What is the Difference Between Soil and Dirt?

When you go to plant in your garden, you plant in the soil, but once you’re finished you have to clean out the dirt from your hands and clothes. This can be very confusing when one item has two definitions, one that is positive and the other is negative.

The difference between soil and dirt is, the soil is made up of elements like minerals, animals, water, air, and other living matter that has been decomposing since the creation of the earth, and dirt is what you get on your hands and clothes after working in the soil.

Soil is living

Soil is alive because it contains living organisms like organic matter, worms, fungi, bacteria, insects, and worms that are continuously at work creating soil structure and producing nutrients and minerals to the most diverse bio-diverse ecosystem.

The health of the soil is essential to the health of our plants, food, and bodies. It’s a complete and self-sustaining ecosystem. Organic matter, sand, clay, and silt make up soil each with different particle sizes that create structure and texture which helps with the soil’s drainage and aeration. There are different soil types and their different colors show their mineral content. Soil occupies space and is characterized by layers or horizons that are formed from the transition of plates or the addition and loss of soil layers. Each layer contains different substances like the topsoil is rich in humus which is full of nutrients and minerals that help the plants to grow.

Dirt is dead

When soil gets displaced from the garden to your hands and clothes, it becomes dirt.

Dirt is a composition of clay, sand, and silt and may at times have rocks.

It doesn’t contain any living organisms, nutrients, or minerals that you’ll find in the soil so it can’t support life. Dirt has no topsoil or humus or living organisms and it lacks structure or texture. It doesn’t compact when wet, unlike soil, it only creates a run-off and erosion. All these qualities make dirt a very poor gardening medium.

Soil is the organic and inorganic materials that cover the surface of the earth and provide structural support to plants to enable them to grow.

Different soils vary greatly in their physical and chemical properties after going through processes like microbial activity, leaching, and weathering to form different soil types. 

Soil color

Soil color



Humus which is quite fertile


Contains iron with little amounts of phosphorous and it’s free draining

Dark brown

Contains a high content of organic matter

Grey, blue or green hues

Waterlogged soil that is has poor drainage

Physical characteristics of soil

Soil with a good structure contributes to the health of the soil and plants and allows the movement of air and water into and through the soil profile.

A soil profile is the vertical section of the soil that you see after digging a hole, which is from the surface to the underlying rock.

This is like the soil’s fingerprint and it differs depending on the soil based on the soil’s color, thickness, texture, structure, and even the chemical composition. 

The organic matter content in the soil will depend on the organic matter added and decomposition.

The soil’s micro-organisms help with the decomposition of organic matter which contributes to stable soil by binding the soil particles together. How fast the organic materials decompose depends on the favorability of the soil’s environment to allow microbial activity.

While some soils have a better structure than others, some of the soil’s physical characteristics can be changed with good management. For you to understand the condition of the soil, you should monitor the physical characteristics. You should also ensure that the management practices you use don’t contribute to the decline of the soil.

Types of soil

There are 3 basic types of soil which include clay, sand, and silt. Most soils contain a combination of different types and how they mix will determine the soil’s texture.

Clay soil

This soil contains the finest soil particles and sticks together readily to form a gluey and sticky texture when wet and becomes solid when it dries.

Clay soil retains a lot of organic matter, but its dense nature makes it unsuitable for plants. Its small particles create very little space between the fine grains to allow water and air to circulate properly. That’s why clay doesn’t drain well or provide space for plant roots to flourish. As a farmer clay soil isn’t good for growing crops, but as a potter, you can use it to mold different items into shape.

Sand soil

Sand soil is mostly comprised of large grains and it drains well because it has lots of space between the particles and also allows plenty of air to circulate through to the roots.

However, this soil doesn’t hold nutrients or water very well which means it needs constant watering and fertilization. Although it’s good for drainage, it’s not good for growing plants.

Silt soil

Silt soil comprises of very fine particles than the particles in sandy soil and it holds water better.

A handful of dry silt on your hand would feel almost like flour. It contains a higher quantity of nutrients and retains fine organic particles. Sometimes it doesn’t drain quite well, but it’s much better than clay soil. The fine particles can be easily compacted and are prone to washing away with rain.


Although dirt is derived from soil, it’s completely different from the soil. While soil contains a huge organic content ratio that makes it perfect for gardening and plantation purposes, dirt can’t provide what plants need to grow and flourish.


How do you enrich and maintain soil fertility?

You can further improve the fertility of the soil by incorporating cover crops that add organic matter to the soil and this improves the soil’s structure and promotes healthy fertile soil.

What is the purpose of topsoil?

Topsoil is the upper layer of the earth’s surface that plants rely on for water and nutrients. The more organic matter it has the darker its color.

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