Soil vs Mulch

If you’ve got a well-maintained garden in your yard, you are likely incorporating soil and mulch during your harvest cycles, but what’s the difference?

This article may contain affiliate links where we earn a commission from qualifying purchases.

If you’ve got a well-maintained garden in your yard, you are likely incorporating soil and mulch during your harvest cycles, but what’s the difference?

Soil is a loose, nutrient-dense material, which is cultivated on a ground surface for growing food. It is filled with living and non-living organic materials, gases, and minerals. Mulch is an organic material that is placed within the soil and on top of it to facilitate soil health.

Gardening is an incredibly therapeutic hobby that comes with so many mental and physical benefits. It encourages us to get out of the house, enjoy some time in the sun, and in the process grow our own delicious fresh produce right out of our yards. As therapeutic as gardening is, it’s also a technical hobby that requires quite a bit of insight to ensure that each harvest is plentiful and has quality. Becoming an experienced gardener takes time, practice, and patience. With that being said, you are going to want to ensure that you are properly incorporating soil and mulch into every single harvest. Let’s explore the differences between soil vs mulch and how to use both in your garden.

Before you begin nurturing your garden, you should take a look at the guidelines that the United States Department of Agriculture suggests for retaining soil health and sustainable gardening practices. In addition, make sure that you are getting any mulch you utilize in your garden from a trustworthy source to avoid any sort of contamination in your soil.

Table of Contents


It’s easy to forget that soil is one of the most important natural resources on our planet. It is the source of more than 90% of all of the food that we eat and it is absolutely essential for our survival.

As humans, we often take soil for granted through improper farming and gardening practices through our overwhelming use of pesticides, chemicals, and other ground pollutants. Soil is something that needs to be respected so that we can continue to grow and garden sustainably for generations to come. To understand this better, let’s examine soil a little more closely.

What Is Soil?

When most people traditionally think of soil they are often assuming that dirt and soil are one and the same. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Dirt is essentially what is left when all of the soil nutrients within the ground have been removed - meaning that dirt is lifeless and is not capable of producing food.

Soil, on the other hand, is in many ways, an ecosystem of different living and non-living organisms that continuously break down organic matter within the ground. This incredible natural resource is a habitat for bacteria, fungi, insects, and so many other microscopic organisms, which all operate together to create the foundation for our food.

This organic breakdown of organisms combined with various gases, minerals, air, and water are the recipe for the final product of nutrient-dense soil, which humanity depends on.

How To Use Soil

These days, soil is available to us in a way that it never has been before. Since gardening is such a popular hobby, buying soil is something that can be done at any nursery, which allows anyone with a yard or nearby community garden to grow their own food - regardless of where they live.

However, soil is actually cultivated on a massive scale in the industrial farming complex. This is the most crucial area for maintaining this natural resource, as these large-scale farms are responsible for taking care of a huge amount of our planet’s topsoil, which is why soil fertility is so heavily regulated in the United States.

In a home garden, soil is generally laid out in an allocated space within your yard or is placed in a garden bed. Regardless, you are going to want roughly 9 to 12 inches of soil to cover the surface of the space you plan on planting in. Once you have evenly laid out your soil, you can begin planting seeds in rows, which you have sectioned out depending on how many different plants you are growing. Alternatively, you can buy young or adolescent plants from your nursery and plant them to save yourself time germinating.

You should note, that even the most nutrient-dense soil is not capable of growing all plants year-round. You should assess the climate of your local area to determine what kind of plants will grow best in your garden.

How To Maintain Soil

We have learned the hard way that soil is a delicate and fragile resource that can easily be diminished if it is not cared for regularly. With that being said, you are going to want to ensure that you are treating your soil with regular upkeep throughout your harvest cycles.

Crop Rotation

There are a lot of strategies to implement in your harvest cycles to maintain your soil but one of the most important is to rotate your crops. Regardless of the size of your garden, crop rotations are essential for ensuring longevity in your soil’s health.

This is a traditional farming practice that has been utilized in food growing by humans for countless generations. It is very straightforward and should be implemented in all gardens and farms - regardless of their size.

After every harvest cycle (or two), you should relocate where you have been growing a certain plant or crop to another part of your garden. The reason for this is to prevent nutrient depletion. Any given plant will generally prefer one type of nutrient in the soil over the other, which means that it will drain up that nutrient more than the rest.

If you are not implementing crop rotation into your garden, then you will find that over time your harvests become less plentiful and lower in quality. Ultimately, if crop cycles are never utilized, then you risk destroying your entire garden with soil infertility.

Manure & Fetalizer

Much like the rest of us, our soil also needs to eat. After an extensive harvest cycle, your soil’s nutrients are not nearly as abundant as when they were at the start year.

To ensure that your soil is fertile throughout the entire year, you are going to want to provide it with nutrients to break down by adding manure or fertilizer to the soil. Fertilizers are essentially artificial nutrient providers to the soil and are effective, but they tend to be less favorable than manure. The reason for this is that fertilizers are chemical-based and, although they do get the job done, they fail to deliver the same result of fertility as manure.

You should apply organic, chemical-free manure into your soil at the end of every harvest cycle. This means that every fall, you should incorporate manure into the soil so that the breakdown of nutrients is continued through the winter and into the spring before you begin planting next season.


While mulch is not capable of producing food like soil, it does provide a lot of benefits to soil health and fertility. This is a great tactic implemented by at-home gardeners, as well as industrial farms.

What Is Mulch?

Mulch is essentially just an organic material that is incorporated into the food growing process to encourage soil fertility, moisture, and temperature balance.

We commonly see mulch that is organic or inorganic. These materials are readily available for gardeners to access, as mulch is often material that industries are trying to get rid of as waste.

Some examples of organic mulch are:

  • Pine Needles
  • Dried Leaves
  • Tanbark
  • Straw
  • Grass Clippings
  • Fine Bark

These materials are generally purchased by gardeners from nurseries, but in actuality, they can be acquired much cheaper by sourcing them alternatively. You should try getting in touch with a local landscaping organization that handles these types of materials, which needs to dispose of them. You will likely find that they are more than willing to sell them to you at a very reasonable price - or even give them away for free! Organic Mulch is more favorable than inorganic mulch due to the added benefit of nutrient cycling.

However, you can also incorporate inorganic mulch, which would likely be made out of materials such as plastic, rocks, rubber, or gravel.

How To Use Mulch

Mulch is an excellent way to give your garden a big boost and it can actually be used in a handful of ways in your garden.

The most traditional and straightforward way is to use mulch as a cover on top of your soil. This is done by placing a layer of mulch (roughly 2 - 4 inches thick) above the top of your soil around your plants. This layer of mulch will act as a barrier that serves a couple of different purposes:

  1. Retains Moisture - your mulch layer will help your soil keep moisture by stabilizing the environment.
  2. Erosion Prevention - it will keep the overall structure of your garden more intact by preventing erosion.
  3. Weed Prevention - weeds will have much more difficulty finding their way through this layer, which makes mulch a natural, chemical-free weed preventer.
  4. Nutrient Support - if you are using organic mulch, you will find that this is much more beneficial than inorganic, as mulch will slowly decompose over time and will begin to add nutrients into your soil, which will prevent infertility.

This simple, yet powerful gardening tactic is a great way to keep your soil healthy, which will give you an extra edge for all of your harvests. In addition, since mulch is on your soil all year-round, regardless of whether you have winter crops or not, this organic material will work as a thermal barrier, which maintains a healthy temperature of your soil. Cold conditions have been known to cause harm to the quality of the soil - especially if you live somewhere that experiences harsh winters.

Recent Articles

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Thank you! You're signed up for our free newsletter!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form