The difference between premium topsoil and poor topsoil

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There’s a wide range of different soils out there for you to choose from.  And a wide range of suppliers too.

So how can you tell what’s good and what’s not so good?  How will you get value for money?

First:  Decide what you need your soil for

Are you laying turf? Filling raised beds? Reinstating the ground after major landscaping works? Improving existing soil? Growing seeds? Growing flowers? Growing vegetables? Creating a green roof?

green roofs need specialised soils aka substrate

An extensive living green roof needs a very specialist soil known as substrate

Some gardening jobs need specialist soils.  For example, green roofs need a specially engineered substrate.  Ordinary topsoil just won't do the job.

Next:  Decide how much you’ll need

If you’re growing seeds or potting on seedlings, then the chances are you’ll only need a few litres of soil and you’ll be able to find exactly what you need in the garden centre or online.

preparing garden soil for turfing

General landscaping, turfing or vegetable growing needs an all-purpose topsoil

If you are laying turf or doing some general landscaping, buying small bags of soil from the garden centre might not be your best option.  To start with, it’ll be quite costly and then you’ll have lots of plastic packaging to dispose of afterwards.  Far better to buy your soil in dumpy bags or in bulk.

How to work out how much soil you’ll need

Buying soil in dumpy bags

Each bag holds approximately 1 cubic metre of soil. 

lots of dumpy bags filled with topsoil

It can be delivered to site and sat on top of a tarpaulin so that as you shovel out the soil, any spillages are collected up and kept tidy.  Or, if you’re lucky enough to have mechanical lifting gear on site, you can lift the bag and cut the bottom of it open with a sharp knife. ……bit of a waste of a bag though, they’re ever so useful for storing stuff in.

Next look at the properties of the soil

Every gardening job needs slightly different soil but in all honesty, unless you’re growing specialised plants such as acid-lovers, bog plants or wild flowers a good quality general purpose topsoil will do the job.

There are soil sellers out there that are not to rigorous about testing for quality.  If they’re giving you low low prices, be wary and ask to see the soil before you commit to buying it.

Watch out for stones and other debris – buying screened topsoil will sort that problem out.

Be very fussy about where it came from – could it be from contaminated land?  Has it been taken from an unsustainable source? Destroying valuable habitat in the process. 

If the supplier can give you the results of an official soil test, or if it is certified as being BS3882:2015 you should be OK on that count.

Look for a nice crumbly texture – not sandy so that it runs through your fingers; not sticky so you could make a clay pot from it.

handful of topsoil

A nice general purpose topsoil will be friable, crumbly and richly coloured

Colour can vary depending where the soil came from, but a nice dark colour usually indicates that there is plenty of organic matter in the soil.  That’s good.

Smell.  Good topsoil smells earthy and natural.  Not pongy at all, and it certainly shouldn’t smell oily or chemically in any way at all.

Temperature.  The temperature of bagged soil should reflect the air temperature.  If it feels warm to the touch, it could be green waste that hasn’t finished breaking down into compost.  

Poor topsoil is often cheap, lumpy and grey in colour – dig your hands in and mix it up a bit.  What does your instinct tell you? 

If something seems wrong to you, it probably is.

Poor topsoil can do your plants more harm than good.  It takes a long time to improve soil – especially if it’s under a lawn -  so it’s cheaper to pay a bit more and get good stuff from the outset.

How to tell good topsoil from poor topsoil without seeing it first

If you’re buying over the phone or online, look for a reputable supplier.  One with a strong brand and plenty of good testimonials on their website.

Talk to local landscapers – where do they buy their soil from?  Talk to other gardeners, what are their experiences of different suppliers?

Get some quotes – if somebody seems cheaper than the competition, ask yourself why.

Find out where the soil comes from

In short – do plenty of homework before committing to buy.


More about topsoil quality

The right soil for wild flowers


How to choose topsoil


Know your soil type