How to make topsoil

When you order topsoil, do you really know what you’re getting?  

In some developed areas,  most of the topsoil has been scraped away or eroded.  What passes as topsoil is really subsoil – nearly dead dirt.  It will not function like good soil.

The good news?  You can make your own, be assured of its quality, and likely pay less than having topsoil trucked in.  Here’s how:

FOR EXCAVATED SOIL:  Mix the native soil with compost at a ratio of about 1 bucket or shovelful of compost to every 2 of soil.  A 30 percent compost content is recommended for raised beds and containers.  

FOR IN-SITU SOIL:  Work 2-3 inches of compost into the top 6-8 inches of native soil.

Compost is a very “forgiving” material.  It’s hard to use too much  (though you shouldn’t use it instead of topsoil),  and as little as 1/8 inch can be enough to give your soil a boost.

Whatever the amount, be sure to blend well so the compost is evenly distributed.

How can you tell if a soil is good or bad?  

The ideal soil for growing things will be a mix of sand, clay, and organic matter.   If having your soil tested, be sure the report will include these parameters.

Forging ahead without the soil test? The first part of this article describes various soil types and provides simple methods of identification.  

If you need to add sand or clay in addition to compost, ask your landscape supply yard for a custom blend.

According to this article,  most soil scientists agree that 50% pore space, 45% mineral matter (sand, silt, clay), and 5% organic matter make up an ideal ratio.  A typical compost is 50%-60% organic matter (dry weight). 

What if the world’s soil runs out?  Time/World explored this question in a “what if” interview about soil quality.

The subject? Seismic implications of soil erosion and degradation.  The focus? The quality of soil related to water conservation, food production, and other degradation impacts.

But a referenced study was even more thought-provoking.  It said between 1961 and 2003, 42% of observed sea-level rise could be linked to groundwater extraction.  Water from irrigation and other groundwater uses eventually flows to the rivers and streams.  These waterways feed the oceans.

Runoff is an indicator of depleted soil.

Rebuilding soil organic matter reduces water consumption,  stormwater runoff, and pollutant loads.  It cuts the use of agricultural chemicals, too.

Even issues not normally linked to compost use, like energy consumption, can improve.


Gary's lawn grows greener with compost

Gary’s lawn grows greener with compost

It has been seven years since we built our new home here in North Carolina, arriving from Maryland excited about the opportunity to create a beautiful lawn to complement our beautiful home.

Well, after our initial year of very hot weather, which caused the wonderful lush sod the contractor had installed to become dry and sparse, I found out how challenging it is to maintain a lawn of cool season grass in the south.

I asked  the contractor why my lawn had so many bare spots.  He said fescue does not spread to fill in bare spots and it requires a lot of water to establish roots.

So after three summers of extreme heat and drought wreaking havoc on my lawn, I began with the “tried and true” method of applying fertilizer, lime, and various other chemicals in an attempt to rejuvenate the fescue.  Four years later, I was still filling in spots that did not want to grow grass in an effort to develop that nice, lush lawn all “do-it-yourselfers” strive for.

It became apparent that applying various fertilizers and way more water — which cost more than I ever imagined — was not providing the results I wanted.

After joining the McGill team last year, I attended seminars about the use of compost on turfgrass to build the organic matter in soils, helping turfgrass establish deep root systems with limited or no chemicals.  I became excited when speaking with our many customers and hearing their success stories, with one landscaper stating: “McGill SoilBuilder compost grows grass on concrete.”  Now,  I didn’t believe our product was that impressive, but I couldn’t wait to find out for myself.

Getting the lawn of our dreams

After convincing my wife that I had not given up turning our lawn into the green gem of our dreams, I ordered a load of our compost and, with her help, spent an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early March spreading the compost with nothing but a shovel, wheelbarrow, and rake.

I had rented a lawn plug aerator the weekend before to prep the yard by opening small plug holes that would be filled with the compost.  After we spread our wonderfully screened and easy-to-handle compost, I over-seeded the following day and watered in, as directed.

We have obtained the results that I have been striving for the past seven years — without the use of harmful chemicals.  I had great germination results with the seeding and the turfgrass has greened up amazingly, but the main thing I have been working to achieve — to establish a thick root system — is now reality.

I am looking forward to the water savings that compost has been shown to provide (25-50 percent less water use, according to the research).  I feel much more comfortable not having to add various chemicals, because compost provides slow release of nutrients for years of benefit.  And if we ever build another home, I now know that applying a thin layer of topsoil does nothing to prepare the soil for growing a good stand of turfgrass.  Instead, to get the beautiful lawn we want, we’ll add a couple inches of compost BEFORE we lay sod or seed to add organic matter and build healthier soil.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  When he’s not concentrating on his lawn, Gary works as McGill’s compost sales and marketing manager for its U.S. operations.

why compostingA:  Composting saves natural resources, reduces landfill space requirements, protects the environment and saves money.

In addition, most fertilizers are manufactured from fossil fuels – not in abundant supply.  Distances from point of manufacture to markets are considerable, often over oceans.  Raw materials for compost manufacture are sourced locally.  Compost products are used locally.  Both reduce transport-related  energy consumption.

Why composting?  The #1 reason isn’t about recycling or diversion

It may surprise some that the #1 answer to “Why composting?” isn’t related to the process, but the product.  The most important reason to compost (the verb) is because it results in compost (the noun).

Finding ways to save landfill space and reduce the generation of greenhouse gases are important reasons to compost biodegradable materials.  But human activities deplete topsoil at an accelerated rate.  Compost is the only product that can economically, efficiently and naturally restore and maintain soil productivity.

Compost use builds organic matter.  A healthy soil requires less synthetic fertilizer.  It retains more rainwater, aids nutrient uptake, and degrades pollutants.

In fact, many of the problems related to water quality and water supply are related to poor soil quality.  The need to return organic matter to the soil through compost use cannot be under-valued as a tool for managing stormwater and improving water quality.

Wow.  It’s been 20 years.

When Jim McGill decided he was ready to give up his environmental consulting business and go build a composting business, I was the lucky guy he invited along on the trip without a roadmap.  My background in agricultural science gave me an appreciation for the power of microbes, but converting that first batch of poultry litter into a product converted me into a believer in the power of composting.

As the business has grown, I have been replaced in every position by someone who is better at the job than me.  Now I find myself in the position of president — the only position left — and there is nowhere I would rather be.  Today, I have the pleasure of working with a wonderful team of people doing something we all know makes a difference.  While there is the occasional problem which requires my attention, my energies are now overwhelmingly focused on opportunities for improvement and growth.

If there is one thing that occupies my focus, it is the tantalizing opportunity for compost to solve real and present environmental problems.  Of all the great benefits of compost,  its potential to replenish soil organic matter is what it’s all about.  Without topsoil, we have no future.  Taking all the world’s biodegradable materials, composting them and returning the organic matter to the soil is not the best option – it is the only option.  How to achieve that goal is what I think about most days.

At McGill, I have the pleasure of leading a team that creates opportunities for everyone to contribute to the restoration of the earth’s topsoil.  We work with Fortune 500 companies, farmers, major municipalities and small towns, landscape architects, engineers, construction companies, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and erosion control companies, to name but a few.  Though each may have different immediate objectives, they all – through composting – contribute to a more sustainable future, both economically and environmentally.

Hanneman Forest Products

McGill compost sign at Hanneman’s Forest Products

Thanks to one of our resellers, Hanneman Forest Products, for sending us this snapshot of their new custom-made frame for hanging our McGill Soil Builder banner. You can make your own topsoil by blending Soil Builder compost with native soil at a ratio of one part compost to two parts soil, but for those looking for a soil prep short cut, Hanneman also offers a topsoil-compost blend to give plants a great start with a little less shovel work required on your part.