds). Take a look at your soil or ask a local gardener or garden center worker to get an idea of its texture–Is it sandy or clay-like? this is the case for much of the U.S. and the solution for both is the same–add organic matter like compost.

It is helpful to have at least an idea of pH–you can ask locals, buy a cheap test kit, or even try a DIY test–but again, adding organic matter will generally help in most cases.  If your area is wet with a lot of decaying wood, leaves, pine needles, or moss, you may have more acidic soil with a pretty good amount of organic matter already.  Also, if you get a lot of rain, you might need to apply fertilizer or compost more often if the constant water has washed out some nutrients. 

…One Answer

In short, you will most likely want to grab some “garden soil” and plenty of compost. (Maybe some bagged steer or chicken manure for extra fertilizer if you want to feel like a farmer). Compost will help hold moisture well, improve aeration, and help regulate pH. If you know you have alkaline soil, peat moss is also a good additive to help hold moisture and increase acidity (lower pH).

Sorry I Cant Go Out I Have Plants This Evening

How much do you need? Well, how much are you willing to buy?  I can promise you now that, in general, the more you are willing to invest in soil preparation, the more you will get out of your garden.  Don’t be tempted to skimp too much now, or you might end up finding that you’ve spent your water and time for not much harvest. Manure can be a good cheap option, as long as it has enough time to age and cure before planting. Fall leaves are another great cheap option to till into your soil—they work almost like compost..

With many fertilizers and soil additives, you have to be careful not to over-do it. Compost, however, is one of the few things that can be piled on–for the most part, the more you use, the better–without much chance of negative effects.  You can layer it on top the ground again later in the season, if you wish, and “water it in” to give plants an extra boost. Some gardeners even plant in pure compost, in a thick layer on top of the ground. 

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If you want to dive in and learn more about sustainable, organic, no-till vegetable gardening (including composting, succession planting and winter gardening), check out this great video course by expert market gardeners in zone 7 Canada at Local Harvest.


Mix the soil and compost into your planting spots as well as you can, with a shovel or motorized tiller.  The end result should be fluffy, clump up somewhat in your hand when squeezed, and hold moisture, but not stay soggy for days.  

If your plants start to have trouble later in the season, you can always test the soil more precisely and go from there. Gardening is taking part in nature, so sometimes it is just learning by trial and error!  If the thought of trial and error makes you cringe, find out more about my favorite “foolproof” garden setup here.

If you are growing in the ground but don’t have a power tiller, below are some good options for mixing the good stuff into your soil.

Do you like to garden in pots, raised beds, or in the ground?  If you have more questions, you can post them in the comments or browse for more answers here!

2 thoughts on “Demystifying Dirt: Choosing & Preparing Soil for Your Garden”

  1. Thank you for posting this article! I appreciate all the links to other resources. Going to move into an apartment and try a few indoor vegitables in containers. I found this site helpful in helping me prepare for planting

    1. My pleasure, glad to help! For indoor veggies, you just have to make sure they get the sun or light they need to be able to produce for you. If they don’t get 6-8 hours, I suggest a grow light or sticking with herbs, leafy greens, and cool season veggies (or convincing landlord to let you have pots on the porch ?) good luck!

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