Do I Need Topsoil or Compost?

April 8, 2021
Home » Blog » Do I Need Topsoil or Compost?

Technically speaking, decaying matter actually becomes compost, since compost is simply matter resulting from decomposition. This compost forms the nutrients necessary for new life. Soil, meanwhile, contains other elements like rocks and minerals. These chemical cycles are beautiful and complex and critical to understand for anyone involved in planting and growing life from the ground. In this article, we will elaborate more on the difference between compost and topsoil and share the ideal uses for each. 

Topsoil and Compost Definitions

Nitrogen cycle: Nitrogen literally composes the molecules of life. Most of the air we breathe is nitrogen, not oxygen. The cycle of nitrogen circles from the ground to living beings to the air and back again in a beautiful and complex network of chemical reactions. Understanding this cycle is important for understanding the different types of soil and compost.

Most basically, the nitrogen cycle consists of soil bacteria absorbing nitrogen from the air and making it available for plants, animals then either eat the plants or plants die of their own accord, and bacteria and then convert nitrogen into gas in the atmosphere. 

Compost: Compost is decaying organic matter and represents the step in the nitrogen cycle in which nitrogen present in plants and animals is broken down before being converted to gas. It consists mainly of carbon and nitrogen, both of which are needed by the living organisms that create nutrients for plant life. 

Compost can be produced in one’s backyard by adding once live materials to a compost bin or pile. Adding the right balance of carbon and nitrogen is important for making sure the microbes performing the decomposition are well fed. This means balancing the “browns” (carbon-heavy sticks and dead leaves) with the “greens” (grass clippings, food waste rich in nitrogen). With moisture, air, and time, living organisms will break down the cellular structures of the additions and produce a dark, light material rich in nutrients. 

On an industrial scale, compost can look very similar to this DIY process by employing similar techniques in long “windrows” of compost. These long piles are turned to ensure that all the material has similar exposure to heat and microbes needed to complete the composting process. Industrial composting can also take place in vessels specially designed to optimize composting conditions, including control of air flow and temperature. Other large-scale compositing techniques exist on similar principles. 

Topsoil: Most simply, topsoil is the top layer of soil on the surface of the Earth, positioned above bedrock. Topsoil contains rocks, minerals, and organic matter like decomposing plants and animals. Plants in the wild all grow and thrive in topsoil because the processes of the nitrogen cycle ensure adequate nutrition.

In nature, topsoil can take thousands of years to produce. This is because of the time needed to break down rocks and minerals into fine particles as well as the time required to break down organic dead matter. Importantly, topsoil also includes the organisms living within the soil that keep the nitrogen cycle moving. 

The composition of topsoil can vary greatly from place to place, depending on the climate, geology, and many other factors. Generally, soil types are visualized as a triangle with 3 points: sand, silt, and clay. The composition of each soil, then, somewhere between these three extremes. Sand is the largest of the three types, drains well, and consists mainly of rock particles and hard minerals. Silt sits between clay and sand in terms of size, and consists of sediment transported by rivers and floods. Silt is known for its fertility and has supported the agriculture of many river-dwelling civilizations. Finally, clay is the finest of the three types, made up of extremely fine rock particles. 

Loam is the balance of all three types: sand, clay, and silt. Because of this balance, it is neither too loose and well-draining (like sand) nor too compact and difficult (clay). Soils of the mid-Atlantic are generally loamy, meaning that the plants of the region have adapted to thrive in that specific soil composition. It is important to source topsoil from local areas to support local plants and create the ideal environment for their success.

Uses of topsoil and compost

Compost improves topsoil. For gardening and landscaping, both are necessary in balance to achieve a good foundation for plant life. Depending on its source, topsoil can consist of largely rocks and minerals with little organic matter and few microbes. It may provide a solid structure for root growth, but it will provide no nutrients to sustain plants and will not actively break down organic matter to create new nutrients. 

This is the function of compost. At JK Enterprise, we sell a topsoil-leaf compost blend to ensure that the soil has the right composition of minerals and organic matter. This means that if you purchase this blend from us, you will also be purchasing pre-mixed compost for the proper balance. If a project requires the purchase of topsoil, this is the best option.

Pure leaf compost, meanwhile, should be added to already existing topsoil to enhance the availability of nutrients and organisms that will continue to produce them. JK Enterprise provides screened leaf compost replete with these nutrients and also adept at retaining moisture and reducing soil compaction.

Buy where the contractors buy – JK Enterprise

For 25 years, JK Enterprise has supplied northern Virginia and Maryland with locally-made soils and compost of the highest quality. By recovering soil from construction projects and enhancing it with compost, we prevent waste and recover soil for use by farms, developers and contractors. Our materials are available for delivery, so give us a call today to discuss your needs and place an order from the area’s top supplier.