The Soil Is Alive

By Chelle Cordero

July 9, 2010 5 min read

One of the coolest facts about our earth, specifically the soil beneath our feet, is that it's alive -- literally! In the 1989 comedy "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," a group of accidentally miniaturized youngsters came face to face with many of the wonders living in their own backyard. Not all of these tiny life-forms are scary; in fact, there is a lot of good in the ground we walk on. Although many of us use the terms "dirt" and "soil" interchangeably, there are actually major differences. Dirt is what we get on clothing and hands and needs to be washed away. Soil, however, is a complex mix of organisms ranging in size from tiny one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi and protozoa to more complex and multicelled roundworms, earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants. There are a multitude of organisms that help to aerate and nourish our land, things that are big enough to see and some that only a microscope can detect. "Soil is the reservoir on which most life on earth depends, as the primary source of food, feed, forage, fiber and pharmaceuticals," according to the Soil Science Society of America. The SSSA is a professional scientific society made up of soil scientists, educators and consultants focused on promoting soil science, including enhancing soil topics in schools. Soil "is a complex mix of ingredients: minerals, air, water and organic matter -- countless organisms and the decaying remains of once-living things," according to the society's website. Dolly Cummings, project leader at Camp Bayou nature center and preserve, says: "The terms 'soiled,' 'dirty' and 'decomposing' all have such negative connotations. In a natural ecosystem, there are both 'good' and 'bad' organisms that keep each other in check. Soil contains critters that help break down organic matter (fallen leaves, dead bodies, etc.) into a form that can be used by plants." Unfortunately, Cummings says, the use of pesticides may be just as effective at killing off "good" organisms as it is at killing so-called "bad" ones. Organisms in our soil help to decompose organic matter and convert nutrients into plant nourishment and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As explained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Soil organic matter is carbon-rich material that includes plant, animal and microbial residue in various stages of decomposition. Live soil organisms and plant roots are part of the carbon pool in soil but are not considered soil organic matter until they die and begin to decay." Natural environmental factors, such as rainfall and temperature, can affect soil organic matter. "The amount of organic matter in the soil is a balance between additions of plant and animal materials and losses through decomposition and erosion." Earthworms are very important to the survival of plants, flowers and trees. They aerate and drain soil while making room for plant roots by burrowing through at relatively high speeds. Worms' excrement is very nutritious for plants and benefits many farms and gardens. In compost bins, earthworms help to break ingredients down faster by digesting elements and oxygenating the piles. Ladybugs devour aphids, scale insects, mealybugs and other small soft-bodied insects that can be pests. Though slugs are not pretty to look at and often have a bad rep, they will break down animal fats quickly and turn the remains into a mixture to feed your plants. Spiders help control cicadas, which can be very damaging to plants. The Environmental Protection Agency's Ecosystem Services Research Program says, "These ecosystem services are important to our health and well-being, yet they are limited and often taken for granted as being free." Like all communities, the ecosystem of our soil must maintain stability where there is enough food, water and shelter to sustain it. Rain and temperature fluctuations, pests and diseases -- along with man-made interventions, such as chemicals, fires and blatant disregard -- can shift this delicate balance. Experienced farmers know to rotate crops, improve drainage and treat the earth with respect. Without a fully functioning bionetwork of plants, animals and microorganisms, our soil can fail to meet our needs because of its inability to produce life-sustaining food, fresh air and water, disease control and more.COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM

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