A study of topsoil in the UK has revealed serious concerns about the standard of the product on sale to the public across the country, with half found to be unsuitable for use in general purpose landscaping schemes and residential gardens.

Independent research was carried out nationally on 30 bulk bags from 17 different suppliers bought online and in stores from stockists and direct from producers.

Market Research company PCP test purchased the products and took samples which were sent for analysis at one of the UK’s leading soil testing facilities by Tim O’Hare Associates to find out if they were suitable for use.

Of the 30 samples, 47 per cent (14) were found not to be suitable and did not meet the British Standard for Topsoil[1] for a number of reasons – uncommonly high pH levels, high levels of salt concentration, high potassium levels and excessively high sand contents and on one occasion, elevated levels of a known carcinogenic chemical.

The study was commissioned by the Rolawn Group, the Yorkshire-based award-winning producer of topsoil and turf, who are concerned that other businesses are not paying as much attention to the quality of their products, risking serious reputational damage to the industry at large and damaging consumer trust.

Rolawn’s two product samples were among the 16 which were deemed suitable for use as topsoil in general purpose landscaping schemes and residential gardens, and were free from contamination, something they confirm with regular in-house testing.

Independent gardening and horticulture expert David Hurrion says the impact of using unsuitable soil is clear:

“Using poor quality and badly formulated topsoils for general-purpose landscaping or in a domestic garden could prove to be both disastrous and costly in terms of turf or plant establishment and growth. Success rates can be severely compromised and may lead to plant failure in extreme cases.

“Many consumers would no doubt be horrified to discover that the topsoil they have purchased in good faith, often based on the marketing claims of the producer or stockist, was in fact not suitable for use and indeed does not meet British Standards.”

Rolawn’s Chairman and Managing Director, Paul Dawson added: “We suspected that all was not as it seemed with the quality of topsoils, though we were surprised at the high number that are not suitable for use in residential settings. At Rolawn, we strongly believe there should be compulsory independent testing to make sure that what a customer is being told is in a bag is what they receive and that it is fit for purpose.

“The process of self-test to the British Standard is clearly being abused. Rolawn will be presenting a summary of the findings to the Government and Trading Standards and is calling for more frequent and independent testing be done to ensure adequate rules are in place and that those rules are followed. Meanwhile, we intend to keep up our own independent testing programme and reporting on the results.”

Professional soil scientist Tim O’Hare said: “It is important that gardeners and landscapers have confidence that the product they purchase is suitable for the use intended and that they can trust their supplier to deliver this. It is clear from this valuable piece of independent work commissioned by Rolawn and the detailed analysis we have carried out that this is not always the case.

“Given the impact that this can have, it raises the question whether there are enough checks within the industry to ensure standards are being upheld and products are not mis-sold to gardeners, landscapers and builders.”

[1] (BS3882:2015)