A GROWING CONCERN: Get the dirt on soil organic matter

Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the flowers is?

The bird is on the wing, well that is absurd; I always heard the wing is on the bird.

ON THIS EARLY day of spring, I thought I would include a little levity by way of a poem my mom would recite every year at this time to all of us who could not avoid listening.

And it is good to start with a little humor because today, as well as next week, we will find out that lack of sufficient organic material is no laughing matter when it comes to your soil tilth and fertility.

The organic faction in your soil is the next all important issue after soil texture and structure.

Not only do the varying degrees and amount of organic matter directly influence the soil texture class of your particular soil, but it largely determines your soil structure as well.

This means organic material directly influences the physical makeup of your soil.

Soil organic matter has a profound effect on soil biology and its chemical analysis as well and we will soon learn why that directly effects the available nutrients in the soil.

But first, let us put the organic faction into its two component parts.

All organic material in your soil is either alive or dead.

If it is alive, there exists a direct cause and effect as the organisms move around, breed, eat, breathe, digest and emit waste products.

If the organic material is dead, then their decomposition effects on the soil are profound, both as primarily provided food for the living organisms and nutrients for the plants.

Today, I want to focus on the living component of soil.

It consists of an extremely wide and divergent group of critters both beneficial and essential to us humans.

Then, too, the living organisms of soil can be some of the most dangerous and harmful aspects of gardening, causing catastrophic economic devastation to crops and livestock, which also includes death.

Living residents

The living aspect of soil includes moles, worms, mice, insects, gophers, nematodes, snakes, spiders, fungi, algae, bacteria, snails, slugs, mites, sow bugs and actinomycetes.

Microscopically, the soil is a very, very scary place filled with a plethora of visually weird and horrifying creatures.

Good fertile soil is absolutely alive and all efforts should be made to keep it so.

First, soil organisms physically move soil around and thus act as rototillers in your soil by lessening compaction, increasing pore space, adding greatly to its moisture absorption and atmospheric exchange.

Organisms distribute organic material by way of their waste products being generated and deposited as they move around.

Also, soil organisms digest many plant parts and other organic material. Without them decomposition would not occur.

We need to fully comprehend this vital link.

If decomposing living organisms were non-existent or in very low supply, our planet would be piled high with dead carcasses and organic residue — imagine dinosaur cadavers in your backyard.

The breakdown

But through decomposition, especially in your soil, organic material is slowly broken down into basic chemical components that in turn can become readily available to the plants.

Without this breakdown most of these nutrients would continue to be bound or fixated and never be available to the plant.

Then, too, realize that living organisms, especially plant parts and their roots, act as a major food source for other organisms.

Without this food source, the web of life in soil would collapse.

But as the organisms of soil break down and decompose, roots and other dead material humic acids are left behind.

These humic acids and other by-products of decomposition act as glue, combining soil particles into the aggregates (peds) we learned about last week.

Granular soil is the name of the game.

Organic matter is the best way to accomplish that soil structure.

High organic soil will also be life abundant.

Finally, remember biodiversity.

The more that various forms of life exist in an ecosystem, the healthier that ecosystem will be, especially in times of peril.

A biologically diverse soil will have all the elements of good and bad to counter each other.

As a particular pestilence begins to arrive and develops into a problem, the increase will trigger another organism to respond and consume this increase in food supply.

Remember that nature hates a vacuum — so a healthy, natural, lush soil will, for the most part, keep itself in check over time.

So as April looms on the horizon, and as we begin to think of our gorgeous summer flower beds and pots, let us never forget “it’s all about the soil.”


Andrew May is a freelance writer and ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email news@peninsuladailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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