There are plenty of reasons you may find yourself needing some fill dirt. Perhaps you have a garden to level or a big gaping hole to fill in your yard. No matter what the reason is, you may find yourself wondering if there's a way to fill it for free instead of spending money. After all, who wants to spend big dollars on dirt? If you're not interested in paying for it, here's how to score good quality fill dirt for free.
What Is Topsoil?
Before searching, remember that topsoil and fill dirt are different and each should be used for specific reasons. Both are used for filling in large areas where soil is needed. But choosing the right dirt could be important for your project. Topsoil is just that—the top layer of soil in a garden or landscape. It's a rich mixture of minerals and organic matter that's vital for growing plants, flowers, and vegetable gardens. It's also pricier than fill dirt because of its desirable content.
What Is Fill Dirt?
Fill dirt is not as fine or pure as topsoil, and it lacks organic matter. It's also the layer beneath the topsoil in a garden or landscape. Fill dirt will, however, contain more stones, rocks, and dense earth that's ideal for filling holes. In addition to gardens and landscapes, fill dirt is used for raising and leveling land, building up ground to fix water drainage issues, and packing around retaining walls. You can buy fill dirt at a home improvement store or from local sand, gravel, or mulch suppliers, but if you need a lot of it, the cost can skyrocket, though it still costs significantly less per cubic yard than topsoil.
Here are some of the best ways to find free fill dirt and what you need to do before you haul it home.
Visit Construction Sites
If you see a basement being dug for a new home or an in-ground pool being installed, there's a good bet they're going to have a bunch of dirt to haul off when they're done (and they're probably expecting to pay to dump it). Stop and ask if you can have it, and they might say yes and even deliver it to your home for free if they don't already have plans to redistribute or resell the dirt.
When you talk to the crew, confirm if the dirt came from the site or from elsewhere. Also, ask a few questions before taking the dirt because the last thing you want to do is move contaminated fill dirt to your property. Questions to ask include:
- Was an environmental site assessment done on the dirt?
- Is there any concern about the site from which the dirt originated?
- Has the dirt been screened, or does it still contain large pieces of roots and rocks?
You will also find many construction sites listed on dirt-matching websites (see below) where you can make arrangements for delivery.
Check Online Dirt-Matching Sites
Construction, excavating, and landscaping companies have turned to posting their excess soil inventories online via dirt-matching sites. Some sites are only local, and the national sites just need your zip code or address. Many of these sites are open to homeowners as well. Try these favorites:
- FillDirtConnections.com (local in Virginia)
- Craigslist.org (search for fill dirt; you may find free delivery, too)
Befriend a Farmer
Manure is a great amendment for your garden soil, and it's readily available. Jump on Craigslist or Freecycle, and you'll find lots of ads for free horse or chicken manure. Just know that you'll need to make compost before you can use it in your garden. Want something you can use right away? Then, look for rabbit manure. It doesn't have to be composted first.
Check Your Local Town Hall
Call your town hall, and ask if there is a local fill dirt program. Chances are there's an area at the local town dump set aside for fill dirt. You may find there are restrictions on how much you can take, and you'll have to find your own way to haul away the dirt.
Sources to Avoid
When it comes to certain sources, free dirt may be free for a reason—and not a good one. Avoid using potentially dangerous soil on your property by avoiding these sources of dirt.
Road crews are happy to give away the dirt that they dig out of ditches, but it'll usually come with lots of litter, weed seed, and environmental contaminants from all the vehicle traffic.
Waste Management Plants
Many sewage treatment facilities have begun to offer free compost, known as biosolids. Basically, it's what's left after all the sewage sludge is processed. While the process is strictly regulated by both federal and state governments, there may be the possibility that chemical residues from prescription medications and household cleaners are still likely to be present in the compost that you're receiving. Don't chance growing food or plants in problematic dirt.
Potentially Contaminated Sites
Old home sites, urban lots, and industrial areas are likely to be contaminated with dangerous levels of heavy metals and hazardous materials, so it's best to pass on any dirt from these places.
Free fill dirt signs and ads are a bit of a wild card because you really don't know what you're getting, so stick to sources you know and trust. That's what makes stopping at a construction site one of your best bets. You can see what you're getting, and you know just where it came from. If you have any questions about the quality or safety of some dirt that you've been offered, take a soil sample, and have it tested.
Testing and Amending Fill Dirt
It may take some work to whip your free fill dirt into shape. Start by testing to see if the soil is too acidic or alkaline. You can do this without a test kit. If you'd like to know more about your soil, check with your local cooperative extension office. You can find your co-op extension office by searching online for state listings, but you can also find them located at your state university. You should be able to have your soil tested there for a nominal fee. Once you know what nutrients your dirt is deficient in, you'll be able to start working to improve it with free amendments.
What is the difference between fill dirt and topsoil?
Fill dirt contains few nutrients for plant growth, whereas topsoil contains essential minerals and organic matter. Fill dirt also has more rocks than topsoil.
Can topsoil be used as fill?
Topsoil tends to be looser than fill dirt, meaning it shifts and settles more. It still can be used to fill holes, though you might need more of it and it typically costs more than fill dirt.
How do you make fill dirt into topsoil?
It's possible to improve fill dirt by mixing in amendments, including leaf litter, compost, and wood chips. Also, refrain from using chemicals on your soil that kill the beneficial organisms.
Sandborn, Dixie. Bunny honey: Using rabbit manure as a fertilizer. Michigan State University Extension.
A Citizen's Guide to Excavation of Contaminated Soil. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2014