soil, surface layer of the earth, composed of fine rock material disintegrated by geological processes; and humus, the organic remains of decomposed vegetation. In agriculture, soil is the medium that supports crop plants, both physically and biologically. Soil may be from a few inches to several feet thick.
Components and Structure
The inorganic fraction of soil may include various sizes and shapes of rocks and minerals; in order of increasing size these are termed clay, silt, sand, gravel, and stone. Coarser soils have lower capacity to retain organic plant nutrients, gases, and water, which are essential for plants. Soils with higher clay content, which tend to retain these substances, are therefore usually better suited for agriculture. In most soils, clay and organic particles aggregate into plates, blocks, prisms, or granules. The arrangement of particles, known as soil structure, largely determines the soil's pore space and density, which translates into its capacity to hold air and water. Organic matter consists of decomposed plant and animal material and living plant roots. Microorganisms, living in the organic portion of soil, perform the essential function of decomposing plant and animal matter, releasing nutrients to be used by growing plants.
Besides organic matter, soil is largely composed of elements and compounds of silicon, aluminum, iron, oxygen, and, in smaller quantities, calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium. Factors determining the nature of soil are vegetation type, climate, and parent rock material; geographic relief and the geological age of the developing soil are also factors. Acidic soils occur in humid regions because alkaline minerals are leached downward: alkaline soils occur in dry regions because alkaline salts remain concentrated near the surface. Geologically young soils resemble their parent material more than older soils, which have been altered over time by climate and vegetation. For advice and information on soils, consult state agricultural experiment stations and their publications.
Undisturbed soils tend to form layers, called horizons, roughly parallel to the surface. The Russian system of soil classification, from which most others derive, is based on the distinctive horizons of the soil profile. The A horizon, the surface layer, contains most of the humus. The B horizon contains inorganic compounds formed by decomposition of organic material, a process known as mineralization; the material is brought to the B layer by the downward leaching action of water. The lowest soil layer, the C horizon, represents the weathered mineral parent substance.
Soil Fertility and Conservation
Soil fertility—the ability to support plant growth—depends on various factors, including the soil's structure or texture; its chemical composition, esp. its content of plant nutrients; its supply of water; and its temperature. Agriculture necessarily lowers soil fertility by removing soil nutrients incorporated in the harvested crops. Cultivation, especially with heavy machinery, can degrade soil structure. Agricultural soils are also vulnerable to mismanagement. Exposure of soils to wind and rain during cultivation encourages erosion of the fertile surface. Excessive cropping or grazing can depress soil-nutrient levels and degrade soil structure.
Soil conservation techniques have been developed to address the range of soil management issues. Various methods of cultivation conserve soil fertility (see cover crop; rotation of crops). Minimum-tillage systems, often entailing herbicide use, avoid erosion and maintain soil structure. Soil fertility and agricultural productivity can also be improved, restored, and maintained by the correct use of fertilizer, either organic, such as manure, or inorganic, and other soil amendments. Organic matter can be added to improve soil structure. Soil acidity can be decreased by addition of calcium carbonate or increased by addition of sulfuric acid.
See F. R. Steiner, Soil Conservation in the United States (1990); M. Alexander, Introduction to Soil Microbiology (2d ed. 1991); E. J. Plaster, Soil Science and Management (2d ed. 1991); publications of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service.