The Dirt on Soil

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.  It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life.  Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

How much thought have you given to your soil lately?  Perhaps you haven’t ever waxed poetic about it, as did Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America (which, incidentally, I might be adding to my ever growing book list), but I hope you can appreciate it.  If not yet, by the end of the next couple weeks I hope to have convinced you that soil really is worth thinking -and talking- about.  I’ll be spending the next few posts breaking it all down, covering everything from soil testing to texture, pH to fertility.

But, first things first.  What is soil?  And why can’t I just call it dirt?  I remember one of my soils professors (yes, I had multiple…4 soils classes in all, from 3 different professors) once saying that “dirt” is what you clean out from under your fingernails or sweep off the floor.  “Soil”, on the other hand, is much more prized.  Among its many functions, in our garden it’s what provides structure for plants to grow, and the matrix for providing nutrients and water.

If we want to get really technical, we can take the definition from my Fundamentals of Soil Science text which tells us, “Soil is a dynamic, natural body composed of minerals, organic materials, and living forms.”

At the most basic level, it consists of 4 major components: (a combination of solid matrix and pore space)

  1. Minerals – the inorganic solids of sand, silt, clay
  2. Organic matter – carbon-based substances including living organisms (broken down plant and animal debris, bacteria and other microorganisms)
  3. Water – important for transporting nutrients and essential for the survival of plants and other organisms
  4. Air – transporter of gases such as carbon dioxide and oxygen, provides ventilation for plants and other organisms

These 4 components are what make soil an ideal potential medium for plant growth.  It provides structure/physical support for the root system, and it also provides nutrients, water, and air (both carbon dioxide and oxygen) which are needed for plant growth.

In addition to being a medium for plant growth, soils are also important as recyclers or environmental filters, water supply regulators, soil organism habitat, and engineering medium.

As we’ll see in the upcoming posts (and this is probably something you’ve noticed in your own garden) not all soil is created equal.  Some is much better suited for growing plants than others.  We’ll talk about why and what you can do to improve it.  Until then, go outside, take a good look at your soil and think about the different purposes it serves in your garden.


  1. You are Arthur Mildmay. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this at 37:22 and 1:10:40 (or just watch the whole thing).

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