What is Topsoil, and How is it Different From Garden Soil? - Public Goods

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What is Topsoil, and How is it Different From Garden Soil?

As the days become warmer and you prepare to start gardening, you may find yourself purchasing soil to add to your plot or raised bed.

cracked layer of topsoil

But then you feel confused when faced with the different varieties.

You may see some called “garden soil” and others called “topsoil.” Garden soil might seem self-explanatory, but what is topsoil and how is it different from other soil varieties?

To help you figure out which soil to use for your gardening ambitions, here’s a guide on topsoil and how it’s different from garden soil.

What is Topsoil?

Topsoil refers to the nutrient-rich, mineral-dense top 10 inch layer of soil on the ground. Because topsoil erodes and depletes over time, many people purchase topsoil in bulk to add to their gardens or landscaping project. The clue is in the name, according to Lewis Peters of Online Turf, which provides topsoil directly from their farm to gardeners across the United Kingdom.

There are three grades of topsoil available on the market:

1. Premium

This is the most expensive grade, made up of sand, clay, and organic materials like composted manure. It’s fertile and nutrient-rich, and it can be used for plants, beds or gardens.

2. General Purpose

This grade is “screened,” which means the soil has been filtered to remove stones and debris. It can be used in both landscaping and plant beds.

3. Economy

The least expensive and lowest quality topsoil, this product is made from lower quality topsoil and is not screened for particle size. It is usually used to level a plot of land or build up areas where volume is more important than quality.

How to Use Topsoil

You can add layers of topsoil anywhere you want to improve your soil quality. Sowing seeds directly in topsoil, however, is usually not advisable, according to GardeningStuffs Founder Peter Miller.

Nonetheless, he said that transplanting seedlings into topsoil would be beneficial because the organic plant material, soil minerals and soil organisms in topsoil help plants thrive. Topsoil is the most fertile part of a soil profile, Miller explained, so it’s easy to till and contains natural organic material. This organic matter is essential to plant growth and helps to sustain grass and bushes.

“Topsoil is a great material for general-purpose landscaping, and it is also generally cheaper than garden soil, so it is preferred for planting in larger areas, raising bed planters and leveling the land for sod installation,” Miller said.

It is also important to know, however, that topsoil can deplete or erode, so you must continually replenish and recondition the soil. You can opt to buy a topsoil supplement from garden suppliers, but, for Miller, amending the soil with compost or tilling the soil and adding a layer of blended topsoil is a more preferable method of improving it.

By incorporating compost or tilling the soil, he explained, we can recreate natural topsoils and reap added benefits. If your plot of land is not the best, adding topsoil can be a great way to increase fertility and create a great environment for your plants.

“If you want to go down the route of purchasing fresh topsoil, the process is as simple as laying it on top of your plot of land,” Peters said.

Most often, topsoil can be purchased in large bulk bags, and so it is simply a case of applying the soil to your plot.

According to Peters, adding topsoil is beneficial when you need to:

  • fill raised beds
  • need a base for a new lawn
  • level uneven gardens
  • improve your current soil
  • prepare your land for turf (sod)

Topsoil vs Garden Soil: What’s the Difference?

You might be wondering about garden soil. What is it and how does it differ from topsoil?

Quality organic topsoil takes decades to form naturally, but garden soil, on the other hand, is usually a commercialized mixture of topsoil and other materials and nutrients (compost and fertilizer) designed for specific types of plants. It tends to be more expensive than topsoil, but there may be times when garden soil can be beneficial.

Miller explained that garden soil is great option for:

  • container gardens
  • vegetable patches
  • herb gardens
  • flower beds
  • encouraging the growth of certain types of plants

How to Make Your Own Topsoil

While the benefits of using high-quality topsoil are clear, purchasing topsoil is expensive and not always sustainably packaged. The good news is you can easily make your own topsoil.

The first thing you’ll want to do is determine what type of plants you want to grow and do a soil test first to know what your garden needs.

You can submit a soil sample to your county Cooperative Extension Service office or a soil test laboratory, but contact them first to determine the proper soil sample submission requirements. Once you have submitted your soil sample, the results should include nutrients, soluble salt level, organic matter content, percentages of sand, silt and clay, soil textural class, gravel content, and recommendations.

“Chances are if you have a plot of land, it is more than capable of supporting life for the plants and vegetables of your choice,” Peters said.

To reinvigorate your soil, he advises following these steps:

1. Dig up the top layer of soil in the plot you want to improve (approximately 10 inches deep).

hand digging up soil with a shovel and putting it into a yellow bucket

2. Remove any stones/debris you come across.

plot of soil with stone debris in it

3. Add organic matter such as mulch or compost and mix thoroughly.

pile of mulch on top of soil

4. Rotate your crops every year to maintain the nutrient level of your soil.

rows of green vegetables and herbs growing in a field

There you go! Let us know how your topsoil turns out.

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