Are you considering starting a garden? If so, you’ve probably seen the term topsoil in your research.
Topsoil is the top layer of soil that differs in composition depending on whether you find it in native soil or at your local nursery.
In this blog, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about working with topsoil.
1. What is soil?
Before we discuss topsoil specifically, let’s start with the basics.
What is soil?
According to the USDA, soil is the unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the plant growth.
It is a natural body that’s comprised of solids (minerals and organic matter), liquid, and gases and occurs on the land surface, occupies space, and is characterized by one or both of the following:
Horizons (layers) that are distinguishable from the initial material as a result of additional losses, transfer, and transformations of energy and matter.
The ability to support rooted plants in a natural environment.
2. What are the different types of soil?
There are numerous different types of soil, including topsoil.
Here’s a general overview.
Potting soil – a growing media specifically formulated for plants grown in containers.
Garden soil – a growing media formulated to be mixed 50:50 with the native soil found in your garden or landscape for in-ground planting.
Unlike potting soil, it’s not made for use in containers.
Native soil – the existing soil in your garden or yard that is often a unique combination of clay, sand, silt, and loam.
Topsoil – the top layer of soil that is found in native soil.
It can be anywhere from 4 to 12 inches in depth, and the texture and compilation of materials may vary.
3. What is topsoil?
While we’ve loosely defined topsoil above, here’s a more in-depth definition.
Topsoil is the mineral-dense top layer of earth.
It is characterized by an accumulation of organic matter (living, dead, and decaying organisms), which gives it a darker shade than the soil below it.
Real topsoil is different than what you can buy in bags at your local nursery, and it’s the most valuable layer of soil.
4. What is topsoil used for?
Topsoil is an economical way to amend your garden bed and lawn as it contains all the necessary nutrients for your plants to survive.
Here are some of topsoil’s best uses:
It protects plants and seedlings.
It helps correct soil issues like improper pH levels (especially if it contains ingredients like limestone).
It improves soil drainage, which allows water to penetrate more deeply and strengthen the roots of the plant.
It is useful for in-ground applications like new builds (lawns, garden beds, replacing a previously paved area with plants, etc.), areas affected by soil erosion, damaged and heavily used areas of lawns.
It fills in bare spots, low spots, and heavily trafficked areas that are beaten down.
5. Why is store-bought topsoil different?
In the store, you’ll have an option between two different types of topsoil (if you’re lucky):
Blended topsoil: a mixture of mineral material that’s usually excavated from a construction site and organic matter like compost.
Organic topsoil: contains matter such as shredded wood, moss, and peat.
Organic topsoils are not the best to buy as you want there to be a mineral component.
However, those are often the ones most available at the store.
Some stores do stock blended topsoil that is available in bulk quantities for purchase.
This is a better route because it’s higher quality than organic topsoil.
We also recommend asking topsoil suppliers for a copy of a recent soil test.
Reputable suppliers perform quality-control testing regularly.
6. When should you consider adding topsoil to your garden?
Don’t fret if your garden is looking like it could use a little extra boost!
Most gardens can benefit from added topsoil on occasion.
Topsoil can wash away during rainy season or get moved around when people traipse through your garden or lawn.
Through no fault of your own, you may require more topsoil.
If you’re maintaining a vegetable garden, most gardeners like to add 1 to 2 inches of fresh topsoil each year.
However, if you notice your flower or vegetable beds tend to get dried out or are exposed to organic matter that increases its acidity (i.e., pine needles), then considers adding fresh topsoil.
This will improve its composition and raise soil pH closer to neutral.
When you add topsoil, you improve drainage, enrich soil nutrients, and create better soil texture.
This will also make planting and weeding significantly easier.
7. What are the different types of topsoil?
Topsoil is often described based on its texture and composition.
This depends on the types of minerals and materials the soil contains.
Often, topsoil reflects the geological nature of its location.
There are six main types of topsoil.
- Heavy type of soil that stays wet and cold in winter
- Tends to dry out in summer
- Often lacking in proper aeration and drainage
- Can become easily compacted and hard to dig in
- Usually needs amendments added to make it suitable for gardening
- Usually light in color
- Retains moisture fairly well
- Tends to have a neutral pH and be fairly rich in nutrients
- Typically low in nutrients
- Useful to mix sandy soil into other heavier soils to get a good texture
- On its own, it can be prone to being washed or blown away easily
- Erosion is typically a problem with this type of soil
- Combines sand, silt, and clay in a medium textured mixture
- Desirable soil to have as it’s often rich in organic matter with a good texture for planting and good drainage
- Dark in color
- Holds its shape when squeezed together
- Usually mostly sandy or mostly clay
- Light colored
- Contains large amounts of limestone or calcium carbonate
- Highly alkaline
- Lightweight soil that contains organic matter
- Provides excellent drainage
- Doesn’t occur naturally in very many places
- Harvested and exported for use in soil amendments and mixtures to improve the texture and drainage of garden soil
8. How do you apply topsoil?
Once you’ve decided what type of topsoil you need and where you’re going to get it, applying it is fairly straightforward.
You can apply topsoil at any time of the year.
However, most gardeners like to add it in the spring before planting.
You could also add it in the fall as a top dressing.
This will allow nutrients to break down into the soil.
There are a couple of different ways to actually add it to the soil.
You can either add it to the plantings by adding to the holes where shrubs are planted, or you can spread a layer of it over the garden before or after planting.
If you purchase topsoil and it’s lumpy, you’ll want to mix it up either in a wheelbarrow or on a tarp before spreading it in your garden.
You can also mix in amendments to boost the nutrients in the soil.
Amendments include peat moss, compost, manure, or other organic matter.
We recommend mixing your soil with a small spade or trowel.
To spread the soil, pour it from containers or apply it with a shovel, then use a rake or broom to level it out.
Once you’re done, you can spray down the layer of topsoil lightly with water after you spread it.
9. How much topsoil do I need?
When spreading topsoil over a garden bed, you’ll want to put down enough to give you at least a 2-inch layer.
When spreading topsoil over a new lawn, plan to put down a layer of 3 to 6 inches before sowing seed or laying sod.
This will depend on the quality of your existing soil.
When spreading topsoil in a raised bed, measure the area’s square footage and depth to estimate how many cubic feet of topsoil you’ll need.
10. How do you decide between topsoil and garden soil?
It all comes down to what you’re using it for.
In general, topsoil is a general-purpose landscaping material.
Gardeners use topsoils for the following purposes:
Leveling low spots in the lawn (especially when preparing to install sod).
Adding organic material to an existing lawn as a means of reducing thatch and increasing pest and weed resistance.
Filling the lower layer of raised bed planters.
On the other hand, garden soil is a growing medium.
It’s designed to provide nutrients to plants and improve their health.
Consider using garden soil for the following purposes:
Hanging flower baskets and window boxes
Raised bed planters and container gardens
Vegetable, herb, and flower garden beds
Rose bushes and other ornamental shrubs
11. What are common myths to keep in mind?
If you’re not sure what to believe about topsoil, here are some myth busters to help you set the story straight before you head out to your garden.
“All topsoil is the same” – WRONG!
Topsoil (even in the same yard) can be dramatically different.
While all the soil in your yard is made up of sand, silt, and clay in varying amounts, the different ratios will produce different results (pH, drainage, quality, etc.).
Thus, topsoil can differ drastically, and that’s why it’s so worth investing in.
“My soil is fine the way it is” – WRONG!
Chances are your soil could be improved…unless you recently moved into a house with a yard or garden that was dutifully maintained by a skilled gardener.
The sad fact is that the quality of soil around homes (especially those that are newer constructions) is bad.
Your yard takes time to build up high-quality soil that includes organic matter.
If you want to start planting, then it’s a good idea to go ahead and purchase some high-quality soil.
“Good topsoil requires annual tilling” – WRONG!
Initially tilling a new garden space can be a good move.
However, you don’t want to regularly disturb your soil.
Turning soil can stimulate weeds to sprout, which means you’ll create more work for yourself to get rid of them.
The one time that tilling may be necessary is if your soil becomes very compact.
This is because your soil won’t have enough of the tiny air pockets that roots require.
To avoid your soil becoming compact, we recommend staying off it as much as possible (especially when it’s wet).
If you find that you’re constantly walking into a garden to care for plants, consider creating a permanent stepping stone path.
“Rich soil never needs fertilizer” – WRONG!
Your plants require nutrients, and they get them from the soil.
For the best results, you’ll need to replenish those nutrients periodically regardless of your soil type.
It’s easy and inexpensive to restore nutrition by adding high-quality compost and/or granular or liquid fertilizer products as needed.
If you’re not sure if you need to add nutrients to your soil, we recommend a soil test.
If you want to add nutrients and replace organic matter as it breaks down, add 1-2 inches of compost to your garden beds in the fall.
You’ll be ready to go come spring, and you can just add a layer of mulch after cleaning up and planting your beds for the growing season.
12. How can crop rotation help your topsoil?
Crop rotation is a practice that’s intended to benefit topsoil retention and prevent soil erosion or depletion of nutrients.
In this practice, you change the types of plants or crops grown every season.
Certain crops will replenish the nutrients (like nitrogen) that a previous crop took from the soil.
13. Can you make your own topsoil?
Yes, you can make your own topsoil easily.
Follow these steps:
Determine the type of plants you want to grow.
Do a soil test first to know what your garden needs.
Submit a soil sample to your county Cooperative Extension Service office or a soil test laboratory.
You’ll want to contact them first to determine the soil sample submission requirements.
Submit your soil sample and receive your results.
Your results should include nutrients; soluble salt level; organic matter content; percentages of sand, silt, and clay; soil textural class; gravel content; and recommendations.
Dig up the layer of topsoil in the plot you want to improve.
Remove any stones or debris you come across.
Add organic matter, such as mulch or compost and mix thoroughly.
Rotate your crops every year to maintain the nutrient level of your soil.
Do you really need to buy topsoil?
If you’ve made it through to the end, you know that topsoil benefits your garden, but only for specific purposes.
There are times when other types of soil may improve your yard more.
That said, if you’re simply seeking to increase soil volume, replace soil that’s eroded, or create a garden from scratch, then purchasing topsoil is a worthwhile way to achieve your goals.
With that, however, we want to re-create natural topsoils as much as possible.
This negates the need for fertilizer input and contributes to long-term sustainability.
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