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Topsoil for Agriculture: Explained and Explored

Topsoil is defined conceptually by its position – it lies on top of all the other soil – and actually by what it does. That is to say, the real definition of topsoil has to do with its mineral and nutrient makeup, and the role it has to play in active soil chemistry.


Most biological activity in the earth’s soil takes place within its top two inches. As a result, its importance in promoting and maintaining the growth of healthy crops is unparalleled. Commercially graded topsoil may be laid on farm soil in order to ensure the most beneficial nutrition to the roots and tubers of the crops: with different concentrations of nutrient or soil type being suited to different areas, or to different kinds of crop.

A crop that is naturally found in proliferation in one county may not react so well with the soil of another county. In this case, commercial topsoil many be indicated to alter the soil’s chemical makeup to one more amenable to the plant in question. Or it may be the case that the chemical makeup of the soil layers in the area in question can be augmented in a more generally beneficial way by applying topsoil with a specifically calculated ratio of minerals and compounds.

As an overall measure, topsoil is required to contain levels (within parameters) of specified nutrients. These include phosphorous; potassium; calcium; magnesium; manganese; zinc; and copper. The soil must also evince a pH balance within a given range. Should the nutrients or acidity level of the soil transgress the upper or lower limits of theseboundaries, it may be found that the proliferation or promotion of healthy crops is not as easy as it should be.

One of the key problems for agriculture, and indeed for plant growth in general, is topsoil erosion. This happened when large areas of topsoil are left exposed (i.e. devoid of plant cover) on a regular basis – and are then washed or blown away. With the increasingly inclement weatherpatterns the UK is now experiencing, erosion of topsoil is common and can happen quickly. Once the topsoil is gone, the crop is much more likely to fail.

Commercial agriculture makes a rod for its own back in terms of topsoil erosion. Topsoil is much more likely to erode where earth is (as noted) frequently laid bare – which of course is annually the case with large scale agriculture. Organic farming, which aims to use more traditional methods of soil management including fallowing and cover cropping, keeps the soil covered and so protects the vital topsoil layers with roots and foliage.

Ecologically speaking, the concern is much more wide ranging. Topsoil is different to compost – which is simply an agglomeration of decomposed plant and green matter. Topsoil is formed through a centuries-long cycle of accretion and slow development, so when it erodes it can represent a serious long term threat to the stable nature of an area. Commercially created topsoil may go some way to redress this balance, though it is as yet unclear to what extent this is the case.

Author bio: Katie Hill is a freelance content writer with years of experience in writing about various topics. She takes special interest in organic farming and has done detailed research on organic compost supplier in Sussex and green waste recycling to write this article.

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