Soil Health

Soil Health

Soil health refers to the overall biological, chemical, and physical condition of the soil and its ability to support the growth of healthy plants, promote water retention and filtration and sustain a diverse community of microorganisms. A healthy soil has the right balance of nutrients, organic matter, and structure to support plant growth, regulate water flow, and promote the activities of beneficial soil organisms.

Soil health refers to a soil’s ability to perform its ecosystem functions in an environment-appropriate manner. In layman’s terms, soil health results from the positive interactions of all soil components (living and non-living) that belong together, such as microbiota, plants, and animals. It is possible for the soil to be healthy in terms of ecosystem functioning but not necessarily serve crop production or human nutrition directly, which is why there is a scientific debate about terms and measurements.

Soil Health

Soil health refers to the overall condition of the soil, including its physical, chemical, and biological properties. Healthy soil is essential for supporting plant growth, retaining water, and maintaining soil fertility. Healthy soil is characterized by:

  • Good structure: Soil structure refers to the arrangement of soil particles into aggregates or clumps, which affects water and air movement in the soil. Healthy soil has a good structure, which promotes root growth and reduces erosion.
  • Fertility: Healthy soil contains the essential nutrients and minerals that plants need to grow. Soil fertility is maintained through the addition of organic matter, such as compost and manure, and the use of fertilizer when necessary.
  • Organic matter: Organic matter is the decomposed material of plants and animals that is found in soil. It helps to improve soil structure, retain moisture, and support the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
  • Soil biodiversity: Healthy soil is home to a diverse population of microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi, and insects, which help to break down organic matter, cycle nutrients, and improve soil structure.
  • Proper pH: Soil pH, or the measure of soil acidity or alkalinity, can affect the availability of nutrients to plants. Most plants grow best in soil that is slightly acidic, with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0.

Improving soil health can have numerous benefits, including increased crop yields, reduced erosion and water pollution, and improved soil resilience to drought and other environmental stressors. Some practices that can help improve soil health include: reducing tillage, adding organic matter, cover cropping, using cover crops, crop rotations, and integrated pest management.

Soil health testing is used to assess this status, but for obvious reasons, it is mostly limited to agronomic goals. Soil health is determined by soil biodiversity (the presence of a diverse soil biota), and it can be improved through soil management, specifically by maintaining protective living covers on the soil and using natural (carbon-containing) soil amendments. Inorganic fertilizers do not necessarily harm soil health if they are used at appropriate and not excessive rates and if they improve overall plant growth, contributing more carbon-containing residues to the soil.