It’s tempting to save money on gardening by hunting out cheaper products. But that can sometimes be false economy. Here are just some of the perils of buying cheap topsoil.

Cheap and good value for money are not necessarily the same thing – especially when you are buying topsoil for your garden. Here’s why

  • Cheap topsoil may contain contaminants that are bad for you and bad for the environment.
  • Unscreened soil could be full of unwanted debris. Bricks, rubble, roots and rubbish won’t help your plants grow
  • Unscrupulous traders have been known to sell subsoil as topsoil. They are different very things. Subsoil will never support strong plant growth
  • Good soil structure is important for landscaping. You need to know that your soil will be the right consistency.
  • Pots, planters and flower beds need nutrient rich and well drained topsoil. Does your cheap topsoil meet the brief?

How can you tell if topsoil is any good?

Before you commit to buying topsoil, you need to be sure that it is the quality you need. There are two ways of doing this.

  1. Ensure that the soil has been tested and meets British Standards
  2. Take a really good look at the whole consignment and judge for yourself

Remember also to check that the seller is reputable and will abide by consumer law.

beautiful healthy topsoil

The British Standard for Topsoil

BS3882:2015 looks very closely at soil for sale. Soil that is full of debris or contaminated with nasty chemicals simply will not meet the standards.

The standard doesn’t judge whether soil is right for your project but it will tell you that it is safe and useable. A specialist low nutrient soil for wildflowers can be certified for BS3882. So can a lovely general purpose soil for growing flowers, fruit and vegetables.

Your supplier should be able to supply you with a copy of the certificate showing the results of soil testing. It will tell you about the composition of the soil, whether it is clay, sand, silt, loam or a blend. You will also be able to see the proportions of the nutrients in that soil. Personally, I’m happy that if the supplier has taken the trouble to have his or her soil tested, I can trust their judgement on whether or not it’s suitable for my project.

What to look for in good topsoil

A nice friable texture – you should be able to work the soil with your hands. Plants need to be able to push their roots deep into the soil to find food and water. If it just forms a sticky, muddy ball in the palm of your hand, it’s probably not particularly plant-friendly. Avoid buying cheap topsoil with lots of rocks, roots or debris in it. There should be no big lumps of anything.

A sweet smell. Good topsoil doesn’t smell at all nasty. Even well-rotted manure has a lovely earthy aroma. If you are offered cheap topsoil and it smells dusty, chemically or just plain nasty, don’t buy it!

Rich Colour. Unless you particularly need a sandy soil (which is a lighter colour) topsoil should be brown or very dark brown. If it looks grey, it’s probably subsoil and unlikely to be suitable for growing plants.

screened topsoil being worked with a digging spade

Where to buy good garden topsoil

Look for a reputable supplier with good reviews and an excellent track record for customer service. That way you know you will be supported throughout the decision making, purchase and delivery processes.

Check that the soil meets BS3882 – if you’re not sure, ask the supplier for a copy of the latest certificate.

Make sure that the topsoil is suitable for your project. Remember that soil for turfing and soil for growing wildflowers are very different creatures.

Here are our suggestions for choosing topsoil for specific projects

For laying turf or growing grass seed

For general landscaping 

Soil for growing food and cultivated flowers 

For pots and planters

Soil for a wildflower garden 

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