Everything begins with soil from trophy wildlife to pretty flowers and butterflies. Soil is the foundation for conservation and defines what will work and what will not on your land. Knowing your soil is vital to achieving any goals you set for your property.
Soil is composed of four things: mineral materials, water, air and organic matter. These provide the raw materials that plants need to grow which in turn sustains the animals the eat those plants.
The largest component of soil by volume is typically mineral material. This is decomposed rock in the form of sand, loam and clay. Plants and microorganisms in the soil absorb the chemical compounds from the surrounding sand, loam or clay which they combine with carbon dioxide in the air and water as their building blocks for life. Fertile soils are those rich in the chemical nutrients needed to make up living things.
Water is called the universal solvent. Molecules of all sorts in the sand, loam and clay dissolve in water making them available for surrounding plants and microorganisms. Water transports the nutrients into and throughout the living tissues of plants and animals.
The idea of soil being made up of air makes no sense when you first think about it. Air is what we breath; it is a gas and it is what is above the dirt, not major part of the soil mix. Wrong! Fertile soils are typically made up of up to 25% air. Small amounts of air fill the spaces between the other components. Air along with the nutrient ladened water in the soil are taken up and provide an important source of carbon and nitrogen taken up by plant roots.
The all important bridge that transforms water, air and minerals into food for plants is the organic matter in soil. This is a mixture of living and dead material all of which contains large amounts of easy to use carbon. Carbon is the universal building block of life. Its chemical structure and ability to form extremely complex molecules make it the ideal foundation for creating everything from sugars and fats, the fuel we all burn, to amino acids and proteins that make up our muscles, nerves and even the DNA that provides the blueprint for who we are.
Much of the organic matter in the soil is itself alive. Some are large and visible while the majority are microscopic critters that spend their existence either decomposing dead plants and animals. They are the great recycling factories of our land; making those building blocks of life created by earlier generations available time and time again for reuse by the living plants and animals of today.
Among these are the fungi of which mushrooms are the familiar. Neither plant or animal, fungi get what they need to live from plant and animal tissue. Most fungi feed on dead tissue and are among the most decomposers of the soil world. Others eat living tissue and they are among the most important plant diseases.
Microorganisms are by definition too small to see. Some are very small animals like nematodes, others like bacteria are living things that can be made up single cells. Some like viruses are so small that they do not live on their own but can only exist and reproduce inside the living tissue of other living cells.
Together, mineral materials, water, air and organic matter create this amazing mixture we call soil that provides the plants and animals that live on our property with what they need to live and grow.
Figuring out what will and will not grow on your land begins with knowing what soil types you have on your property. Fortunately, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has created the free online tools you need. They are the best references for understanding your soils.
USDA NRCS Soil Maps – An application that allows you to find the specific type(s) of soil pretty much anywhere in America.
USDA NRCS Soil Surveys – Detailed descriptions of soils in each state and its counties. These are detailed documents containing descriptions of soil types, considerations for agriculture, forestry, recreation and construction.
USDA NRCS Soil Taxonomy – A reference that defines and describes soil, its form and a system to describe different soil types.