Sometimes, we only think of soil as nothing more than a mess when tracked inside! But soil is a thriving miniature world of diverse living things hidden and away from our view, vital for the health of our Earth, as revealed in soil testing results. Healthy soil ecosystems have all the similar components as more visible ecosystems like forests, grasslands, or wetlands.
Not only does healthy soil support its ecosystem, but it is essential for the ecosystem’s survival. For example, in a forest, a healthy soil layer provides a source of water and nutrients for plants, as well as a safe place to anchor themselves to and grow, and is a place for the burrowing animals to nest. Soil also supports the human efforts to grow and harvest food.
The vital components of healthy soil:
Healthy soil is a storehouse of organic (or carbon-based) matter and minerals that become the essential nutrients for plants and microorganisms. The mineral nutrients come primarily from the weathering rocks, from living and decomposed organic matter, and from the rainfall and interactions between the soil organisms and the atmosphere.
Carbon comes to soil from the dead and living organisms on and within the soil layer. Also, when the carbon-based plants and animals die, their bodies decompose with the help of soil decomposers, and the carbon moves into the ground. When living plants photosynthesize, they manufacture carbon-based sugars for food. Most carbon-based sugars are drawn into plant roots, while some move into the soil.
How are living organisms necessary for healthy soil?
Scientists have estimated that soil is the home to about a third of Earth’s living organisms. Just a single tablespoon of healthy soil has more individual living organisms compared to the total number of humans on Earth! Isn’t that fascinating? This includes microorganisms like bacteria, protozoa, and fungi, and the macro organisms like worms, beetles, and other things you can’t see without a microscope. Microorganisms, mainly bacteria and fungi, break down the carbon-rich organic matter and release nutrient-rich waste into the soil. This process is also called decomposition and makes the nutrients readily available for plants to absorb and utilize. In contrast, unhealthy soil has negligible, if any, microorganisms. Organic matter is not broken down without these creatures, and plants don’t have access to vital nutrients.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Soil Ecosystem
Let’s look closer at what healthy and unhealthy soil looks like:
Accurate soil testing has time and again revealed that in healthy soil, carbon-based organic matter helps to create pockets in the soil that store air and water. These vital pockets allow resident plants and animals to breathe and move quickly. In healthy soil, the water that falls on top of it is absorbed rapidly and stored in the air pockets. When all the air pockets are full and the ground is fully saturated, the extra water can drain through the soil to the other deeper pockets. The spongy feel of the healthy soil is because of these air pockets.
Unhealthy and compacted soil, on the other hand, will feel stiff and solid and limit the movement of animals and the growth of plant roots. Much of the water on such compacted soil is not absorbed. Instead, it runs over the soil surface, carrying away loose soil (in a process known as erosion). The thirsty plant roots and soil organisms beneath the surface remain deprived of the much-needed water when erosion occurs.
What does the health of soil have to do with climate change?
It is clear that healthy soil is an enormous storehouse for carbon from the atmosphere and decomposing organisms. So, healthy soil is crucial for keeping the vital carbon cycle balanced and atmospheric carbon levels at a healthy level for life on Earth to sustain.
When the cycle gets imbalanced carbon gets released from the soil into the atmosphere more rapidly. This can happen when soil layer is unhealthy or when plant-covered soil is disturbed.
It is obvious now that soil health is connected to the health of its greater ecosystem – unhealthy soil hurts the ecosystem’s living organisms and nonliving parts. You may have noticed a few problems with how your soil is treated. If you are looking for an in-depth look at your soil’s health, contact our experts at SoilOptix® by visiting soiloptix.com