APLD Brochure: An APLD Guide to Sustainable Soils Available on the APLD website

This brochure is a really good basic summary of soil - and we all know its all about the soil!  

"The bottom line is that soils should be valued and preserved, because, literally, life depends upon it."

Recommendations for Designers include:

  •  Design for your soils. Aim to restore the site's soil back to its native composition. In most cases, avoid overbuilding soils into something beyond what is natural for your area.
  • Know the biology of your soils by sampling and testing the soil using a competent soil biology lab.
  • Do not till or physically disturb a healthy, mature soil. Physical disruption severely damages or destroys the mature soil food web. 
  • Physical soil compaction during construction has a long-term damaging effect on soils and is difficult to remedy after the fact. All efforts should be made to protect soils prior to and during any construction phase. 

The brochure also has a nice summary of the role soils play in sustainability:

  • Soils are the foundation of the ecosystem.
  • The living systems occurring above and below ground are determined by the properties of the soil. Soils store and cycle nutrients needed by these living systems, supporting life all the way from microbes to humans. A healthy, diverse ecosystem is critical for life, and it begins with the health of the soil.
  • Soils store carbon
  • Soils manage water.  Water enters the soil through the channels created by vegetation and the activities of organisms such as earthworms. It fills the empty pore spaces and is taken up by plants. Healthy soils have sufficient open pore space to absorb the water and allow it to infiltrate the soil, recharging the groundwater. Wetlands, also known as hydric soils, manage large quantities of water and also serve as buffers and filters in addition to supporting a vast array of wildlife.  

On the other hand, degraded soils exhibit erosion, which occurs when soils are not covered by vegetation, and rainfall both compacts the soils, forming a crust on the surface, and carries the top layer of sediment away. Compacted soil compresses the pore spaces so that air, water, and plant and animal life cannot penetrate.

  • Soils filter, buffer, degrade and detoxify potentially harmful chemicals
  • Soils influence climate.  Soils moderate temperature fluctuations, as soil heats more slowly than air and can absorb more heat on a hot day. Soils absorb heat during the day and radiate heat at night. Darker soils, which tend to have higher organic content, absorb the most heat. Soil temperature affects plant growth, which in turn affects climate.

Soils and Water

Our soils have changed.
When considering the loss of the eastern deciduous forest (75% gone) and the transition from native prairie / savanna plant systems to the mono-crops of industrial agriculture, we are looking at an incredible change within our soils. The depth and bulk of our current root systems no longer exist as they did two hundred years ago. Trees have extensive root systems in the top 24" of soil, and can reach five to eight feet or more in depth. The prairie existed on a root system depth between two and three feet, with some plants reaching four to six feet deep. The extensive root systems of our original "ground cover" opened up the soil, allowing for a deep penetration of precipitation and the slow exhale of moisture back up into the atmosphere through plant transpiration.
Not any more: corn, soybeans, wheat and other annual crops have temporary root systems in the 12 to 18 inch range. Perennial turfgrass, our American lawn, covering an area about the size of Wisconsin, has a root system of around six to twelve inches in the best of conditions. Precipitation run-off is now something we have to plan for after almost every rain.
Garth Conrad, APLD Garth Conrad Associates, LaPorte, IN


The food web - what is the role of fungi?

Disclaimer:  Before you read further, this may be the product of a science nerd.  I learned several new terms during the research for this entry, including my new favorite "phyllosphere" - which I will be using in sentences as much as possible from now on!
Someone asked me recently what powdery mildew was and if it harmed the tree.
Before I could answer the question, I had to understand the role of fungus in the food web, since powdery mildew is caused by a fungus.  It turns out that it's all about the disposition of energy and nutrients in the food web.
  • A food web is a graphic concept describing "who eats whom" in an ecosystem.  Every living thing—from single-celled algae to giant blue whales—needs food to survive.  How that living thing gets its food is part of a complex pathway that energy and nutrients follow through the ecosystem.
Organisms within an ecosystem are generally divided into categories called "trophic levels" – referring to whether they produce their own food ("producers"), eat other organic matter that is living or recently killed ("consumers") or eat non-living plant and animal remains ("detritivores, saprotrophs, decomposers").
  • Producers, also known as "autotrophs", make their own food.  Autotrophs are usually plants or single-celled organisms.  Nearly all autotrophs use a process called photosynthesis to create “food” (glucose) from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. 
Primary consumers, or herbivores, eat plants.  Secondary consumers eat the herbivores.  Tertiary consumers eat the secondary consumers.  Consumers can be carnivores (animals that eat other animals) or omnivores (animals that eat both plants and animals).  
  • Detritivores feed on any dead or organic biomass including animals, plants, and feces.  They ingest the decomposing biological matter, digest it internally, and shed nutrients in simple forms that plants can easily absorb from the soil.  The earthworm is a classic example of a terrestrial detritivore, but slugs, woodlice, dung flies, millipedes, and most of the worms are some of the other examples. 
  • Saprotrophs feed on decaying or dead plant matter.  Fungi species predominate among saprotrophs due to their ability to digest lignin in the xylem tissues of plants.  Saprotrophs don't have an internal digestive system.  Instead, they secrete digestive enzymes such as proteases, lipases, or amylases onto the substrates.  This type of extracellular digestion transforms lipids into fatty acids and glycerol; proteins into amino acids, and polysaccharides (e.g. lignin, starch) into glucose and fructose.  These simplified nutrients are absorbed into the fungi through an active transport means called endocytosis – this is how they get their nutrition.  
The ecological role of the saprotrophs is vital for nutrient cycling and energy flow since they consume matter that is difficult for others to break down.
  • Detritivores are mostly animals while saprotrophs are mostly fungi.
  • Detritivores consume lumps of dead organic matter separately, while saprotrophs absorb chemically digested food.
  • Saprotrophs digest their food externally, whereas detritivores do it internally in the digestive system.
  • Detritivores shed most of the digested matter unabsorbed, whereas saprotrophs absorb the entire digested matter to use for their own growth, repair, and reproduction.
Decomposers - fungi and bacteria - turn organic wastes into inorganic materials, such as nutrient-rich soil.  
Detritivores, saprotrophs and decomposers function to complete the cycle of life, returning nutrients to the soil or oceans for use by autotrophs.
  • Different habitats and ecosystems provide many possible food chains that make up a food web.  As an example, a grazing food web has plants or other photosynthetic organisms at its base, followed by herbivores and various carnivores.  A detrital food web, mostly bacteria or fungi, recycles organic material back into the biotic part of the ecosystem.  Since all ecosystems require a method to recycle material from dead organisms, most grazing food webs have an associated detrital food web.  For example, in a meadow ecosystem, plants may support a grazing food web of different consumers, while at the same time supporting a detrital food web of bacteria, fungi, and detrivorous invertebrates feeding off dead plants and animals.
  • Producers receive their energy from light by means of photosynthesis.  After this, the energy in organic matter flows from producers to the different levels of consumers.  However, at each trophic level, energy is always lost.  All of the trophic levels lose energy as heat through cell respiration.  Also, as the organic matter passes from one trophic level to the next, not all of it is digested and energy from organic matter is lost through feces.  This energy then passes on to the detritivores and saprotrophs.  Another energy loss occurs through tissue loss and death which can happen at any trophic level.  Once again, this energy would be passed on to detritivores and saprotrophs as they digest these.  Detritivores and saprotrophs, in turn, lose energy as heat through cell respiration. 
Energy is not recycled.  Since the energy in organic matter is continually being lost as it flows through the ecosystem, energy in the form of sunlight must be constantly re-supplied.  Nutrients on the other hand have to be recycled.  There is only a finite supply of them - they are absorbed from the environment, used by living organisms and then returned to the environment.
  • Fungi that act as decomposers are essential recyclers of nutrients in an ecosystem.  Without these fungi, forest floors would be covered in plant debris and animal carcasses; similarly other ecosystems would have a vast amount of waste piled up.  Without fungal decomposition, nutrients in the soil would be used up, and plants would not have food and couldn’t survive.  If plants don’t survive, the animals that depend on plants for food would also suffer, and the whole food chain would collapse. 
Since transferring nutrients from fungi to the soil is such an integral part of the food chain, some organisms team up with fungi to form symbiotic relationships.  Mycorrhizal fungi, for example, form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots; the plant provides the fungi with carbohydrates, and the fungi in return transfer nutrients like phosphorus to the plant.
  • Endophytic fungus lives within a plant for at least part of its life without causing apparent disease.‪   Endophytes are ubiquitous and have been found in all the species of plants studied to date, but most of these endophyte/plant relationships are not well understood.  Many economically important grasses (e.g., Festuca spp. [Fescue], Lolium spp. [Ryegrass], Zea [Maize]) carry fungal endophytes that are believed to enhance host growth‪ and improve the plant's ability to tolerate abiotic stresses, such as drought, and resistance to insects and mammalian herbivores.‬‬‬‬   For example, endophyte-containing tall fescue is now being planted in areas where people want to deter geese from eating the grass, since it seems to be unpalatable to them.‬‬
While most fungi aid the function of the ecosystem and contribute positively to the food chain, some fungi are harmful to and can even destroy plant life.  An epiphytic fungus is a fungus that grows upon, or attached to, a living plant.  Ephiphytic fungi are part of the mycobiota infesting the plant's phyllosphere, or leaf surface, along with other species of fungus and other organisms.  If cultural conditions (temperature, humidity, soil moisture etc ) result in a disturbance of the equilibrium between "good" and "pathogenic" organisms in the phyllospere, a pathogenic epiphyte like the fungus causing powdery mildew can precipitate plant disease.
  • Powdery mildew fungi are obligate, biotrophic parasites.  Infection by the fungus is favored by high humidity but not by free water.  During the growing season, hyphae are produced on leaf surfaces and specialized absorption cells, termed "haustoria", extend into the plant epidermal cells to obtain nutrition - this can eventually kill a heavily infected leaf.  "Conidia" (asexual spores) are also produced on plant surfaces during the growing season.  They develop on specialized hyphae called conidiophores that are frost-resistant and can overwinter in leaf litter. 
Certain fungal species that cause wood rot are also epiphytic and gain access to wood at a wound site where the bark is breached.  Although trees have mechanisms to compartmentalize the spread of fungi, if large areas of dead tissue spread through the tree, its nutrient supply is cut off and its structural integrity is compromised.  
  • But even as pathogens, the role of fungi can be seen as beneficial to the ecosystem as a whole.  Tree death is a natural and necessary aspect of the forest ecosystem.  The death of large old trees is necessary for the regeneration of new trees and the continuation of the forest.  Death is necessary for life.  Tree diseases that attack especially weak trees can improve the overall vigor of a stand.  In addition, the death of a large tree in the forest creates a gap in the canopy, letting sunlight reach the forest floor and allowing the regeneration of species that would not otherwise grow in the shade of the tree.  Therefore, tree death can improve the diversity of the forest.  This is important because diversity confers resilience to a system.  Pathogens often have some degree of host specificity, meaning they only attack certain species of trees.  A forest that contains only one type of tree is in danger of being completely obliterated by a single pathogen, whereas the damage would be more confined in a forest with greater species diversity.



More Soil Basics - what are the roles of soil?

I recently joined the Soil Science Society of America.  They have published a fabulous book called 'Know Soil Know Life" - designed as a textbook for middle/high school students.  Here's some of the points they make.

Soils Overview - Provided by the Soil Science Society of America

Soils are complex mixtures of minerals, water, air, organic matter, and countless organisms that are the decaying remains of once-living things. It forms at the surface of land – it is the “skin of the earth.” Soil is capable of supporting plant life and is vital to life on earth.

Soil is formally defined by the Soil Science Society of America as : "the unconcolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the earth that serves as the natural medium for the growth of land plants".    The second part of the definition is "the unconcolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of: climate (including water and temperature effects), and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.

So, then, what is DIRT?

 Dirt is what gets on our clothes or under our fingernails. It is soil that is out of place in our world – whether tracked inside by shoes or on our clothes. Dirt is also soil that has lost the characteristics that give it the ability to support life – it is “dead.”

Soil performs many critical functions

in almost any ecosystem (whether a farm, forest, prairie, marsh, or suburban watershed). There are seven general roles that soils play:

1. Soils serve as media for growth of all kinds of plants.

2. Soils modify the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water

vapor, and the like) and dust.

3. Soils provide habitat for animals that live in the soil (such as groundhogs and mice) to organisms (such as bacteria and fungi), that account for most of the living things on Earth.

4. Soils absorb, hold, release, alter, and purify most of the water in terrestrial systems.

5. Soils process recycled nutrients, including carbon, so that living things can use them over and

over again.

6. Soils serve as engineering media for construction of foundations, roadbeds, dams and buildings, and preserve or destroy artifacts of human endeavors.

7. Soils act as a living filter to clean water before it moves into an aquifer.

Soil is Not Dirt!

I'm taking Soil Science at NYBG this semester - its a fascinating combination of chemistry, biology and physics - and I just want to let you know that soil is not dirt.  It's a complex mixture of minerals, organic matter, air and water with well-defined structure that varies with the exact components.  

Our instructor defined soil as: "the natural loose covering over most of the earth's land surface that serves as the medium for plant growth".  

To support plant growth, soil needs to provide

  • both root penetration and anchorage - it's physical consistency needs to be loose enough for root penetration but solid enough to anchor the plant
  • water
  • air
  • needed and essential nutrients