Healthy Soil for Life
All living things depend on healthy soil, which is essential for:
- Growing healthy plants, including the ones we depend on for food;
- Absorbing, storing, and cleaning the water we use for drinking and irrigation;
- Regulating the temperature of the earth and air quality by trapping greenhouse gases and eliminating them from the atmosphere; and
- Providing habitat for billions of organisms.
Get the Dirt on Soil
Compacted soil can increase stormwater runoff and create unhealthy conditions in your landscape.
Soil forms over thousands of years as minerals weathered from rock combine with water, air, and organic matter from both living and dead organisms. Different-sized mineral particles, such as sand, silt, and clay, give soil its texture. Decomposer organisms, such as earthworms, nematodes, and centipedes, are an essential part of the soil-building process, breaking down once-living organisms and incorporating them into the soil. Different combinations of minerals, organic matter, water, and air have created thousands of different types of soil. In fact, scientists have identified over 70,000 in the United States.
Soil is Alive!
Beneath your feet is a bustling hub of activity. A tablespoon of healthy soil is host to more individual living organisms than there are people on the planet. Worms, insects, mites, spiders, centipedes, fungi, and bacteria are all hard at work keeping the soil and your plants healthy. These underground organisms cycle nutrients, aerate soil, and stabilize soil pH. They also prey on garden pests and provide food for wildlife.
Plants and soil life depend on each other for survival. The leaves that fall to the ground and stems that die-off at the end of the growing season feed soil organisms, which in turn break them down and release the nutrients that plants need to grow. This recycling process keeps both soil organisms and plants alive and healthy.
Soil is made up of approximately 50% solids (minerals and organic matter) and 50% pores filled with either water or air. The water and air in the pore spaces perform important functions for plants. Nutrients dissolved in soil water are taken in by plant roots, and soil air provides oxygen to the roots. The amount of pore space varies with the type of soil – sandy soils have more and clay soils have less. Soil organisms help improve soil porosity – as they eat, grow, and move through soil, they create openings for the storage of air and water.
Healthy Soil Stores and Cleans Water
When soil has the right mix of minerals, organic matter, and pore spaces, it acts like a sponge, absorbing rainwater and storing it. This underground water not only provides a steady source of water to plant roots but also replenishes the groundwater supplies we use for drinking water in New Jersey.
Healthy soil filters water as it sinks in, removing or trapping impurities before they can reach our groundwater supplies. Soil micro-organisms play an important role in this process, biologically removing disease-causing pathogens and other impurities from the water.
Don’t Treat Your Soil Like Dirt!
When soil is pressed together from constant foot traffic, machinery, or heavy objects, it loses pore spaces and becomes compacted. Without pores, soils lose the ability to hold the water and air that plants need for healthy growth. Unlike healthy soil, which soaks up rain water, compacted soil acts more like pavement. Storm water runs off compacted soil and carries pollutants like fertilizers and pesticides into our waterways.
The Ocean County Soil Conservation District has been a leader in both research and education efforts for healthy soil. Its Soil Health Improvement Project (SHIP) tested different soil restoration techniques with the goal of developing simple, low-cost solutions for homeowners with compacted soil in their yards.
Soil Health Videos:
Nature is Speaking: Soil Health
USDA NRCS: The Science of Soil Health: Compaction
New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station NJAES Soil Lab
NRCS NSSC: Water Movement in Soils
USDA NRCS Unlock the Secrets in the Soil: Benefits of No-Till
USDA NRCS Unlock the Secrets in the Soil: Soil Energy
Landscape for Life: Sustainable Soils
Cornell University: Soil Basics
Soil Science Society of America
Soil Science Society of America: Why Soil Is Important
USDA NRCS: Soil Food Web
USDA NRCS: Soil Health Nuggets