Did you know there is an entire world beneath your feet? We often enjoy the trees, crops, and vegetation that grow in soil, but rarely consider the complex network of life that exists just below the surface. In the International Year of Soils, July is dedicated to the life that helps keep our soil healthy with the theme “Soils Are Living!”
What’s Beneath the Surface?
There are a variety of organisms, big and small, that call the soil their home. Larger animals like gopher turtles and burrowing owls utilize the soil for shelter, creating burrows where they can nest and be protected from weather and predators. Many insects like earthworms and ants spend the majority of their time in soil, creating tunnels and aerating the soil. Even smaller than insects, bacteria and fungi live in the soil. These tiny creatures are essential to soil health, they convert nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can utilize, they decompose organic matter to provide plant nutrients, and much, much more.
How Do Organisms Contribute To Soil Health?
Soil provides shelter for many burrowing animals, but those animals provide benefits in return. Burrowing animals serve many functions in the soil: they degrade organic matter and make nutrients available, control populations of pathogens, improve and maintain soil structure, and mix organic matter through the soil. Insects serve as “nature’s plow” constantly turning, mixing, and aerating the soil. The burrows from insects act as pores that allow water to infiltrate the soil, making it available for plants to retrieve with their roots. Microbes (bacteria and fungi) play a key role in soil health too. There are more microbes in a handful of soil than there are humans on the earth! These little organisms aid in decomposition of organic matter, helping return nutrients back to the soil as well as help break down rocks and minerals in the soil. These many functions are crucial to creating healthy soil, which allows us to produce food, fiber, and fuel as well as enjoy many recreational activities.
Healthy soil is key to providing so many of the things that we need and enjoy. We are lucky to have these helpers in keeping soil healthy! To learn more about the topic of “Soils Are Living” and how you can play your part in soil health please visit NACD’s Soil Health pages or go to the Soil Science Society of America’s International Year of Soils webpage.