Gardening: Understanding soil

In my last column, I stated that the golden rule of gardening is “take care of your soil and the soil will take care of your plants”. Because English is my second language, I make a habit of using my Webster’s dictionary where, for most words, you find an explanation of word origins. Being comfortable reading, writing and thinking in two languages, it helps me to find out how words are related in English and German which makes it easier to understand those words.

When I looked up “soil”, I found that there are two words, written exactly the same but with totally different origins. The verb soil is derived from the Latin word “suile”, which comes from “sus”, a swine. It means to make unclean in both physical and literal terms. The noun “soil” is derived from the Latin “solum”, the floor or ground and means the top layer of planet earth, the loose surface material of earth in which plants grow. By the way, to me dirt is what you find under a gardener’s fingernails, soil is what a gardener has under the feet while gardening. In fact, soil is the scientific term for the agricultural soil.

Why make that much fuss about soil? Because plants, bacterial cells, viruses, elephants, birds in flight, a mole burrowing beneath your lawn, borers eating blindly into a pine tree and man himself are all linked by their dependency on the elements of existence they draw from the soil. In the final analysis, it is this 6 or 8 inch layer of stuff that life on this planet depends upon. That’s why the fuss.

Of all of earth’s living creatures, man alone knowingly manipulates and modifies the land to better suit his ends. For a number of reasons that I will discuss in the next few gardening columns, we are not (and should not be) satisfied with the soil as we find it. We tear up the surface of the soil, incorporate organic and mineral materials and alter the sometimes age-old structure of the soil.

Depending on the origin of the soil in a given area, there are an amazing number of soil types. In my years in agriculture, I have worked with many different soils, from rocky to sandy to deep, friable loam to the heaviest clay soils that could only be ploughed with a team of four horses or the biggest tractors. Interestingly, the one thing they all had in common was that they all could be improved with organic matter. How can that be?

For thousands of years, man has successfully worked the soil without really understanding the processes that are going on in the soil. Quite early on, man must have noticed that plants grew much better around animal droppings. And once man switched from hunting and gathering to farming, it probably didn’t take him long to realize that spreading animal and human waste on the land increased his crops. Perhaps it started as a way to get rid of those smelly wastes but it must have become very obvious soon that his crops profited from his actions. More about this smelly subject next week.

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