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Soil 101 - The Basics

Photo Dawn Riley

We have always been told that good dirt was important for a successful growing season, but do you know what is considered healthy ground? As I am moving my garden from one spot to another this year, I thought a little digging into dirt was a good idea. Lesson number one? Dirt is not what I thought it was.

Dirt and soil are not the same thing. By the definition on, dirt apparently lacks structure nor does it contain any life forms in its composition. There are no minerals, nutrients or live ecosystems. Soil, however, is a living thing. It contains live organisms, and provides a platform for the exchange of nutrients between insects and microscopic organisms. It is slow-moving and changing all the time.

According to Soils of Canada, five factors affect the health of soil; climate, the organisms and vegetation living in the soil, the topography, the soil’s parent material, and time. Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gasses and liquids. The combination of these factors and materials are what create the layers of soil horizons needed for healthy soil conditions. Time is monumental, depending on all these conditions it can take up to 100 years to create five millimetres of soil.

So how do farmers keep their soil healthy? There are a combination of things that can be done to replenish soil. First, something should always be planted, letting a crop area go without seeding is actually not healthy for the soil. The cycle of seeding, growing and harvesting rebuilds nutrients and replenishes the microorganisms so necessary to grow plentiful crops. For some fields, crop residue (the product of the crop, straw, and chaff) is sometimes employed and left on the ground. This is not necessarily beneficial to do with all crop types, but letting the residue sit through the winter and feed the soil in some cases can increase the yield of a crop up to almost $25 an acre. Farmers also take advantage of research and advancements in aspects of soil replenishment, erosion and degradation. Using this research can assist in the preservation of nutrient-rich soil. Of course, mother nature plays a role in soil health, and sometimes it is simply the right amount of moisture, heat and wind that helps the soil stay healthy.

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