Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Topsoil in a Bag

Living where you cannot have a load of lovely rich dark soil dumped to play with can really put a damper on success when potting up plants. All these Americans must rely on what is hidden inside a bag labeled "Topsoil" at a local garden center or hardware store. Having just in the past couple of seasons had to join the ranks of this group; I am sad to report that all manner of substances that are not rich topsoil can be found in some of these bags.

Three bagged soils that I have found are actually rich dark topsoil. Black label Hyponex brand "Potting Soil" is actually lovely black topsoil. WARNING! Do not use this to pot plants without mixing 50% potting mix from MiracleGro or Schultz. Potting soil needs drainage and fluff added to it. Life in the ground is an entirely different world than that which is endured in a container. Some plants may respond better if you mix this product with two parts potting mix instead of one part.

The second bagged soil I have found in stores in my area also has a black label that reads "Potting Soil" if you look for the manufacturers name, in small print at the bottom left on the front of the package you find it is from Markham in Georgia. This also is not potting soil but gorgeous black topsoil. Again, use the above amendment recipe before potting plants with it. Plants that prefer more moisture may respond better to the two equal portions of potting media and topsoil.

The third bagged product that was wonderful quality was purchased at Lowe's Garden Center, fifty pounds for $2.50 before tax. Unfortunately I don't have the information on who actually bagged this soil. Lowe's being the highest quality of the big box garden centers, I would suggest you not buy soil at any of the others. All I can say about the packaging was it was white and labeled "Topsoil" It did contain a slight amount of sphagnum peat moss which was mostly used to prevent clumping from moisture taken on while in storage. A great buy and an excellent portion to potting blends for best results.

I tried Scott's Topsoil as well and found it to be mostly sphagnum moss which is not what I needed to add more of for a good moisture retaining, stable potting mix since all potting mixes are for the most part sphagnum moss. Since soils are very heavy and the cost of freight is through the roof, different areas of the country, and even a state may have totally different sources for bagged topsoils available at any store for you to purchase.

The absolute worst product labeled "Topsoil" I erroneously bought was from Home Depot. It was cheaper than the lovely soil I got from Lowes'. Organic Valley Topsoil is packaged in 30-pound bags for only $1.29, so I purchased two of them to hopefully finish planting my porch on a recent Sunday. Upon mixing and potting up my hoard of tender beauties, I did not notice that it was any different than the preferred Lowe's topsoil. This assessment of the so called soil that was now blended nicely and in a selection of pots was very short lived. The truth becomes apparent in the watering.

This is not topsoil, but black silt. Just because a soil is black does not mean it is good! Silt comes from the bottom of bogs and does not drain. When wet, silt is black slime. If you add a so called soil such as this one to a potting mix, the water will just sit on top of the pot and take a long time to filter through the pot to the bottom. Silt also has very little nutrients in it that are available to the plant. To state it quite bluntly ... this is not soil, but garbage that someone is making a good chunk of change through at least one retail store that is in almost every town in the USA.

I returned the unopened bag to the store. It isn't that $1.29 is a lot of money, it is the fact that it is beyond an inferior product. Besides, why would I want to fill up my garbage can with it? When I commented to the Returns Cashier that it was NOT topsoil but absolute garbage in the bag, she leaned forward and whispered,

"Every soil we carry except MiracleGro is poor quality."

I guess she gardens in containers too. Now, once this heat wave passes, I must dump out all these pots and attempt to fix the blend they are potted in by adding Schultz Potting Mix and more real topsoil to hopefully thin out this nasty, gooey silt sold under the label of Organic Valley. Every plant that was potted with it is not doing near as well as those that were potted with the first four mentioned bagged topsoil products. Before I forget, Schultz Potting Mix is very chunky as compared to MiracleGro's finer texture. I prefer the Schultz product for improving the drainage for some plants to be grown well in a container. Shultz is made by MiracleGro's direct competitor, Peter's Professional.

Thanks Home Depot - - you've been so helpful. Cheaper is not better!


Suzanne Wuelfing said...

holy smokes, thank you for this article and just in time! I do vegetable gardening for clients in Asheville, NC, and have been looking for something to mix in with the great but expensive local compost I currently use. i was considering Organic Valley and Scott's Premium topsoils today at Home Depot. I hadn't decided on one yet. Thanks again for saving me a lot of trouble! Suzanne

Catzma said...

We bought 10 bags of this Organic Valley at HD, and it was actually orange in color, hardly topsoil of any kind. It was pure clay!

Tammy said...

Well Catzma, looks like they ran out of swamp silt to harvest and now they're bagging up some of that good old Carolina/Georgia clay.

Neither one is good for growing. They're both lacking vital plant nutrients.

And just so you know, as long as it came off the top, they can call it 'topsoil'... there's no such thing as the soil police. It could be the top of a dried up lake bed - clay so gnarly you could make pottery from it.