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What we need to know about Soil

 
Bryant RedHawk
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I am starting this thread to help with the understanding between what is Soil and what is Dirt.
Along with most of the information needed to turn dirt into really good soil.
These are excerpts from a book I am working on, presented in "raw" form since the project is not yet ready for publication.
If you find this information helpful, I give permission (by virtue of it being put up on this site) to copy it for your own use.
all I ask is the respect of not putting my work up on any other site.

Redhawk


What we need to know about Soil

Consider a handful of soil. How does it appear to you, as dirt (a collection of minerals), or soil? At first glance it may appear very ordinary, something you routinely take for granted, it’s all the same isn’t it? However, once we make a closer inspection, we find that soil is far from ordinary, and certainly not dirt. It is the home of innumerable numbers of organisms, both easily visible and microscopic. Soil acts as Earth’s recycler, filter, purifier, and storehouse. The soil ecosystem recycles dead organisms into the building blocks of new life, it transforms toxic substances into simple compounds, it renders pathogenic organisms harmless, and it purifies and stores water as it passes through. Soil is a dynamic living system that functions as the interface between land and sky, the living and the dead. Soil is the repository of fertility and life on this planet. Even though the nature and properties of soil vary greatly by location, its role in the ecosystems and the ways in which it functions are basically constant from one place to another worldwide.
Soils perform five key functions in the global ecosystem. Soil serves as a:
1. medium for plant growth,
2. regulator of water supplies,
3. recycler of raw materials,
4. habitat for soil organisms, and
5. landscaping and engineering medium

The first important function: As an anchor for plant roots and as a water holding tank for needed moisture, soil provides a hospitable place for a plant to take root. Some of the soil properties affecting plant growth include:  soil texture (coarse of fine), aggregate size, porosity, aeration (permeability), and water holding capacity. This is paramount for any of us that want to grow our own food(s). A soil that is fine in texture, has good permeability, containing a good amount of humus will hold a vast amount of water. Another important function of soil is to store and supply nutrients to plants. The ability to perform this function is referred to as soil fertility. The clay and organic matter (OM) content of a soil directly influence its fertility. Greater clay and OM content will generally lead to greater soil fertility.

The second important function: As rain or snow falls upon the land, the soil is there to absorb and store the moisture for later use. This creates a subsurface pool of available water for plants and soil organisms to live on between precipitation or irrigation events.  When soils are very wet, near saturation, water moves downward through the soil profile unless it is drawn back towards the surface by evaporation and plant transpiration. The amount of water a soil can retain against the pull of gravity is called its water holding capacity (WHC).  This property is close related to the number of very small micro-pores present in a soil due to the effects of capillarity action. The rate of water movement into the soil (infiltration) is influenced by; texture, physical condition (structure and tilth), along with the amount of vegetative cover on the soil surface. Coarse (sandy) soils allow rapid infiltration, but have less water storage ability, due to their generally large pore sizes. Fine textured soils have an abundance of micropores, allow them to retain a lot of water, but also causing a slow rate of water infiltration. Organic matter tends to increase the ability of all soils to retain water, and also increases infiltration rates of fine textured soils.

The third important function: Soil performs one of its greatest functions; Decomposition of dead plants, animals, and organisms by soil flora and fauna (e.g., bacteria, fungi, and insects) transforming their remains into simpler mineral forms, which are then utilized by other living plants, animals, and microorganisms in their creation of new living tissues and soil humus. Many factors influence the rate of decomposition of organic materials in soil. Major determinants of the rate of decomposition include the soil physical environment, and the chemical make-up of the decomposing materials. The activity levels of decomposing organisms are greatly impacted by the amount of water and oxygen present, and by the soil temperature. The chemical makeup of a material, especially the amount of the element nitrogen present in it, has a major impact on the ‘digestibility’ of any material by soil organisms. More nitrogen in the material will usually result in a faster rate of decomposition.
Through the processes of decomposition and humus formation, soils have the capacity to store great quantities of atmospheric carbon and essential plant nutrients. This biologically active carbon can remain in soil organic matter for decades or even centuries. This temporary storage of carbon in the organic matter of soils and biomass is termed carbon sequestration. Soil organic carbon has been identified as one of the major factors in maintaining the balance of the global carbon cycle. Land management practices that influence soil organic matter levels have been extensively studied, and are often cited as having the potential to impact the occurrence of global climate change.

The fourth important function: Soil is teeming with living organisms of varied size.  Ranging from large, easily visible plant roots and animals, to very small mites and insects, to microorganisms (e.g. bacteria and fungi.)  Microorganisms are the primary decomposers of the soil, they perform much of the work of transforming and recycling old, dead materials into the raw materials needed for growth of new plants and organisms. For instance; an earthworm in its burrow excretes its waste (middens) on the soil surface, once deposited there it is further broken down by bacteria and other soil organisms.  Organic materials in soil are consumed and digested repeatedly by different organisms on their path to becoming humus.
Most living things on Earth require a few basic elements: air, food, water, and a place to live. The decomposers in soil have need of a suitable physical environment or ‘habitat’ to do their work.  Water is necessary for the activities of all soil organisms, but they can exist in a dormant state for long periods when water is absent. Most living organisms are “aerobic” (requiring oxygen), including plant roots and microorganisms, however some have evolved to thrive when oxygen is absent (anaerobes). Greater soil porosity and a wide range of pore sizes (diameter) in the soil allows these organisms to “breathe” easier. Soil texture has a great influence on the available habitat for soil organisms. Finer soils have a greater number of small ’micro-pores’ that provide habitat for microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. In addition to the need for suitable habitat, all soil organisms require some type of organic material to use as an energy and carbon source, which is what they require as food.  An abundant supply of fresh organic materials will ensure a robust population of soil organisms.

The fifth important function: Soils are the base material for roads, homes, buildings, and other structures set upon them, however, the physical properties of different soil types vary greatly.  The properties of concern in engineering and construction applications include:  bearing strength, compressibility, consistency, shear strength, and shrink-swell potential.  These engineering variables are influenced by the most basic soil physical properties such as texture, structure, clay mineral type, and water content.  Landscaping applications range in scale from bridge and roadway construction around highway interchanges to courtyards and greenspaces around commercial sites to the grading and lawns of residential housing developments.  In all these instances, both the physical and ecological functions of soils must be considered. Exposure of soil at a construction site creates potential for soil erosion by water, wind, or both.  Eroded soil pollutes waterways and causes sedimentation of ponds and reservoirs.

Much More will follow.
Redhawk

*edited to separate things for easier reading*
 
James Freyr
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As an avid gardener who knows that soil health is directly related to plant health, I very much enjoyed reading that, and am looking forward to future installments. Thanks Redhawk!
 
Todd Parr
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I'm also looking forward to future installments.  Thank you.

And a question.  I have heard two people say recently that you can have too much organic matter.  I have always thought the opposite.  If you have time, could you expound on this?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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The notion that you can have to much organic matter is probably more in reference to the use of compost.
Most compost is not "ideal" which allows for misshapen balances, causing collapse of soil building blocks.
If you are creating ideal compost, that is well balanced then it is nearly impossible to incorporate too much.
However, if the compost is out of balance (meaning acidic or basic with little of the good biosphere) then you can indeed have too much of a bad thing.
The other mistake is to use anaerobic compost as the main component, this tends to harbor far more "bad" microbes and their complment critters than "good" microbes and their complement critters resulting in an imbalanced soil system.

Ideal soil is in balance, poor soil is out of balance both chemically and biologically.


There is even a soil class, Histosol, that is primarily composed of organic materials, this soil class comprises a meager 1% of the total earth land surface area.

As I go along with this thread, each soil class will be explained.
I will be going over soil and what makes it first, then we will delve into the microbiology and macrobiology and end with what is needed to turn dirt into good soil.

Thanks for your replies James and Todd.

Redhawk
 
Brad Mayeux
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after watching a lot of soil science videos
i have ascertained that bringing together the minerals
with the microbes is a big key to soil health.
(obviously, PH, structure, moisture are all very important)
but microbes transform minerals into a usable form.

iv e noticed this when i had some worm castings
VERY high in microbal life.
and i added diatomaceous earth to it.
DE is like a powder. the particles are very small
small enough to be directly transformed by the microbes.

adding these 2 together created a super mineral product
that made my plants take off.

perhaps they were hungry for silica ?
i dont know, but, i do know i had results
and thats the best answer i could come up with.

i also started adding red compost worms to my guilds.
i have several inches of compost, yard waste, leaves, coffee grounds
under my fruit trees.
i was giving them worm castings, and decided i had so many worms
i would just set some free
so, for a year, i added castings only removing %40 to %50 of the worms back to the bin
sometimes i got lazy, and didnt remove any, they all went under the fruit trees.

Now i have stable productive colonies of red compost worms
we had 1 night below freezing this winter (28F), but it didnt seem to bother them a bit.
i still have loads of them all over my yard.
they work 24x7 for me, and have yet to charge me once

 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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hau Brad, 

I will be getting into the microbiology once I have finished with the basic soils.
Worm castings (middens) are indeed rich in bacteria but once deposited on the soil surface they are further broken down by other bacteria, protozoa, and others.
DE, food grade or otherwise is a source of calcium by virtue of the amorphous silicon dioxide exterior and small calcite interior, and that is one of the nutrients the microbiome of soil requires for food. (1 diatom skeleton is equal to around 100 bacteria in physical size).
Interestingly enough amorphous silicon dioxide is one of the components of human bone and is also needed by every living thing for life to occur. the silica also is one of the needed items for calcium uptake and use by every living thing.

Great trials and observations!

Thanks for your post.

Redhawk

*edited to clarify the DE and Calcium interaction*
 
Marco Banks
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I love absolutely everything you write about, Redhawk.  You are such a clear thinker and patient teacher.  We owe you a debt of gratitude for the work you do for so many on this board.  Thank you.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Marco, thank you for your enthusiasm. My current projects are: 1. listing methods for developing a permanent agriculture methodology for use by "conventional farms" to help them get away from monoculture methodology and begin to reap more than they sow.
                                                                                                  2. This soil book, covering soil A to Z, hopefully to make it all understandable by anyone who might pickup the book and read it.

Redhawk
 
Mark Morgan
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Thank you for this. I've been tying to learn as much as possible about this very topic. What are your thoughts on using rock dusts to re-mineralize depleted soils? Will you be discussing that as well?
 
Daron Williams
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Thanks for the posts! I'm looking forward to reading more in this series!
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Hau Mark, yes I will be going over the amendments that work best as well as how to incorporate them.
Thank you for bringing this up.  I want to say this now that a few have brought items up. If you want me to delve into any part deeper, just say so here and I will cover all questions to the best of my ability.

Redhawk
 
Todd Parr
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Redhawk, I can tell you one thing I would like to see in any book I read that pertains to vast, complex subjects like this.  Somewhere at the end, have a summary that is a step-by-step overview to accomplishing the task so the information isn't overwhelming.  I would love to see it broken down into simple broad steps, like:

step 1 - clear the area - see chapter one for various methods
step 2 - plant your cover crop - see chapter two for cover plants by season
step 3 - turn the cover crop into soil - chapter x for methods
step 4...

Rather than read a 300 page book and trying to figure out what to do, I can look at a list that tells me how to get started, look over the information that pertains to that, and get out on my property and get started with SOMETHING, without worrying about what to do next, or whatever.  I find it extremely motivating if I know exactly how to start, there is no confusion as to the order of things, and I have subsequent steps laid out for me.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Installment 2.

Soil Quality, as a general concept, can be thought of as the ability of a soil to function, in either natural or managed ecosystems, to sustain plant and animal life, and maintain or enhance air and water quality. 
For agricultural ecosystems, we may consider Soil Quality as the ability of a soil to produce safe and nutritious crops in a sustained manner over the long-term, without impairing the resource base or harming the environment.
Notice that this premise seems to be contrary to the currently accepted commercial agricultural model in the developed countries as well as those currently becoming developed countries.
Machinery use is one of the catch 22’s of the modern agricultural model.
Another is the relatively new “package” where seed is matched to herbicides and sold with discounts to entice farmers to purchase these products.

Soil Quality has the potential for many different interpretations.
Quality is dependent upon factors such as land use, soil management practices, ecosystem and environmental interactions, and the priorities of human societies.
When considering Soil Quality in any specific case, it is necessary to identify the major issues of concern with respect to that soil’s function.
Soil that is great for holding up buildings is not particularly good for raising any crops.
Whatever definition of the term Soil Quality is deemed appropriate for a specific use, it should relate to the capacity of the soil to function effectively with regard to productivity; environmental quality; and plant, animal, and human health now and in the future.
Since the majority of food and fiber needs of the human population are met by crops grown in managed agricultural ecosystems, the focus of government agencies is on those systems.
However, the basic principles presented should be applicable to soils in other ecosystems, both natural and managed.

Some soil properties can be relatively easy to observe, measure, and monitor over time:

Soil properties used as indicators of soil quality.

Physical 
Topsoil depth
Texture and aggregation
Aeration and infiltration
Surface cover
Compaction


Chemical
Organic matter content
Salinity-electrical conductivity
Acidity - alkalinity (pH)
Nitrate nitrogen


Biological
Soil Respiration (CO2)
Microbial activity/biomass
Earthworm counts
Plant vigor


  
Major factors which lead to reductions in soil quality, land degradation, and soil erosion:

Mismanagement: Lands that are improperly managed (e.g., improper tillage) lose their topsoil. 
        Either in large chunks during extreme erosive events, or little by little over an extended period of time, the soil disappears from the land resulting in reduced productivity and a degraded condition. 

Salinization: Results from the accumulation of salts in improperly irrigated soils, most frequently in arid regions.

Overharvesting: Occurs on  cultivated soils when repeated harvests are made from land without returning organic residues and mineral nutrients to the soil.

Contamination:  Exposure of soil to toxic substances, as a result of industrial processes or chemical spills, can severely damage the ability of a soil to perform its ecosystem function.

Cultural and environmental factors which enhance or degrade soil quality:

  Soil Quality Enhancing
      organic material additions                                               
              plant growth
  cool, humid climate
            vegetative cover                        
    fibrous root systems of plants
minimal tillage operations                                                                                                                                                            
                wildlife                                                                          

   Soil Quality Degrading
              overharvesting                                           
                bare fallow
                    fire
            hot, arid climate
              exposed soil
                erosion
            intense tillage
                wildlife
          

For plant growth, the topsoil is the richest and most valuable part of the soil.

Topsoil formation is a very slow process (in nature, (we are developing methods that enhance the speed of natural topsoil production)), which makes it a non-renewable (within the current standard thinking), (but re-usable) resource in terms of human lifespans.
Keeping the soil in place while it is used for construction or crops is one of the greatest challenges faced by engineers and land managers.
Unfortunately the current engineering manifest does not take soil condition (other than what is best for their use) into account.
Soil erosion losses are greatest when the soil surface is exposed to intense rainfall, resulting in gulley formation.
Natural soil fertility is largely contained in the remains of formerly living things, also known as organic matter.
Continuous removal of plant material for food or forage leads to gradual depletion of natural soil fertility.


Soil Orders
Soil properties can vary greatly from one location to the next, even within distances of a few meters.
These same soil properties can also exhibit similar characteristics over broad regional areas of like climate and vegetation.

The most general level of classification in the USDA system of Soil Taxonomy is the Soil Order.
All of the soils in the world can be assigned to one of 12 orders.
By surveying soil properties of color, texture, and structure; thickness of horizons; parent materials; drainage characteristics; and landscape position, soil scientists have mapped and classified nearly the entire contiguous United States and much of the rest of the world.

Soil Orders and General Descriptions
Type                         Description                                                
Entisols             Little, if any horizon development                   

Inceptisols          Beginning of horizon development

Aridisols            Soils located in arid climates                                  

Mollisols              Soft, grassland soils

Alfisols              Deciduous forest soils                                           

Spodosols           Acidic, coniferous forest soils

Ultisols             Extensively weathered soils                                   

Oxisols                Extremely weathered, tropical soils

Gelisols            Soils containing permafrost                                   

Histosols             Soils formed in organic material

Andisols           Soil formed in volcanic material                           

Vertisols             Shrinking and swelling clay soils

Descriptions of the 12 soil orders

Entisols are a very diverse group of soils with one thing in common, little profile (horizon) development.
Includes the soils of unstable environments, such as floodplains, sand dunes, or those found on steep slopes.
Entisols are commonly found at the site of recently deposited materials (e.g., alluvium), or in parent materials resistant to weathering (e.g. sand).
Entisol soils also occur in areas where a very dry or cold climate limits soil profile development.
Productivity potential of entisols varies widely, from very productive alluvial soils found on floodplains, to low fertility/productivity soils found on steep slopes or in sandy areas.

Aridisols   are dry soils with CaCO3 (lime) accumulations, common in desert regions.
The extent of aridisol occurrence throughout the world is widespread, second in total ice-free land area only to the entisols.
Extensive areas of aridisols occur in the major deserts of the world, as well as in southwestern north america , Australia , and many Middle Eastern locations.
Aridisols are commonly light in color, and low in organic matter content. Lime and salt accumulations are common in the subsurface horizons.
Some Aridisols have an argillic (clay accumulation) B horizon, likely formed during a period with a wetter climate. 
Water deficiency is the dominant characteristic of Aridisols with adequate moisture for plant growth present for no more than 90 days at a time.
Crops cannot be grown in these soils without irrigation. Productivity of Aridisols is generally low, and there is potential for land degradation due to overgrazing by livestock.
If irrigation water is available, Aridisols can be made productive through use of fertilizers and proper management.

Alfisols are found in cool to hot humid areas, and in the semiarid tropics; they are formed mostly under forest vegetation, but also under grass savanna. 
Extensive areas of alfisols are found in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys in the USA, through Central and Northern Europe into Russia, and in the South-central region of South America.
Alfisols generally show extensive profile development, with distinct argillic (clay) accumulations in the subsoil.
Extensive leaching often produces a light-colored E horizon below the topsoil.
Generally fertile and productive, these soils typically have a high concentration of nutrient cations (Ca, Mg, K, and Na) and form in regions with sufficient moisture for plants for at least part of the year.
Natural fertility and productive capacity of alfisols is considered to be greater than that of ultisols, but less than that of mollisols.

Ultisols are intensely weathered soils of warm and humid climates.
They are typically formed on older geologic locations in parent material that is already extensively weathered.
Ultisols have accumulated clay minerals in the B horizon.
While generally low in natural fertility (basic cations, Ca2+, Mg2+, and K+) and high in soil acidity (H+, Al3+) the clay content of ultisols gives them a nutrient retention capacity greater than that of oxisols, but less than alfisols or mollisols.
Large areas of ultisol are found in the southeastern USA, China, Indonesia, South America, and equatorial regions of Africa.

Gelisols are soils with permafrost within 2 meters of the surface.
These soils generally have limited profile development.
Most of the soil forming processes in these soils occur near the surface, sometimes resulting in significant accumulation of organic matter.
Large areas of this soil occur in the Northern regions of Russia, Canada, and Alaska.
These areas become boggy wetlands in the summer, and support large numbers of migratory birds and grazing mammals.
The permafrost of gelisols tends to become unstable (melt) if disturbed, leading to a waterlogged soil condition that poses problems for engineering uses.

Andisols soils form in volcanic ash and cinders near or downwind from volcanic activity.
Generally lacking in development, they are not extensively weathered, forming in deposits from geologically recent events.
Usually of high natural fertility, they tend to accumulate organic matter readily and are of a ‘light’ nature (low bulk density) that is easily tilled.
These soils generally have a high productivity potential.

Inceptisols are soils in the beginning stages of soil profile development.
The differences between horizons (layers) are just beginning to appear.
Some color changes may be evident between the emerging horizons, and the beginnings of a B horizon may be seen with the accumulation of small amounts of clay, salts, and organic material.
These soils show more profile development than entisols, but have not developed the horizons or properties that characterize other soil orders.
Inceptisols are commonly found throughout the world, and are prominent in mountainous regions.
The natural productivity of these soils varies widely, and is dependent upon clay and organic matter content, and other edaphic (plant-related) factors.

Mollisols take their name from the Latin word mollis, meaning soft.
These mineral soils have developed on grasslands, vegetation that has extensive fibrous root systems.
The topsoil of mollisols is characteristically dark and rich with organic matter, giving it a lot of natural fertility.
These soils are typically well saturated with basic cations (Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, and K+) that are essential plant nutrients.
These characteristics of mollisols place them among the most fertile soils found on Earth. Found in North America from Texas up to Saskatchewan, Canada.

Spodosols commonly form in sandy parent materials under coniferous forest vegetation.
As a consequence of their coarse texture, they have a high leaching potential.
Spodosols are characterized by high acidity, and have a subsoil accumulation of organic matter, along with aluminum and iron oxides, called a spodic horizon.
Typically low in natural fertility (basic cations, Ca2+, Mg2+, and K+) and high in soil acidity (H+, Al3+), these soils require extensive inputs of lime and fertilizers to be agriculturally productive.
Spodosols are most commonly associated with a cool and wet climate, but also occur in warmer climes such as in Florida, USA. Large areas of spodosol are found in northern Europe, Russia, and northeastern North America.

Oxisols are the most weathered of the 12 soil orders in the USDA soil classification system.
They are composed of the most highly weathered tropical and subtropical soils, and are formed in hot, humid climates that receive a lot of rainfall.
Oxisols are located primarily in equatorial regions.
These soils are extensively leached, and the clay size particles are dominated by oxides of iron and aluminum, which are low in natural fertility (Ca2+, Mg2+, K+) and high in soil acidity (H+, Al3+). 
While oxisols are typically physically stable, with low shrink-swell properties and good erosion resistance, these soils require extensive inputs of lime and fertilizers to be agriculturally productive.

Histosols
are soils without permafrost that are predominately composed of organic materials in various stages of decomposition.
They generally consist of at least half organic materials (by volume).
They are usually saturated with water which creates anaerobic conditions and causes organic matter accumulation at rates faster than that of decomposition. 
Little soil profile development is present, due to their saturated and anaerobic condition, however layering of organic materials is common.
Histosols can form in wetland areas of any climate where plants can grow such as bogs, marshes, and swamps, but are most commonly formed in cool climates.

Vertisols are soils with a high content of clay minerals that shrink and swell as they change water content.
The clay minerals adsorb water and increase in volume (swell) when wet and then shrink as they dry, forming large, deep cracks.
Surface materials fall into these cracks and are incorporated into the lower horizons when the soil becomes wet again.
As this process is repeated, the soil experiences a mixing of surface materials into the subsoil that promotes a more uniform soil profile.
Vertisols are usually very dark in color, with widely variable organic matter content (1 – 6%).
They typically form in Ca and Mg rich materials such as limestone, basalt, or in areas of topographic depressions that collect these elements leached from uplands.
Vertisols are most commonly formed in warm, sub-humid or semi-arid climates, where the natural vegetation is predominantly grass, savanna, open forest, or desert shrub.
Large areas of vertisols are found in Northeastern Africa, India, and Australia, with smaller areas scattered worldwide.

There are color maps available online to see the Soil Orders by continent, just do a search for "Soil Orders by Continent"

I'll get more of this posted as I have time.

Redhawk
 
Joel Bercardin
Posts: 227
Location: Western Canadian mtn valley, zone 6b, 750mm (30") precip
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Just EDITED to say: I realize your post just above the one I was preparing gets into some of the stuff I ask about, below.  You were wrting at the same time I was....

You’ve started a good thread, Redhawk.  Thanks.

I’ve been organic gardening on one scale or another for most of my life, so it’s over 25 years now.  I use cover/green-manure cropping, compost, mulching, etc.  Our basic soil, on an uphill bench, not bottom land, is not really considered “good” by ordinary standards.  The mineral portion under the topsoil is sand in most areas, or sand and silt (virtual absence of clay-size particles) in a few.

Even though we've been building up topsoil for years, it’s exhilerating to see the difference that spreading a layer (say, inch-and-a-half thick) of well rotted cattle manure can make in a vegetable patch.  We’ve also identified situations where there’s been a deficiency of one or more essential plant nutrients – for instance, magnesium or potassium – and when corrected, this has made an unmistakable improvement.

So in your opening post I thought you probably avoided specifically going into the subsoil mineral content for a good reason, as possibly you wanted to avoid the simple and disastrously incomplete understanding of “soil” that prevails in conventional modern farming.  Which is “dirt” with selected chemicals added into it.

But I thought I’d bring the element topic up.  Besides the well-known concern with “N P K” (which, granted, can be a misguided obsession) there are other elements such as calcium, sulphur, zinc, copper, iron, boron, manganese, molybdenum and more that play roles in plant development, disease resistance, animal and/or human nutrition, etc.  I strongly believe in the amazing conditions and ‘natural provision’ of healthy soil life, as you’ve outlined.  Yet totally closed ag systems are very challenging to achieve.  Cropping for food, fiber, etc does tend to remove nutrients (molecules) from the soil.

Other discussions here on Permies.com have mentioned plant guilding or intercropping to help supply one type of plant with nutrients stored or exuded in the soil by one or more other plants.  I’m sure there is practical worth in that.  Another idea has been put forward that seems less proven to me, on the basis of my experience: at least one person has suggested plants can obtain from soil, or even foliar-feed themselves, nutrient elements suspended in the air.  I’m sure I’m leaving out mention of other ideas.

But anyhow, since we know the texture and content of the mineral soil on different acreages can vary, what are your basic thoughts on this, from a practical standpoint?  In terms of what a given soil can offer the plants we intend to grow.  Am I jumping the gun here?  (You may have intended to provide background before getting into what I've asked about.  And probably the books you’re writing will go into depth on this, but since you've started this thread to discuss generalities, I thought I’d ask a general question.)
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Todd Parr wrote:Redhawk, I can tell you one thing I would like to see in any book I read that pertains to vast, complex subjects like this.  Somewhere at the end, have a summary that is a step-by-step overview to accomplishing the task so the information isn't overwhelming.  I would love to see it broken down into simple broad steps, like:

step 1 - clear the area - see chapter one for various methods
step 2 - plant your cover crop - see chapter two for cover plants by season
step 3 - turn the cover crop into soil - chapter x for methods
step 4...

Rather than read a 300 page book and trying to figure out what to do, I can look at a list that tells me how to get started, look over the information that pertains to that, and get out on my property and get started with SOMETHING, without worrying about what to do next, or whatever.  I find it extremely motivating if I know exactly how to start, there is no confusion as to the order of things, and I have subsequent steps laid out for me.


I am impressed Todd, you must be channeling or connected to the spirits since you have had the premonition of where we will end this thread.
Right now is the base knowledge needed for understanding your land, then we will go step by step to the end goal of making what you have to work with the best it can be.

Redhawk
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Joel, this thread should have some missing links for your knowledge, it just will take me some time to get everything posted. I am going in hopefully a logical order, if you don't know what you are starting with how are you going to improve it correctly?
If one has the monetary means, any plot of land can become nearly perfect soil, the question is not can you but are you willing to. I've spent a lot of the last 40 years helping or trying to help commercial farmers do what is best for all concerned.

As I go along in this thread we will get to the stage of discussing methods that work, why they work and how long they work.
I will also answer questions and probably raise some questions.

Redhawk
 
Joel Bercardin
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Bryant RedHawk wrote:hau Joel, this thread should have some missing links for your knowledge, it just will take me some time to get everything posted. I am going in hopefully a logical order, if you don't know what you are starting with how are you going to improve it correctly?

Yes, good point.  I realize now how you planned to develop this thread... and I did jump the gun, there.  Sorry.

By the way, my forester friends long ago tole me we have a spodosol here (called a "podzol" in Canadian terminology).
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Yes, the western Canada area is mostly spodosols, if you want to grow items that don't do well in that sort of structure then you need to adapt the composition of that soil to nearer those ideals those wanted items have to have.
If you want to slow the migration of water through the spodosol then you will be making additions of clays and other finer particles, these will change the structure which will allow for more water holding capability.
Of course this is just the first step, since there are biological needs for the best and highest amount of water retention abilities. We will be going over that in the second section of this thread.

Redhawk
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Oops, This should have been the first post in this thread, better late than never I suppose.

Soil Science is a chemical study of dirt, it is not about soil but rather about the base components needed for dirt to be ready to become soil.
There is a problem with the way most people use soil science.
Most people that want to start gardens or farms or any type of growing of plants will be advised “get a soil test” it will tell you what you need to add to grow great plants.
When you take your samples of your land to the lab and they give you your analysis report.
There is no mention of the biology that sample contained, only the mineral components, perhaps the particle size break down will be included in a “complete” soil analysis you will also get “micronutrient” lists.
The report will also tell you what to do to get that point we call “normal” but it will again only be mineral additions, pH adjustment amendments and perhaps particle size amendment, all based on what is considered to be “normal, friable, land”.
Nothing about anything biological that needs to be added will be mentioned. Why is this?
It is because then we would not be soil scientist we would be biologist or microbiologist.
See the problem here?

Soil is Living, Dirt is Inert. 
In this thread we are going to gain knowledge about the mineral parts of land.
Then we are going to gain knowledge about the living part and how these parts go together to create the medium that all life is dependent on for life, that we call soil. 
Then we are going to learn some methods for getting that hunk of land we call our own to become the best soil it can be for what we want to grow.

Given that land usually contains decent amounts of the right minerals, fair pH range, good enough particle size distribution, enough organic matter to hold good amounts of water.
The real issue becomes how to get those minerals into a form that the plants can actually use.
This is not the focus of Soil Science, even though the name indicates otherwise.
This is the goal of this thread, to get all the information needed to arrive at the perfect or as perfect as possible soil condition and health for optimal plant growth.
While having good soil can seem to be complicated, (it can be very much so) it can also be very manageable with the right knowledge.

Perhaps the most important things in this thread will be ways you can determine, on site, what you need to do and how to best accomplish this yourself.
Sure you can use your plants to tell you, but that means that by the time they are showing you something is wrong, it is too late for that crop.
I consider the most important tool for people doing what we are doing to be a microscope, without one you will never know what life your soil contains nor how much of that life your soil contains.
Interestingly enough, that soil life will tell you more than all the comprehensive soil tests you ever have done can tell you. Why is this?
Because most likely your land already has the quantities of minerals (at least for the most part) that what you want to grow need to be there.
Without the right soil biota present we are not being the good steward for those plants we want to thrive, nor are we making the best use of most of the water we manage to store in the land.
The goal here is to disperse that knowledge needed to have gardens that even in draught periods of a year or more will produce at least a decent amount of food.
I will end this thread with some step by step methods, along with tests for making sure you are heading to that wonderful place called great soil.  

Redhawk
 
Karen Donnachaidh
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Bryant,
This thread is a generous gift of your time and expertise. Thank you.
I am certainly following along.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Installment 3

So now we know there are 12 classes of soil we call the soil order and how they differ.
Obviously we need to know how much of the earth each of these classes occupy.

Entisols   =      16% of the world land area or 21 million km squared.
Aridisols  =      12%  or 15.7 million km sq.
Alfisols    =      10%  or 13.1 million km sq.
Ultisols    =       8 %  or 10.5 million km sq.
Gelisols   =       9%   or 11.8 million km sq.
Andisols  =       1%   or   1.3 million km sq.
Inceptisols =   17%   or 22.3 million km sq.
Mollisols =        7%   or  7     million km sq.
Spodosols =     9.2% or  4    million km sq.
Oxisols  =        8%    or  8    million km sq.
Histosols =      1%    or  1.3  million km sq.
Vertisols =       2%   or  2.6  million km sq.
Others  =        5%    or  6.6  million km sq.

Total   =      100 %   or 131  million km sq.

Much of the land mass of earth, according to the soil orders is not suitable for agriculture use.
As Permaculture practitioners we know that much more land can be utilized for agriculture use, even if in smaller patches than one thousand acres (mean size of current commercial agriculture farms).
You see, soil science only takes into account the perameters deemed significant by chemistry, it does not take into account the Biology factors in any way, shape or form.
It also doesn't take into account that soil types can be improved to the point of becoming very fertile, water holding, nutrient rich soils.

Biome is a term used to classify the Earth’s major ecosystems.

A biome is defined primarily by the climate and predominant vegetation of a region.
The flora and fauna present within a specific Biome reflects the adaptations of those organisms to that particular environment.
The Major World Biomes map is based upon the underlying properties of soil moisture and temperature regimes - which are largely determined by latitude, climate, topography, and the native vegetation that has adapted to these local conditions.
The nature and extent of soil formation and development is closely associated with these local and regional conditions.
Inferences about the active soil forming processes, the type and extent of rock and mineral weathering occurring at a particular location may be drawn from the knowledge of the biome location.
Influence of native vegetation on the quantity, type, and distribution of organic materials in the soil, and of the organisms that live in the soil can be drawn from the Biome classification.

Basic Characteristics of World Biomes

• Tundra – Cold soil temperatures, with permafrost. Occurs at high latitudes (>60 degrees) and altitudes (alpine).

• Boreal – a climate of short summers and harsh winters. Mainly coniferous vegetation.

• Temperate – mid-latitude zones ranging from ~ 40 to 65 degrees, deciduous forest vegetation where precipitation is sufficient (>750 mm).

• Mediterranean – occur in latitudes from 30 to 45 degrees. Mild, wet winters, warm-hot dry summers.

• Desert – arid climate with low precipitation (< 250 mm/year) and high evaporation.

• Tropical – refers to latitudes from ~ 5 to 35 degrees. Warm temperatures year-round, with distinct wet and dry seasons (e.g. Monsoons).

• Humid – a climate where average annual precipitation exceeds the amount of evaporation.

• Semi-Arid – Average precipitation of 250 to 500 mm annually.

• Permafrost – a layer of soil that remains frozen year-round.

Interestingly, there are currently permaculture sites, growing good food in all but the Tundra and Permafrost Biome zones.
So, this too is a subjective set of perameters that don't apply absolutely as soil science dictates.

Land Quality

The ability of the land to perform its function of sustainable agriculture production and enable it to respond to sustainable land management. This is true, but if you rely on artificial amendments how is that sustainable?
Class 1 is the class with the most desirable quality and class 9 is the class with the poorest quality.

Soil Resilience

The ability of the land to revert to a near original production level after it is degraded, as by mismanagement. (The end result of mismanagement is erosion, so how does land that has gone missing revert?)
Land with low soil resilience is permanently damaged by degradation.

Soil Performance

The ability of the land to produce (measured by yield of grain, or biomass) under moderate levels of inputs in the form of conservation technology, fertilizers, pest and disease control.
Land with low soil performance is generally not suitable for agriculture.

Note here that Soil Science considers "moderate" use of Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides (disease control) Ok.
The problem with this thinking is that it has been shown, in many studies, that application of chemical (synthetic) fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides poison the soil and are fatal to all the microbiome that makes dirt soil.
What they are saying is that it's ok to turn good soil into dirt, then give it chemically measureable fertility that completely wipes out everything that was soil producing.

This is the precise reason I left the USDA.
There can be no food security under these premises and it certainly can't be sustainable agriculture.

What we need is to find the "Happy Median", that magic place where we install any missing mineral components in the correct amounts, build up the microbiome so that all those good minerals can be made available to the things we want to plant.
In other words, we need to build Soil, not re-enforce Dirt.

The last few years I performed soil tests, I included a microbiology battery and included everything in the results report.
I was written up on at least ten occasions because I was not following protocols set by Washington. When I recommended mineral supplementation the quantities were far smaller than called for. That is because there is no need to use mass quantities of any minerals nor of Nitrogen, Phosphorus or Potassium, too much and you are actually doing far more harm than not making any amendments in the first place. What most soil tests tell us to do is drown our plants and kill off the microbiome, substituting artificial, chemicals for real soil nutrition.
This is one of the main reasons that foods you buy in the grocery store have very little tastes, it is also one of the big reasons we are becoming a sick people with diseases on the rise ever since the end of the Dust Bowl era.

In the next installment we will begin our biological journey and start learning just exactly what "Soil" is and more importantly, how to make sure we are building the best soil we can.

Redhawk



 
 
James Freyr
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Mr. Redhawk, I want to reiterate what Karen said and thank you again for your generous gift of time and sharing your knowledge in this thread. This is such quality agronomy information presented in a well written and easy to understand way. I'm eagerly anticipating the next installment!
 
Daron Williams
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I'm enjoying reading these posts. Got me interested in looking at bit more into my place. Looks like my soils are in the Inceptisols order with a Xerepts sub-order. These are all from regional maps - overall I know my soil is very heavy in clays with some more gravely areas that I think are leftovers from past work done on and around my property. I have used this site a lot to get more detailed soils data for specific properties: https://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov

I'm planning some soil surveys later for my property to determine how well ponds would hold water in different areas.

I have also found well logs to be very useful to get an overall picture of what a sites soil profile is. It is just a snapshot but it can still be very useful.
 
Mark Morgan
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RedHawk,
Thank you for touching on the mineral piece of this. I'll keep coming back to learn more. I'm curious about application rates of minerals and your thoughts on fostering the soil life to get good results in the garden. I've been working toward this goal in my garden for a long time. I've had mixed results in the past, but things keep getting better every year.
 
Sarah Joubert
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Thank you for this thread! Very detailed knowledge and must take a huge chunk of time to research and write. Very well laid out and presented. Will be checking in regularly.
 
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