Sure it’s organic, but what’s IN it?


by Susan
After I’d spent 70 bucks on 25 bags of "topsoil" for my backyard makeover, I thought I’d look at the label toTopsoil375_2 find out exactly what’s in the stuff.  The brand is Mr. Garden and the words "Organically enriched" are proudly displayed, but no ingredients were to be found.  No instructions, either, just some tiny print telling me it was "Packed with pride by Loudoun Heights Fuel Company" somewhere in West Virginia. 

Readers can just imagine my rising level of suspicion about this product and the fuel company that packed it – with pride or not – despite having bought it from my favorite independent hardware store.  So I continued the sleuthing with a phone call to the company, only to be told by the person answering that the ingredients were "all organic."  Told that twice.  I know, but what’s in it?  No idea, but she’d have someone call me back. 

Didn’t happen.  My suspicions go nuts!  So I call again and this time talk to the foreman, who told me the product contains:

  • Dirt
  • Compost that’s 4 parts wood fines to 1 part manure
  • Composted leaves
  • Lime

Now that all sounds innocent enough, so I was relieved but damn, why was it so hard to find out?  If I want my new garden to have the nutrients it needs it would sure help to know what’s in the "organically enriched" topsoil I’m adding to it.  And what’s up with the lime?  What if my pH is just fine the way it is?  And I wish I’d asked about the percentage of "dirt" to all that other stuff.

Well, the Mr. Garden Topsoil is now indistinguishable from my regular home-grown topsoil, so I’m not losing any sleep over it.  But getting back to the original mystery bag with no ingredients, aren’t there any requirements for labeling garden products?  And if not, why not?


  1. Here is California there is no legal definition of what constitutes planting mix or any other amendment. I could package sawdust sweepings from the lumber yard and call it planting mix. The Lime was put in the bag to raise the pH of the bag, not your soil. With all the sawdust sweepings in the bag it would be pretty acidic if they didn’t put the lime in.

    How is it they can call that top soil? Where is the dirt from? What makes it “top soil”? What kind of manure is it? If they company was proud of what they sold they would spell it out right on the bag. This is pretty typical of what the local hardware stores sell.

    Michele says that she never quite trusts the bag products. That’s because 80% of the bagged products out there are just junk! If she tried the E.B. Stone or Foxfarm soils we sell she would see and feel the difference. Good soil doesn’t irritate your hands. Sure they cost more but its because of the quality of the products inside.

    One of the biggest rip offs in the garden scene is all the bags of worthless compost, top soil, and potting soils sold.

  2. Why buy “topsoil” in the first place? (By the way, $70.00 for not quite a cubic yard of bagged “topsoil” is a pretty hefty chunk of money, not to mention the environmental cost of manufacturing the plastic and disposing of it)

    Why not simply fit plants to the conditions the site has to offer, versus trying to “fix” the site?

    And, please don’t say that there were low spots that needed to be filled in (there’s plenty of plants that thrive in wet soils), or that the soil at your site is just “bad.” I can show you pictures of ferns growing in lava fields, mangroves anchored in limestone in the Florida Keys, 500+ year-old white cedar/arborvitae growing in crevices along the face of the Niagara Escarpment in southern Ontario, Canada, etc. In other words, there’s no such thing as “bad” soil.

    I’m not saying “use only native plants” (which I think is a croc).

    What I am saying is that it should be relatively easy to come up with design solutions that don’t require an infusion of topsoil?

  3. Terry, to fill you in on this project, the site slopes downward, so there are no low spots, just pits and holes left over after various plants have been removed to be located elsewhere. Actually the soil looks pretty darn good, as far as I can tell by eyeing it and digging in it. Notice the nice color behind the photo of the bag? At least one friend who suffers with pure clay (PamJ) expressed considerable jealousy over it.

  4. Susan, why don’t you send it to a lab for analysis, then you’ll know exactly what’s in it, especially the proportion of organic to inorganic matter.

    Labeling top soil “organic” is pretty silly to start, since soil is mostly minerals, not organic material. A better description would probably be “chemical free,” but who’s to tell without a lab test?

  5. Ah . . . ., there’s that dreaded “g” word, as in “the soil looks pretty darn “good”, again!

    Of course it’s “good!”

    All soil is “good” for one kind of plant, or another, as per my previous post. In fact, your friend’s “pure clay” is fabulous for a lot of plants – though it might not be easy to dig and rake out into perfect, fluffy garden “powder!”

    What you mean to say, I think, is that your soil is “pretty darn “workable?”

    I know this might seem like a pretty trivial nit to pick, but if we’re going to advance as gardeners/horticulturalists/environmentalists, etc., I think we need to step back and simply watch how nature works.

    For example, I might’ve simply filled in the pits and holes with municipal wood mulch and let nature gradually turn it into “soil.” Or, what the heck, I may have simply planted right in the pits!

    After all, as the four of you state in your preamble, you’re “in love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens.”

    (And, no, you’re not going to bring all sorts of bad insects and diseases into your garden or landscape by using free municipal mulch. Plant pathogens and potentially destructive insect pests won’t survive for long in a municipal mulch pile that gets so hot you can’t stick your hand in it! Plus, they simply don’t thrive in “dead” wood.)

    By the way, down in your neck of the woods, research done a number of years ago on the National Mall illustrated very clearly how a simple layer of mulch maintained over the soil surface can lead to significant increase in soil aggregation in only a couple of years (note that I didn’t say improvement in the “soil”).

    For the most thorough discussion of how soils in urban areas work (and, surprisingly, a not overly impenetrable read), check out Phil Craul’s “Urban Soil in Landscape Design,” John Wiley & Sons, Inc., ISBN 0-471-80598-X.

  6. Terry, just calm down and stop assuming so much. I’m the bigger proponent in my town of free municipal mulch, which in our case is leafmold, a mulch that’s far superior to wood chips.

  7. Terry,
    I agree with some of your manifesto but sometimes a goil just has to have immediate gratification, .. .. whether it is in the garden or not.

    I have a pick up truck so I never need to purchase large quanties of soil amendments in bags from hardware stores or garden centers ( unless I have a job where we have to truck soil through a clients house ) but I do on occasion purchase bagged chicken manure to mix in and top dress certain planting beds in my own garden.

    I prefer purchasing plain old 100% bagged chicken manure to a ‘?’ blended ‘?’ top soil bagged mix because I am:

    1. – Cheap – chix manure is way more inexpensive than bags of blended composts. – like .99 cents for a 1.5 cubic foot.
    2. – Suspect – trusting large corporations ( like the Fuel Company that supplied the bagged soil above ) is not within my ease of acceptance.
    When required I purchase bags of blended soil from a local “soils specialist” , American Soil products .
    3. – Control Freak – I want to be able to control the amount of applied nitrogen to the various garden beds and adjust the ratio of manure with the existing leaf litter I have on my suburban property.

    It’s a bummer that some entrepreneur hasn’t opened up a Soils Specialty store near your hood.
    It is a real life and time saver to have such a company nearby.
    We have the choice of 18 or so different soil blends.
    My personal favorite is the Ultra Premium Potting mix that does not “bleed” or stain manure tea out onto your clients brand new travertine terrace.

  8. Ah, the old soil amendment/just mulch on top of it discussion.

    I remember it well from my days of reading gardenweb forums.

    I try to do both, actually, to a limited degree in my tiny space.

    My mentee Ron is infatuated with our municipal mulch site (they are suspicious of him hanging around though) and plans to post on it soon.

  9. I’m perfectly calm – other than having to listen to the DPW crew going down our street collecting yard “waste” even as I type this – how ironic!

    All I’m saying (or, at least trying to say), is that I think we often try/work too hard when it comes to gardening/landscaping, etc., because we (including myself) don’t watch how nature works.

    I think the four of you ladies do a great job – otherwise, the link to GardenRant wouldn’t be on the toolbar menu at the top of my browser.

    However, precisely because a lot of people look to GardenRant for solid horticulture information/perspective, you now bear the burden of more intense scrutiny in your own personal gardening activities – especially when it involves purchasing bagged topsoil;-)

    P.S. – to Michelle:

    I, like you, have been in the landscape design/management business for a long time.

    To this day as both a NYS Certified Nursery Professional and ISA Certified Arborist, I’ve never recommended fertilizing a single plant – be it tree, shrub, perennial or bulb (lawns are a different story, but that opens up a whole different can of worms).

    If you put the right plant in the right place – including severely compacted clay soils on new construction sites – all should be right with the world.

    The same holds true for plants in a state of decline. Fertilizing trees stressed by severely compacted soil on a construction site, for example, may mask symptoms, but it isn’t going to help them because the damage isn’t nutrient-related.

    Rather, it’s a lack of soil oxygen that prevents the roots from efficiently extracting nutrients from the soil.

    We all need to remember that fertilizer isn’t “plant food.” Rather, maple syrup and the sugar in your tea, coffee, or PopTart is real plant food!

    It all goes back to my original post that there’s no such thing as a “bad” soil!

  10. How about soil on 19th-century tannery site that is contaminated with so much lead I’d have to pay for a hazardous waste license to have it trucked away?

    I’d call that pretty bad. There isn’t anything you can do about soil like that, and I’m sure as hell not growing vegetables in it. Or ferns. Or mangroves. If I ever do veggies, it’ll be in a raised bed with imported soil. In this day and age you never know what kind of stuff has been dumped on the ground, or what plants will uptake.

    Besides which, Susan just removed a significant amount of sod from the ground. That always takes away some of the soil, no matter how diligent you are in banging grass clods against your shovel. You try cutting a garden into your lawn and see how it looks when the plants are 3 or 4 inches below the base of the grass.

    I’ve done the same, and bought bagged soil (mostly composted manure, but some “topsoil”) to help level out the losses. The organic matter in the bagged soil isn’t going to hurt anything. (Nor would reading past blog entries to find a bit of history before going off on a thread-hijacking tear.)

    What makes me agree with Trey’s comment about bagged stuff (especially “topsoil”) is that there are usually weed seeds hiding in it. I have Pennsylvania smartweed growing out of containers of calla lilies, and I had never seen it before bringing in bagged soil. (Avoid Timberline stuff — it’s terrible.)

    Is there a definition of “topsoil” that has to be met for the label designation?

  11. …”If you put the right plant in the right place – including severely compacted clay soils on new construction sites – all should be right with the world.”

    Problem is Terry, gardening plots aren’t always ” right”.
    As firefly noted in the former tannery that she is planting in or the brown fields that we are currently reclaiming or the former decomissioned military site that is now a planned residential community or other severely compromised earthscapes that are being renovated into a residential gardenscape.
    The confluence of modern day soil science and horticulture is not black and white. “Right plant , Right Place” is simply too narrow minded in the current day conditions of brown fields, toxic clean up sites and man made altered topography.
    There are a wide variety of challenging situations that require a wide variety of solutions. Soil importation is one way of addressing depleted soil remediation

  12. If you buy fertilizer in a bag you know exactly what you’re getting, because fertilizer is tightly regulated. Topsoil … not so much.

    Government got into the fertilizer regulation business a long time ago because farmers got tired of getting ripped off by bogus products. For now, it’s pretty much caveat emptor when it comes to topsoil, whether you are buying it by the bag or the truckload. University of New Hampshire has a basic factsheet on the subject of buying topsoil here:

    But when stop and think about the variability you’re going to find in topsoil from place to place, it probably defies easy regulation.

  13. I cannot recommend more highly than Coast of Maine products (if you want/need to purchase products) – pricey but great stuff! I also love that I support a New England company, but they create their products from recycling leftovers from the fishing industry that would end up dumped. (I do compost but it is never enough!)

  14. These comments… wow.

    Can’t a lady buy some dirt and put it wherever she wants? For that matter, can’t she plant whatever she wants?

    And uh… is it REALLY neccesary to label the dirt (God forbid REGULATE the labeling of it)? I’m sure that for the vast overwhelming majority of dirt buyers, it doesn’t matter. And for those to whom it does, I’m sure there are specialty brands who DO label as a matter of competitive diferentiation.

    For me, I order it by the truckload and put it wherever caprice leads that day. And then I plant what ever I feel like watching grow. My only question: “Is it pulverized? Please make sure it is pulverized! Dump it right there!”

    But I’m obviously a bad bad man.

    (Susan, I got a small MOUNTAIN of pulverized soil (it was black anyway) for $300 delivered. Pretty cheap actually. But then again, I’ve been forced to spend some money on wheelbarrows (for the dirt) and bourbon (for the pain). Nothing is cheap I guess.)

  15. Firefly:

    Lead is not particularly toxic to plants, except in some extraordinary situations (e.g., rice production, etc.). For a discussion of gardening in/on soils contaminated with lead and arsenic, Washington State University has an excellent .pdf file online, entitled “Gardening on Lead and Arsenic-Contaminated Soils,” by Frank Peryea.

    Meanwhile, getting back to (not) working harder than necessary in the landscape and garden, why would you ever want to strip sod from a new landscape/garden bed?

    Where the lawn is relatively thin because of deep shade (hence, not enough plant food production to support a vigorous lawn due to limited photosynthesis), simply apply a thick layer of mulch over the sparse lawn and plant right through it. The undisturbed sod will serve as a nature weed barrier and will return organic
    matter and nutrients to the soil as it decomposes.

    This is what we did when we moved into our home in 1992 (that’s right, we have zero lawn and therefore have neither mowed a blade of grass nor raked an autumn leaf in 15 years).

    Meanwhile, if you’re not adverse to using a herbicide, simply kill the lawn with Roundup, mulch, then, again, plant right through the dead sod.

    The less soil disturbance, the fewer dormant weed seed that will be brought to the soil surface, and the less impact there will be on soil structure.

    Finally, Michelle, I agree with you completely regarding the remediation of brownfields and the interaction of soil science and horticulture in these complex projects. Again, Phil Craul addresses a number of these issues quite elegantly in his “Urban Soil in Landscape Design.”

    However, I think we made a bit of a leap from less than a cubic yard of bagged topsoil in a backyard to large scale, multi-million dollar remediation projects. And, I accept that my rather broad, one-size, fit’s all comment opened the door to myriad “what-if” scenarios.

    Again, I’m not trying to be critical of Susan’s efforts.

    All I’m trying to do, again, is point out that we often work harder than we need to in the garden.

    I apologize if I’ve “thread-hijacked” this afternoon, but it’s been an interesting conversation.

    Now, however, I have to go make a living.

  16. Funny, this Mr. Garden gets around. I bought some of their product sold as “organic humus” last year and was incredibly disappointed. It looked nice, but seemed to be the wrong product for mixing into my heavily compacted post-construction clay on the small lot around my relatively new house. On the other hand, the Montgomery County, MD parks and recreation organic leaf humus mix that I bought this spring was WONDERFUL stuff. The soil where I mixed that stuff in is now decompacting and teaming with life.

    Mostly, unfortunately, I’ve had to resort to good old-fashioned muscle and exertion to cultivate and decompact—well, the top 6-8 inches anyway—my heinously compacted riparian clay soils….

    Thanks for the interesting comments folks…and try to be somewhat nice to one another. We are all gardeners after all.

  17. Terry, I am willing to accept your notion that we may be working to hard on our gardens. Old habits die hard.

    However, if I wanted to grow some of the plants that I am growing now on my formerly compacted soils, there is no way I could have done it without the work and amendment that I did.

    Sorry, but you just can’t get blooming camelias out of a water-repelling brick-baked hard clay full of crushed stones and topped off with about 100 passes of a 5-ton backhoe. Or even cannas for that matter.

    It has been interesting…

  18. Once I started gardening I have always had a pile of dirt. You take the sod off a new bed, pile it upside down and Voila! topsoil in a short period of time. (Don’t think it qualifies as compost. Because it doesn’t have the mix of greens and browns and doesn’t get turned or get hot like a compost pile.) Edge your sidwalk with a shovel and you have a mix of grass and dirt to go on the pile. Every time you plant something you end up with some dirt leftover from the hole and it goes on the pile. I have bought pick-up truck loads of composted cow manure, wonderful stuff, and bags of specialty mix for container gardens, but topsoil, nah.

  19. Tibs – great idea and I do that myself. This year I’d already used up all my homemade compost, though. I’ve also used the pile of mulch left over from the spring mulching of the whole garden, so I’m making many trips to the city mulch pile. I think I have too much garden.

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