What’s In a Name?

A trip to the lumberyard helped me quickly learn the difference between dirt and soil—and yes, there is a difference.

by Cyn Cady

Dirt Vs. Soil: What's In a Name? - Photo by Cyn Cady (HobbyFarms.com) 

I got scolded at the lumberyard the other day. I love our local lumberyard; the people who work there are cool, everything’s easy to find, and they have a huge section known as the “Away Station” where you can sort through all kinds of previously owned lumber, tile, furniture, windows, tools … you get the idea. When I have an excuse to go there, I get the warm fuzzies all over, so I’m usually on my best behavior when I pull in, knowing I’m in for a darn good time.

On this particular day, I needed to replenish my garden beds, plant my new trees (Quince! Pomegranate! A four-graft cherry tree! Woohoo!), and backfill a little retaining wall so I can make my walkway look purty. Those little 2-cubic-foot bags of planting mix weren’t going to cut it, so I pulled in next to where they keep the gravel, compost and so on, and waved down one of my favorite yard guys. “Hi!” I said, happily. “I need some dirt!”

He stopped in his tracks and gave me a shocked look. Uh-oh. What had I done? Was I supposed to go inside and put in an order? Had I broken lumberyard protocol? Had he been promoted to upper management and no longer drove the tractor?

Nope. He put his hands on his hips and looked at me loftily. “What you want,” he said. “Is soil.”

Subscribe now

Soil, dirt, what’s the diff? Semantics. But I was willing to play along. The lumberyard crew is a proud and righteous tribe. “OK,” I said. “Soil. A yard, please.”

I’d promised to meet friends at the local pub where my guy Danny works, so, truck of dirt, I mean, soil, and all, I stopped in. One of the regulars, the town custodian, Rudy, greeted me with a cheery, “What’s up?”

“Meeting friends. Had to come into town to get a load of dirt.”

Suddenly there was the same eerie silence that I’d experienced earlier. “You mean soil?” he said.

OK, was it just me? What was the big deal? I had to investigate.

It turns out, if you are creating a landfill, it’s dirt you want. But to grow stuff, it’s gotta be soil. Dirt is basically dead or displaced soil: All the lovely, decaying organic matter has gone missing. Worms won’t live in it, and plants won’t grow in it. If you overtask your soil, you’ll eventually end up with dirt. The good news is, you can reintroduce organic matter and bring the ecosystem back to life. Hurray for decay! So now I’m fully aware of the difference between dirt and soil. And I can’t wait for someone to tell me they’re heading to the lumberyard for a truckload of dirt. I’m practicing raising just one eyebrow, so that I can deliver the proper facial expression when I say, condescendingly, “You mean soil?”

Improve your garden’s soil with help from HobbyFarms.com:

« More Greenhorn Acres »


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *