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The Best Medium for Your Gardening Needs | The Difference Between Dirt, Soil, and Compost

The Best Medium for Your Gardening Needs | The Difference Between Dirt, Soil, and Compost
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Soil in a WheelbarrowDo you know the difference between dirt, soil, and compost? Do you know what makes up Vermiculite and Perlite? Read on to learn how to distinguish between the basic and not-so-basic growing mediums, and find out what type of soil or medium is the best bet for your gardening needs.

Dirt:  Dirt is bland and often either rocky or silty and void of nutrients. If you add water to a handful of plain dirt, it will not compact well, if at all.

Soil: Soil is rich in nutrients and microbes, and when scooped up in your hand, it will clump or form a loose ball easily — often without water being added. When red-wiggler or earth worms are present in soil, it’s a sign of fertile ground  in which to grow plants.  Dirt on the other hand, is lacking the crucial nutrients and microorganisms that are necessary for healthy plants to grow. Worms will not thrive in dirt.

Compost: Compost is decayed organic-plant matter that must only be used when it has “cured” or broken down completely.  Compost that has cured will look and smell just like rich, dark, garden earth. It must show no signs of the previous form of  organic matter that it once was.  If the former state of vegetation is still visible or distinguishable in the compost, it is still breaking down and the nitrogen level in the compost is too high to safely apply on or around plants. If it is used at this point in the breakdown, it will burn and most likely kill plants. Composting times vary depending on methods used to compost.  When in doubt, allow the compost to set longer or test a bit in a small potted plant before amending large quantities of garden soil with compost. Compost should be added yearly to gardens to keep the earth soil rich and for the continuous release of nutrients into the soil.

Peat Moss: Peat moss is essentially decomposed and dry organic matter containing some form of non-living or petrified moss. It is great for absorbing water and gradually releasing the water along with minerals that are present in the peat.  Peat moss is great to add to compost and soil mixtures to lighten the density and reduce watering requirements.

Perlite: Perlite is volcanic minerals that have been pulverized and heated. This is added to soil to make it porous. It is also used as a soilless medium in plant mixtures for drought tolerant plants such as cactus and succulents.

Vermiculite: Vermiculite is an altered form of the mineral of mica. The Mica ore is heated to very high temperatures to make vermiculite. It is also added to soil mixtures to increase the soil’s porous ability and is used in soilless mediums for drought tolerant plants as well.

Recipe for Rich Soil

To create a basic, healthy soil-mixture for growing a variety of plants combine 4 parts soil to 1 part compost and ¼ part Peat moss and ¼ part either Vermiculite or Perlite. Mix well.

Happy Planting!


Shelley Wigglesworth


Shelley Wigglesworth


Shelley Fleming-Wigglesworth is a certified Maine Master Gardener and award winning newspaper columnist from Kennebunk, Maine. She has been writing for the York County Coast Star for more than a decade as a freelance columnist and features writer. In 2010 she began writing her own gardening column “The Master Gardener’s Notebook” for Tourist News. She also teaches gardening classes at local schools and colleges
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