What is Bagged Garden Soil?

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Robert Pavlis

As part of my research on soil products I became aware of the fact that most garden soil is not garden soil. If it is not soil what is it?

What is in bagged soil - is it really soil?
What is in bagged soil – is it really soil?

What Is Soil?

Soil does have a proper definition and in addition to air and water it is made up of sand, silt, clay and a small amount of organic matter (usually less than 5%). If I buy some “soil” I would expect it to contain these ingredients.

What Is Bagged Garden Soil?

I would expect it to be a good quality soil. An ideal amount of sand, silt and clay along with an above average amount of organic matter.

To see what is actually sold in my area (Ontario, Canada) I decided to visit a larger garden center, Canadian Tire, and check the ingredients in their products. To be fair to manufacturers, I have included every product they had and I have presented them in the order in which they were laid out at the store.

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The stated “ingredients” are the ones listed on the package. The ‘apparent ingredient’ is my impression of the ingredients when I handled the contents (several brands had an open bag so you could see the product).

Sunshine Natural & Organic Flower & Vegetable Soil


Ingredients: Peat, processed bark and compost

NPK: n/a

Apparent Ingredients: n/a

Marketing Claim: A natural and organic mix that is specially formulated for organic gardening

 

 

Golfgreen Enriched Lawn Soil

Ingredients: Organic matter, sand, starter fertilizer

NPK: 0.02-0.03-0.02

Apparent Ingredients: n/a

Marketing Claim: for use with grass seed to thicken and repair lawns. Helps retain moisture for faster germination and establishment

 

Scotts Turf Builder Enriched Lawn Soil

Ingredients: n/a

NPK: 0.08-0.03-0.02

Apparent Ingredients: n/a

Marketing Claim: grows grass 33% quicker and 50% thicker than native soil.

 

 

 

Miracle-Gro Potting Mix

Ingredients: n/a

NPK: 0.21-0.11-0.16

Apparent Ingredients: peat, composted wood

Marketing Claim: Plants with more blooms and more color. Grows Plants Twice as Big.

 

 

Miracle-Gro Moisture Control Potting Mix

Ingredients: n/a

NPK: 0.18-0.1-0.1

Apparent Ingredients: peat moss, composted wood, slow release fertilizer, perlite

Marketing Claim: Absorbs 33% more water and feeds up to 6 months.

 

 

Miracle-Gro Organics Mix

Ingredients: peat, compost, poultry liter, forest products

NPK: 0.1-0.07-0.1

Apparent Ingredients: n/a

Marketing Claim: absorbs water and sends nutrients right to the roots, so plants grow up big and strong. Get more bounty – vegetables, herbs, fruits & flowers (vs unfed plants).

 

Golfgreen Organics

Ingredients: composted manure with peat

NPK: 0.5-0.5-0.5

Apparent Ingredients: peat moss

Marketing Claim: revitalizes and naturally increases nutrient levels in soil for plants

 

 

Garden Club Top/Garden Soil

Ingredients: n/a

NPK: n/a

Apparent Ingredients: soil, composted wood

Marketing Claim:  a screened, prepared, compost-enriched soil. Makes excellent garden mulch.

 

 

Garden Club Black Earth

Ingredients: n/a

NPK: n/a

Apparent Ingredients: soil, composted wood

Marketing Claim: an outdoor garden soil which improves soil structure, drainage and aeration, and fertilizer retention.

 

 

Garden Club 3-in-1 Mix

Ingredients: n/a

NPK: n/a

Apparent Ingredients: soil, composted wood, peat moss

Marketing Claim: the soil booster you want for your flowers, vegetables and lawn.

 

 

Does Bagged Soil Contain Soil?

The national brands do not contain soil. Garden Club is a cheaper local brand and it seemed to contain soil, but the bags do not specify their ingredients. Even Garden Club soil is mostly organic material.

Bagged soil is mostly organic matter and may or may not contain any soil. None of the bags I looked at were soil!

A couple of the products are labeled as potting mix, which normally means it is a soilless mix. So the lack of real soil is not a surprise in such products.

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Labels on Bagged Soil

I am surprised that most bagged soil does not have an ingredient list. It is a product that is not regulated so they don’t need to tell the consumer what they are getting, but still, not even a simple ingredient list?

This tells me that you have no idea what you are getting with some brands and that the contents probably change from time to time.

Don’t buy a product that does not have an ingredient list.

Marketing Claims

Most of the marketing claims are true because they apply to ALL soil and organic matter. Adding organic matter to soil improves the soil, grows better plants etc.

Here are my comments on a few specific claims.

“A screened, prepared, compost-enriched soil that makes excellent garden mulch.” – soil does NOT make a good mulch – how can soil be a good mulch for soil? In this case the product is mostly composted wood, so it would make a good mulch.

“Absorbs water and sends nutrients right to the roots” – this product is organic matter so it does absorb water. However, no bagged soil will “send” nutrients to roots. This is just a marketing person dreaming up good sounding words.

“Plants with more blooms and more color. Grows Plants Twice as Big.” . I am sure this kind of claim works well with average consumers, but not with the smart ones. “Grows plants twice as big” – twice as big as what??? Using no soil? Plants that are not watered? Using a competitive product? Without a comparison the statements mean nothing.

“Grows grass 33% quicker and 50% thicker than native soil” – at least this one has a comparison, native soil. The problem with the claim is that native soil could be extremely good soil that is very nutritious. It could grow grass quicker than the bagged stuff. This is just an unsupportable marketing claim.

Bottom Line

Bagged Soil is usually not soil.

If you need soil for your garden you should probably get a bulk delivery of real top soil.

 

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. 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!

19 thoughts on “What is Bagged Garden Soil?”

  1. There is a “community garden” here where “topsoil” gets delivered in bulk. Took a sample. The jar test is weird. Very little floats, but I see neither a clay layer nor a sand layer. The stuff on the bottom is black.
    Lots of partly decomposed wood chips. Is the rest sawdust?
    Had a lab do a basic soil test. Very high in P and K. Organic matter is 25% (don’t know whether this includes the larger wood chips or they were screened out by the lab.)
    Germination test vs. known good soil in my flower pots shows great germination rate and normal seedlings (only about an inch high so far in both samples.) I used tomato seeds from store bought tomatoes.
    Bottom line — it’s ok as a growing medium. Would expect it to settle as the wood gets decomposed. Would only trust it for ornamentals. PS I’m in the US (Maryland, mid-atlantic region)

    Reply
  2. Most of the woods particles that are found in bagged soil are from sewer treatment plants . They take the sludge human poop and other thing that go down the sewer system. Mix it with a carbon source( wood chips) bring to high temperature composting it . Large amounts of this end up in your bagged soil or on farm field.
    This would be great could be great with the exception that our sewer system are full of chemicals. The bpa’s micro plastics and so on . Also a larger portion of our population is on some form of drug some of these drugs do and some don’t break down in the composting process. The bio solids have been used in the United States starting in the 70 . A few farms have been shut down by the government due to the levels of forever chemicals found in the water . I believe it was a farm in Maine, Michigan and Omri compost facility in Massachusetts. On a small back yard garden with all of the raised beds being filled with soil from outside sources. My belief is that the levels could actually be even more harmful.

    Reply
  3. “If you need soil for your garden you should probably get a bulk delivery of real top soil.” I would if I could. Topsoil is often at a premium on Vancouver Island so what is sold by landscaping supply companies is usually just a combination of sand, compost or fish compost, etc. I don’t think clay is ever a component of bagged or bulk products.

    Reply
  4. Most of the bagged soil, potting mixes, and compost around my area look to be made out of mostly old sawdust. Sometimes when I go to buy a truck load of sawdust the mill is sold out.

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  5. Thank you, makes sense, unfortunately found out the hard way by buying Scott’s brand to top off my sunflower patch, noticing a heavy wood/bark composition, needless to say the seeds did not germinate properly and did not grow (after two plantings) thinking Scott’s brand it must be good, IT WAS’NT! Buyer beware

    Reply
  6. Here in the Pittsburgh Pa area, our “soil” is deep yellow / brown thick clay that stops any organic matter getting down deep to root level. So, yes, in our 27 years living in this place, I’ve mixed many a wheelbarrow load of purchased pest moss, Perlite, native soil, and Compost – that mix ratio is always heavy in Compost – around 75%. Also, I lay down a thick layer at the very bottom a deep layer of tree and bush prunings along with leaves and straw. The first layer of “soil” (organic matter) is the first layer to go back into my hole. Each soil layer is separated with straw and goes back in reverse order.

    Yes! I’m Very Glad I first did this in my late 40’s! Now, at almost 72, well, Yes, I’m Very Glad I did this in my late 40’s, because I have 2 acres the lawn done with a rented power digger machine (front end loader?)

    I do use a rototiller to break down into that hard clay hardpan. After that initial tilling, I double dig my planting area – actually, I triple dig.

    My results showed when the water company had to dig 6 feet down to replace their broken pipeline. My years of effort made my soil into a very deep Organic Black nutritious Soil! Soft, I could even dig my planting holes with fingers. Cutting through my lawn for their 6′ deep ditch, I could easily see that grass roots extended down a good 36 inches! Earthworms we’re plentiful and fat – Very Happy little guys!

    My flowers, bulbs, bushes All Happily growing!

    Weeds? Healthiest ones in the whole neighborhood! (And so easy to pull out)

    It’s the double digging and Compost that works – not the bagged, no information, “soil” that works!

    Hope this helps and Happy Gardening!

    Reply
  7. Good post. This is also true for bulk soil vendors in the U.S.A. They are not required to tell you the origin or indredietns of the “soil” they sell.

    Reply
    • True – sellers don’t have to tell you anything here either, but we have an excess of top soil and they can have trouble getting rid of it.

      Reply
  8. “Soil” in bags is often wood chips and some unidentified brown stuff. Hard to believe that the ‘compost’ bought from a feedlot has much manure in it when the landscape is littered with massive stumps from land clearing and few cows. Our allotment once received ‘waste’ grass clippings and autumn leaves from local governments but they are now charged for, so a faint hope that at least a $8 bag of “soil” may have a breath of something more than chipped wood.

    Reply
  9. I’m always glad when I find a broken bag before I buy. Then I can get an idea of what it is I’m about to buy. It’s a real disappointment when I buy a bag of garden soil which turns out to be primarily compost.

    Reply
  10. The problem with “soil” composed largely of organic matter is its ephemeral quality – it’s going to reduce significantly in volume over time.
    Yes, it’ll grow stuff but for how long?
    Example: I’ve been adding well decomposed matter to my small garden for 7 years now, along with a 2″ layer of shredded woody material to the paths between beds.
    I’d guess at least 14 cubic yards on a 40′ by 11′ area.
    The soil level at the end of each growing season is near enough the same as it was in previous years & in my greenhouse, where the initial filling was largely organic matter, it’s down 2″ or more.

    Reply
  11. If you want good soil, add coffee grounds from stores like Starbucks.
    It’s free and available in plastic bags here in Florida. I have about a
    hundred species of plants and they all thrive with coffee grounds just spread on the surface of the soil. Must be the caffeine! 🙂

    Reply
      • Since I have spread an average of one hundred pounds per week for
        about two years on a quarter acre with no problems, the Starbucks
        coffee grounds probably have most of the caffeine removed. At any rate, my gardens couldn’t be any happier!

        Reply
      • Pretty well too much of anything can harm plants.
        I produce around 2 tons of compost every year & there’s probably 200lb of coffee grounds mixed in (not ALL from my own use!), plus a fair amount of tea leaves (Assam tea contains more caffeine than a lot of coffees).
        Clearly not enough to cause noticeable problems in my fruit & vegetables.

        Reply

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