Is Soil Really That Important?

soil & fertility

Fortunately, you don’t hear people referring to soil as “dirt” so much anymore – a sign of today’s environmental awareness.  That’s good for the planet, and for us in the trade too!

For us landscape contractors soil is not only a key component to the environment, but to our businesses as well.  And yet it’s just one part of what we deal with day-to-day.

Know What You Need to Know

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by going “too deep” into certain topics of our trade.  Soil can be one of them.

Often times it’s enough to have a general understanding of a topic like that.

Remember too that you should always be growing your network and alliances with other talented people.  This network will do what you don’t do, or can’t justify doing from a business-sense.

In this and the next couple of articles we’ll take a look at the aspects of soil to focus on as a general landscape contractor.

You’ll determine if you need to drill down deeper depending on what service(s) you offer or plan to offer.  If it’s services like plant healthcare and/or fertilizing programs, you’ll want to know more.  And here’s the thing: you’ll just get better results than most and the reputation to go with it.

Soil – Just Another Variable to be Aware Of

Before we start talking about specific things with soil, I want to point out that once again we have a variable here in our business. And to a reasonable degree soil is a variable we can look at and deal with proactively.

It makes sense that soil impacts hardscapes and plantings because it’s connected to them…literally.

Soil will affect the outcome of most things we do in the landscape.

Knowing some basic qualities about the soil on each property let’s you take the necessary steps for planting and building in it.  Some aspects about the soil will even guide the selection of materials you pick.

Soil’s Affect on Hardscape Features

Whenever we talk about something being left outside we automatically get concerned if it’s going to “hold-up”. What’s going to happen to the patio furniture, wood arbor, planters…whatever?  For the most part we’re thinking about the exposure – sun, rain, wind, temperature.

But what about the soil?  What part does it play on the build and longevity of things?

Any feature that touches soil has to deal with moisture and its other ecological qualities.  Features like stone, concrete and some metals have better resistance.  Whereas wood and other vulnerable materials will inevitably start to decay.

It’s just smart to be aware of the immediate and potential impact soil can have on features.  Let your customers know about the affects of soil-contact and how you plan to deal with it.  They’ll appreciate your knowledge and honesty.  It’s better they understand what to expect, and most importantly what options they may have.

Eliminate or Minimize Soil Contact

Soil touching certain landscape features is sometimes unavoidable, but here are some ways you may consider to avoid it.

Grading and Other Creative Ways to Control Soil

Certainly grading is another way to move soil away from landscape structures and features.

soil on wood siding


In the picture above we did not have a lot of options to solve the problem of soil on and near the siding.  Plus, the grade was basically flat with no pitch away from the building.  This meant water would sit in this area and possibly cause water problems in the basement.

This homeowner’s property line is the concrete curb.  That’s the neighbor’s driveway next to it.  So how did we deal with both issues?…the soil touching the siding and the lack of pitch.

We used two tactics.  First we re-graded the area.  The soil level was lowered to 3″ below the siding.  From that new level we gave 1/4″ per foot of pitch away from the building and towards the concrete curb.  That re-grading phase caused about 3 cubic yards of soil to be removed.

Let me just say that ideally you want at least 6″ of space between the ground level and the siding.  This is one of those circumstances where “you take what you can get”. :-)

The second tactic we used was an “intercept drain“.  (Terms for drains like this vary, e.g. french drain, interceptor drain, etc.)  A trench was dug along the curb. We pitched the bottom of the trench towards the frontyard where the grade was lower.  We then installed perforated pipe, filter fabric and gravel to make the drain.

Now, surface water moves away from the house and falls into this system, and probably some sub-surface water also makes its way into the intercept drain.

What are Swales and Contours? And do You Need Them?

You can make some dramatic changes to the existing grade by using swales and contours.  Techniques like these can let you lower soil levels that might be too high near a landscape structure or feature.  A properly fashioned swale provides a way to move surface water out of the area.

drainage swale with stone


In the picture above we knew the driveway would be shedding loads of rainwater off its edge.  The nearby planting bed and soil would not be able to handle the volume – it was too flat with little pitch.

We needed to provide a swale to manage this runoff, and then contour and pitch the swale to steadily move the water along.

The cobble-like stonework prevents any erosion problems and it looks good too.  Plus it’s durable and low-maintenance.  What homeowner doesn’t want those things in their landscape?

When should you start thinking about the soil?

The first time you’re on the customer’s property take a quick look at the land.  Existing soil conditions and grades give important information for your planning, estimating and then finally doing the work.  We’ll be looking at these and other “early observations” we need to make on properties in future case studies.  This is the beginning of site analysis, where you list all existing elements and conditions on a property.

Other contractors will likely overlook these details.  And yes, their estimate might be lower because of it.  That’s their problem.  Shortcuts and low prices is not the way to build a business asset you can be proud of.  And one that consistently generates profitable work.

We care about the details like how our work will function, how it will look, how much care it will need, and how it will stand the test of time.

And when you explain these things to your customer (“educate to sell,” right?) they know you have their best interests in mind.


Top photo by Geoff Friend

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