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Science and Technology

The Soil

Tác giả: OpenStaxCollege

Plants obtain inorganic elements from the soil, which serves as a natural medium for land plants. Soil is the outer loose layer that covers the surface of Earth. Soil quality is a major determinant, along with climate, of plant distribution and growth. Soil quality depends not only on the chemical composition of the soil, but also the topography (regional surface features) and the presence of living organisms. In agriculture, the history of the soil, such as the cultivating practices and previous crops, modify the characteristics and fertility of that soil.

Soil develops very slowly over long periods of time, and its formation results from natural and environmental forces acting on mineral, rock, and organic compounds. Soils can be divided into two groups: organic soils are those that are formed from sedimentation and primarily composed of organic matter, while those that are formed from the weathering of rocks and are primarily composed of inorganic material are called mineral soils. Mineral soils are predominant in terrestrial ecosystems, where soils may be covered by water for part of the year or exposed to the atmosphere.

Soil Composition

Soil consists of these major components ([link]):

  • inorganic mineral matter, about 40 to 45 percent of the soil volume
  • organic matter, about 5 percent of the soil volume
  • water and air, about 50 percent of the soil volume

The amount of each of the four major components of soil depends on the amount of vegetation, soil compaction, and water present in the soil. A good healthy soil has sufficient air, water, minerals, and organic material to promote and sustain plant life.

The organic material of soil, called humus, is made up of microorganisms (dead and alive), and dead animals and plants in varying stages of decay. Humus improves soil structure and provides plants with water and minerals. The inorganic material of soil consists of rock, slowly broken down into smaller particles that vary in size. Soil particles that are 0.1 to 2 mm in diameter are sand. Soil particles between 0.002 and 0.1 mm are called silt, and even smaller particles, less than 0.002 mm in diameter, are called clay. Some soils have no dominant particle size and contain a mixture of sand, silt, and humus; these soils are called loams.

Soil Formation

Soil formation is the consequence of a combination of biological, physical, and chemical processes. Soil should ideally contain 50 percent solid material and 50 percent pore space. About one-half of the pore space should contain water, and the other half should contain air. The organic component of soil serves as a cementing agent, returns nutrients to the plant, allows soil to store moisture, makes soil tillable for farming, and provides energy for soil microorganisms. Most soil microorganisms—bacteria, algae, or fungi—are dormant in dry soil, but become active once moisture is available.

Soil distribution is not homogenous because its formation results in the production of layers; together, the vertical section of a soil is called the soil profile. Within the soil profile, soil scientists define zones called horizons. A horizon is a soil layer with distinct physical and chemical properties that differ from those of other layers. Five factors account for soil formation: parent material, climate, topography, biological factors, and time.

Parent Material

The organic and inorganic material in which soils form is the parent material. Mineral soils form directly from the weathering of bedrock, the solid rock that lies beneath the soil, and therefore, they have a similar composition to the original rock. Other soils form in materials that came from elsewhere, such as sand and glacial drift. Materials located in the depth of the soil are relatively unchanged compared with the deposited material. Sediments in rivers may have different characteristics, depending on whether the stream moves quickly or slowly. A fast-moving river could have sediments of rocks and sand, whereas a slow-moving river could have fine-textured material, such as clay.


Temperature, moisture, and wind cause different patterns of weathering and therefore affect soil characteristics. The presence of moisture and nutrients from weathering will also promote biological activity: a key component of a quality soil.


Regional surface features (familiarly called “the lay of the land”) can have a major influence on the characteristics and fertility of a soil. Topography affects water runoff, which strips away parent material and affects plant growth. Steeps soils are more prone to erosion and may be thinner than soils that are relatively flat or level.

Biological factors

The presence of living organisms greatly affects soil formation and structure. Animals and microorganisms can produce pores and crevices, and plant roots can penetrate into crevices to produce more fragmentation. Plant secretions promote the development of microorganisms around the root, in an area known as the rhizosphere. Additionally, leaves and other material that fall from plants decompose and contribute to soil composition.


Time is an important factor in soil formation because soils develop over long periods. Soil formation is a dynamic process. Materials are deposited over time, decompose, and transform into other materials that can be used by living organisms or deposited onto the surface of the soil.

Physical Properties of the Soil

Soils are named and classified based on their horizons. The soil profile has four distinct layers: 1) O horizon; 2) A horizon; 3) B horizon, or subsoil; and 4) C horizon, or soil base ([link]). The O horizon has freshly decomposing organic matter—humus—at its surface, with decomposed vegetation at its base. Humus enriches the soil with nutrients and enhances soil moisture retention. Topsoil—the top layer of soil—is usually two to three inches deep, but this depth can vary considerably. For instance, river deltas like the Mississippi River delta have deep layers of topsoil. Topsoil is rich in organic material; microbial processes occur there, and it is the “workhorse” of plant production. The A horizon consists of a mixture of organic material with inorganic products of weathering, and it is therefore the beginning of true mineral soil. This horizon is typically darkly colored because of the presence of organic matter. In this area, rainwater percolates through the soil and carries materials from the surface. The B horizon is an accumulation of mostly fine material that has moved downward, resulting in a dense layer in the soil. In some soils, the B horizon contains nodules or a layer of calcium carbonate. The C horizon, or soil base, includes the parent material, plus the organic and inorganic material that is broken down to form soil. The parent material may be either created in its natural place, or transported from elsewhere to its present location. Beneath the C horizon lies bedrock.

Some soils may have additional layers, or lack one of these layers. The thickness of the layers is also variable, and depends on the factors that influence soil formation. In general, immature soils may have O, A, and C horizons, whereas mature soils may display all of these, plus additional layers ([link]).

The San Joaquin soil profile has an O horizon, A horizon, B horizon, and C horizon. (credit: modification of work by USDA)

Section Summary

Plants obtain mineral nutrients from the soil. Soil is the outer loose layer that covers the surface of Earth. Soil quality depends on the chemical composition of the soil, the topography, the presence of living organisms, the climate, and time. Agricultural practice and history may also modify the characteristics and fertility of soil. Soil consists of four major components: 1) inorganic mineral matter, 2) organic matter, 3) water and air, and 4) living matter. The organic material of soil is made of humus, which improves soil structure and provides water and minerals. Soil inorganic material consists of rock slowly broken down into smaller particles that vary in size, such as sand, silt, and loam.

Soil formation results from a combination of biological, physical, and chemical processes. Soil is not homogenous because its formation results in the production of layers called a soil profile. Factors that affect soil formation include: parent material, climate, topography, biological factors, and time. Soils are classified based on their horizons, soil particle size, and proportions. Most soils have four distinct horizons: O, A, B, and C.

Art Connections

[link] Soil compaction can result when soil is compressed by heavy machinery or even foot traffic. How might this compaction change the soil composition?

[link] Which horizon is considered the topsoil, and which is considered the subsoil?

Review Questions

Which factors affect soil quality?

  1. chemical composition
  2. history of the soil
  3. presence of living organisms and topography
  4. all of the above

Soil particles that are 0.1 to 2 mm in diameter are called ________.

  1. sand
  2. silt
  3. clay
  4. loam

A soil consists of layers called ________ that taken together are called a ________.

  1. soil profiles : horizon
  2. horizons : soil profile
  3. horizons : humus
  4. humus : soil profile

What is the term used to describe the solid rock that lies beneath the soil?

  1. sand
  2. bedrock
  3. clay
  4. loam

Describe the main differences between a mineral soil and an organic soil.

Name and briefly explain the factors that affect soil formation.

Describe how topography influences the characteristics and fertility of a soil.

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