Climate Action Collaborative: Saving the planet by getting down to Earth
Dirt. Grime. Muck. Dust. Filth. Scuz. Crud.
Taking a look at the synonyms for soil can give a glimpse into the negative reputation it has unjustly earned for itself. Even by turning the word into a verb you’re making something dirty, whether it’s by falling into a mud puddle or getting a little too scared in a movie after you’ve downed your second 100-ounce Icee.
As a school garden teacher, I hear a lot of questions about soil. “Are soil and dirt the same thing? Is soil just worm poop? Why do we need soil? What does soil taste like? Will I get in trouble if I throw this soil on my friend even though she totally started it first?”
Some of these questions are easier to answer than others — “Sort of. No. To grow healthy plants. Worm Poop. Absolutely, now put that handful of soil back in the garden.”
My favorite, however, is “what is soil made of?”
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The short answer to that question is SOIL, which stands for Space, Organics, Inorganics, and Liquid. Healthy soil has all four of these components in a balance that can sustain life for years to come. Want to know how each one of these ingredients gets added to the recipe? Hopefully, you’re ready to get down and dirty.
Just like the residents of Vail’s condos and apartments, our local clay soil is in search of some serious elbow room. Healthy soil has plenty of spaces in between soil particles, some larger or smaller than others. The larger spaces allow water to pass through easily, preventing mud pits from forming after every rainfall if the water cannot move into the soil. The smaller spaces are able to hold onto some of that water for plant roots to access.
Ask any second grader out there and they’ll tell you that the organic matter in the soil is their favorite part. Why? Two words — worm poop. Soil organic matter is typically composed of three different things — living microbes, decaying matter, and stable organic matter, also known as humus.
Organic matter is naturally added to the soil with seasonal changes as leaves fall off and plants wither and die off in the winter with their root mass still intact under the soil. The microbes and worms help decompose this plant matter into humus, which is what gives healthy soil its dark, rich color.
The inorganic matter in soil typically plays a huge role in the final structure of soil. Any given sample is made up of some combination of sand, silt, and clay. The coarseness of these components is what gives soil its pore spaces. Sand will cause large pore spaces, allowing water to drain quickly but not be retained, whereas clay leaves almost no space for water to drain through, creating sticky mud puddles and packing tighter and tighter with every rainfall. The ideal inorganic mixture for agriculture, loamy soil, has equal amounts of all three components.
The final component of soil, liquid, depends on all three other parts for its ability to hang out in soil long enough to help grow healthy plants. As mentioned earlier, soil with an equal amount of large and small pore spaces allows water to drain through while still retaining enough for plant roots to access. Decomposing organic matter in soil helps increase the pore spaces in soil as plants break down and microbes and worms make their way through the soil searching for food. Achieving the loamy soil balance of inorganic matter is the cherry on top for healthy water retention.
Healthy soil healthy planet
Apart from increasing food production, providing a home for various organisms both big and small, and preventing another dust bowl, why does soil health matter? When unhealthy soil has to be amended to allow for agricultural production, commercial growers will often reach for synthetic fertilizers.
Large quantities of nitrogen fertilizers increase the pollutants in our ecosystem and increase greenhouse gas emissions through the production of nitrous oxide. By maintaining and increasing healthy soils, we can help the Climate Action Collaborative and Eagle County reach their goal of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2025 — a goal that will help keep our environment healthy for all of the little gardeners I work with as they grow toward their dreams.
Haley Baker is the sowing seeds coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center, which is a founding member organization of the Climate Action Collaborative. The Climate Action Collaborative for the Eagle County community is working to decrease carbon emissions 25% by 2025 and 80% by 2050.