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Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture
Loess field in Germany
Map of global soil regions from the USDA
Soil horizons are formed by combined biological, chemical and physical alterations.
Sample of an aerial photo from a published soil survey
A homeowner tests soil to apply only the nutrients needed. Farmers practice the same testing procedure.
Due to their thermal mass, rammed earth walls fit in with environmental sustainability aspirations.
A homeowner sifts soil made from his compost bin in background. Composting is an excellent way to recycle household and yard wastes.
Sediment in the Yellow River.

Soil. The soil is a superficial covering of the earth's crust, more or less well adapted to the growth of plants. It is usually only a few inches thick. Below this is a subsoil often differing, especially in humid climates, from the soil proper in color, texture, or chemical composition. A very striking definition has been suggested by Sir John B. Lawes, who considered the soil to be rotten subsoil, and the subsoil rotting rock. The term soil is occasionally used in a more comprehensive way to include both the soil and the subsoil.

The soil adapted to the growth of the higher plants consists of fragments of rocks or minerals, organic matter, soil solution, and a soil atmosphere. The mineral fragments vary in size from the finest clay particles to gravel and even boulders. The organic matter is derived from low organisms, from previous vegetation, or from growing plants; as also from stable manure, and occasionally fish or animal matter added to the soil by man. The soil solution consists of water carrying dissolved substances derived from the soil grains and from the organic matter, as well as from fertilizing materials artificially applied, and constitutes a nutrient solution from which the plant derives its mineral constituents. The soil atmosphere differs from the ordinary atmosphere above the soil in being richer in carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and containing more water vapor and less oxygen.

In origin there are two main classes of soils: sedimentary soils, formed by the disintegration and decomposition of rocks in place; and transported soils, including those of alluvial, glacial, and aeolian origin. The word alluvial is here used to include all water-transported material; the term is, however, frequently used in a more specific sense to indicate the recent flood deposit of rivers.

Soils are classified according to their origin and their mechanical and chemical composition and properties. Genetically, they are classified according to the rock from which they are derived, as granite soil, limestone; or according to the manner of their origin, as alluvial, lacustrian, or drift. Mechanically, they are classified broadly into stony, gravelly, sandy, sandy loam, loam, clay loam, clay, adobe, black-waxy, or according to some other physical property; chemically, into calcareous, humus, alkali, and according to other striking chemical features. In the soil survey of the United States Department of Agriculture a local name is adopted for each type under which the specific characters are given; examples of this are Hartford sandy loam, Norfolk sand, San Joaquin adobe.

The physical properties of soils concern the size and arrangement of the particles, and the relation of these to each other and to the organic matter; also the soil atmosphere, the soil moisture, and the physical forces of heat and gravitation. In these there is an intimate relation with physiography or the form and exposure of the surface of the land, as well as to climatology.

There are, undoubtedly, constant physical changes going on in the soil, as well as chemical changes, which have much to do with the best development of vegetation. The soil-moisture may be looked upon as a nutrient solution, dissolving its material from the difficultly soluble compounds in the soil and from fertilizers artificially applied. The amount of substances in solution varies with the moisture content and with the way moisture is supplied to the soil. The dissolved substances, naturally present in the soil or derived from fertilizers, influence the solubility of the soil components, rendering them more or less soluble according to their nature and existing conditions. It is probable that there is a normal weathering of the soil material which produces a certain concentration in the soil solution which will be maintained on the gradual withdrawal of nutrient material by the plant. However, this natural weathering is often not sufficient in amount to produce the yield and quality of crops desired, and this may be increased by methods of cultivation and fertilization so that crops may annually remove larger quantities of nutrient substances without any particular exhaustion to the soil.

It is certain that these nutrient materials do not accumulate to any considerable extent in soils in humid countries, as they are liable to be leached away and also to recombine, forming difficultly soluble compounds with the material of the soil-grains. A soil is in good heart or good condition when the physical conditions, such as the water-supply, soil atmosphere, and temperature relations, are favorable, and when the weathering of the material is sufficient to furnish an abundant and constant nutrient solution in the soil moisture.

One of the most potent agents in the weathering of soils is the organic material contained. This is unquestionably due largely to the amount of carbon dioxide formed, which renders many of the nutrient matters much more soluble. Moreover, the organic matter forms a culture medium for bacteria, ferments, and the various organized and unorganized agents which assist in breaking down the organic material, and facilitate as well the weathering of the other soil components. Soils in general have remarkable power of absorbing on the surface of the soil-grains vast quantities of carbon dioxide, ammonia, and other gases, and of other nutrient materials, which, while soluble and actually dissolved, do not readily diffuse out into the solution between the soil-grains.

The influence of fertilizers is therefore twofold: the direct addition of plant-food for the immediate use of plants, and the action of the fertilizing components upon the solubility of the otherwise difficultly soluble compounds in the soil. There are other offices which are very strikingly shown in the case of lime. This substance, when in the form of either caustic or slaked lime, corrects the acidity which is very often present in soils. It changes the structure of soils. It renders some of the soil components much more soluble, especially when the lime is in the form of the sulfate or gypsum, and it has undoubtedly a physiological role which enables the plant to assimilate larger quantities of other nutrient matters even in amounts which would be detrimental if the lime-salt were not present in excess.

The principal objects of the cultivation of the soil are to secure proper aeration, to conserve the moisture supply, and to improve the drainage. The irrigation and artificial drainage of soils are treated elsewhere.

The physical properties of texture and structure, that is, the size and arrangement of the soil-grains, have a greater practical importance with field crops and the relation of crops to soil under extensive cultivation than upon horticultural crops either in the field or greenhouse, where intensive methods are used. Particularly in the eastern states, where the natural rainfall is relied upon for the water supply, these physical properties have great influence in determining the relation of crops to soils. This is due in large part to the influence of the physical properties upon the water supply, and the commercial values of many soils are dependent largely upon this one condition. This is notably the case with the early truck crops, with corn, wheat, and grass lands, and with special products such as celery, cranberries, and other horticultural crops. With intensive cultivation, however, the flavor, appearance, texture, and general quality of the crop assume greater commercial importance, and even with intensive methods these are largely influenced by the character of the soil. This is shown in a striking manner in the localization of certain interests, even under the most intensive system of agriculture, such as the production of the fine lettuce around Boston, of the carnations, violets, tomatoes, and roses in other districts. With the present specialization in these lines, it is not only necessary that one should have a knowledge of the methods of cultivation, but should have the proper soil conditions as well as suitable climatic conditions; and to such an extent has this specialization been carried that different varieties of roses, for example, are best grown in different localities where the soils are slightly different. These matters must be realized by the horticulturist in order to attain the highest degree of success in any particular undertaking.

Soils for potting.

Strictly speaking, there are but two distinct kinds of soils, though there are several modifications or physical differences in both. These are mineral soils and organic soils or peat. Peat is formed in temperate climates by the accumulation of vegetable matter in swamps, or in some parts of the world under peculiar atmospheric conditions (see Peat). Mineral soils, which cover the greater portion of the earth's surface, are formed by the disintegration of rocks and stones through the agency of water, frost, or the atmosphere. Peaty soils are composed almost entirely of vegetable matter, with but little mineral matter. Mineral soils are just the reverse. The physical differences in peat are practically reduced to two, viz., the absence or presence of fiber. The physical differences in mineral soils vary considerably from almost pure clay to almost pure sand; indeed, the mechanical (or physical) analysis of mineral soils is based largely upon the proportions of clay and sand.

The composition of soils can be still further known by chemical analysis, but to the average gardener this is not necessary. Moreover, it is an operation of great nicety and one that requires an experienced chemist to perform. The chemical constituents which plants derive from the soil are present in most soils, though in varying degree, but they are sure to be present in ample quantity in the potting soil selected by an experienced gardener. The air and water may furnish as much as 98 per cent of the material with which the plant body is built up in some cases, and only the remaining 2 per cent be strictly derived from the soil. Three important nutrient elements are nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potash. Nitrogen composes four-fifths of the atmosphere and the soil absorbs it chemically through the action of bacteria when the soil is in good physical condition. Hence the importance of remembering always that air in the soil is as important as water. Sorauer, in his "Physiology of Plants," page 56, says: "The ideal condition of a soil is one in which it resembles a sponge, and in which it will retain the greatest amount of nutritive substances and water without losing its capacity for absorbing air."

The capacity of soils to retain moisture varies considerably. A clay loam is more retentive of moisture than a sandy loam. The experienced gardener therefore selects a clay loam for his strong-rooting, large-leaved tropical plants, because transpiration is so much greater in these plants. For a general collection of greenhouse and small-growing tropical plants he selects a good loam. For cacti, agaves, and other succulent plants which will not take as much water at all seasons as other plants, he selects a sandy loam. For ferns, most of the Ericaceae and Gesneraceae, he selects peat; while for nepenthes, orchids, bromeliads, and the epiphytic aroids he selects fern or kalmia root. Other materials which a gardener should always have on hand when he has a large and varied collection of plants are: leaf-mold, which is made by collecting leaves and storing for at least two years, turning them over occasionally to facilitate decay; living or fresh sphagnum moss; sand; charcoal, and some convenient manures, such as pulverized sheep-manure and bone-meal.

Growing plants in pots is very different from growing them in borders or the open ground. The experienced gardener digs the turf only from good pasture or meadow land, so that it shall be full of the fibrous roots of the grass. But before using the turf for potting it should be placed in square piles, turf downward, for at least six months in order to kill the grass and all vegetable life. Fern root should also be collected and stored the same length of time in order to kill out the ferns. (Fig. 3625.) Raw and very coarse soils are usually sifted before being used for most greenhouse plants. Shallow sieves are used for this purpose. (Fig. 3626.)

Except for sowing seeds and for potting seedlings and freshly rooted cuttings, thoroughly decayed and homogeneous soils should not be sifted, but should be broken into small lumps, as the small lumps assist materially in aerating the soil. If the soil is sifted too much it becomes very fine, packs close and allows too little aeration. Leaf-mold is decayed vegetable matter, or humus. It may have little manurial value, but is used by gardeners to make soils "light" or spongy. For most young plants a good proportion added to the soil is excellent as it encourages root-growth.

Sand is the best medium for rooting cuttings of the larger number of plants. It is also added to soils to increase their porosity, especially when potting very young plants. Silver sand is best.

In potting plants, experienced gardeners make potting mixtures or add a variety of materials to the soil to suit the requirements of different plants. For young seedlings or for freshly rooted cuttings, the compost should be of a light and porous nature, but as plants increase in size and vigor a heavier and richer mixture is usually given, that is, if plants are to be grown on as specimens; but the proportion of nutrient substances used in a potting mixture should be determined by the vigor of the plants. It is always better to use too little plant-food than too much; if too much is used it often becomes available faster than the roots of plants can absorb it, often with fatal results. Many amateur plant-growers in their over-anxiety to grow fine plants make this fatal mistake.

In most gardens the greenhouse space is limited, and a gardener cannot always develop his plants to their fullest capacity or he has to reduce his variety and numbers. This, then, determines in the mind of an experienced gardener the composition of his potting mixtures. His aim should be to grow the finest possible specimens in the smallest possible pots and space.

The above text is from the Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture. It may be out of date, but still contains valuable and interesting information which can be incorporated into the remainder of the article. Click on "Collapse" in the header to hide this text.


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