Backyard Semantics: Understanding The Difference Between Soil And Dirt

Landscaping offers two major benefits: it can improve the overall aesthetic of your front and backyards, and can also increase your home’s value. There are limitless options available to choose from: you can explore the diversity of landscaping rocks, clean up your flower beds with bagged mulch, or even used crushed shell for driveways to add a unique touch.

Unless you’re a gardener, you may not be aware of the fact that not all gardens are created equal: soil and dirt are not interchangeable words. Let’s take a look at what makes these two similar concepts so different.

A Fundamental Understanding

The crux of the problem comes down to our very use of these words: we plant flowers, vegetables, and trees in soil, yet dirt defines the stuff that clings to our hands and clothes when we’re done. That is precisely what the Soil Science Society Of America defines dirt as — displaced soil.

Soil is comprised of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. In short, it’s alive with organisms such as worms, fungi, insects, bacteria, and the matter that these organisms leave behind. As such, it is rich with nutrients and minerals, making it an excellent base for seedlings and fragile plants. Healthy soil is actually 45% minerals, 25% water, 25% air, and 5% organic matter; it is a complete and self-sustaining ecosystem.

When this wonderful living thing gets displaced, it loses its organic matter and becomes dirt. It can be rocky and full of sand, silt, clay and therefore lacks structure. Dirt does not compact when wet, which is where run-off and erosion originate from. Essentially, dirt is dead and cannot support life; if you plant a garden only in dirt, it will not grow.

Even if your climate does not support healthy topsoil creation, there are ways to get around the detrimental effects of sterile dirt. You can make your own via a compost bin (as the decaying organic material will be rich in nutrients and therefore foster life), purchase topsoil from a landscaping supply store, or give up on plant life altogether and commit to a hardscape backyard with varying kinds of landscaping rocks.