The Antarctic Dry Valleys are regarded as one of the harshest terrestrial habitats on Earth because of the extremely cold and dry conditions. Despite the extreme environment and scarcity of conspicuous primary producers, the soils contain organic carbon and heterotrophic micro-organisms and invertebrates. Potential sources of organic compounds to sustain soil organisms include in situ primary production by micro-organisms and mosses, spatial subsidies from lacustrine and marine-derived detritus, and temporal subsidies ('legacies') from ancient lake deposits. The contributions from these sources at different sites are likely to be influenced by local environmental conditions, especially soil moisture content, position in the landscape in relation to lake level oscillations and legacies from previous geomorphic processes. Here we review the abiotic factors that influence biological activity in Dry Valley soils and present a conceptual model that summarizes mechanisms leading to organic resources therein.