Why Soil Health Matters - The Living World Beneath Your Feet!

Why Soil Health Matters - The Living World Beneath Your Feet!

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“For whatsoever from one place doth fall, Is with the tide unto an other brought: For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.” - Edmund Spencer ‘The Faerie Queen’

Soil! What is this stuff and just why is it so important? It seems like dirt is everywhere, so why all the fuss?

Well, hold onto your garden boots! Soil is much more than just dirt … Healthy, fertile soil is ALIVE! 

Soil Health 101 layers of soil

We as living things eat living things, be that plant or animal in origin. If one follows the food web down to the root of it all - it’s the plant family that is the staple source of nutrition for almost all other food that is topside of topsoil! 

So where do plants get their food? … The soil!

There is an entire ecosystem that lives beneath your feet! In turn, it supports entire ecosystems above ground too! Without the soil, we’d have a literal desert or fields of stone and rock outside!

That thin layer of topsoil that covers the rocky core of this blue and green bubble we’re floating on is only about 5-10 inches deep! Everything that supports our entire ecosystem and food web - is grown right there in less than a foot of the Earth. 

Black gold indeed! Once you get over that moment of existential crisis the above revelation may have had on you, let's talk about what soil is all about!

Vital Topsoil Vitality

Topsoil is composed of about 45% mineral particles, 25% air and 25% water, and only 5% organic matter. But when combined, these hold all the nutrients and moisture that support plantstopsoil and animals of all kinds. 

When the last glaciers in North America melted about 12,000 years ago, they left behind ground rocks and minerals and loads of trapped organic matter. These starter or ‘parent materials’, combined with topography, time, climate, and organisms in the soil are the five factors that are part of soil formation. 

Minerals, silt, sand, and clay form as stone breaks down and becomes mixed, churned, and slowly makes its way to the surface from the subsoil. Mixed and further moved around by roots and organisms that live in this thin, active layer of dirt! 

  • It can take 500 years for natural processes to create a single inch of soil
  • Composting, mulching, and earthworms help speed up this process
  • Scientists have identified over 70,000 different kinds of soil right here in the United States!

There are also physical and chemical factors that work together in order to form soil. Water in the form of rain, rivers, waves and tidal action, plus freezing and thawing, all further break down what the wind and sun, plus temperatures from hot and cold contraction. worm burrowing in soil

Soil is further broken down with the aid of biological activity in the form of -

  • Root expansion and formation breaking apart subsoil and adding oxygen
  • Lichens secrete acids and break down rocks and trees
  • Fungal and bacterial decomposition
  • Organisms burrowing in, moving through, and eating things in the soil

Home to billions of bacteria, fungal strands, microscopic and macroscopic organisms, and more, the average teaspoon of soil has around 1 billion individual microscopic cells, thousands of protozoa, and 10,000 different types of organisms living in it! 

All of these organisms help break down those rocks, sand, and organic matter into rich earth!

Soil Supports Life

The lessons we learned during the Great Dust Bowl have proven beyond all reasonable doubt that we need to care for this essential top layer! With only a single layer of topsoil to support almost all life on earth, it’s important to have healthy soil! After all, all our food, and our food's food, grow in that thin layer!

Soil Is Important Because…

  • Holds water that dissolves nutrients
  • Makes those nutrients available for plants' roots to use
  • Filters water before it runs into streams, lakes, and oceans
  • Keeps chemicals from flowing into our water sources
  • Cycles and stores nutrients
  • Home to countless living organisms
  • Provides stability and structure to everything above ground
  • Supports all plant growth and biodiversity
  • Holds heat from the sun while insulating plant roots and animals in the soil
  • Contributes to air quality
  • Provides the nutrients plants need (and that we need as a result)
  • It grows our fiber and building material
  • Sequesters carbon and holds heat
  • Recycles and filters water
  • Supports our homes and the roads we drive on
  • It’s where we play and relax and the recreation areas we enjoy
  • Sequesters a quarter of all human CO2 emissions each year

soil is important

Sounds pretty vital, doesn’t it?

But this vital layer is still taken for granted. Almost 36 billion tons of soil has been lost every year due to water, deforestation, and other changes!

Soil Conservation at Home

What would we do without soil? Well, for starters, we’d have to endure famine, drought, flooding, and illness! Due to excessive chemical use, wind and water erosion, depletion from over-farming, and climate change, we have lost nearly half of the world’s fertile, workable or usable topsoil.

soil infographic

While we may be losing topsoil to the actions of water and wind, it has to go somewhere, right? Nothing is truly lost until we can’t get it back. So get out there and start helping keep the soil we still have healthy, alive, and in place!

Want to dig a bit deeper into soil conservation and be a part of helping enrich the world beneath your feet? Here are a few easy steps that you as a gardener can do to help out right in your own backyard.

  • Control erosion - Plants, walls, mulch, physical barriers, etc.
  • Crop rotation in the veggie garden/agriculture
  • Grow with the contours of the soil
  • Cover crops in the vegetable garden or plant groundcover in the landscaping bed
  • Create a Compost Bin/Compost area
  • Slow water runoff and soil erosion on steep hillsides and water banks
  • Create a Rain Garden to catch water runoff
  • Plant or Leave Buffer zones - untouched strips of grass, trees, or shrubs
  • Build terraces or stepped beds into hillsides
  • Fill areas of exposed soil around your home - plants, mulch, Rock Gardens, etc.
  • Underplant downspouts with plants, rocks, River/Rain gardens, or bark chips
  • Use organic fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides
  • Prevent soil compaction that leads to erosion
  • Covering bare, exposed ground with 3-4 inches of Arborist bark chips or mulch

Enrich the Earth!

hands holding soil

Anywhere there is soil - both rural areas or urban areas, anything you do to help enriches our entire world! So get involved in the husbandry of this thin, yet essential layer of life that covers our world.

You are what you eat, and you are what your food eats too! So get outside, stop erosion, plant a garden, and enrich the ground! For healthy living and as the backbone of food security, you can see why it’s so important we pay attention to the ground beneath our feet!

Happy Planting!

Head over to your own County Extension Office or to your State USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services for soil surveys, soil education, and soil information specific to your area at www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/site/soils/home/

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