The 411 on Soil Types

Get the dirt on dirt. Learn all about different types of soil.

Know Your Soil

Know Your Soil

Knowing your soil's characteristics will help you choose plants that will thrive in it.

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maggie /

Knowing your soil's characteristics will help you choose plants that will thrive in it.

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It might seem strange to go out and buy soil for your garden. After all, there’s plenty of dirt in most backyards, and besides, a garden is simply a plot of earth where plants grow. But not all types of soil are created equal. 

The gardener in Florida knows that his sandy, gritty soil doesn’t hold enough moisture to give his thirsty vegetables an adequate drink, while the flower lover in Georgia practically needs a jackhammer to dig a hole in her hard, red clay.

Growers along the coast know the white coating on their ground signals a high salt content — and most plants don’t thrive in saline soils. Elsewhere, peaty soils are rich in organic matter, which is important for healthy plants, but peat is almost impossible to get wet again once it has dried out. (Peat is great, however, for amending other soils.)

But those are just some of the native soils found across the U.S. There are many other kinds of premixed soils we can buy for our gardens.

Starting From Seed

If you’re growing plants from seeds, your best bet is a soilless blend that contains perlite, vermiculite and/or peat moss. Some blends may contain bark or coir, a coconut fiber byproduct. Because these materials are heated to kill off any pathogens that might be hitchhiking with them, and they’re free of weed seeds, they’re great for starting fragile seedlings. Soilless mixes are also loose and porous, which helps tender roots grow.

Container Gardening

For container plants, including window boxes, pots, hanging baskets and planters, a high-quality potting mix is a good choice. Some potting mixes contain slow-release or water-soluble fertilizers, and moisture-controlling polymers that help you avoid under-watering or over-watering. Generally speaking, the more ingredients a mix contains, the higher the price. 

Specialty Soil

Specialty potting soils are available for plants that have special growing requirements, such as cacti, roses, veggies and herbs, orchids and African violets. A mix for African violets, for example, contains the right amount of lime to give these plants the slightly acidic soil they prefer. A cactus mix might combine sand and perlite for optimum drainage. 

You can make your own potting soil at home by combining good organic matter with various ingredients, depending on what you want to grow. One part sphagnum peat moss to one part vermiculite, for instance, makes a good seed-starting mix. But for most of us, it’s easier to buy what we need. Just be sure to read the bag of potting mix or soil, so you’ll know exactly what you’re paying for and how to use it. 

Starting at ground level — that is, with the right soil — will help your plants thrive.

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