Understanding Soil Health. Understanding Life

November 2, 2021

Written by: Lydia Griffin

Soil is the basis of all life. In fact, without the diversity and functionality of soil, plant and animal (yes, that means you, too) life could not exist. But how is this possible? How is it that soil accepts back that which came from it century after century, while still serving as a host and origin to so many life forms? 

This introduces the concept of soil health, which the National Resource Conservation Service defines as the capability of soils to ceaselessly sustain the vitality of all players in a living ecosystem (NRCS, 2021). You see, with no soil, there is no life; and when you know soil, you know life. Whether you’re a soil scientist, farmer, gardener, or mailman (that’s right, walking on the grass decreases soil quality), we all have a role to play in maintaining soil quality. This section is about the basics of soil health. Understanding the definition of soil health is the first step needed toward learning how you can make an individual contribution. 

Other than knowing that soil sustains plant and animal life, you may want to know what the other benefits of maintaining a healthy soil are:

  • The soil acts as a filter for dirty materials and other pollutants that could harm you, me, or your dog (just in case you don’t care about you or me, I know you care about your dog). Rather than allowing potential pollutants to infiltrate into drinking water, there are physical, chemical, and biological processes that decompose the harmful chemicals. This is all happening right underneath your feet! The soil also acts as a reservoir to store the majority of our drinking water. Thanks soil!
  • The soil cycles nutrients (carbon, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, to name a few) which are taken up by plants, which are then eaten by you and me. Thanks soil, for our food! The cycling of nutrients for plants means that a healthy soil also plays a significant role in carbon capture, which is important for lessening the dangers impacts of climate change. Thanks soil!
  • The soil serves as an engineering medium by providing support for infrastructure and recreation (roads, housing, sport, etc.). The management of the soil in combination with its environment often determines its success as an engineering medium. For example, you would not build a skyscraper on slippery, unstable soil. Likewise, you would not build a road on overly dry soil, which could lead to cracks in the road. In other words, the soil is the home for your home. We now have food, shelter, and water covered, all thanks to soil!

You now know soil better, but how do we keep it, and thus ourselves, alive? Here’s how:

  • Less soil disturbance contributes to the longevity of a healthy soil. Disturbance includes tillage, compacting the soil (with vehicles or foot traffic), or using pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides that detrimentally affect soil biota. Less disturbance also allows the soil to maintain its high water-holding capacity for plants and us. 
  • Plant a diverse array of plants. Like humans, microbes need a diverse diet. Covering the soil with varying plant types, or rotating crops each year, encourages the microbes in the soil to maintain a high and consistent population. This allows soils to function at their highest efficiency.
  • Keep the soil covered. If soil is left bare, it can erode into waterways and sidewalks and become hazardous. Additionally, if soil erodes away, it is not in place to feed plants, and therefore people. Keeping the soil bare also hinders its role and ability to mitigate the effects of climate change, as there are no plants to capture carbon. You can cover the soil in ornamental plants and grasses, mulches, or tall trees that provide a canopy for the ground. 
  • Feed the soil! In other words, feed the microbes. Soil microbes contribute to many aspects of soil health. Adding organic matter like manure, old grass clippings, leaves, etc., allows for the microbes to break down the material into more soil. Over time, any soil that was or is ever lost by natural or human process can be added back this way. It takes 100-1000 years to make 1 inch of topsoil, though it takes way less time to lose it, so add amendments regularly. 

Now you have the fundamental knowledge, and hopefully care, to learn more about how to upkeep our soil. Soil is the common denominator between you and I, and has the ability to connect people, plants, microorganisms, etc., from all over the world! The soil was here long before we were. The likelihood of it sticking around for the benefit of future generations is dependent on us. When you save the soil, you save life. Check out the resources below on how to further dive into the realm of soil health. 

Natural Resources Conservation Service. Soil Health | NRCS Soils. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2021, from https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health

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  1. This was an excellent article. I read in the small farmers journal if we compost for every 6 in of compost we put in our fields and gardens that is converted into one inch of topsoil. My grandparents used to form with mules. Even though we have a tractor we are in the process of getting back to using draft horses as that is less compaction and better for our soul so it can do its job efficiently. Thank you so very much for this post it’s very very good.

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