Top Tips for Great Topsoil

Top Tips For Great Topsoil

When you are planning your garden, it is natural that you are going to be thinking in aesthetic rather than practical terms. Choosing a good quality topsoil is one of those practical issues that may not be as exciting as choosing your fantastic plants – but a good topsoil is imperative for your garden to thrive.

Topsoil is pretty important – after all without it you wouldn’t have any plants! Soil is the foundation of your garden and once you understand it and get to grips with it, you can begin to improve it in time for the gardening season ahead.

High quality soil can happen naturally but don’t forget David Domoney’s (TV gardener) golden rule ‘what you remove you must replace‘. Microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and yeast help break down organic matter to release nutrients for your plant roots to take up. They also help improve soil aeration and structure.

How to improve the condition of your topsoil and grow better plants

There are four main areas you should be considering; soil type, pH levels, soil improvers and the best plants for different soils.

 Tip 1 – Check your soil type

Before you embark on your garden project, it’s crucial to find out what type of soil you have in your garden. Soil is made up of different material particles and the soil type is determined by the most abundant type of particle.

A good quality topsoil will have a good balance of sand, silt and clay in order for plant life to obtain the required nutrients to thrive.

1. Clay soil – sticky, smooth and heavy when wet. Contains at least 25% clay. Easily rolled into a ball shape in your hand. Lumpy and sticky when wet and sets like concrete when dry. It retains a lot of water resulting in poor drainage and is slow to warm up in spring delaying plant growth.

Solution: Add plenty of organic matter to break up the solid structure. It will need a lot of work but if you persist the clay will become easier to manage and on the plus side, it’s richer in nutrients than some other soils!

2. Sandy soil – dry and gritty with lots of course sand particles. Won’t stick together to form a ball. A high concentration of sand so water drains quickly flushing out vital nutrients before the plants can absorb them. Warms up quickly in spring and easy to cultivate.

Solution: Add plenty of organic matter and fertiliser to give the soil a nutrient boost.

3. Silty soil – fine grains with a silky soapy feel made up of sand and clay properties. Can squeeze it into a small sausage shape (not a ball). Easily compacted and suffers from poor drainage. A less common soil type. Rich in nutrients and holds more water than sandy ground.
Solution: Add organic matter to bind the fine particles and it will become a very good fertile soil.

4. Chalky soil – Stony, pale and full of lumps of chalk. Tricky to dig due to stone content. Low in nutrients and drains easily but can get very dry in summer. A high lime content which means it’s alkaline.

Solution: Add plenty of organic matter and fertiliser to boost it’s nutrient content. There’s not much you can do to remedy it so make the most of what you’ve got and pick alkaline plants (such as mint and carnations) which thrive in alkaline conditions. Avoid ericaceous (acid loving) plants such as heather and rhododendrons.

5. Loamy soil – GardenTopsoilDirect’s favourite topsoil! A gardener’s best friend – not too sticky or dry. Partly smooth and partly gritty when made into a ball and will crumble easily. Good balance of approximately 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay. Great structure and drainage whilst holding moisture well. High in nutrients and easy to cultivate.
Solution: Not much to do! Just add organic matter every year to give a nutrient boost.

 Tip 2 – Check your soil pH level

Is your soil acidic or alkaline? It’s important to know as different plants thrive in different soils.The pH level is the way in which we measure the acidity or alkalinity of our topsoil. pH levels start at 7 – which is neutral, this is neither acid nor alkaline. If your topsoil pH level is below 7 it’s acidic and above 7 it’s alkaline. A good quality topsoil will have a pH level of between 5.0 and 8.2.

You can test your soil pH using a DIY kit widely available at garden centres. These kits are cheap and easy to use and give a good indication of soil pH. Soils with a high calcium content such as chalky soils are very alkaline. Very sandy soils tend to be more acidic.

How to test soil pH

  1. Take a soil sample from various areas of your garden, from 5 to 8cm deep.
  2. Put the soil in the kit and add the chemical indicator,
  3. Add water as directed, close and shake.
  4. Leave for the colour to develop and check it against the pH.

What next?

You can only make a minor change to your pH level and it’s easier to raise the pH to make it more alkaline than lower it.

pH 7 or higher Alkaline soil – you may need to add acidifer such as sulphur chips.

pH 6.1-7 Neutral – ideal soil! Bacteria and nutrients are most effective at this level

pH 5.1 – 6 Acidic soil – perfect for ericaceous (acid loving) plants. Add lime, such as slaked or ground lime (not builder’s lime).

pH 4.0 Highly acidic soil – may limit plant growth and extract nutrients from the soil.

 Tip 3 – Add soil improver

Don’t panic or despair if you soil is not ideal – there is hope to improve it with organic matter!

Simply select and add a soil improver such as shop-bought compost, homemade compost, bark chips, leaf mould, ash, special soil conditioners and manure. Bark chips don’t add nutrients but you can dig bark into heavy soils every year to improve the structure and drainage. It may acidify your soil slightly.

Once you have organised your soil improver, dig it well into your soil at a rate of half a wheelbarrow load per square metre and dig your soil over to a least a spade’s depth. Don’t worry if you’ve already planted your garden, you can just gently loosen the soil around the plants with a trowel and add organic matter over the top in early spring. Better known as mulching, it will improve the soil condition.
Little and often is the key and over time the soil will improve greatly with regular applications of organic matter.

 Tip 4 – Pick plants to suit your soil type and pH

Clay soil
Bluebells, roses, foxgloves, hosta, sedum, sorbus, peonies, helenium, aster, weigela, chaenomeles, labernum, berberis, hydrangea, abeli

Sandy soil
Daphne, tulips, cytisus, hibiscus, verbascum, eucalyptus, juniper, pine, buddleia, lavender, allium, iris, poppy, wallflower, wisteria, euphorbia, euonymous, ceanothus.

Silty soil
Mahonia, phormium, kerria, malus, bergenia, pyracantha, nicotania alata (tobacco plant).

Acidic soil
Crinodendron, hamamelis, heather, camellia, rhododendron, pieris, hydrangea, azalea, magnolia, blueberries, witch hazel.

Alkaline soil
Lilac, mint, madonna lily, dinathus, philadelphus, sedum, thyme, verbascum, carnation, wallflower, delphinium, buddleja, wisteria, duetzia, Helenium, daffodils and vegetables especially broccoli and cabbage.

There will be times when you need to buy more soil for your garden – perhaps to fill holes, level the soil, turf the lawn, fill raised beds or create new borders. We offer a good selection of natural high quality nutrient rich topsoils;

Vegetable & Fruit Topsoil
Beds & Borders Topsoil
Organic Topsoil
Lawn Turfing Topsoil
Topsoil Screened 
Topsoil Screened 3mm

The knock on effect of adding great quality topsoil or improving your soil will be better plant growth and no wasted hard earned cash on new plants where old ones haven’t survived. So pull up a patio chair, take a sip of a cool drink and enjoy the fruits (or plants) of your labour.