Growing healthy and tasty vegetables means starting with good-quality topsoil. But what is the best topsoil for vegetable garden? After all, topsoil alone doesn’t create the ideal conditions to help your plants produce abundant harvests. And that’s why having a comprehensive plan providing your garden with the right growing environment is vital to your success.
The best topsoil for vegetable gardens includes organic matter, compost, and fertilizer, making your soil a rich, loose, and well-draining growing medium. Mixing organic matter into your topsoil helps feed your vegetable plants, promoting healthy root growth, optimum nutrient absorption, and higher yields.
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Because store-bought topsoil may not include the necessary organic matter and vital nutrients plants need to thrive, it won’t provide your backyard vegetable patch with the right environment for producing successful harvests.
So, in this article, we’ll break down the difference between topsoil and garden soil, along with all the benefits of each. We’ll also explain the process of adding high-quality topsoil to your garden in an easy, step-by-step, and manageable process, so you’ll know what to do and how to do it to keep your plants happy, healthy, and flourishing.
- Save money while helping the environment by understanding the single most important factor you can easily add to your garden soil so you can help your vegetable plants grow like crazy.
- Discover why not all topsoil is created equal AND how you can quickly amend it – even if you have no experience.
- Understand why topsoil alone isn’t enough to grow consistent vegetable harvests in your backyard garden PLUS save time by discovering these top tips you can use to strengthen your garden soil and improve your garden starting today!
Understanding Topsoil Basics
Topsoil is the outermost layer of soil found on the surface (usually anywhere from 2 to 10 inches deep), and is mostly comprised of organic matter and minerals. However, topsoil is not as rich in nutrients as garden soil amended with organic matter and mature compost. Still, having some topsoil in your vegetable garden is essential as it helps retain moisture and provides a healthier environment for your vegetables.
One of the most valuable natural amenities that Mother Earth affords us is topsoil. Although it looks inert and uninteresting, topsoil contains an entire ecosystem thriving with bacteria, fungi, and insects. Interestingly, some of these microbes in the soil actively attempt to attack and destroy your garden plants, while others are more beneficial in helping your garden develop.
Yes, an active, unseen battle rages right under your feet between organisms that would rather lay waste in your garden and those seeking to help it. And the quality of soil you provide within your growing space tips the balance either way. The health of your garden soil ultimately determines how easy or hard it is to keep your vegetable plants producing well throughout the season. 1
Generally, topsoil’s primary components are clay, silt, sand, and various organic materials. Additionally, quality topsoil is not compacted but relatively light, porous, and loamy, offering plants good air circulation, nutrient uptake, mechanical support, and excellent water access.
If you are creating a new gardening space, you’ll know right away if the quality of topsoil is of poor quality for these obvious reasons:
- Cracked soil
- Bare soil where nothing is growing
- Challenging to dig – or to make even the slightest hole or divot
- Water pools or runs off
To better understand what topsoil is, its incorporated elements, and how it can benefit you in the backyard vegetable garden, I’ve found this excellent video that comprehensively explains its many uses.
Can You Use Topsoil For Your Vegetable Garden
In general, you should use topsoil for your vegetable garden. However, because not all topsoil is created equal, it’s only part of the equation. While providing a good start, the best garden topsoil is supplemented with nutrient-dense organic matter that you can either purchase or make at home. To get the best results from the purchased variety, you want to look for topsoil that is:
- Rich in organic matter.
- Loose and well-draining.
- As free as possible from weeds, pests, and diseases.
Purchasing bagged topsoil at your neighborhood big-box store or even from the local landscaping company provides a decent start to your garden as it is an effective “garden filer.” For example, gaps may have appeared in your garden beds, or standard erosion may have occurred over the winter. These are perfect examples of where topsoil shines by filling out your growing area. 2
Want to save yourself some cash? Although you’ll need to consider the density of weed seeds that may lie dormant within the dirt, consider using the very topsoil from your yard in your garden. But again, understand native topsoil, especially those which are dense, clay, and compacted soils, taken from the ground and used in your vegetable garden, won’t give your plants enough nutrients and structure to do their job effectively.
Taking topsoil from your yard and bringing it into your garden can also be risky for numerous reasons. Native soil may contain heavy metals, pesticides, and other chemicals that may have been directly applied to the ground or have runoff from someone else’s. These factors can severely impact your vegetable garden, especially if you want to grow organic.
I recommend not splurging on premium or “amended” topsoil varieties to save even more of your hard-earned moolah. Instead, because you’ll be amending it with fresh, organic matter like compost, reaching for a less expensive, middle-of-the-road topsoil brand is wise.
However, whichever topsoil brand you decide to purchase ultimately comes down to the needs of the garden and your specific goals within it.
Topsoil vs. Garden Soil
Topsoil is either bought or provided from the yard. Garden soil is topsoil mixed and amended with organic matter, compost, and worm castings, providing a nutrient-rich, porous, and loamy growing medium that helps vegetable plants prosper.
You’ll need more than plain topsoil to grow productive plants with consistent and sustainable vegetable harvests. And while the quality of topsoil varies, depending upon where it is sourced, garden soil is specifically designed and amended for use in the garden, preferably by you. 3
Many beginning growers need help understanding the differences between topsoil and garden soil. When I first started, I erroneously believed all soil was created equal. The truth was, I needed time to realize just how impactful incorporating organic material into my garden would be to my overall success. So, predictably, in my first year, I experienced minimal yields.
Undeterred, I returned to basics and learned how vital organic matter is to my garden system. I discovered it was the engine that ran everything. And the more attention I paid to my soil, the more effective my vegetable plants were throughout the year.
Is Topsoil Good For A Vegetable Garden
Because all topsoil is different, adding soil to a vegetable garden is not suggested. Although topsoil can be a decent supplement to your garden, it lacks the proper drainage, organic matter, and moisture capacity to help your plants thrive.
Remember, the first few inches of topsoil contain a mixture of dead bugs, leaves, twigs, decaying plants, and general organic debris. And while your garden can utilize some of this decomposed material, more is needed. So, yes, your vegetable plants are hungry, and as a responsible grower, it’s your job to feed them. But, unfortunately, they only have a few short weeks to months to absorb as much as possible before their lifecycle ends, so every bit of the proper nutrition you provide them counts big time!
Take calcium, for example. When mixed within the soil, this essential macro-nutrient binds the main soil elements of sand, silt, and clay together with decomposed organic matter. The result is a viable calcium supply your plants can use to help strengthen their immune systems from disease and pest infestations and something you can’t always find abundantly in store-bought topsoil.
That said, there are still good topsoil brands out there that I recommend that contain a decent amount of nutrients, like calcium, that your garden plants can use. You can find these suggested brands below. So, as a good rule of thumb, avoid too sandy or clay-like topsoil. We’re growing vegetables here, not sculpting a vase. Soil that is too sandy or full of clay does not allow drainage, promotes cooler temperatures, lacks nutrients, and doesn’t provide proper airflow. 4
Although bagged topsoil is better, I would avoid ordering loose soil for my garden from landscaping companies or anyone offering dirt for free from one of those ubiquitous four-way intersection stake signs.First, you must find out where this dirt originated, which you likely won’t. As previously mentioned, harsh chemicals, heavy metals, and weed seeds may lurk within, which you don’t want to shovel voluntarily into your garden.
Second, pH levels in topsoil can swing wildly. For example, if you have mineral soil, most plants tend to enjoy a pH level between 6.0 to 7.0. However, these same plants prefer a pH between 5.5 to 6 in organic soils for optimum growth.So, it’s always better to know the soil type in your growing area and the present pH level in your garden rather than guessing and risking throwing off your entire garden ecosystem.
How To Test Your Existing Soil
One of the easiest ways to test your growing medium is through a commercial lab, where you send a sample for analysis. However, another excellent option is conducting a DIY soil home test. Regular soil tests in your vegetable garden allow you to know what nutrients are present while helping you understand what other elements or minerals are still needed.
Testing your existing soil before adding topsoil or garden soil to your vegetable garden is always a great idea. This test establishes a baseline from which to start while providing a peek at how healthy your soil is in real-time. Remember, ensuring good soil is the difference between healthy plants that thrive and those that don’t.
You can experiment with many things in the garden, but your garden soil shouldn’t be one of them. It is that important. For example, suppose you live where native soil is notorious for poor quality from polluted industrial wastes or chemical runoffs. In that case, I strongly urge annual soil testing, which will indicate what needs to be added or amended routinely. 5
Likewise, if you are fortunate to live in an area without these challenges or already have an established garden, testing once every 2 to 3 years is a good idea to stay atop the nutrient density and pH levels along with the texture and composition of composted materials. Of course, this is all contingent upon continually maintaining and supplementing your garden with fresh, decomposed organic matter.
Many states have extension services, typically organized and affiliated with universities. This excellent option provides another opportunity to test your soil as the service is good and the prices reasonable. Check out your local extension and see what they have to offer in your state.
Below is a fantastic video that helps you understand why amending your soil is your best option for reliable, abundant vegetable harvests. Remember, maintaining your soil’s health should be one of your top priorities as a humble gardener.
Depending on the kit and the process, decide on one that works well for you. If you are looking to invest in a good, inexpensive soil test kit, I highly recommend the choices below.
Improving Existing Topsoil
Adding organic matter is the best option if your topsoil is poor quality. Ideally, you’ll want to incorporate the proper nutrients and minerals into your soil after completing a thorough soil test. Leaves, aged manure, small sticks, twigs, and plant and grass clippings make great composted organic material. Ground or chop each for faster decomposition before mixing them into your garden soil.
Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent options inside the home that you can add to your compost heap, including kitchen scraps, shredded paper, and brown cardboard boxes. Toss in some spent egg shells, coffee grounds, and paper towel rolls, and now you’re on the way to making your nutrient-dense, compostable soil amendments. 6
If you are interested in making your own homemade compost, I wrote an entire article on how easy it is to create your composting pile from kitchen scraps and garden waste and how often you should add it to your vegetable garden – even if you have zero experience!
Not only are you being eco-friendly, but you’re also creating a nutrient-rich pile filled with natural, organic matter that benefits your garden throughout the year.
Incorporating compost or aged manure into your garden soil will adjust its pH levels. Today, soil pH is a popular topic among gardeners because it has a consequential impact on your vegetable plants and is paramount to your overall gardening success.
As Robert Pavlis expertly describes in his excellent book Soil Science for Gardeners, pH measures the number of hydrogen ions in a liquid and puts this number on a scale between 0 and 14, with anything over seven considered alkaline.
Interestingly, plants are not directly influenced by the level of pH found in your soil. Instead, how the pH sways nutrient density within your garden dramatically impacts your plants’ productivity. In addition, certain amendments affect the pH levels in your soil. For example, an infusion of sulfur decreases soil pH, lime increases current levels, and specific fertilizers can go either way. Therefore, following the product label instructions and regularly testing your soil to monitor the changes is always the best practice.
What Kind Of Topsoil Is Best For Vegetable Gardens
The best topsoil for vegetable gardens contains a balanced mix of silt, sand, clay, peat moss, perlite, and some organic matter. The soil should look dark, smell somewhat earthy, and crumble in your hands, indicating it provides an ideal well-draining environment and promotes good airflow.
When starting your vegetable garden, the topsoil you use is imperative to the final success of your crops. As mentioned above, growing vegetables becomes more manageable when the soil remains healthy and nutrient-rich. In addition, when purchasing topsoil, be mindful of the words “vegetable garden topsoil” or “garden soil mix” on the bags themselves. These are good indicators of better options when using it for your edible Eden. 7
When purchasing topsoil, also look for topsoil certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) to ensure that it’s free from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals.
Best Bagged Topsoil
If you want to invest in some quality topsoil for your vegetable garden, I have included some good recommendations below that will help kick-start the process and get your garden started.
One of my favorite brands of topsoil is Scotts Premium Topsoil. Scotts provides excellent value for a trusted brand name. This premium soil is easy to spread and quickly fills the gaps in your garden beds, saving you loads of time getting your growing space ready for the season.
If you are looking for organic topsoil, you may invest a little more due to the higher quality of the compounds within the growing medium and the quality of the product. Still, you will see and taste the difference with your final yields.
The first recommendation is from Espoma Company. I enjoy Espoma for two significant reasons. First, I like their organic soil fortified with earthworm castings that help your garden retain moisture, provide aeration, and promote soil fertility. 8
Second, Espoma’s organic soil is enhanced with Myco-tone Mycorrhizae, a blend of different strains of mycorrhizae, a beneficial soil fungus that enhances root development, facilitates plant water uptake while protecting seeds, and starts from transplant shock.
The following recommendation is Monhegan Blend Black Earth Premium, an OMNI-certified organic soil comprised of aged manure, sphagnum peat moss, and aged bark. This soil is a fantastic source of organic and nutrient-rich materials that will support the beneficial microbes within your garden.
Also, feel free to use these options when filling your garden beds. Again, it’s not as though one is superior to the other. They offer great, all-around nutrients and fertilization to your soil. But, again, you’ll still need to compliment your growing area with regular applications of homemade compost for the best results.
Natural Compost Starter
As you can tell by now, nothing beats homemade compost, and it’s my preferred method for keeping my soil in peak condition. A good compost starter is an excellent option if you are beginning your gardening journey and need to speed up the composting process quickly.
Jobe’s Organic offers a fast-action compost starter that includes archaea, a microorganism that quickly breaks down materials for better results. Not only that, it’s OMRI listed for organic gardening by the United States Department of Agriculture and is free of any synthetics, pesticides, and other harsh chemicals.
How To Make The Best Vegetable Garden Soil
Generally, the best vegetable garden soil contains three primary macronutrients plants need for growth: phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium. Ensure secondary nutrients like sulfur, calcium, and magnesium are also present, along with tertiary elements such as iron, zinc, and copper. Amend with homemade compost and use fertilizers sparingly to adjust your soil accordingly.
Remember, in any agriculture, large or small, creating the perfect growing foundation is essential for healthy plants and crops. In addition to adding organic matter and soil amendments, there are a few other things I recommend that you can do to create the best vegetable garden soil:
- Rotate your crops. Crop rotation helps prevent soil-borne diseases and pests from accumulating in your soil. In addition, it assists your soil in retaining the appropriate minerals and macronutrients so long as you continue to feed it quality soil and rich compost. Crop rotation also enhances soil structure and fertility, creating optimal gardening conditions. 9
- Mulch your beds. Mulching helps to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and improve soil structure. Use wood chips, shredded leaves, or compost as excellent options.
- Fertilize as needed, but sparingly. Consider using a balanced fertilizer, like a 10-10-10, if your soil lacks appropriate nutrients during the growing season. Otherwise, composting at least twice yearly, once in early spring and again in late fall, should be the primary introduction point of nutrients into your garden soil each year.
- Test the pH of your soil. As mentioned above, soil pH refers to your garden’s acidity or alkalinity. Depending on your region’s specific type of soil structure, most vegetable plants prefer soil pH between 5.5 to 7.0. Therefore it’s crucial to provide the correct balance for favorable plant growth.
- Water regularly and adequately. Proper watering is essential for healthy soil. Try watering deeply at least once weekly, depending on your regional climate and weather conditions. By watering this way, your plants’ roots will grow deeper into your topsoil, seeking moisture from below and making them more independent and less reliant on you for a quick drink.
No matter your experience level, by following these tips, you create the best possible soil and develop an interdependent and cooperative relationship between you and your garden. What could be more beautiful?
Depending on what method you choose to grow your veggies, be it raised beds, in-ground, or containers, understanding and actively developing your soil makes growing your plants much more manageable.
Topsoil is never a finished product. From buying it in your local big-box store to amending it when it’s in your garden, the best topsoil is a living, breathing, and active entity. The more you care for the microorganisms within, the more your soil rewards you with incredible produce.
Although opinions differ on how often to test your soil or even if you should, I suggest doing so, especially when starting from scratch. The results provide an essential baseline from which to start and help you learn what amendments you’ll need to make. In addition, the more you know about soil health, the easier your daily gardening becomes.
Consistently adding raw organic materials that make their way into your garden soil determines your garden’s success. Starting a backyard compost pile is your best bet as it helps break down the raw materials you need for your plants, is environmentally friendly, and reduces household waste.
What perfect blend of topsoil and compost works best for your garden? I’m curious to know. So comment below and give us the scoop!