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Topsoil, Compost, Triple Mix – What’s the Difference?

Go to any garden center and you will find a large range of products that all look like soil. Many names are used including topsoil, triple mix, compost, potting soil, black garden soil, peat moss and garden soil. What is the difference between all of these products? It can be very confusing.

Some of these products are marked as certified. What does that mean? What kind of guarantee do ‘certified’ soil products offer the consumer?

These and more dirty topics will be discussed in this blog post.

TopSoil, Compost, Triple Mix - What's the Difference?

Components of Ideal Soil, by GardenFundamentals.com

Soil And Dirt – What is the Difference?

The terms soil and dirt are incorrectly used interchangeably. Soil is the stuff out in your garden. Dirt is the stuff you sweep up in the house. The term dirt should never be used for your garden.

What is soil? It seems like such a simple question but many people don’t understand what soil is. Soil consists of the mineral component, the sand, clay and silt, as well as dead organic matter. The living plant and animal life found in soil is NOT part of soil. So the snails, worms, bacteria and fungi are not part of soil. For this reason soil is NOT living. A fact that many people just can’t seem to accept. There is life in soil but soil is not living.

Most soil-like products are a mixture of minerals and organic matter. In order to understand how and when they should be used it is important to understand the differences between various product terms.

Types of Soil Products

The following is a list of some of the products you can buy. Some are available in bulk and many are sold in bags.

The definitions I am providing are the most common definitions. These may change from region to region, and country to country. It is also important to know that there are no accepted formal definitions for most of these products. Companies can use any term they want on their products – at least in north America.

Topsoil

Topsoil is the top part of soil that is normally cleared before construction starts. It can be a couple of inches thick or even a foot thick. It is the best quality of soil because this top layer contains most of the organic matter and the living life forms.

When a forest is removed for construction the top soil can be excellent. If a farm is used, the top soil can be of low quality since crops and the farming practices have reduced the organic content for many years.

When it is freshly collected, topsoil is great for a garden since plants grow very well in it. The problem is that in many cases the top soil is collected and piled in large hills until it can be sold. It can take years to sell and by then much of the organic matter has decomposed, and most of the life forms are dead. It is therefore no longer great soil. It still might be better than what you have in your garden.

Topsoil is usually screened to remove rocks so it is easy to work with.

Since topsoil is consider one of the best soils  many companies slap this label on their product. Seeing this name on a bag tells you very little about its quality.

Compost

The term compost can be very confusing. In the UK the term is used for good quality soil. In North America the term is not used for soil at all. Here, we use it to refer to the end product of a composting process. In this blog I am going to use this latter definition since it seems to be more globally accepted.

Compost is made up of partially decomposed plant and animal material – mostly plant. It is recognized as a great way to fertilize plants, which is true. The so called ‘finished compost’ is not really finished. For more details on this see; Compost – What Is Compost. It will continue to decompose for another 5 years and as it does, it releases nutrients into the soil which plants can use.

We have a lot of waste wood around and in recent years a lot of it has been ground up and composted. Wood is a plant product, but it is a plant product that provides very little nutrients. It is good for loosening your soil but it does not do much to feed the plants. Since garbage wood is cheap it is used a lot to make the cheaper compost products.

It contains no sand, silt or clay, so compost only adds the organic part of soil.

Peat Moss

Peat Moss is dead sphagnum moss. As moss dies it forms very deep boggy areas full of the material, which is harvested and packaged into bags or large bails. It is a good source of very loose organic matter and it has become the standard for making potting soil.

Peat moss contains almost no nutrients. It does absorb water well and contains a lot of air spaces, both of which plants need at their roots.

Potting Soil

Potting soil can be any number of mixtures and usually contains a lot of peat moss. It can also include things like perlite, vermiculite and even compost. It is usually very light in weight making it ideal for plants in pots and containers.

Many of the potting soils are sold as ‘soil-less mixes’. For some reason this is supposed to be better, but I don’t understand why. Compared to soil it is lighter in weight, it might be more sterile, and it is almost certainly less nutritious for plants. Plant roots do grow quickly in it provided they get fertilized.

In many cases the manufacturers of potting soil claim that it is sterile. That is really a myth. I have not found a single company that sterilizes the product as they package it. The peat moss they use is relatively sterile as far as weeds go but it does contain microbes.

Triple Mix

In this part of the country triple mix is 1/3 top soil, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 compost. There are no guarantees that triple mix contains these ingredients or that they are in the right ratios.

Triple mix is recognized as good gardening soil and so the term is misused a lot. You really have to have a close look at the product and see if it meets your needs. It is usually a product that is more airy than your garden soil, so it holds more air and water – which is a good thing. It may or may not be more nutritious depending on the type and amount of compost added. Remember that peat moss is not nutritious.

Black Garden Soil

We all know black soil is good soil, so advertisers take advantage of this and sell us black soil. The ‘black’ part is meaningless and can mean anything but it usually does not mean much.

Don’t pay a premium for ‘black’ labeled soil.

Garden Soil

There really is no definition for garden soil. It could be top soil or triple mix, or peat moss, or just poor garden soil. Or it can be a mix of any of these.

As you will see in my next post, there is no real good reason to buy garden soil.

What is Certified Soil and Mulch?

There are a number of certification organizations around. Some certify soil and some mulch. I have looked at a couple to understand exactly what they certify and so far I am not impressed. In one case it means some lab testing was done, but the product does not have guaranteed limits that need to be met. In another, the certification means almost nothing.

Certification on soil products does not seem to add any real value to the product. You still don’t know what is in the bag.

Selecting the Right Soil

In my next post I will provide recommendations for selecting the right soil product.

 

Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenFundamentals.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Fundamentals an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

4 Responses to 'Topsoil, Compost, Triple Mix – What’s the Difference?'

  1. Pinky Oliver says:

    great information! thank you !

  2. Jack Rafferty says:

    Great stuff…keep it coming

  3. We need more ‘dirty’ topics that’s for sure 🙂
    Couple of weeks ago I bought a large bag of ‘triple mix’ which also had some certification sign on it. I got suspicious as soon as I loaded it in the car (by myself) because it was too light; sure enough it proved to be 90% pure peat inside 🙁

    • That is one problem with triple mix – you never really know what you will get.

      I think many times it is mostly top soil since that is probably the least expensive ingredient – around here anyway.

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