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Soil is an often overlooked and underappreciated natural resource. Most people see soil as just “dirt,” pieces of ground-up rock of virtually all the same composition that can hold a plant up straight. As humans, we primarily see and assign value to the visible spectra of life on Earth, but in the case of plants, the soil — the material beneath our feet — is where the heavy lifting happens for building a habitable planet. Soils are intrinsically diverse and made up of four main elements, according to the Soil Science Society of America: organic material (living and decomposed organisms), minerals, gas and water. Each of these elements, in just the right mixture, is crucial for plant life to flourish. 

Healthy soil teems with life. According to a 2000 publication by the Soil and Water Conservation Society, a single teaspoon of healthy soil can contain as much as 100 million to 1 billion bacteria. In a single acre of land, there could be upwards of 1 ton of actively-working bacteria, the same mass as a small car. Four distinctly different groups of bacteria provide various environmental services, such as turning organic materials in the soil into useful nutrients for plants, aiding water retention and competing against diseases that can harm root systems. 

A renewable resource?

Although soil is considered a renewable natural resource because it’s continuously being produced, it actually can take anywhere from 500 years to tens of thousands of years to produce one inch of topsoil, according to soil scientists. The rate of soil formation ultimately depends on the climate where it’s being produced, what its source rock is made of, plant activity and the topography of the landscape. Retreating ice sheets at the end of North America’s last ice age across our continent about 10,000 years ago left behind an incredible amount of topsoil following the tumultuous scraping of bedrock. In places where the ice sheets did not reach, soil production took significantly longer. 

The dirty truth

We are losing topsoil at a higher rate than nature is able to produce it. According to the World Wildlife Federation, half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years due to erosion, climate change and human impacts, such as converting forested land into farmland and residential development. A representative from the United Nations Food and Agricultural commission has stated that globally, we could run out of healthy topsoil in 60 years if measures aren’t taken. A Cornell University researcher wrote that humans rely on the land to provide over 99 percent of their daily calories. Soil sourcing and degradation are humanitarian issues not just one for backyard gardens.

Most of the topsoil used today in the United States, according to the University of New Hampshire, “might have come directly from prime farmland being developed into an office park, from a recently clear-cut tract of forest land, or from a long abandoned field grown up to brambles and thistles.” It’s important to research where your soil comes from by either asking your supplier or reading the bag it comes in. You don’t want to source from a place where soil shouldn’t be mined, such as forested land or from countries that likely have little environmental protections. Beware of greenwashing on labels and do your own research.

Practical tips

The next time you are at a home improvement store, peruse the aisle of soils and amendments and you’ll quickly see there are an overwhelming amount of options. Not all soils are created equally, and not all soils should be used for the same result. Topsoil is primarily used as a yard hole filler to plant trees and shrubs, and typically is the base ingredient for outdoor garden beds. Compost and other amendments are added for growing fruits, herbs and vegetables. Ultimately, what you add to the soil in your yard should depend on what it already contains. 

The best path forward to ensure soil fertility is to get your soil tested through the Clemson Extension Service. This low-cost test can save you a lot of money and frustration as it provides recommendations on what you should add to your soil. If you want to truly enhance your gardening skills, consider contacting Rita Bachmann of Rita’s Roots, the local go-to source on all things vegetable gardening. The shop offers a variety of classes, consultations and other services. Any soil or conditioners that Rita sells should be considered a trusted source.

For indoor houseplants, topsoil alone is not ideal because it can retain too much water leading to root rot. In containers, your plants will be happiest in soils in which the roots can breathe. To achieve this, many companies add peat moss into their mixes for an aerated blend. Peat moss, however, is mostly mined in an unsustainable fashion from bogs that are already at risk due to climate change. A company based out of North Carolina called Good Dirt has found a way to recycle byproducts of peat bogs in a sustainable way for its soil blends. Another eco-conscious brand of soil is Fox Farm, which bases its work on mythbusting the idea that potting soil should be sterilized and microbe free. 

Soil isn’t just straightforward dirt, and we humans need to veer away from only assigning value to the natural world we can see. The richness and complexity is below our feet. So, go get your hands dirty and know there’s a vast world, largely unexplored, in your palms ready to be understood and appreciated. 

Toni Reale is the owner of Roadside Blooms, a unique flower and plant shop in Park Circle in North Charleston. It specializes in weddings, events and everyday deliveries using nearly 100 percent American- and locally grown blooms. Online at roadsideblooms.com. 4610 Spruill Ave.,
Suite 102, North Charleston.