Why Is Soil So Important?

Soil and Gardening Tips

Why is soil so important? There are many angles you could take to evaluate, and answer, that question. A geologist, a kid writing an essay for school, a conservationist, or a real estate developer would all take a different slant on it.

A gardener is interested in primarily one aspect of this topic. What difference will the soil make for all the different plants you want to grow? 
What does soil actually do to help or hinder the development and health of plants? What is good soil?

Some people might think that weeds are the most troublesome element to deal with in a garden. It is probably more accurate to say this: 
the number one thing that will disappoint and dishearten a gardener is working with soil that is difficult to manage or just plain unproductive.

Let’s take a look at why that is true.



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Why Is Soil So Important? It Limits The Variety Of Plants That Can Be Grown.

Different plants prefer different growing conditions. Plants are naturally suited to survive or thrive within a certain range of factors. These include:

  • The amount of moisture they need or can tolerate;
  • The high and low temperatures they can endure;
  • The amount of sun they require;
  • The type of competition, activity or demands they face;
  • The presence of threats like insects or disease;
  • And many more, the most important being: the quality and characteristics of the soil they grow in.

Creating Healthy Soil For Gardening Is The Key
Think about what kind of plants you want to grow. Why is soil so important? It can dictate whether the plants you prefer will flourish. An example of how that actually works is demonstrated by the hapless gardener who has a prolific crop of weeds each year, while desirable plants struggle.

Why does that happen? Many weeds have adapted to grow in poor soil. Specialty plants do not adapt so easily. A garden that offers an inferior growing medium is prone to have the less desired plants dominating the landscape.

If growing certain plants is important to you, changes to the soil can make that possible, as long as the climate is appropriate. If you have been disappointed with attempts to grow some of your favorites, the answer and solution may be tied to what is happening below ground.

You will need to determine the characteristics of your soil, and compare that to the requirements of the plants you wish to grow. Some of the changes that may be appropriate are to:

  • improve drainage to remove excess water;
  • increase the ability of the soil to hold moisture;
  • alter the pH of the soil to be more or less acidic or alkaline;
  • increase the amount of organic material;
  • evaluate nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous that may be inadequate or excessive, depending on the needs of different plants;
  • aerate soil that is compacted;
  • protect soil from baking in the sun, using mulch;

The alternative to modifying the soil is to restrict yourself to a category of plants that fit the profile for the type of soil and growing conditions you currently have.


Why Is Soil So Important? The Life Of The Plant Depends On The Life Of The Soil.

Soil may be thought of in many ways, but it is not just plain old dirt. Within the soil, working below the surface, are all the major forms of life. Hidden from our viewing are fungi, bacteria, protozoans, plant systems, insects, worms, mammals, and reptiles. All of these live in the soil, affect its structure, and aid in its development.

This life in the soil depends itself on dead stuff in the soil. Bacteria and fungi are present whenever the soil contains organic matter in the form of decaying plant and animal matter. Soils which have been depleted of organic material, or baked in the sun with no protection, or polluted in some way, may have limited or no microbial action. It is now possible to get microbes, like mycorrhizae, that will renew proper soil activity.

The bacteria which live in the soil are of great importance in helping to make food available for plant growth. Chemical elements or compounds in the earth must be converted into forms that plants can use. The process of breaking down material to make it available to plants is carried out by bacteria, fungi and other basic life forms.

Healthy soil is important to plants because it provides the amazing interactive medium in which the cycle of life, death, life goes on.


Why Is Soil So Important? The Roots Of The Plant Tell The Story.

The basic functions of roots are rather obvious: anchor the plant, and provide water and nutrients from the soil as the plant needs them. The ability of the roots to do this depends on certain characteristics of the soil.

Soil is made up of these items (not exclusively):

  • Mineral particles of different sizes and shapes, called sand, silt and clay (in order of descending size);
  • Organic matter in various stages of decomposition;
  • Air
  • Water

The ideal soil is one that holds moisture and at the same time allows a constant flow of air through the soil. Soil can not be over-saturated with water or air would be excluded. Air flow brings oxygen to the roots and to micro-organisms, and removes carbon dioxide from the soil.

Sand provides fast drainage and good aeration, but fails in the water holding department. Clay is tops in water holding ability, but dangerously low in supplying air to the soil.

Picture a set of jars, each filled with either small ball bearings or marbles or golf balls. The difference in the amount of space between the different size balls represents the area in which soil can maintain the presence of moisture and air.

Organic material can either help to retain moisture around the large particles, or keep the smaller size particles better spaced to permit air flow. Organic material is also vital to support the presence of earthworms. The tunneling activity of worms is essential for enabling the movement of air and water through the soil.

The reason why soil is so important to a plant’s survival is because of this need to maintain a balance between moisture and air. The ideal soil would be a mixture of various size particles of mineral and organic matter, that hold together in clumps, or aggregates.

The quality of the soil, as determined by physical characteristics, can help or hinder a plant.


Why Is Soil So Important? The Degree Of Acidity In The Soil Influences Plant Growth

The term pH is simply a measure of the degree of acidity in the soil. The reason why soil pH is so important is that it affects plant growth in four important ways:

  • It has a distinct effect on the availability of essential nutrients. (Nutrients could be present in the soil, but not accessible if the pH is wrong.)
  • It affects soil microorganisms, which in turn, have an impact on nutrient release and other critical functions.
  • It has an effect on root cells, thus affecting the roots ability to absorb both nutrients and water.
  • It has an effect on the solubility of substances in the soil, like aluminum, that can be toxic if its presence is too strong.

Practically all vegetable crops, and the majority of ornamental plants, grow well in a soil that is slightly acid. The neutral pH mark is 7. The numbers decrease as acidity becomes stronger. So most garden plants like a pH of 6.0 to 6.8.

There are many charts available which specify the preferred pH range of various plants. Checking this preference, and checking your soil pH with a soil test, can make a big difference in helping your garden flourish.

Soil pH Problems Will Become Plant Problems
The reason why soil is so important relative to acidity certainly hinges on the interaction of nutrients in the soil. It can be very frustrating for a gardener to regularly apply fertilizer, only to see no improvement in the condition of your plants.

Though there are other variables that affect fertilizing success, soil pH is a key factor often overlooked.

To drive the point home, if you have an upset stomach or “acid indigestion”, you probably don’t feel like doing much. If the acidity level of your soil is out of whack, nothing good happens there either.


Why Is Soil So Important To Lawns?

Lawns are important to the majority of landscapes around a home, at least in America. There are few landscape features that offer the range of benefits that we enjoy from a lawn.

Such popularity means that people compare one lawn to another. A healthy well-kept lawn adds value to a property and brings esteem to the owner. An unkempt lawn detracts from the overall appearance of a house, a landscape, a neighborhood.

People have a vested interest in keeping their lawn healthy and looking great. They also would like to accomplish that with a minimal expenditure of time, effort or money. Is that your goal?

The most critical element to maintaining that source of pride and satisfaction is the condition of the soil. Much of the effort that often is spent trying to improve an inferior lawn is wasted, or doomed to be repeated, because the greatest need the lawn has is for quality soil.

Why is soil so important to lawns? A grass lawn has demands placed on it like few other plants. How often do you prune the majority of your landscape, once or twice a year, or not at all? Grass gets mowed weekly in most cases. It keeps on growing.

A lawn gets abused by activity in a way that other plants do not. It keeps on growing. A lawn endures extremes of temperature, infestations, applications, strange deposits, irregular and sometimes improper care. It keeps on growing. To a point.

When a lawn starts to show signs of serious problems or deficiencies, what it probably needs more than anything is improvement of the soil. What it usually gets is fertilizer or chemical sprays.

The compaction of top soil is a common problem. This means the roots of the grass are being stressed with inadequate flow of moisture and air.

Soil that is devoid of organic matter cannot assist the roots to absorb moisture or nutrients. It cannot feed the bacteria and fungi that are critical to maintaining a plant’s growth cycle.

Soil that is over-watered or under-watered cannot properly support the colonies of microorganisms that promote fertility and health of the grass.

Soil that is of a poor texture or structure to begin with can never overcome that without drastic and continued intervention.

Why is soil so important to your lawn? It is the absolute key element for grass to thrive and resist problems like disease and weed infestations.



Update, March 2010: A referral for more info on correcting soil and other garden problems.

I can offer you another expert source of information on the topic, "why is soil so important". Have you heard of Mike McGroarty, also known as 'Mike the Dumb Ole Dirt Farmer'? Mike can educate you on many of the practical concerns regarding soil problems and how they affect different plants in your garden
Mike has a website with loads of useful information about many gardening topics. Eventually I hope to have similar information on this Garden Counselor site, but that's going to be a long process. (And I bet you can't wait!)
I recommend Mike's articles because he provides the same detailed information that I try to present. I know most of you appreciate getting not only a step-by-step guide, but also the reasons why you should do or not do a certain technique. Mike's knowledge is extensive and well presented.

If you go to Mike's site, be prepared that he is a bit 'in-your-face' with offering his home-business/backyard-growers opportunity. Just look past that to get to his articles. When you follow his link, continue on past the first page (it looks like you must sign up to access the articles, but you don't have to). On the second page you'll find the excellent garden articles listed on the left hand margin. Just keep scrolling down and see the wide variety of topics. Unfortunately there is no order by alphabet or topic, but the prize for scrolling down is better than you get from CrackerJack!

If you sign up for Mike's Gardening Newsletter, you'll get a couple of interesting downloads. He doesn't go overboard with this, but the helpful tips are usually very timely. The newsletter comes out every couple of weeks -- not elaborate, but solid and helpful gardening advice and reminders. The articles on the website go into greater detail.
I find his advice trustworthy, so I personally am checking out his Backyard Growing System. If you are interested in that as a possibility for yourself, send me a note via my 'Contact Me' page and I'll give you some feedback.

There is much to learn about developing healthy soil.

This article is a basic primer to prod your thinking about the one aspect of gardening that many overlook or avoid addressing. Other topics to follow in this series will deal with soil testing, changing the pH of your soil, adding organic material to soil, building soil fertility, aeration, drainage, and more.

If you would to see a specific topic addressed, we welcome your questions or suggestions. Just use the contact form that your can reach from the “Contact Us” button on the navigation bar above.



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Do you need professional help to improve the condition of your soil or lawn? Read the 2 FREE GUIDES to get essential advice before you hire lawn care services.

Will fertilizer make a difference for your soil? Look at the differences between organic and inorganic fertilizers. 


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