Soil is Alive! Let's Stop Treating Our Soil Like Dirt

Soil is Alive
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All life depends on the hidden world beneath our feet

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Is soil alive? Yes! In fact, over half of the known species on Earth live in the soil. And all of life depends on the hidden world that exists beneath our feet. Let’s stop treating soil like dirt. Here are five tips.

From microbes to mammals, soil is home to more than 59% of life on Earth making it as biodiverse a habitat as a rainforest! And like the rainforests, soil is subject to damage caused by fires, floods, and drought. Deforestation, pollution, compaction, and climate change also negatively affect soil health. 

Soil Versus Dirt

Dirt is made up of organic materials, but it’s essential “dead” or devoid of nutrients. Think sand, clay, silt, rocks, pebbles, and more. There’s no structure to dirt. When you’re gardening, it’s the extra stuff you sweep off the path. 

Soil is teeming with life. It’s full of ecosystems of living organisms (plants, bacteria, animals). It has structure, containing air, water, and food; Soil cleans the environment of carbon and pollutants. For gardeners, building healthy soil is the bedrock of healthy plants. 

Credit: National Resources Conservation Service USDA

Where did soil come from? Through nature and natural processes, bedrock deep down in the Earth’s crust is slowly being turned into subsoil and I mean slowly. It takes about 500 years to create 1 inch! 

And it takes about 500 to 1,000 years  to create 1 inch of topsoil! Destructive farming practices, which only take from the soil without giving back anything of merit, can destroy that 1 inch in just a few years. It is estimated that in the past 200 years unsustainable farming has destroyed 60% of the topsoil, mostly due to erosion.

Soil is Alive!

While working in your garden I’m sure you have noticed earthworms, millipedes, snails, springtails, ants, etc.

Called “nature’s plows,” earthworms improve soil drainage. Credit: Andrei Metelev

That’s what we call macro-organisms or macrofauna and can be seen with the naked eye. Use a magnifying glass and you’ll see lots more. Soil scientists delve even deeper, putting soil samples under powerful microscopes to find tinier soil inhabitants. 

Micro-organisms including bacteria, protozoa, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, and nematodes are living in all healthy soil. It is a complex balancing act and each has a specific job to do. These microscopic critters form the base of the soil food web by breaking down proteins in organic matter and releasing nutrients plant roots can tap into.  

You need a microscope to see the tiny inhabitants of your garden soil.

One teaspoon of healthy soil can contain 1 billion bacteria and many yards of fungal mycelia! It can also contain as many as 10,000 soil microbes science has yet to discover. 

How to Take Care of Our Underground Workhorses

  1. Feed them! Compost, manure, cover crops, and mulch all add organic matter to your soil.  
  2. Adopt no-till techniques or at the very least keep tilling to a minimum to maintain soil structure and not disrupt the underground cities full of beneficial bacteria and microbes.
  3. Avoid compaction. Don’t walk on very wet or super dry soil and never drive machinery over it. When the micro-environment within the soil is destroyed, microbial activity declines and compacted soil loses its ability to absorb water making it more vulnerable to erosion. Those tiny organisms could easily be swept away with the soil. 
  4. Stop poisoning them! Don’t use anything toxic in or near your garden that could wash into the soil and commit mass murder of the soil inhabitants. This includes chemical fertilizers as well as pesticides and herbicides.

Your soil is a living thing so don’t treat it like dirt!

Our gardens are only as good as the soil they grow in. 

Learn how to prepare your soil in the fall for next year’s garden.

About The Author

Robin Sweetser

Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. Read More from Robin Sweetser

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