Dirt, earth, humus, terra firma, soil—no matter what you call it, the ground below us is one of the most important substances on, well, Earth. As children, most of us stomped in mud puddles, dug holes, and played in sand boxes—the tactile experience of moving dirt around seems to appeal to humans innately. Just last weekend a local charity raised thousands of dollars by setting up an obstacle course for adults (and kids) called the “Mud Run,” with participants exiting the race completely covered in mud.
Despite how much fun it can be to play in, the humble soil often gets overlooked. Mixtures of clay, sand, and loam seem less exciting when competing for attention with more charismatic natural phenomena such as colorful flowering plants or powerful top predator animals. Partially because of this status, soil scientists and agronomists declared 2015 the “International Year of Soils” with the goal of educating the general public on soil’s importance.
While most of us don’t think about soil on a regular basis, it is the literal foundation for producing healthy food and much of our clothing, along with fuel sources and many medicinal products. Without the small organisms and insects living in the soil to break things down, everything that ever died could still be slowly decaying on the surface of the earth. Soil is the primary player in recycling and making crucial nutrients such as phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium available to plants. If you’ve ever tried to grow vegetables in the Panhandle, you know the high sand content and low nutrient levels of many of our native soils leave much to be desired. Gardeners know that a mix of organic materials is necessary to give soil enough structure, water-holding capacity, and nutrient sources to provide plant roots a healthy growing environment.
Soils are crucial to agricultural production, but they also play important environmental roles. On a global scale, soils are a “sink” for carbon and help combat climate change. At the same time, soils help reduce pollution through filtration and store water to recharge our drinking water aquifers. The water absorbed within healthy soils can help protect communities from both drought and flooding.
Pollution and erosion are among the biggest threats to healthy soil, and governmental agencies at all levels devote considerable funds and staff to protecting this life-giving limited natural resource. To learn more about soil and how to test for soil nutrients and pH, talk to your local Extension agent. There are many great online resources devoted to soil science, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s new “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil” campaign, the USDA’s online soil surveys, and the UF IFAS Soil & Water Science Department newsletter, “Myakka.”