fill dirt vs topsoil

Fill dirt, topsoil, sand, and gravel; here is how to know what is right for you.

Different landscaping projects need different materials. Picking the right dirt can mean the difference between a beautiful landscape or a blown budget and a flood zone. When diving into a new landscaping project, choosing which material to use may seem daunting and trivial. Between fill dirt, topsoil, sand, gravel, and backfill, you might be thinking, “How can I choose?”, and “What’s the difference?” I mean, you’re just filling a hole, right?

There’s a lot to think about when deciding fill dirt vs topsoil, sand, gravel, and backfill. Let’s break down these different “dirts”, before we get into which one is the right choice for you and your project.

Fill Dirt

Fill dirt is found below topsoil and lacks nutrient rich organic matter.

Fill Dirt is the soil usually found underneath topsoil. It lacks soil organic material, which means that it may contain sand, rocks, stones, and earth. It is usually used to fill holes in the ground, or to change the elevation of property. Fill Dirt, or “Fill”, is great in that is supplies a sturdy base for any construction. Unfortunately costs of Fill Dirt are rising, since many of its resources have been depleted. It currently costs between $8-15 per cubic yard. Although Fill Dirt is mainly used for larger construction projects, it can have great uses in landscape projects as well. Some ideal projects are: raising planting beds, leveling off land, building up the ground around foundations to fix water drainage problems, and securing ground around retaining walls.

Topsoil

Topsoil is rich in the nutrients plants need in order to develop root structures.

Topsoil is the uppermost layer of soil (literally the top soil). It is where most of the Earth’s biological soil activity involving microorganisms occurs. It is darker in color because it is made up of minerals, organic matter, water, and air. The more organic matter the Topsoil has, the stronger the soil structure of it is and more ideal it is for plant growth. Topsoil should be used for flower beds or vegetable gardens. The only downside to Topsoil is that erosion can occur, which means that the soil is blown or washed away, ruining anything that was growing from it. Topsoil can be a little pricier, ranging from $12-50 per cubic yard.

Potting Soil

There is often some confusion between topsoil and potting soil since they are both used for planting. They are actually very different. Potting soil for use in pots or planters, which means it needs to drain well and stay aerated. It’s typically comprised of sphagnum moss and ground up organic material like saw dust or bark.

Potting mix is much more expensive than topsoil. For that reason, if you are working on a bigger project, your best bet is to use enriched topsoil (also called garden soil). This is topsoil that has been blended with organic compost.

Sand

Sand should be used to stabilize areas or mixed with other soils to improve drainage.

Sand is a granular material made up of very small rock and mineral particles. It can also be put in the category of textural soil, made up almost completely of sand-sized particles. Water tends to pass much more quickly through sand because the particles are a lot larger than soil, water and air can get through. It is not as stable as other soils because of these holes. Sand tends to cost around $15-40 per cubic yard, falling somewhere between topsoil and fill dirt. We all know sand from the beach, but it can also be used for at-home landscaping projects. These include: stabilizing pavers, softening or creating children’s play areas, and creating walkways. Sand, when used in a gravel mixture, can also work for backfill projects.

Gravel

Gravel can be used in landscaping to create pathways or weed barriers for gardens.

Gravel is a collection of rock fragments, which can range in size, but are larger than sand. Gravel can be created naturally by the erosion of bigger rocks, or it is manufactured. Gravel is used in large construction projects, but it can also be ideal for replacing grass. It requires a lot less maintenance than grass, and can look even better. Pea gravel costs about $30-35 per cubic yard, but different colored gravels can be more expensive. There are many types of gravel including: glass gravel, lava rock, pea gravel, crushed granite, river rock, slate chips, and more. This variety is great because it can bring your project to the next level, by having your gravel color match the project’s aesthetic. Some great projects using gravel would be: walkways, rock gardens, driveways, patios, planting beds, edging, and stopping the growth of weeds. You can also use gravel for backfill projects, as it has excellent drainage qualities.